Saturday, July 19, 2008

The Ice People have landed

Sandemo, Margit. Spellbound: The Legend of the Ice People, v.1. Trans. Gregory Herring and Angela Cook. London: Tagman, June 2008. 255pp. £7.00, trade pb, 978-1-903571-75-0. (Originally published in 1982 in Swedish.)

I managed to sneak in one "fun" (unassigned) book within the last week. I'd seen an ad for Spellbound in May, in a British book newsletter, and ordered it from Book Depository based on the setting: it was described as a historical fantasy set in 16th-century Norway. It appears to be a cult classic in the Scandinavian countries (akin to Louis L'Amour's The Sacketts in the USA?) with 25+ million copies sold. The figure may refer to the whole series. Spellbound, the first of 47 volumes (ack!), marks the author's first translation into English. Tagman, the publisher, seems to be a cooperative publishing, print-on-demand outfit; I imagine other publishers would balk at introducing such a lengthy saga, especially since the first six volumes are appearing in back-to-back months during late 2008. Regardless, the production and English translation are professionally done. Sandemo has a new English website with more details.

Spellbound surprised me; I had anticipated a pleasant, light summer read, which it was, but the story was longer and more substantive than I expected. The story begins in Trondheim, a coastal town in northwestern Norway, in late autumn of 1581, and follows the adventures of Silje, a sixteen-year-old peasant girl. After losing her family to the plague, townspeople drive her out of her father's cabin and forge in order to make room for a new blacksmith. Wandering alone at night, Silje heads with dread for the large funeral pyres on the outskirts of Trondheim purely out of need for warmth. She comes across two abandoned children -- a newborn baby cast out by a frightened unwed mother, and a young girl whose mother died of plague. Feeling sorry for them both, she takes them with her on her trek. Then she meets a strange man, garbed in a wolf-skin, who convinces her to rescue a king's messenger from certain execution... but neither man is what he seems to be.

Smoothly written and plot-driven, Spellbound provides lightly sketched historical details on Reformation-era Norway, a time when the country was under Danish rule. Sandemo also sprinkles bits of local folk beliefs into her narrative. The Ice People of the title, who descend from an accursed warlock named Tengel, live in a distant mountain valley, feared by Trondheim's people. If you avoid fantasy fiction because of the woo-woo factor, don't let this aspect of the series discourage you, as it doesn't predominate. The pages turned very quickly, and the story provided constant entertainment. If you enjoy tales of adventure and romance in an unusual setting, give this one a try. I expect I'll be purchasing v.2, Witch Hunt, when it appears in August.

Per Wikipedia, each book in the series tells a separate tale. The saga will follow Silje and her descendants down through the centuries, across Scandinavia and to various corners of Europe and Asia. Sounds like fun.

I meant to post about other things here too, but I seem to have gone on longer than I intended about this book (which is typical). The rest I'll save for another, later post.

Monday, July 14, 2008

Book review: Philippa Gregory's The Wise Woman

Edition reviewed: Touchstone, 2008 (c1992), $16.00, pb, 520pp, 978-1-4165-9088-0.

The Wise Woman, which until now was the only Tudor-era novel of Gregory’s I hadn’t read, takes place on the moor in County Durham in the 1530s. The opening scene aptly foreshadows the dark tone. While its Mother Superior and her flock lie sleeping, an abbey is set ablaze. Lord Hugo, son of a local nobleman, has followed Henry VIII’s greedy example by attacking the church and stealing its holy treasures for himself.

Alys, the sixteen-year-old novice who is the abbess’s favorite, fails to wake Mother Hildebrande and her fellow sisters before fleeing into the night, leaving them to roast in their beds. She takes shelter with Morach, the wise woman who had taken her in as a foundling years ago, and who had taught her much about herbalism and the use of women’s power. Although Alys hates the low social status, poverty, uncleanliness, and perpetual hunger she’s forced to live with once again, she fights the idea of using any magic, however harmless, to better her lot. At least at first.

When word of her healing talents reaches elderly Lord Hugh, ill with a stomach ailment, he summons the young “wise woman” to his castle and installs her as his nurse and clerk. Alys, who quickly grows used to living in warmth and comfort, falls desperately, obsessively in love with Hugh’s handsome son, Hugo – the same man who destroyed the abbey. Weary of serving Hugo’s ill-tempered, barren wife, Catherine, discontent with the hopelessness of her situation, and hungry with desire for Hugo, Alys persuades Morach to teach her the black arts. But her diabolical plan to win him over and claim power for herself backfires dreadfully when it becomes clear she can’t control events at all. The evil she sets in motion has a mind of its own.

This was an uncomfortable read. The Alys-Hugo-Catherine relationship (“love triangle” isn’t really appropriate) – perhaps fueled by Alys’s black magic, perhaps by its own momentum – grows steadily more twisted as the novel progresses. Also, Alys, who is simultaneously the protagonist and antagonist, doesn’t exhibit enough confidence or strength to play either role well. Regardless of her naïveté and personal turmoil, which are considerable, her heartlessness dating back to Page One forfeited whatever empathy I might have had for her plight.

There are some compelling and authentic-seeming depictions of the wild, desolate moor; a boisterous Twelfth Night celebration (though several scenes will disturb animal lovers); and a 16th-century noble household, as seen by both servants and nobility. But there are few admirable characters, and even fewer likeable ones. Besides saintly Mother Hildebrande, Lord Hugh and Morach were the only two people, even as immoral as they were, with sufficient spirit and willpower to keep my attention for long. The novel’s pages turned quickly: in the beginning with curiosity, in the middle out of interest, and in the end from distaste – because I could no longer abide Alys’s company.

The novel has a strong, unavoidable theme: regardless of their social status, whether they choose a path paved by God or the devil, it’s the fate of sixteenth-century women to be trapped by circumstance, used, and discarded. Even worse than how men treat women is what women do to one another in their attempts to improve their station in a man’s world.

It can also be read, perhaps, as an allegory of the Henry VIII-Catherine of Aragon-Anne Boleyn story, one shifted and condensed in time and given a disturbing twist. (Details about Anne Boleyn’s decline reveal themselves at intervals, whenever news reaches County Durham from faraway London.) Is it coincidence that both father and son are named Hugh (instead of the two Henrys), the younger one (Hugo’s) wife is named Catherine, and Alys’s religious name was Sister Ann? Jane Seymour’s literary double even waits in the wings at the end. I’m unsure what fans of Gregory’s royal fiction will make of this reissue of her 1992 historical horror novel, but having a Tudor-era novel set away from the royal court was actually a plus for me. Also, reading The Wise Woman in conjunction with The Other Boleyn Girl provides much food for thought.

A disturbingly effective if heavy-handed depiction of feminine power and powerlessness in late medieval times.

Edited to add: This book has been available for a while. If you've read it, what did you think?

Sunday, July 13, 2008

More blogging excellence

Thanks so much to Carla, Catherine, Julianne, Sheramy, and Teresa for nominating Reading the Past as an excellent blog! I'm honored that you enjoy my ramblings here. I'm going to be listing many of your other recommendations to my blogroll.

Since I'm not supposed to name my nominators, which are all wonderful sources of info on all things historical and literary, I'd like to give a shout-out to these ten additional blogs:

  • Favorite PASTimes, a group blog full of historical fiction reviews and interviews. Plus, they've been posting regularly every weekday for nearly two years - what an accomplishment!
  • Historical Boys, where C. W. Gortner conducts interviews with some of today's best historical novelists, both male and female, and talks about his own publication experience.
  • History Buff, Michelle Moran's news blog about the latest archaeological discoveries, even though the photos from her research trip are making me horribly jealous.
  • Historical Tapestry because they cover an amazing amount of interesting-sounding historical novels. I wish I could read that fast!
  • Likely Stories, written by Keir Graff for Booklist Online, for his astute and witty observations on book reviewing and the publishing industry.
  • Loaded Questions, because Kelly Hewitt conducts fascinating interviews with many authors, from up-and-coming historical novelists to some of the biggest names in the field.
  • Reading, Raving, and Ranting, for Susan Higginbotham's always informative (and sometimes hilariously funny) take on the Plantagenets and other historical topics.
  • Scandalous Women, Elizabeth Kerri Mahon's blog of original essays on historical women who behaved as they wished and stood up for what they believed, society be damned.
  • Tanzanite's Book Covers, where Daphne shows us the many (and often tacky) variations on historical fiction cover art.
  • World of Royalty, where Cinderella keeps us up to date with the latest news and gossip on the world's royals.

The news from here: after a very slow day at work yesterday, I'm done with revisions to my Literary and Adventure chapters, and am finishing up revisions to the Christian Fiction one. Two reviews for Booklist are turned in, with one more to go, and I'm working on a review of Philippa Gregory's The Wise Woman for posting here. The TBR pile is slowly shrinking, but I still have three large piles on my floor because the shelves are full. help.

Tuesday, July 08, 2008

A good day in bookland

So, even though I spent most of today staring at a computer screen and am mentally (from thinking too much about my various projects) and physically exhausted (from failing to get my new PC, monitor, and mouse into an ergonomic arrangement), there are three very good reasons to celebrate this evening.

1 - My literary fiction chapter doesn't need nearly as much work as I'd thought, and is progressing nicely.

2 - My first ARC from the LibraryThing Early Reviewers' program is here - Barbara Wood's Woman of a Thousand Secrets. I confess, I experimented a bit in requesting this book, as I'd never asked for one before, but the subject matter intrigued me: a woman in Central America before the time of Columbus tries to return to her birth people, which begins a great adventure in the land of the Maya. Since part of the algorithm for review copy distribution in LT is based on your existing LT holdings, and since I have a pretty sizeable historical fiction collection, I guessed that if I ever asked for a historical novel, I had a good chance of getting it. I was right. Voila. Unlike most places, LT encourages pre-pub reviews of these ARCs, so I'll be posting a review on LT (and copying it here) as soon as I'm able.

3 - The long-awaited ARC for Devil's Brood has arrived, complete with much improved jacket art. It's 734 pages long, weighs 2.25 lbs, and seems to be happy in its new home, so I don't see it going anywhere.

The books in (2) and (3) are currently numbers 4 and 5 in my TBR pile, after some more pressing commitments, unless I can manage to shuffle them around before my other reviews come due. I am very tempted to read (3) immediately...

Unfortunately, while I was typing this post, my black cat, Max, had a regurgitation accident all over the carpet. I think this is payback for gloating about the Penman ARC. Fair enough.

Tuesday, July 01, 2008

A very brief note

I haven't blogged in ages, I know - I'm around, at least I think I am, but I'm completely buried in work. My book manuscript's due on August 31st, and I'm continuing to spend every spare minute working on it, as several long chapters need a lot of revision. In addition, I've got an HNR deadline pending, a few book review commitments, plus there's my full-time work at the library...

Anyhow, postings here will be extremely sporadic for the next couple of months until the book's finished and turned in; these days I have very little time to read blogs, let alone write in one.

One bit of good news: I recently finished an article on contemporary historical fiction for Bookmarks Magazine, as a followup to the piece I wrote for them in Jan/Feb 2006. Look for it on newsstands this November. I'm anxious to see the layout version, as they did such a fantastic job with the last piece I wrote for them.

More eventually, when things slow down a bit.