Coming of the Storm and the Value of Narrative Experimentation

Coming of the Storm is not exactly a typical historical novel. Set in pre-Columbian North America, the Gears’ create a world where human beings can converse with spiritual entities and gods can intervene in earthly matters. I tend to avoid all things supernatural in my writing and while I don’t avoid it in literature per se, I do think it can be distracting in a historical novel. War God: Nights of the Witch is one example of this but I am sure there are many. Nonetheless, the Gears’ thread the needle very well in Coming of the Storm and incorporate supernatural elements into the story in a way that does not distract from the larger narrative. If anything, the narrative experimentation makes Coming of the Storm all the more memorable.

The protagonist of the novel, Black Shell, has a deep respect for the power of the gods but that respect is tempered by bitterness. Black Shell used to be an upstanding member of the Chicaza tribe, known to many as the Chickasaw today, but he had to abandon that life at the behest of the Horned Serpent. Rejected by his family and his friends, he wanders from town to town with five pack dogs and a vast assortment of trade goods. Years of trading have honed his skills as a merchant and bring Pearl Hand, his eventual wife, into his life but also earns him the enmity of powerful chiefs like Irriparacoxi.

Confident in his ability to strike a bargain with anyone, Black Shell is determined to meet with the mysterious people known as the Kristianos. He knows next to nothing about them, though he has heard they speak a tongue none to known of his countrymen and have deathly pale skin, but Pearl Hand has serious reservation about meeting with the Kristianos. Moved by her pleas, Black Shell agrees to not meet with them and to simply watch them from afar instead. As it turns out, the precaution matters little as Black Shell is caught spying on the Kristianos and forced into slavery.

Thanks to Pearl Hand, Black Shell is able to escape captivity and is tempted to flee for the safety of the interior. His spirit dreams, however, give him pause and force him to consider the future that will result should de Soto establish a secure foothold. In one of my favorite scenes in the book, Horned Serpent tells Black Shell why it is important to rally defenders for the fight against the Spanish, explaining that “if de Soto survives, his stories will be told across the ocean. Others will see our land for what it is: rich in soils, forests, and game. They will not come for gold, Black Shell. They will come to conquer our world.” Not only does this do a great job of establishing the dramatic stakes of the story, I think it does a great job of alluding to the environmental destruction wrought by the colonial powers in North America. The rich soils have been squandered, the forests destroyed, and the game hunted to extinction.

Moreover, the destruction was not just limited to the environment. The colonial forays of “the mighty peoples on a choking land, longing to bring their ways here” led to the deaths of millions all throughout the Americas. Needless to say, this had profound social consequences for the region and the world. Often overlooked, however, are the theological consequences and the spirit dreams do a great job of reminding readers of the cultural erasure that happened as a result of European colonization. No scene does this better than the conversation between Water Panther, Snapping Turtle, and Black Shell. Black Shell struggles to understand how an immortal Spirit Being like Water Panther could ever experience fear, prompting Snapping Turtle to ask “Do you see images of the Piasas, the Horned Serpent, Eagle Man, or the Hero Twins on the Kristiano armor?” Black Shell does not and tells Snapping Turtle that he sees only “their cross of wood” on their armor. The chapter ends with Snapping Turtle asking Black Shell what will happen if de Soto and his cohorts triumph, “if they should convert all people to their cross… if no one believes in the Water Panther anymore.” It’s a powerful question and I imagine it will force many readers to think more critically about the European settling of the Americas.   

I highly recommend the book to anyone interested in North American history or anyone who likes historical novels with a dash of supernatural wonder.

The book is available on Amazon and can be requested in most libraries.

Beyond the Trappings of Traditional War Fiction: a review of Zoe Saadia’s Beyond the Great River

Beyond the Great River is a historical novel that takes place in the Great Lakes region during pre-Columbian times. I have spent little time in this part of the world and know little about the history of this region but I still found it quite easy to enjoy this novel. Military conflict, as is often the case in historical fiction, plays a large role in the story but, unlike many other war novels, Beyond the Great River does not build toward a pitched battle. In some respects, it may not even be appropriate to think of Beyond the Great River as a war novel. After all, the invading force in the book constitute barely 20 warriors and the village being invaded is not especially large. Moreover, there is little examination of battle tactics and no great general who we are supposed to root for in the story. Whether it is to be considered a war novel or an examination of a long-ago skirmish, Beyond the Great River has quite a bit to say about military conflict and human nature.

War has long been thought of as a young man’s calling and most historical novels are told exclusively from this perspective. However, Beyond the Great River chooses a different tack and we see the conflict mainly through the eyes of Kentika, a young girl who happened to spot the invading force as she was out exploring the forest. Desperate to save her home, Kentika rushes back to her village to inform her elders of what she saw. As it turns out, this ends up being a costly mistake. Not only do her elders initially dismiss her account, but she ends up leading the invaders back to her village because they are able to follow her fresh tracks. It’s a great example of how good intentions don’t always lead to good results and how defeat can often be brought about by very wise decisions.

Some readers will certainly find this counter-intuitive. We are used to thinking about defeat as a culmination of bad choices, whether it’s Hitler’s decision to invade Russia or Napoleon’s decision to invade Spain. What makes Beyond the Great River such an interesting read to me is that it ponders the alternative: how battle often punishes the people who make smart decisions.

Moreover, the reader is also encourage to wonder about war itself. Might is right has been the norm for most of human history and Saadia’s depiction of the Ontario region during the time of the Great Law of Peace leaves little doubt this mentality was endemic even then. Saadia’s intent is probably not to insinuate that the Great Law of Peace was some sort of farce, a great many scholars think the Great Law of Peace and the Iroquois Confederacy played a large role in the democratization of colonial societies in North America as well as Western Europe, but it should encourage introspection on the part of readers. Semantics often color our approach to history, whether it’s how we think of Alexander the Great or Shingas the Terrible, and I appreciate how Beyond the Great River encourages readers to think of how much different history can be when we incorporate the perspective of marginalized peoples as well as powerful societies.

Kentika’s attempt to inform her village of the danger posed by the foreign warriors is just one example of this. All throughout the story, logical and understandable decisions often backfire horribly and the reader is forced to wonder how much of victory depends not on genius strategy but dumb luck.

All in all, Beyond the Great Rivers is a brisk read and a great start to an interesting trilogy about pre-Columbian North America. I recommend the book to anyone who enjoys stories with a strong female protagonist and to readers interested in learning more about early American history.

This novel is available on Amazon in the Kindle store and in paperback.

Review of Pride of Carthage

As far as I know, there aren’t a lot of studies concerning the subject matter of historical novels published in English. If I had to guess, I would say the majority of historical novels deal with either the Roman Empire or WWII. Considering how many books are written on these subjects and how much I read historical fiction, some might assume that I have read a great many novels featuring characters with Latin names or events that took place somewhere between 1933 and 1945. Such an assumption, however, would be wrong. Partially because so much has already been written about these epochs and partially because we learn a great deal about both in school, I used to avoid historical novels dedicated to these topics. I decided to break that rule when I read David Anthony Durham’s Pride of Carthage and I am glad that I did.

While a great many novels have been written about the Second Punic War, Pride of Carthage is one of the few novels I know that is told almost entirely from the perspective of Carthaginian characters. This does offer some advantages in terms of brand differentiation but there is one big downside to telling the story from this point of view: the Carthaginians were the invaders. Generally speaking, the people who initiate wars of aggression are not very sympathetic characters. Whether the story takes place in Winterfell or pre-Columbian North America, creating sympathetic characters is key to capturing reader interest so telling the story from the Carthaginian perspective poses some obvious difficulties.

Durham confronts the challenge with impressive grace and portrays Hannibal Barca in a way that helps readers understand his intelligence and his motivations. Considering Hannibal’s reputation as a genius military strategist, a great many writers probably would have been tempted to use the first chapter to showcase his knowledge of battle tactics. Durham, however, chooses a different tack and uses the first chapter to showcase Hannibal’s genius as a military commander. The scene is not very long but does a great job of showing how Hannibal was able to win the loyalty of common soldiers and why so many soldiers were willing to follow him into such perilous straits.

When it comes to understanding the motivations of this long-dead general, no scene does this better than Imilce’s private conversation with Hannibal. Imilce, his first wife and his ardent supporter, pushes him to explain why he is so keen on war with Rome. His initial answers are rather milquetoast—glory, justice, freedom, and vengeance—and could have come from the likes of Hirohito or Bolivar. The scene gets truly interesting when Imilce presses Hannibal and he confesses he is motivated more by marital pride than martial pride. He promises his wife that “in two years you will be able to look from the balcony of this [room] or any other place you choose and know that all the Mediterranean world is yours to shape. How many men can say that to their wives and mean it?”

This explanation differs markedly from his more public proclamations—at one point in the book, he explains that Carthage needs to take the offense against Rome because Rome will become the undisputed hegemon of the Mediterranean otherwise, a rather prescient observation undoubtedly informed by Durham’s knowledge of the Punic wars—but this private admission is the one that truly stands out. To think that something so simple and pure as striving to give a significant other something no one else has can lead to something so ugly as war is both fascinating and horrifying.

Considering the book is about Hannibal Barca, no reader should be surprised that large-scale battles play a large role in the story. Personally, I like the descriptions of the Fabian campaign, the Battle of Cannae, and the Battle of Zama best but the answer will probably differ from reader to reader. To be fair, there are probably some readers who won’t enjoy these scenes at all but the political intrigue and the narrative arcs are more than enough to carry the story along. I recommend this book to anyone interested in Mediterranean history, albeit mainly from the African perspective as opposed to the European perspective, or to anyone interested in military fiction.

The novel is available on Amazon and in most libraries.

Review of The Young Jaguar, Book 1 in the Pre-Aztec Trilogy

Truth be told, I cannot remember how I first discovered Zoe Saadia’s work. While she was at one point a traditionally published author, I don’t think I have ever come across her work in a brick and mortar store. Perhaps I found her accidentally or perhaps I found her through Bookbub. No matter the case, I consider myself a big fan and will be sure to read more of her work in the future. Just recently, I finished her pre-Aztec trilogy, which has me reflecting on the first entry in that installment, The Young Jaguar.

To be completely honest, I was not that keen on the book cover and might have passed it up had I seen it in a bookstore. If I had, it would have been a big mistake. The Young Jaguar was one of my favorite reads of 2018 and a great example of historical fiction that educates as it entertains. I have studied Mesoamerican history pretty intensively–I wrote my undergraduate thesis on the Spanish-Mexica war and I have traveled to numerous pre-Hispanic sites in Mexicobut I knew next to nothing about the Tepanecs prior to reading The Young Jaguar.

In all fairness, not that much has been written about the Tepanecs in English. A long time ago, they were one of the most powerful polities in all of Mesoamerica but they were eventually supplanted in power by the Mexica, who established a much more powerful and much longer lasting military confederacy. During the time period that The Young Jaguar is set in, the Tepanecs are at the height of their power and the Mexica are eeking out a miserable existence along the shores of Lake Xochimilco. Most of the Tepanec elite can not be bothered to spare a thought for the weak Mexica people but the antagonist of the novel, Revered Uncle, is practically obsessed with them. He fears the Mexica will one day displace the Tepanecs but he cannot approve any military campaigns against the Mexica since he is a mere advisor. Few agree with his dark predictions but the death of Acolnahuacatl offers a unique opportunity to install a new ruler sympathetic to his own world viewif Revered Uncle is willing to force aside the legitimate heir.

Initially, the protagonist of the novel, Atolli, is inclined to offer his support to Revered Uncle. At this point, he does not understand Revered Uncle’s ultimate goal but he knows he is very fond of Revered Uncle’s daughter. It soon becomes clear, however, that supporting Revered Uncle will put Atolli in direct conflict with his father. His father cares little for politics but has a strong sense of duty that compels him to support the legitimate heir, a man who’d rather make war against distant peoples than confront the threat posed by the Mexica. A Mesoamerican version of Ned Stark, Tecpatl is willing to put his own life at risk to make sure the legitimate heir takes the throne. His foreign-born wife, Sakuna, feels a similar sense of duty, but devotes herself to protecting her family, even if it means making a deal with Revered Uncle that would force her to betray Tecpatl’s trust.

While the complex dynamic of the characters creates for some interesting twists and turns, the great strength of The Young Jaguar is Saadia’s ability to make the reader understand the motivations of the various characters. There may be no better example of this than Revered Uncle. A thuggish schemer, Revered Uncle a penchant for violence matched only by his knowledge of his domestic politics. He is not exactly a sympathetic character but he is definitely a character who understands the threat posed by the Mexica. He genuinely cares about the well-being of the Tepanec nation and like Tecpatl, the heroic War Chief who opposes him at every turn, cares little for material wealth or formal titles. He is as cunning as Tecpatl is naive and he helps makes The Young Jaguar a fascinating read. I would highly recommend this book to anyone interested in Mesoamerican history or to anyone who enjoys fast-paced narratives with complex characters.

This book is available on Amazon in the Kindle store and through Kindle select.

The value of historical fiction

Historical fiction is a small but growing genre and represents one of the most important ways modern audiences connect with history. David Von Drohle wrote an excellent biography of Lincoln that was purchased by over 2 million readers. Spielberg’s Lincoln grossed over 275 million dollars and was viewed by audiences all around the world. Oscar Schindler helped saved over a 1,000 Jews from the Holocaust but lived in obscurity for most of the 20th century. Not until he became the subject of an Oscar-winning film did he become a household name. Gettysburg has inspired countless academic texts but one of the most popular books ever written on the subject remains Shaara’s Killer Angels. All this begs the question: why?

After all, it’s not like historical fiction authors hold up their writing as the authoritative take on a subject. Flip to the back of any historical novel and you will almost always find some sort of note from the author that mentions the pains they went through to create an accurate story, followed by some sort of addendum regarding the creative licenses they employed. Authors like Hillary Mantel and James Alexander Thom are known for the exhaustive research they incorporate into their stories so it’s worth noting they don’t often turn to other historical novels when conducting research. Instead, they consult primary sources and secondary sources, even traveling to historic locations when possible.

There’s probably a myriad of reasons readers are quicker to pick up a historical novel than a history textbook but one reason stands out: historical fiction is fun. Plenty has been written about Lee and Longstreet but getting to imagine their mental state in the midst of battle or how they might have conversed in private brings them to life in a way that an academic biography cannot. A historical novel should never be used as the be-all-end-all take on a specific era or event, but it has undeniable value when it comes to nurturing an interest in history. After all, emotion is an important part of how we remember events and historical fiction is nothing if not an exploration of the emotions and actions of people from previous centuries.

Works like Gone With the Wind and Braveheart have given historical fiction a bad name when it comes to accuracy, but it’s difficult to argue that modern authors like Andrew Rowen don’t place a premium on research. Historical fiction does not lack for detractors and critics, but fans and authors have done a great job of elevating this genre to new heights. I hope the genre continues to grow and the plethora of great works in historical fiction should be a comfort to anyone interested in studying the past.

Review of The Moor’s Account

Historical fiction is a relatively small genre. Most bookstores in the US do not have a historical fiction section and the genre is not nearly as popular as fantasy or science fiction. Owing to authors like Laila Lalami, that could soon change. The Moor’s Account serves as her first foray into historical fiction and represents a towering accomplishment for the genre.

Set during the early days of Spanish colonization of the Americas, the novel follows the travels of a Moorish slave referred to in primary sources as Estebanico. Her decision to focus on Estebanico, referred to in the novel as Mustafa al-Zamori, is just as laudable as it is noteworthy. Had she written the novel from the perspective of Vacas or Navarez, she would have had far more resources at her disposal in terms of research tools. Despite the difficulties involved, Lalami chose to make Mustafa the protagonist of the novel and gives readers a character who provides some fascinating perspective on matters regarding race, war, and religion.

The story begins with the Navarez expedition having just landed in “La Florida” and the protagonist remarks in the opening sentence that “it was the year 934 of the Hegira, the thirtieth year of my life, the fifth year of my bondage—and I was at the edge of the known world.” The opening line is not particularly complex in terms of structure or diction, but it does a great job of setting the tone for the story.

Most Americans are not familiar with the Hegira–after all, Muslims make up less than 2 percent of the US population and the Gregorian calendar is used throughout most of the world these days. By invoking the Hegira, Lalami lets us know upfront the protagonist does not come from a traditional Western background and gives us information that savvy readers can use to better understand the setting. Moreover, by referencing the specific number of years that the character has spent as a slave, we learn the character was not born into slavery but forced into it, an important distinction that hints at a backstory which Lalami explores in subsequent chapters with enviable grace. Nonetheless, it is probably the final clause of the opening sentence which merits the most attention from readers.

A number of authors have remarked that almost every story can be boiled down to two basic plots: a stranger comes to town or a character goes on a journey. With the final clause, we know we have the latter but, importantly, we also know the character is journeying into the unknown. As a result, we know early on that the protagonist will probably be exposed to a great many unfamiliar sights and some of the most memorable scenes of the novel include these unfamiliar sights, such as when Mustafa comes face-to-face with an alligator for the first time. Considering that Mustafa and his captors have never seen an alligator before, it is all too easy to understand the terror that Mustafa experiences as he watches the animal attack a fellow slave.

To think the Moor’s Account is a simple travelogue of pre-colonial North America would be a mistake though. Where The Moor’s Account really shines is how it encourages readers to think about history. Almost anyone who has learned about the Navarez expedition knows that it was an absolute disaster and that the vast majority of the crew perished. Álvar Núñez Cabeza de Vaca was fortunate enough to survive and historians have long turned to his writings on the Navarez expedition to understand the event. Whereas many authors would have felt bound by the official account, the Moor’s Account subverts Vacas’ retelling on multiple occasions to give Mustafa more agency and to give the Amerindians more voice.

In doing so, the author encourages readers to take a more critical view of this primary source and its purported veracity. If events unfolded as they did in the novel, would Vacas have included that kind of information in the official account? The account that Vacas provided to notaries strongly suggests that Navarez bore sole responsibility for the failure of the expedition and that the surviving crew members, the Moor included, were selfless missionaries for Christ during their time with the “Indians.”

The portrayal offered by Lalami in The Moor’s Account is decidedly more complicated. Not only does Vacas share some of the responsibility for the failure of the expedition in Lalami’s retelling, she also strongly suggests that the survivors were much more keen on assimilating into Amerindian society than proselytizing, a concept that would have been truly shocking in 16th century Europe. Furthermore, the Moor never truly converted to Christianity in Lalami’s retelling and helped save the expedition on numerous occasions, something Vacas would have elided for numerous reasons. Lalami’s account is fictional of course but it raises many interesting questions about how we engage with history and the importance of critically examining the established orthodoxy. I would highly recommend this novel to fans of historical fiction, or those keen on literary fiction, and will be sure to keep an eye out for more of Lalami’s work in the future.

The book is available on Amazon and can be requested at most libraries.

Review of People of the Weeping Eye

People of the Weeping Eye is a book I accidentally discovered. I was at Moorenko’s, a local ice cream store, with my younger brother and it just so happened the store had a bookshelf full of donated books. I had been meaning to read a book by the Gear’s couple for awhile so I was quite pleased to find a free version of their work. I was even more pleased, however, to discover what a great story these archeologists-turned-novelists had written and I have gone on to buy many of their books since.

People of the Weeping Eye takes place in pre-Columbian North America, a world very familiar to these archeologists but one probably less familiar to the average reader. For lesser writers, the challenge of grounding a story in the Lower Mississippi Valley—a region seldom visited by individuals not taking part in Mardis Gras celebrations—of the 1300s would have been too great. Nevertheless, the Gears’ meet the challenge head-on and give audiences a historical novel that entertains as much as it educates.

It helps a great deal that the Gear’s know how to populate a world with interesting characters. The People of the Weeping Eye is a multiple protagonist story with half a dozen interconnected storylines. While the answer will probably differ from reader to reader, I personally found the storylines involving Old White and Trader to be the most interesting. Some of the most exciting events in the early chapters, like the raid on the White Arrow town, have little to do with these storylines but what really makes these storylines stand out are the great anecdotes included in them.

Old White has spent decades journeying all throughout pre-Columbian North America and has gained incredible knowledge from his travels. He has witnessed human sacrifice on a massive scale in pre-Hispanic Mexico, he has met with envoys that claim to trade with boat people from the East (an allusion to the increasingly popular theory in archeological circles that numerous tribes in pre-Columbian America traded infrequently with Pacific Island people), and he has even heard stories of a shipwreck survivor with pale skin and blue eyes that speaks an unknown tongue. Trader is not nearly as well-traveled, but his storyline is no less interesting. Early in the novel, he finds a hunk of copper so large it could be “buy him a chiefdom.” The copper attracts interest from some unsavory individuals and one character, the delightfully wicked Snow Owl, is so depraved that he encourages his virgin daughter to bed Trader as part of an elaborate murder plot. Much to Snow Owl’s chagrin, his daughter seems to enjoy the tryst immensely and Trader escapes harm by stealing away in the dead of night.

In addition to colorful anecdotes, the story abounds with crafty political machinations and gripping drama. The story is not without flaws, the prologue is pretty much pointless and the first chapter with Hickory is a tad confusing, but I would highly recommend this story to anyone interested in learning about the Mississippi chiefdoms of old or anyone who enjoys a good story with unique characters.

The book is available at Amazon and can be requested at most libraries.