Saturday, June 28, 2014
A MULTI-LAYERED DELIGHT
Jason Goodwin's THE BAKLAVA CLUB meets all the requirements of an excellent novel--great setting, great plot, a rock solid historical foundation, memorable characters, clear, luminous writing, romance that never lapses into the ordinary rock. All this rests on historical foundation only an erudite writer can build. Goodwin's fans know that he only gets better. Even so, they will be surprised at how deftly he handles the the evolution of characters such as that of the eunuch for whom the series is named. Up to now, self-contained, self-controlled, self-effacing, clad in drab brown, Yashim has led a quiet life punctuated by visits to the Ottoman valide and dinners with the scholarly Polish ambassador Palewsky. Only crime solving disrupts his routine. That is, until a group of Italian revolutionaries, a Finnish beauty, and Natasha, the daughter of an exiled Decembrist, cross his path.
What brings people of such different backgrounds to Yashim's Ottoman Istanbul? Global politics, of course. The Italians want to kill a Polish prince and thus cause a shift in global power. The valide wants to make a tiny mark in Russian history. Palewsky wants Poland to be Poland once again. Yashim wants to make a difference, to right wrongs and he wants to come to terms with the damage done to him.
Are all these different wishes granted? You have to read the book to find out. I promise that in the process you will be amused, you will learn fascinating historical facts, you will share delightful feasts and you will grow fonder of Yashim and friends.
Tuesday, January 21, 2014
Medieval historiography, in general, tends to disregard women. That is one of the reasons why Patricia Bracewell's new novel, SHADOW ON THE CROWN, is an important book. Undeterred by he paucity of documentation on her subject, Bracewell set out to blend a mix of fact and fiction that makes Emma of Normandy leap from the page and engage the reader as only strong and intelligent women can. As the story opens, she is just a teenager who worries about her horse.
Enter Danish warlord Swein Forkbeard and his marauding troops. He asks for winter harbour and once Emma's brother, Duke Richard, ruler of Normandy, grants it, Forkbeard proceeds to make himself at home in the ducal palace. He has twelve ships. Richard has neither the military power to repulse his unwelcome guests nor the wish to damage a cozy trade in plundered English goods. The real problem is fellow Christian Aethereld, whose realm the heathen Vikings raid regularly regularly. Richard's relationship with the Dane irks him. It might irk him into declaring war on Normandy. What to do but dangle offer nubile Emma as a sop? No one cares much how Emma feels about being married off--bartered might be a more precise term--at age fifteen to an aging man with some serious mental problems. Those were the times and that was European women's lot.
Although trapped into a life of obedience to a madman, Emma is determine to do the best she can. Noblesse oblige and there is te fate of Normandy to consider. Her job is not easy. Mad—or perhaps seriously tetched-- Aethereld has a gaggle of sons., Emma's safety depends on her ability to produce yet princeling. At the same time, adding a competitor for throne to the existing gaggle will not endear her to anyone. But that becomes a mt point when her first child is stillborn.
Beset by envious envy from discarded candidates to Aethereld's bed and truculent nobles who resent for being a Norman whose mother is Danish, Emma soldiers on. Following the rule that the tougher the challenges, the stronger capable women grow, she weathers all manner of storms, finding bittersweet romance and friendship along the way. The romance will not be found in historical records, but it makes Emma more believable and certainly more sympathetic. So do her dealings with Aethereld's children from previous marriages. Bracewell imbues her with the qualities so glaringly absent from her consort. The contrast is vivid and alluring.
Viking raids and Aethereld's ill-conceived consent to the Saint Brice's Day Massacre in which scores Danes residing in England perished, provide a riveting counterpoint to Emma's evolution from green girl into a capable monarch. Women's ascent to power is one of the least explored aspects of the European Middle Ages. So is the point of view of Scandinavians who made England their home. Bracewell takes all these details, arranges them appealing and makes them count without ever burdening the narrative. The result is a story as fresh and crisp as the taste of the apple cider for which Emma's home country is known. SHADOW ON THE CROWN is the first volume of a trilogy. I look forward to subsequent volumes.