Archive for the ‘Historical Fiction’ Category

Imagine, if you will, having an immortal lover who stays alive by vampirically possessing people and by so doing kills his current body, a game of infinite musical bodies. This lover wants to dominate you and use you to breed others like you, forcing you to mate with others as well as himself. You yourself are also immortal, but do it by constantly repairing your own body, a power that also allows you to shape-shift into any creature you choose. Your lover originally bought you as a slave and brought you to the New World, and though he opposes slavery for ordinary people he strives to make you and others like you a slave to his own wishes. What would you do?

This conundrum is at the heart of Wild Seed, the first novel in Olivia Butler’s Patternist saga. As an African American woman, she explored the social and political consequences of slavery—but from an imaginative perspective that melds dark folklore with the biological and psychological sciences. These are not the stereotypical vampire/werewolf stories that are making the rounds these days, but gritty stories of pain, betrayal, love, and hatred, that grow organically out of the fantastical elements she invented.

[slight spoiler ahead]

One sign of a powerful writer is the ability to take a monster and let the reader not only understand how that monster came to be, but to feel empathy for him. So it is with Doro, her perpetually killing male antagonist, who demands obedience and elicits fear from his subjects. Anwanyu, the story’s protagonist, simultaneously resists and relents, loves and hates, this monster. Her greatest power, though, is not biological regeneration so much as it is empathy, and when Doro finally comes to understand this, it is her greatest gift to him. I have not read any of the other books in the series, so I don’t know how long this gift lasts, or how Butler prolonged this epic entanglement over the centuries. But I suspect that both characters will undergo more change, as they illustrate an ironic truth about reality: A conscious identity can only be maintained over time by changing it.

Another element in this story that intrigued me is that both eternal characters not only change identities and bodies, they at times change their genders and sexual orientation. Thus Doro at times possesses a woman, and to accommodate him Anwanyu temporarily changes her body into that of a man so that they could mate. Doro takes this sexual flexibility even farther, though, by breeding couples who are biologically related in order to enhance the psychic powers of their offspring—a kind of incestuous exercise in eugenics. It reminds me of the ancient Greek myths, in which gods have sex with sister goddesses to procreate other gods and goddesses. Yet it also echoes the practices of slave owners, who treated slaves as reproducing chattel in their efforts to breed more slaves with qualities they deemed desireable.

Anwanyu sees all this—she’s old and wise, yet also young and beautiful—yet she loves having children, and mates with others other than Doro, with his blessing—and sometimes at his direction. While she resists breeding with her direct offspring, she comes to realize that, over the years, she has mated with her own progeny removed by many generations. Can you imagine if you had a lover and discovered that lover was one of your ancestors from long ago?

In sum, you can read this novel for many reasons. You may like its wildly imaginative fantasy premise. You may appreciate reading fiction about American slavery from a unique perspective. Or you may connect with complex characters that bend archetypes and force you to see them from different emotional perspectives. However you approach it, I recommend this story heartily, and only wish that Octavia Butler were still alive to talk about it. When she died in 2006, a marvelously talented writer left this world.


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Night of PanWith the recent popularity of the Percy Jackson middle grade fantasy series, Greek Mythology has also grown in popularity among both preteens and their teachers. Fictional treatments of such iconic figures as Jason, Helen of Troy, Odysseus, and even the god Pan have made the Greek myths familiar to young readers in a way that textbooks can’t.

There’s a reason why these myths continue to fascinate us well over 2,000 years since they were handed down to the Western World. The Greeks told stories filled with passion. Their heroes were capable of doing terrible things, and their gods acted in all-too-human—often lascivious—ways. Western drama as we know it was born in the religious dramas that gave us both comedy and tragedy. These myths greatly influenced all kinds of Greek thinkers—philosophers, mathematicians, rulers, playwrights—who in turn profoundly influenced Western thought in the Renaissance. We’d have no Shakespeare without the Greeks.

So universal do the Greeks seem to us today that it’s easy for us with Western postmodern values to forget how different from ours their cultural attitudes were. They had democracy, but also slaves, and women were treated as property as well. Warfare was glorified. Rulers often identified with a god who had the right to punish people as he saw fit. Once the ruling class ended the matriarchy of its ancestors, brutality was condoned or even praised.

Writing stories based on a culture with such a different ethical point of view from ours can be quite challenging—particularly in stories for young people, which we as teachers and parents require toe the ethical line. Stories with human sacrifice, gods who rape, incest, and other atrocities are generally kept away from pre-teens; in D’Aulaires’ Book of Greek Myths, for example, Herakles “swats” his family down instead of tearing them limb from limb. Percy Jackson only goes so far down this road as well—even when Percy slays a monster, it disappears in a cloud of gold dust rather than actually bleed to death.

Are there any novels out there for young readers that aren’t afraid to deal with the darker aspects of Greek myths? One such YA novel I read recently, Night of Pan by first-time novelist Gail Strickland (2014, Curiosity Quills Press) bursts out of the sword-and-sandal approach to Greek mythology with an exclamation point. The main character is not a storied hero, a wisecracking modern teenager, or a god. She’s Thaleia, daughter of a former oracle priestess at Delphi known as the Pythia.

Delphi played an enormous role in both Greek mythology and history. It’s a beautiful place, set on the slopes of Mt. Parnassus, and for thousands of years the priests who ran the oracle grew wealthy from the kings who came from all over to seek information—or help—from the god Apollo. The Pythia sat on a three-legged stool over a gaseous vent, went into a trance, and spoke in tongues while the priests interpreted her babblings to their clients. While the Pythia was recognized as being important to the oracle, it was the priests—all male—who held the power and riches.


Strickland’s approach is contemporary. Thaleia is a feminist; she has visions and defies the evil priest who rules Delphi and nearly pays for it with her life. She not only survives, but with her newly-found god companion Pan she gains the strength to claim the role of Pythia herself. In so doing she gives one of the most famous prophecies of all time, one which inspires the Greeks to defeat the Persian conqueror Xerxes in the naval battle at Salamis.

But wait, there’s more. The Greek historian Herodotus claimed that, prior to Salamis, Xerxes tried to attack Delphi, and was repulsed by Apollo himself when the god sent an avalanche to repulse the Persians. Strickland cleverly uses this as another way for Thaleia to flex her magical muscles as she calls on Apollo for help, and to the amazement of her community the god responds.

Thus this story straddles too genres—historical fiction and New Age-tinged feminist pagan fantasy. Just when I thought this was a realistic story, here comes Pan with his bag of tricks. Thaleia is a true child of nature, and she experiences Pan not as a scary would-be rapist but as delightful-smelling outdoor kitchen god of sorts. At one point I was convinced they were going to have sex—isn’t that what satyrs do?—but no, Pan just wants to inspire her, like a good contemporary man who wouldn’t touch jailbait.

So Pan is cool, if a bit smell-infused. The other deity Thaleia encounters is Apollo himself, a far more powerful god who ruled the oracle. (Note: at one time the oracle was not ruled by Apollo but by Gaia, the earth goddess. I doubt many contemporary Pagans would have any problem wishing Gaia’s Python had kicked Apollo’s butt instead of falling to one of his arrows). Here Strickland has a problem: does she present the god as sympathetic, despicable, or something in between? After all, his head priest is a violent misogynist. Strickland presents him as a kind of disembodied force of nature—no face, even. Of course the gods could present themselves to mortals any way they liked, but I would have liked if Apollo had appeared with some kind of human aspect to him.

I give Strickland props for creating an appealing main character in Thaleia, and putting her in an intriguing historical setting that shows obvious scholarship on Strickland’s part. At times I found myself a bit confused by events, and at times the marriage of historical and fantasy fiction strains a bit. But overall this tale’s most important function is to remind us that embracing one’s passion can lead to great success, no matter whether you’re a Pythia-in-waiting or a suburban kid about to experience all that wild stuff Pan was famous for.

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“What if?”

These two words provide the impetus for an increasingly popular class of novel known as the alternate history. What if the Allies had lost World War II? What if Jesus had organized an army and overthrown Rome? What if the Black Plague had eradicated European civilization, leading to world domination by Asian countries?

Bring the Jubilee, by Ward Moore, asks: What if the South had won the Civil War? Published in 1955, it was one of the first modern alternate histories to be published. It’s also fairly unique in that it combines the alternate history with the more traditional time travel story, replete with time travel’s inherent philosophical conundrums. Moore manages to converge these two plot devices in a way that makes for a generally good read and an exciting, if predictable, ending.

That’s not to say it’s a typical sci-fi read: no science enters into at all for the first four-fifths of the story. But I found Moore’s post-Civil War world compelling, if not terribly convincing. That’s because he’s essentially written a proto-steampunk novel that takes place in the middle of the twentieth century. Cars don’t exist; instead the fortunate few drive the occasional “minibile,” a steam-powered carriage. Electricity is virtually non-existent; illumination is here provided by the ubiquitous gaslight. It seems that, while the Confederate victory has led to a wealthy South and an impoverished—dare I say dystopian?—North, technology itself has fallen into a kind of Odin sleep.

The main character, a man strangely named Hodge Backmaker, is a bookish sort, lacking in social skills and possessing, even as a teenager, the vocabulary of a formal scholar. He constantly questions himself and his relationship with other members of Haggershaven, a quasi-Utopian community of scholars has joined. As he follows his natural bent to study history, philosophical questions about time, personal responsibility, and the role of the historian crop up now and then, either as part of his nature to mull over his own shortcomings, or in conversation with his fellows at Haggershaven. An action-packed tale this is not, though there is some romance (mixed with the usual recriminations and self-doubts).

At first I found some of Backmaker’s ramblings humorous, particularly when he winkingly references famous people from our historical line in a quotidian way in the alternate history—“Carl Jung,” for example, is a police chief. He presents a brief, but marvelously funny picture of a “Southron” gentleman who gloats over Yankee racism while teasing Backmaker for associating with a “Nigra”:

He made a gargling noise which I judged was laughter. “Wouldn’t know about your damyankee laws, boy. For myself I’d say there’s no harm in it [associating with a black person], no harm in it at all. Always did like to be around Nigras myself. But then I was rared among em. Most damyankees seem to think Nigras aint fitten company. Only goes to show how narrerminded and bigoted you folks can be. Present company excepted.

Unfortunately this sort of interchange, which reveals subtle differences in racism between our history and the alternate one, are few and far between. After he finds his way to Haggershaven, most of his interactions are with other scholars and conflicting love interests.

SPOILER ALERT: The following paragraphs reveal plot information that you may wish to remain hidden should you decide to read the novel. If so, skip to CONCLUSION.

One of those love interests is the founder’s daughter, an intense woman who has a prolonged, difficult affair with Hodge. But it’s not until late in the story that we learn that she is a scientific genius—genius enough, it turns out, to invent a time machine, even though Einstein, if he did exist in this history, was probably just a lowly bank teller, and quantum physics lay on nobody’s event horizon. This stretched my credulity—not that the inventor would be a woman, but that she could do this is in a virtual scientific vacuum. Nonetheless, she is rarin’ to go with the “HX-1” (as she calls the machine), and after it proves timeworthy it’s only a matter of, ahem, time before our man Hodge decides to take it on a spin back to the pivotal point of the Civil War—the Battle of Gettysburg—as part of his historical research.

Since the reader knows he is stuck in the past, Hodge’s fate is pretty well cast. Indeed, out of laziness or carelessness, he interacts with some Confederate soldiers just as the battle begins—and the soldiers, rather than advance to where they should have been, instead retreat. That was all that was needed to tip the battle in the Union’s favor, and the North went on to win the War.

And poor Hodge, after failing to return to his own time in 1951, realized that his own time no longer existed. Haggershaven no longer existed, and the loves of his life (the founder’s daughter, plus a woman he’d rescued earlier named “Catty”—don’t ask) no longer existed. The time machine now never existed. And he was stuck in the past forever.


I give Moore credit for creating a hero who wasn’t a martial artist, didn’t have any superpowers, and at times revealed an unpleasant personality. The colony provided an unusual social medium for him, and his philosophical thoughts on things historical provided interesting intellectual counterpoint to a plot which, for all its faults, came together in a satisfying way. I cut him some slack, too, for writing in a period—the early fifties—in which female characters were commonly depicted as emotionally overwrought or intellectually vacuous. The main character’s voice was, oddly, convincing for a man in the 1800s but not the 1900s. It was as though the entire culture of the late 1800s got frozen in time. Evidently the Confederacy, as well as other world superpowers, had achieved wealth and culture not evident in the impoverished “United States,” but the story itself takes place entirely in New York and Pennsylvania. And what about the American West? Almost nothing. Subsequent alternate histories by other authors would more creatively flesh out their worlds, but I do recognize Moore as a pathfinder for his efforts.

Postscript: As a copyeditor, I couldn’t help note the recurring, seemingly random absences of apostrophes throughout the text. Example: couldnt, no apostrophe. But on the same page: don’t, with apostrophe. It was as though the editor responsible for the final copy lived between two histories, one in which apostrophes existed and one in which they didn’t.

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First-time novelist Matthew J. Kirby’s turn-of-the-century yarn uses the clock as a symbol to represent his middle grade novel’s plot, likening the stories of his three young protagonists to turning gears in a mechanical device. Even before I read the first page, the associations leaped into my mind: clocks represent all kinds of things in fiction, among them fear of regimentation, anxiety in the Industrial Age, and regret at not being able to turn back the hands of time. I expected an intricate plot, with events spawning tightly-woven consequences, expectations marvelously reversed, and delightful twists that would make me gasp. I wanted to be a mortal stumbling upon a wonderland of otherworldly mechanical invention and blown away by the sheer ingenuity of it all. Throwing in a murder mystery would add spice.

After reading all 386 pages of Kirby’s novel, I came away with a different impression. The strength of this story lies not in the plot, but in the three characters, preteens with family problems and poverty staring them in the face. I took an immediate liking to all of them. It’s to Kirby’s credit that he’s able to pull this off, particularly in a middle grade novel, which normally only has one protagonist. He employs shifting close third points of view—sometimes in adjacent paragraphs—which can be a challenge for any reader, let alone a young one. But any hiccups experienced as the narrative gears meshed together vanished as my critical reading mind got vetoed by my desire to follow the adventures of Guiseppe, Hannah, and Frederick.

What makes them so easy to follow? Each has a well-defined goal, as well as unstated, subtler goals that dwell in their subconscious minds. Each is confronted by one or more vicious or uncaring adults, and each is aided by one or more caring adults. One is an orphan, one has a sick parent, and one has been sold into slavery. Tropes all, but used effectively.

As I read along, I was more than once reminded of a Dickens novel, only more accessibly written for today’s younger audience. Instead of London, the story’s locale is an unnamed city that would have been New York had not certain places—like an immediately adjacent wilderness park—necessitated an invented setting. A marvelous violin makes an immediate appearance in the hands of a struggling young “busker” (street musician), giving an aura of magic and desire to a story filled with grim and occasionally violent reality.

Strangers at the beginning, the three children eventually find their destinies intertwined, though it takes a while to get there. The mechanical man shown on the cover exists for most of the book only as a dream in Frederick the clockmaker’s mind; the man’s actual part in the story is rather short, and I wished more could have been done with him—though that probably would have added another hundred pages. And besides, as I’ve said, the tale’s not really about a mechanical man, another trope that’s been explored many times in other books and movies.

I’d like to say a word about Kirby’s style and voice before I turn the page. His style is understated, which suits the reserved Frederick better than the more emotional Hannah. Humorous passages are subtle, gently showing misunderstandings or misguided expectations on the part of adults as well as children. At times I yearned for more outrageous humor or transcendent bursts of fantasy, or a more distinctive storytelling voice. I can’t fault Kirby for playing it safe, though—consistency has its own merits, and his narrative technique here is what distinguishes the story. Perhaps his next offering will employ a more conventional narrative but take more chances elsewhere.

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