Wednesday, 22 April 2015

A History of Gods and Royalty

Once again I have beavered away at my ongoing reading goal, achieving my monthly target of three books just a few days ago.

This month's trio of novels were similar in that they related to history, religion and royalty, but my impressions - and therefore my ratings - varied greatly...

Mary Queen of Scotland and the Isles - Margaret George (2/5)
I picked up this book because I'd previously read Margaret George's The Autobiography of Henry VIII, and loved it. Also I knew little of Mary Queen of Scots, and like historical fiction, so it seemed a good choice.

For the plot of this book, you need only look at the historical records of the life of Mary, Queen of Scots--this tome follows her birth, her life growing up in France, her return to Scotland as Queen and subsequent escapes from plots and imprisonment, until she finally winds up a prisoner in England, upon the orders of Queen Elizabeth I. And of course, the book also follows the events that led to Mary's inevitable execution.

Perhaps having read another of Margaret George's books set my hopes too high for this one, as I was a little disappointed by it. Or maybe it's that I didn't find Mary's life interesting another. The Mary within the books was stubborn, or perhaps naive and ill-informed, too self-righteous and altogether annoying--though not as annoying as John Knox! Portrayed as a manipulative preacher with fanaticism that bordered on madness, I hoped that each of his appearances within this book would be his last.

I found that this book went through fits and starts of holding my attention. It took me quite a few chapters to truly get into the story as I found little interest in Mary's early years and life in France. For a while, I was riveted by the storyline, then again bored by it, and then captivated once again.

The latter part of the book, about Mary's exile (and imprisonment) in England, started off promising but ended up tedious, as Mary was moved here and there whilst Queen Elizabeth evaded the matter of her lords and advisors pushing for Mary's execution. Of course, the fact that Mary was executed eventually is no surprise - being historical fact, after all - but I wound up just wishing Elizabeth would behead her and get on with it!

This book is probably more interesting to someone with a greater interest in Mary Queen of Scots than I have.

I won't read this book again, but if you like long tales about royals of the past, this one may be your cup of tea.

I also totally recommend Margaret George's The Autobiography of Henry VIII (which Ionce wrote about on my other blog, here).

The Sacred Blood - Michael Byrnes (3/5)
This is one of the books that has spent ages on my shelf, waiting to be read. So long in fact, that I don't remember what drew me to buy it, or even where I bought it.

The Sacred Blood is actually a sequel, which I didn't realise until I'd read it, but it reads well enough as a stand-alone novel.

One good thing about this book is that it was really easy to get into the storyline. I didn't get bored whist reading this--it's well-paced and doesn't get bogged down with pages upon pages of description or extra information. However, the storyline itself is fairly predictable and there are no unexpected plot twists.

I found the plot relatively straightforward: an ossuary is stolen from Temple Mount only to be returned later, damaged and empty--the contents being a key part of a greater plan. Meanwhile an archaeologist makes a startling discovery in the Judean desert, which could change the world--a discovery that makes him the target of assassins. And a fanatical religious group hurry to bring to fulfilment a plan that their ancestors have been working on for centuries.

Of course there is more to the plot than that, but I don't want to give too much away!

When I first began this book, I was worried that it would single out a specific religion and portray it badly, but in the end I think it did a fairly good job of depicting fanaticism and the tensions between different religious groups.

My only real dislike about this book was the portrayal of women. I didn't find the female characters believable. The main female character seemed rather helpless and far too calm for some of the situations she was thrown into. And of course she was beautiful.
One of the supporting females came across as more like a trophy woman: in her forties but younger looking, attractive, flirty, playful, nice breasts, intelligent, ballsy... All reasonable attributes but some negative traits would have made her more realistic.
The second supporting female  was a complete opposite to the first: middle-aged, unsmiling and conservatively dressed (perhaps for religious reasons?), basically a subservient character designed to fade into the background.

Although I don't tend to care about the gender of characters in books, I was disappointed that these females weren't more believable. Probably the biggest issue with them was that the first supporting female took it as a compliment when one of the male characters was eyeing up her breasts. To be fair, there was supposed to be chemistry between the two characters in question, though that wasn't very apparent by their interactions (aside from the aforementioned breast-ogling moment).
The attitude that it was okay - a compliment, even - is something I found problematic, irritated by, even. I felt it showed a lack of respect for the character (and for women in general).

Despite that big gripe, I did get some enjoyment out of this book. Representation of women aside, the overall plot is well-paced, and the narrative easy to read.
For me this is a 'read once' kind of book, but I think it would be a good holiday read.

The Song of Achilles - Madeline Miller (5/5)
The title makes the topic of the book obvious enough: the legend of Achilles.
In the past I've tried and given up on reading The Iliad, snored my way through Troy (twice!) and wondered at a nugget of information that a friend told me when we saw the film: it is argued that Patroclus, depicted in the movie as Achilles' cousin, was not his cousin but his lover. (These rumours always interest me; humanity has a habit of scraping things it doesn't like from the history books, doesn't it?)

The Song of Achilles takes this idea that Achilles and Patroclus and runs with it, weaving it into a beautifully-written story that depicts their changing relationship amidst the legend that we all know.
It is told through the eyes of Patroclus, an awkward young prince exiled to the court of King Peleus, Achilles' father. Though Patroclus hates Achilles at first, the 'perfect son' befriends him. As they grow up and learn new skills, their bond strengthens. Despite the attempts of the sea-nymph Thetis, Achilles' mother, to thwart their relationship, the pair become lovers.
Of course, the inevitable happens--Helen is taken from Sparta by Prince Paris of Troy, and Achilles and Patroclus are among the many who go to join the legendary battle. But the years that come are an even greater test of their relationship than the words and doings of Thetis, and fate weighs heavily over their heads.

I probably wouldn't be spoiling most of the story by continuing, because this legend can be looked up anywhere, but if you don't want spoilers, skip this paragraph!
They die. What makes it different is the ending that Madeline Miller spun for the pair, as Patroclus continues to watch Achilles battle the Trojans, until his death. Then he sees the arrival of Achilles' son Pyrrhus, and the downfall of Troy. Once the Greeks have gone, Thetis goes to the tomb of Achilles, where one last act brings this story to a close.

Okay, spoilers over!

My sole concern with this book was that it would be filled with so much historical detail that the plot would be hard to follow. I was wrong: the narrative flowed faultlessly. Being written in the first person really gave life to the story. It was filled with emotion and wonder; a third-person narrative would have caused the tale to seem distant and cold.

Something I appreciated about this book was that although it was a romance (a genre I don't tend to read), it was not sappy or over the top. Achilles and Patroclus were not effeminised, but masculine men--skilled, knowledgeable, strong-hearted. Men who just happened to love each other. Though Patroclus was depicted as someone weaker when it comes to fighting, his strengths and skills are shown in other ways (though we do get to see him on the battlefield, where he proves himself a capable soldier). Meanwhile Achilles' weakness was his hot-headed pride, which sometimes ruled over everything else.
These things combined made some fantastic, believable characters!

The acknowledgements at the end of the book reveal that it took Madeline Miller ten years to write this book. All that effort seriously shows.

I read this in a day. Would absolutely read this again. 

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