This YA fantasy, first in a planned series, is based in a fantasy-world version of Nigeria and the magical system is rooted in Nigerian mythology. This made Children of Blood and Bone a really appealing read, because I’m always interested in fantasy that’s set in something other than a vaguely-medieval-Europe and that draws in elements of other cultures.
However, while I really appreciated that aspect of it, I did find that beneath the cultural diversity this was a fairly standard and predictable fantasy, featuring a small band of teenagers (conveniently paired into romantic couplings) fighting against deadly odds to collect a group of three esoteric artifacts and take them to a significant spot before a key deadline to unlock ancient magic. There are a few twists and turns I didn’t see coming, which is great, but I wish the plot and characterization had been as fresh and original as the setting.
This was such a beautiful and engrossing book. It tells two parallel stories. In the present day (well, the recent past — 2011), twelve-year-old Nour moves back to Syria with her mother and two older sisters. The family has been living in the US, where Nour was born, but with her father’s death from cancer they return to the parents’ home country — just in time to find it torn apart by civil war.
Nour’s story is told in alternating chapters with a story she remembers her father telling her — the legend of Rawiya, a teenaged girl who disguises herself as a boy to travel the Middle East in the company of a famous mapmaker. (The mapmaker, al-Idrisi, is a real historical character, but the Rawiya legend is invented by the author for this book). While I enjoyed the Rawiya story, which combines historical and mythical elements, it was Nour’s contemporary story that really grabbed my attention.
For those of us whose only exposure to the Syrian war comes through news stories featuring devastated refugee families, we may not have given a lot of thought to how those people became refugees. In Map of Salt and Stars, we see how Nour’s family goes from the an ordinary middle-class life consumed with sibling squabblings between the sisters and attempting to get past grief at their father’s death, to living as refugees on the run with only the clothes they are wearing when their apartment building in Homs is bombed just as they are about to sit down to dinner. The story demonstrates with shattering detail how quickly ordinary people living ordinary lives can lose everything and become homeless and desperate when civil war erupts around them. Although the author is Syrian-American and did not live in Syria during the war, she has certainly created what feels like a believable picture of a young girl and her family navigating these horrific events, trying to stay together and hold onto hope.
This historical YA fiction is an interesting romp through early 18th-century Europe through the eyes of a young “rake,” Henry “Monty” Montague, who is on his Grand Tour of Europe with his best friend Percy and his sister Felicity, who is (very reluctantly) on her way to finishing school in France. Monty, Percy and Felicity are all outsiders in their own ways, people who, for various reasons, do not fit neatly into the mold of upper class English life in the 1720s. Monty is the narrator here (I’m excited to learn there’s a coming sequel in which Felicity, who is a great character, is the focus). While he has all the traditional marks of the dissolute young man of his era (drinking, gambling, whoring, inciting parental disapproval) his real crime, the one that makes his father threaten to disinherit him, is that he is, in modern terms, bisexual — the inappropriate people with whom he’s caught in bed are just as likely to be male as female, and that simply will not do.
(There’s a possible diversion I could get into here about historical views of same-sex relationships, which I think could have been explored with a bit more nuance than is done in this novel, but I realize this is a YA novel where the focus is on adventure and I understand that some of the complex social history has to be skimmed over a bit. I tried not to get too caught up in the absence of some of the nuances I wondered about — like about what types of same-sex activity were considered acceptable, though secretive, in all-male environments like boys’ schools, as opposed to what was considered shameful and forbidden).
The trio’s Grand Tour quickly goes off the rails when an object Monty casually (and spitefully) picks up turns out to be tremendously valuable. This thoughtless theft leads to an encounter with highwaymen, which ends up with Monty, Percy and Felicity on the run. The twists and turns of their adventures include alchemy, piracy, and maybe even a little necromancy. It’s a fast-paced adventure that also touches on some serious topics — mainly, the question of how people in the past who didn’t fit neatly into society’s social, sexual, racial and gender categories managed to survive, and maybe even carve out spaces in which to thrive. I’m looking forward to the next book in this series.
My prejudices are pretty well-known. I love historical fiction; there’s almost no era or part of the world I don’t enjoy reading a book about. And I have a huge, largely unexamined, bias in favour of historical fiction by women, because whether women are writing about famous women from the past (such as Margaret George’s The Memoirs of Cleopatra) or about famous men (George’s The Autobiography of Henry the Eighth), or whether women writers are creating fictional characters, male or female, to live their lives alongside the well-known events and famous people (Dorothy Dunnett’s Lymond Chronicles; Susan Jane Gilman’s The Ice Cream Queen of Orchard Street), I just enjoy the perspective that my favourite women writers bring to stories. So while I wouldn’t avoid picking up a historical novel just because it had a male author, it might take one awhile to break through to my awareness.
Robert Harris’s trilogy about the Roman senator, orator and writer Cicero broke through for me in a very particular way. On a recent trip to London we stayed in an Airbnb flat that was located a block away from the theatre where the two-part play Imperium was playing, based upon these novels. (If you buy tickets to Imperium, you’ll buy them as tickets to two different plays, which can stand alone but work better together and can be seen, as we saw them, on two successive nights; however the Wikipedia page tells me that they were actually conceived of as six short plays, three in Part One and three in Part Two, and given the pacing and the timing of the intermissions, I can see that, but I only understood it retroactively). After walking past the theatre’s display boards several times a day while choosing what (available and affordable) plays we were going to see in London, Jason and I both decided we should see “that ancient Roman one” and we thoroughly enjoyed both parts of Imperium, with an excellent cast.
So this was the rare case of seeing the stage adaptation before reading the book, but in this case I’m glad I did it this way, because I was able to picture the actors in their roles, especially Tiro, Cicero’s slave secretary who narrates the novels. Tiro was a real person — a slave later freed by Cicero, who was known for his ability to take notes of meetings and speeches quickly and accurately. He developed the forerunner of the modern shorthand system (he invented the ampersand!), and he did write a biography of his famous master, though the text has been lost to history. In the play, Joseph Kloska makes such an engaging, warm and wonderful Tiro that he is the perfect voice to draw a modern audience into the complex and violent world of the Roman Republic, and I was able to picture Kloska’s Tiro throughout the books, narrating the story for me. I highly recommend both the trilogy and, if you ever get a chance to see them, the plays.