11 Apr 2012

Review of 'Dance of the Dandelion' by Dina Slieman

"Love's quest leads her the world over.
Dandelion Dering was born a peasant in the English village of Arun, but her soul yearned for another life, another world. One filled with color and music, with adventure and passion... with more.
Haunted by childhood memories, Dandelion determines to find a better existence than the life every peasant in the village contents themselves with. Even if her sweetheart William's predictions prove true, and her journey leads straight to heartache.
From her sleepy hamlet to the intrigue of castle life, from the heart of London to the adventurous seas, Dandelion flees from the mistakes of her past, always seeking that something, that someone who will satisfy her longings.
Will Dandelion ever find the rhythm to her life's dance... or did she leave her chance for true love at home in Arun village?"
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Opinion: Dina Slieman's debut novel seems to be essentially something of a 'coming of age' story for the heroine Dandelion (not a name I liked), which also happens to chart aspects of her spiritual journey. Dandelion herself (Dandy for short) was, to my recollection not a character I ever really warmed to.  The novel itself, though enjoyable enough (and though it was set near the area where I live)  is not one what I would call exceptional, and I wouldn't necessarily be in a hurry to read it again. 

Some of the details about the lives and everyday struggles of Dandy and her neighbours were interesting, with some colourful and believable characters, and the story was original and fairly well written, but I did have a number of issues.
The punctuating of the first person narrative with Dandelion's 'flashbacks' from childhood could prove a little distracting and, whilst the descriptions of the lives and struggles of Medieval peasants could be interesting enough, there were a number of historical issues which blighted this part of the story.

One issue I had personally had (not only with this novel personally) was that the English characters seemed altogether too Americanised, in their mannerisms, speech and sometimes outlook. This is something which irks me in historical novels generally, not specifically in this one, and is very much a personal issue. 

History: Though the story takes place in the early 1300s, and whilst some of the details seem consistent with that period, others could be more in keeping a Regency period setting. I am quite certain people generally did not ride in carriages at this time, so the description of them travelling thus through the cobbled streets of London seemed rather out of place for the time period. 

The second issue I had was with the status of Dandy and her family, who are implied  to have been free peasants of the emerging Middle Classes in one place, and then were being called ‘villiens’ who were tied to the land the next. There were significant differences between these two groups namely that the latter were essentially unfree serfs and the property of their local landlord. So the seeming conflation of the two could prove rather confusing.
Perhaps though I am being too pedantic in this regard and the author did the best she job she could with the historical material and research. 

Christianity/Morality: There are a couple of sexual references in this novel, though nothing was graphically described as I recall. A number of the characters including Dandy engaged in extra or pre-marital liaisons.
For me, the most worrisome aspect of the religious content of the novel was the prominence given to mysticism. At least two prominent minor characters are based on historical mystics There was much emphasis on what people felt that God wanted of them, or their emotions where religious matters were concerned, and much praise was given to ‘ecstatic experiences'. 
Such are a rather flimsy basis for faith, not least because they can be subjective and misleading. Furthermore, they are of dubious spiritual origin with potentially dangerous implications.  

It also seemed to be implied in one place that people of religions other than Christianity who `found their own way to God' could make it to heaven without necessarily believing in Christ. Though one of the characters make it clear that the God worshiped by Muslims was different in attributes and character to the Christian God, so was not the same as the Christian God as Dandelion believed, there was no mention probably the most important difference between the two religions- that Islam teaches God has no son. 

Altogether, this was a decent novel, with a fairly original storyline and good in places, though it could have benefited from more research. Mainly due to the religious issue highlighted above, particularly the mysticism, I cannot really recommend it.

6 Apr 2012

Review of Games of God and Men by Robin Hardy

 Games of God and Men- Book 6 of the Latter Annals of Lystra
"Driven to distraction keeping control of twin twelve-year-old daughters, Surchatain Ares welcomes the services of a jester at the palace of Westford. Upon finding himself a celebrity and a confidant of the Surchatain, the jester attempts to discredit his main rival for Ares’ attention: the Surchataine Nicole. In countering the jester’s attack, Nicole turns to the superior gamesmanship of the beautiful, heartless Chataine Renée, who plays her part with such skill that the jester becomes a pawn in a power struggle between two provinces. However, the game is altered by the unexpected entrance of another player—Renée’s younger brother Henry. Exiled for his faithfulness, struggling with the apparent capriciousness of God, Henry makes the move that determines the game’s outcome."

As ‘historical’ fantasy goes, this series has to be one of the worst I have ever read. The ‘Medieval’ historical setting is (to borrow a term someone else used) nothing more than superficial ‘window dressing’, the characters are more like modern people in fancy dress than Medieval people. Their beliefs, attitudes and values are largely inconsistent with their time and their speech and language is sometimes just- bizarre. Many of the characters use modern Americanisms and slang words which just seem very noticeable. They seem to ‘sound’ just like Americans, not like Medieval Europeans at all. The only exception is one particular character, a member of the Royal Household named Renee, whose use of Long words and High register language gave me the impression that she was supposed to have a High Class pseudo-‘British’ accent of some description. 

Alongside the anachronisms (for instance spray perfume bottles), there seems to be a general tendency amongst the characters to share and reflect modern standards and attitudes by taking a negative stance towards things that modern people might see as unpleasant or unpalatable. Yet there seems to be no effort on the part of the author to understand or appreciate the differences in attitudes that people had in the past, or see things the way they did, even if we do not agree with them. 
For instance, one of the characters’ main concerns in this novel is dealing with the evil King of a neighbouring country who uses torture and supports slave traders (ignoring the way in which Renee abuses and mistreats others in their own country), or much attention is devoted to dealing with slave traders elsewhere.  This could be justifiable in some instances, but in this and other novels in the series in does seem to cause the story and characters to have and almost self-righteous and polemical tone towards actual or perceived social ills. 

The most troubling aspect of this novel however was the characters’ attitudes towards morality, in particular sexual morality, especially on the part of the Christian characters. On the surface, it appears that the characters concept of honour and decency are entirely consistent with the importance that medieval people might have placed on these virtues. Ares the Surchatain (equivalent to a King) is prepared to literally kill to protect and defend the honour of his 12 year old daughter Bonnie, whose actions had to potential to unwittingly put her in a compromising situation.
Ares’ actions result from his fear that his young daughter’s reputation could be destroyed because of the way in which such behaviour would be seen and perceived by others, even though nothing actually happened.  Bonnie was however an innocent and relatively naïve 12 year old who likely did not realise or appreciate the potential sexual connotations which might be perceived by her arranging to meet a man by herself. 

Yet, later on the novel a character called Renee, who is known for being sexually promiscuous (indeed she boasts about and flaunts this) behaves in a way that is not only inappropriate, but downright indecent and obscene in public. That is, after a jester addressed a sexually explicit love song towards her, she expressed her thanks by laying her breasts against his body, kissing him passionately, and telling him to come to her bedroom later- in full view of everyone at the feasting table. Yet the same people who Ares feared would be regard the innocent social faux-pas of his daughter as so heinous consider Renee’s behaviour here to be perfectly acceptable, and in no way detrimental to her ‘good name’ or ‘reputation’. They still regard her as ‘respectable’ and ‘virtuous’ both before and after this incident. 

It would appear then, the Lystrans do not consider such acts of shameless wantonness to be in any way contrary to their notion of what constitutes ‘decency’ and ‘respectability’. This seems to be  further evidenced by another incident involving Renee in which it was revealed that she had entertained no fewer than 5 sexual partners in one month, who had ‘visited’ her some 12 times during that period. Ares' wife Nicole fears that if news of this becomes public, it will damage Renee’s ‘reputation’, and despite her husband’s assurances that many people know anyway, Nicole goes to great pains to hide the truth about Renee’s sexual misconduct from as many people as possible. At one point she even told that if she is not more careful the wicked servants would start gossiping and spreading false rumours about her- or to put it another way they will speak the truth about her immorality and licentiousness. 

The implications of this may be important- they seem to show that even though Nicole is a ‘Christian’ she apparently does not see anything wrong with upholding and maintaining a blatant falsehood about Renee’s behaviour and conduct. She and Ares do not stop Renee from having men in her bedroom; they just make sure that as few people know about it as possible, and regard those who would speak the truth as liars and gossips, whilst still regarding Renee as ‘respectable’ and virtuous.

Later on Nicole further revealed her unscrupulous and scheming side by asking Renee to use her ‘wiles’ to get information out of the aforementioned Jester (who had been caused Ares to distrust her). Basically, this involves Renee seducing the jester, and in the midst of doing so he reveals that he once stroked a ladies’ foot when he had acted as her confessor. In a display of ludicrous moral hypocrisy of the highest order Renee was shocked and outraged by the revelation, and judges the jester’s behaviour to be ‘indecent’ and ‘obscene’ - as though she were some blushing maiden.

It did not occur to her that considering her own behaviour and lifestyle, she was in no position to judge anyone else’s behaviour in such a way, and that what the jester’s actions were positively tame and innocent in comparison to her own. The hypocrisy does not stop here; however, as Renee goes ober in her mind how she would throw the jester down a well if he ever tried to act 'inappropriately' towards her- even whilst she is passionately kissing and embracing him.
So it is perfectly acceptable for her to behave like a slut and have sex with as many men as she wishes, yet in her mind, any man who behaves 'inappropriately' towards a woman is evil and lecherous. This apparent inconsistency in attitude towards sexual immorality on the part of women and opposed to men is particularly worrisome element of this series.

Such hypocrisy, double standards and seeming misrepresentations of the truth are all too common in this series. It appears that the author wants the audience to believe, like the characters do, that Renee is a ‘good girl’ really- a model of moral virtue who is outraged by sexual misconduct- on the part of men anyway.

1 Apr 2012

Review of 'Mark of the Cross' by Judith Pella

Mark of the Cross- Judith Pella  ★★☆☆☆

 "Philip, the illegitimate son of a powerful English lord, is taken in by his father but given no claim to an inheritance. Gareth, the legitimate son, is cruel and abusive to Philip. When their father dies of a heart attack, Gareth frames Philip for murder, and on the eve of his expected execution, Philip escapes to begin life as a fugitive and mercenary. His longtime love, Beatrice, awaits him, fervently hoping circumstances will change. But when she finds herself at the mercy of Gareth, who will stop at nothing to acquire her and her lands, she strikes a most grievous bargain. Bitter and angry at the news, Philip devises a dangerous plan for vengeance. But love and hatred both have consequences, and he must face the truth that heaven will not be ignored."

Opinion: As much as the novel tries to make the relationship between the protagonists Philip and Beatrice into an epic, and touching love story, to me, it just was not, especially in the early part of the novel . The heroine Beatrice came across, at least at first as a shallow, spoiled, vain, self-centred shrewish brat.
If her `love' for Philip was so heartfelt, deep and genuine , why could she not show him  enough respect to accept that he simply did not want to have sex with her, and kept throwing herself at him regardless?
Thus her selfish desire  to get what she wanted and have her own way with Philip, regardless of his own wishes and desires in this regard did not seem very much like 'true love' at all.Instead it seemed more like the amorous fancy of a spoiled immature girl desperate to lose her virginity to a man she had just clapped eyes on, and who seemed to have hardly any self-control. Such hardly seemed like the of a romance that could last years even when the partners were separated.  

Yet Beatrice's relationship with Phillip is supposed to form the basis of the entire novel, which does not seem to bode well when it appears so superficial at the beginning. 
Even when she makes a commitment to chastity before marriage after Philip's horrid half brother Gareth tries get his wicked way with her, she quickly does a complete U-Turn and a few chapters later forgets her new found commitment to abstinence, and tries to have her way with Phillip once again before he leaves England in exile. Are we really supposed to believe that such a capricious character is capable of keeping any kind of vow?

Philip was a more well-rounded character, and the reasons for his anger, bitterness and sense of rejection seemed genuine enough. Yet his constant tendency to blame every ill-circumstance that befell him on God, rather than realizing it might be due to his own shortcomings or the actions of humans did not seem plausible, and just seemed to be a convenient excuse for Philip's religious skepticism.

Christianity/Morality: Readers should be warned of the sexual content of this novel, even though Philip and Beatrice never go all the way, and nothing is described in graphic  detail, this book is not one for younger readers, because of these and other aspects.
There is also some violence, of which some can be a little graphic, and really Philips reluctance to kill his brother (or allow anyone else to do it), does not ring true, as his death was the only thing which could bring about his and Beatrice's happy ending.
Considering that she is meant to be a 'Christian' (though not really so at the beginning of the novel) Beatrice seems surprisingly lacking in moral scruples or self control,   and was more than willing to do things she knew to be wrong where Phillip was concerned. Though he was weaker in faith than her, he seemed more reluctant to engage in sexual immorality,  (partly due to the circumstances of his own birth) and seemed to have more of a conscience. 
Beatrice's `repentance' for her adultery and incest with Philip towards the end of the novel seemed contrived and fake. All of a sudden we are told that she felt`repentant' when all she seemed to be sorry about was losing Philip and her lot in life, and claimed the product of her adultery was a `gift from God'. 

History- There were a number of historical issues in this novel some of which are highlighted below.

There seems to be a clear attempt to draw parallels between the `Baron's War' of Simon de Montfort, and his noble sympathizers against King Henry III  and the American Revolutionary War with lots of talk of people fighting for their `freedom' `rights' and `liberty' against a `tyrannical' ruler to force him to adhere to the  Magna Carta which is presenting as something akin to the `Bill of Rights'.
Those who supported the King are described as `royalists' which is something of a misnomer as it seems to imply that those who were on the opposing side wanted to dispense with the monarchy altogether. Yet I found it very hard to believe that Medieval British people could even conceive of their country not having a King.
In another place Beatrice demonstrates her staggeringly advanced knowledge of microbiology and bacterial infection by expecting physicians to use Modern medical techniques that could only arise from this. Yet a few passages later, she is back to binding up wounds with dirty rags or cloths, which amazingly did not become infected.

The ending seemed very neatly 'wrapped up' which I suppose was necessary to make it happy, and satisfying after all Philip and Beatrice had been through. Yet it was also one of the most historically implausible aspects of the work, as it seems rather unlikely that Phillip would have even been legally allowed the woman who had been his half brother's wife, hence his own sister in law, without a dispensation from the Pope.
Also, I very much doubt Beatrice's reputation would have survived intact when it was revealed that she had gotten pregnant by her husband's half brother. In this sense, the way things turned out just seemed too easy and convenient.

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