Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Annette Vallon: A Novel of the French Revolution

I expected not to like this book very much.  I have never read any of William Wordsworth's poetry, or much poetry at all, for that matter.  I am, though, head over heels for the French Revolution, but little did I know at the time, what a ride I was in for.

Annette Vallon: A Novel of the French RevolutionAnnette Vallon's story as the French lover of English poet Wordsworth is worth (sorry) reading for the historical background alone.  It begins at the end of Annette's life, in 1821 Paris, with her brief reflection on her role as a woman just trying to get by during the French Revolution:

Some tried to change the world.  I just tried to live in it, which became increasingly difficult.

...followed by chapter after chapter of author James Tipton's descriptive prose and snippets of Wordsworth's poetry, both of which enhance each other throughout the novel as Annette tells her story of political intrigues, civil war, madness and in the midst of it all, a star-crossed love.  Madame Williams, as she is called following her spontaneous marriage to Wordsworth, takes on three different roles as the terror and turmoil of revolution push her and her family into extreme circumstances:  that of mother to her child, loyal wife to her beloved (and sadly exiled) Englishman, and as the saving grace to hundreds of supposed counterrevolutionaries in danger of imprisonment and execution.  Annette's passion for life, love and literature is reflected in many selfless acts of rescue, making her hands-down one of the the bravest female characters I've encountered.  The stakes are high in this book, and after a comparatively tranquil, dreamlike beginning before the terror takes hold of Paris, the suspense starts and does not let up.

 "What's the matter, Gerard?" I said.
"It's the demons," he said.  "They're at the top of the stairs."

Does this story represent the real Annette Vallon, "French wife" of Mr. Wordsworth?  I have no idea, but it's a historical fiction of the best kind:  love and longing, sympathetic personalities, suspenseful intrigues, poetry that I can actually understand.  So don't look at the cover and think you've got some boring book about tea cozies - if you're into his-fic or just a good book with all the fixings, here it is.  Enjoy.

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Warrior Woman!

As the last M.Z. Bradley book to be reviewed on this blog, at least for a long while, I found Warrior Woman a much better read than the previous two.  Shorter, faster-paced, full of action, passion and an unusual, exciting female character (Zadya).  In this story, Zadya begins with no name since she remembers very little of her life before she is sold as a prostitute to a gladiatorial arena.  The flashbacks she does have of her former life are painful memories of being brutally raped, and being surrounded by white fire.  Zadya begins her new life by killing one of the men who tries to grope her as she's first introduced to the arena as one of its new whores.  In return, she is offered a place in the arena as a fighter - a gladiator, who among other gladiators will fight other men and women and animals to the death for the viewing pleasure of the crowds.  Zadya becomes her new name, and her career as a fighter is a roaring success - so much so, that she catches the eye of a wealthy woman who wants to start an all-female gladiator group.  This is where it all takes off, with Zadya remembering more and more of her past life and how she got where she did, the friends she makes, including Beizun a fellow female-gladiator who actually chose the life (and possible early death) of a gladiator for no other reason than to pay off her gambling debts.

Warrior Woman 

Will Zadya ever discover her pre-gladiator past?  Will she stay alive long enough to try?  These are the main questions, but other issues in the book are worth mulling over as well - if your life came down to a choice between a long life of misery as a prostitute, or a possibly short and terrible existence as a gladiator, which would you choose?  Why do these women make the decisions they do?  Beizun, for one, is an interesting character who volunteered to fight in the area.  The real reason why she chose this is anyone's guess, and I would've been happy to read another book just about her.  I would also have read further about the lives of gladiators in general, not to mention the female gladiators.  The theme was fascinating however short-lived - the book could have been longer, and it's hard to believe I'm saying that, but this one really had everything - mysterious characters who make even more mysterious decisions, lead crazy lives, and never give up their dignity and compassion for each other.  A page-turner and a pleasure to read.  And all for only $.01, imagine that.

Since I'm on a roll with the German, I'll continue with my German translation of Don DeLillo's novel White Noise, for a change of genre.  If you haven't heard, it's a hard look at modern America as we Americans know it: a consumerist's paradise and a European's seventh circle of hell.  Can't wait!

Edited for arrogance:  I tried reading White Noise in German, I really tried.  But it didn't take 50 pages for me to realize that I wasn't getting any of the intended jokes, if that is in fact what they were.  So without further ado, Annette Vallon: A Novel of the French Revolution shall take its place - every page of it in glorious English!

Saturday, April 10, 2010

Priestess of Avalon

Priestess Of AvalonMarion Zimmer Bradley's Priestess of Avalon tells of the life of Helena, the Roman emperor Constantine's mother.  A his-fic, you might think, however little is actually known about Helena's life, and this is where Avalon comes in - at the time of this story, Avalon has existed uninterrupted for thousands of years as an isle which bridges the mundane world and the world of faerie.  This is where Helena's story begins as the 10-year-old daughter of a noble Roman, yet also the daughter of Rian, high priestess of Avalon.  The theme, however, is not a star-crossed relationship between an Avalonian and a Roman (see Bradley's earlier Avalon story, The Forest House), but the tale of a woman who spends much of her life alone.


Helena tells her own story, which begins in Avalon with a prophecy that will change her days as a trained priestess of Avalon, into a life filled with the political intrigues of Rome, circa 250-329 AD which happens to be the time when Christianity is first adopted as the preferred religion of the Roman empire.  I couldn't have been more interested in this particular time period, when the Roman empire is fragmented by various barbarian invasions, the corruption of its own leaders and the introduction of a brand new theology from the middle-east.  In fact, I wish there had been more drama in the book, that was more involved with this theme of political and religious change throughout Europe, but I guess I'll just have to go read more history for that.  The story of Helena's life as a pagan priestess, who, cast out of her home, becomes a sympathizer of the new religion, is a sad one.  This woman begins as a rather bold, precocious child just learning the ropes as novice of a life-affirming, female-based faith.  But once she is cruelly dismissed by her high priestess for choosing to fulfill her destiny, she must surrender her independence, her nerve and boldness.  From this point on, we are almost hit over the head with the Platonism of the main theme:

"In the realm of idea, the great principles behind the forms that we see are the same," says Helena's first tutor Corinthius.  Helena doesn't believe at first that all the world's gods are just facets of one single deity, but this skepticism dissipates with the rest of her resolve as the story continues, until finally she surrenders to the future ahead:  "There is power here, I thought, as the drama of the Mass came to a conclusion.  It may not be the only truth in the world, but in some way, this story they are telling is true."  I couldn't help but feel sorry for Helena.  Most of the female characters of Bradley's books seem to watch life happen to them, and she is no exception.  Women are ruled, in the Avalon novels, not by men, but by women (and the Goddess).  This ironic sort of feminism usually makes for some great reading - prophecies and the fulfillment thereof, the will of the gods, the fight for or against destiny.  But something was missing in this book that was present in The Mists of Avalon, and that is an interesting, fiery female protagonist.  In Mists we come to love Morgaine (Morgan of the Fairies), a supposed evil bitch in the classic King Arthur legend, who in this re-telling turns out to be pretty formidable, but is also a real woman.  I did not find myself any more attached to Helena by the end of Priestess of Avalon, than I was at page 142 when she began her Roman life.  She does not fight for what she believes in, and I'm convinced that after she left Avalon she just didn't care anymore.  In light of this, I think the novel may have been better from a different, more emotional perspective, or from the third-person to get a better glimpse of events and daily life during this time period.  A decent book, but sadly twice-read was more than enough for me.

Stay with me till next week, when I'll review yet another of Bradley's books, Warrior Woman, about Zadya, who is sold into slavery and instead of a prostitute becomes a gladiator.  This one, I hear from Amazon, was the result of a bet between Bradley and her editor, and also a reaction to the Gor novels by John Norman, where women are typically the obedient slaves of men.  I haven't read these (yet), but I'm anxious to find out what happens to Zadya, as I'm sure you are, too.

Friday, April 2, 2010

Two to Conquer

Two to Conquer (Darkover: The Hundred Kingdoms)I figured any Marion Zimmer Bradley book deserves its own post, free of almost-comparisons to books that really don't deserve to be compared to each other.  So here is what I really think of Two to Conquer now that I've read it through:

The protagonist Bard is still an ass.  Yes, his character was finally redeemed after 400-some-odd pages in the 505 pages in my copy of the book, in a quick save that spanned maybe 5 pages.  This is way too long to wait for a main-character save in a book that centers itself around this character and his relationships with several people that he's managed to rape and murder throughout his godforsaken life.  At no point in the novel was I ever given a chance to consider the age-old explanation, well he was abused as a child! but I almost missed this omission because it wasn't replaced by more interesting character development.

As the story goes, a Darkover warrior named Bard, a bastard raised by noble family, is promised a glorious future as army general by his king.  Darkover is a world plagued by constant war, since it is divided into almost 100 different kingdoms that all fear each other's control.  In order to secure his position among the nobility, Bard goes overboard trying to seduce and finally rape his betrothed, the king's daughter, which leads to a series of events that involves conjuring up Bard's double from another world.  The double Paul Harrell, pulled from a world more like our own today, contrary to my expectations didn't end up changing Bard's misogynistic and destructive ways at all, he rather seemed to change along with him, but for no apparent reason other than that he suddenly falls in love with yet another woman he planned on seducing/raping.  I won't give away how Bard came across his own epiphany, as this is the crux of the novel that just came too late in the game.

Sadly the story as a whole was not enough to keep me guessing and turning the pages, and I doubt it was meant to be.  By the middle of the novel, I realized there was no reason for me to expect a change in Bard's character, nor was there any hope of a focus on the feelings of the characters that he denigrated, to shake things up a little bit.  And as much as I wanted to learn more about these other characters, their 2-dimensional selves were kept in the background, which to me almost justifies Bard's dismissal of them as just a bunch of whiny women.

So I'm not sure what the purpose of the novel was - to make us sympathize with a rapist/murderer, to show us how all men really think, or that they can even be "saved" from their hatred by divine epiphanies.  But I'm quite sure it didn't come across very well.  I didn't hate it, however, I think it had its moments.  And owing to Amazon reviews of other Darkover books, I might give a couple more of the series a try in the future.

Stay tuned for next week's review of one of Bradley's beloved Avalon novels, Priestess of Avalon!  I can't wait to read it again, myself.