Review: The Silence of the Girls

The Silence of the Girls
By Pat Barker
Published September 11, 2018 by Doubleday

The Silence of the Girls is a retelling of the final days of the Trojan War through the eyes of Briseis, a former queen made a slave by the Greeks. A common phrase used by the male characters in the book is “Silence becomes a woman.” In this book, Pat Barker gives a voice to women silenced by history and legend.

The Trojan War may be the stuff of legends, but make no mistake, this is not a glorious, Silence of the Girlsheroic war. It’s a stupid, pointless conflict that drags on for 9 years. The in-fighting and chest thumping among the Greeks is ridiculous, and it’s amazing they won the war.

At the beginning of the book, Briseis, Queen of Lyrnessus, watches as her city falls to the Greeks. Achilles, the greatest of the Greek warriors, kills her husband and brothers. The city is taken, the men are all killed, and the women are taken as slaves to the Greek camp, a smelly, rat-infested place that’s overflowing with testosterone. And for the women who have been brought there, it’s a rape camp.

Briseis is young, beautiful, and a queen, so she is a great prize and is thus awarded to Achilles. As masters go, Achilles is not the worst, since he’s not deliberately cruel, but he’s not particularly kind and seems mostly disinterested. His best friend (and perhaps former lover) Patroclus is very kind to Briseis, and they become friends of a sort (although it’s obviously an unequal relationship). But then Agamemnon, the leader of the Greek forces, who is jealous of Achilles, demands Briseis for himself.

“None of that gives him the right to take another man’s prize of honor. It doesn’t belong to him; he hasn’t earned it.”

There was a lot more, but I’d stopped listening. Honour, courage, loyalty, reputation–all those big words being bandied about–but for me there was only one word, one very small word: it. It doesn’t belong to him, he hasn’t earnt it.

The reality of being nothing but a prize is harsh and Briseis has to find a way to come to terms with it and to survive. At the beginning of the book, as they watch the Greeks overrun their city, Briseis’ cousin throws herself off a roof rather than be taken, and Briseis chooses to stay alive. As a high-status prize, she at least has a roof over her head in the camp, but she wonders what happens when her master tires of her. There are older women in the camp who belong to no one. They work all day and at night, they huddle under tents, looking for a place to sleep. Briseis dreads this possible future. It’s a grim life in the camp, even with the best of masters.

There are a few chapters told from Achilles’ point of view. The narrative is very different in these chapters; Achilles is a more slippery character, harder to pin down. He’s neither hero not villain in this retelling. His grief over the loss of Patroclus is very effectively done, both through his narrative and that of Briseis.

The relationship between Briseis and Achilles is thankfully not romanticized in the book. Some of the slaves love their masters, but most of them are just trying to survive. This book is brutal and beautiful, and there are parts of it that are very hard to read. Barker writes entirely in modern language; there’s no attempt to make the language sound period appropriate. I like this choice, as it keeps the reader from thinking of this story as some sort of remote occurrence, rather than what it is, the sort of war brutality that we see repeated over and over throughout history and the present day. It’s a tough read at times, but it’s amazing book and I highly recommend it.

I received an ARC from Amazon Vine.

 

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Review: The Dark Descent of Elizabeth Frankenstein

The Dark Descent of Elizabeth Frankenstein
By Kiersten White
Published September 25, 2018 by Delacorte Press

In an effort to read more classics this year, I finally tackled Frankenstein, a book I’d been meaning to read for years. I loved it, but I found Victor Frankenstein to be a very frustrating character and I thought a lot about whether the reliability of his narrative. This was the perfect time for me to read The Dark Descent of Elizabeth Frankenstein, which is a reimagining of Mary Shelley’s classic tale from the point of view of Elizabeth, Victor’s foster sister and eventual wife.

Elizabeth FrankensteinShelley’s Elizabeth is a minor character, mostly existing in letters to Victor reminding him of family and the comforts of home. She is patient and devoted and eventually a victim. Kiersten White’s Elizabeth is a very different character. While she plays the devoted daughter/sister, she has her own needs and ambitions and she will do whatever it takes to achieve them.

Her mother dead and her father in prison, she lives with a guardian who neglects and abuses her until the Frankenstein family take her in as a companion for their son Victor. This isn’t as altruistic as it seems. The Frankenstein parents are terrified of their son, who at seven is already a budding sociopath. Elizabeth is just five, but now that she’s living in luxury, she is determined not to be sent back to her abusive guardian and she quickly learns to be everything that Victor needs.

It’s so interesting to read this well-known story from another point of view. When I was reading Frankenstein, I thought Victor was kind of the worst, and this book definitely takes that view. It brings the female characters to the forefront. We get to know Justine (who appears only briefly in the book) as a full-fledged person and not just a tragic victim. Elizabeth truly comes alive, and it’s clear that there’s much more to her than just being Victor’s love interest. There’s even a new female character, Mary Delgado, a woman trying to exist in a male-dominated world.

Elizabeth is such a great character. She presents a placid, sweet exterior to the world, but inside, there’s much more going on. She makes herself into the perfect companion for Victor, the only person who can keep him calm. She is the perfect adopted daughter, always dutiful and helpful. But she is also a deeply intelligent and independent young woman, who is desperate to stay with the family who has taken her in. She cares for Victor, but she also knows that her role as his companion is the only thing keeping her place in the family, which leads her into danger as she tries to save Victor from himself.

The Dark Descent of Elizabeth Frankenstein is a fascinating look at a famous story, and it’s an interesting exploration of how a story can change depending on who’s doing the telling. It’s not necessary to have read Frankenstein before reading this book, but I think it adds to the experience. This is one of my favorite books of 2018, and I highly recommend it.

I received an ARC from Amazon Vine.

 

Review: Rule

Rule
By Ellen Goodlett
Published September 11, 2018 by Little, Brown Books for Young Readers

Rule is a terrific young adult fantasy novel.

It’s the story of three young woman who are called to appear before the King of Kolonya. Each of the young women has a terrible secret, and each assumes that the summons means that her secret is out and she’s about to face punishment. All three are astonished rulewhen they come before the king and are told that they are his illegitimate daughters and that he’s going to choose one of them to success him since his legitimate son was recently killed.

The three daughters are very different. Zofi is a traveler, a member of a nomadic band that is looked down upon by most of the other people of the kingdom. She loves her life on the road and finds her new existence in the palace torturous. Ren grew up at court as a ladies’ maid, and she understands how this insular society works. Akeylah grew up in an outer province of the empire in an abusive household, so although she’s not exactly sure she’s queen material, she’s relieved to have escaped her previous life.

Characters with secrets are pretty typical in YA fantasy, but often, the secrets turn out to be underwhelming. We learn the sisters’ secrets early in the book, and they are all whoppers that would mean execution if they were discovered. So, when they begin to receive anonymous threatening messages indicating that someone knows their secrets, they all freak out.

The three main characters all have distinctive voices, and although the narration switches in each chapter, I never had any difficulty telling them apart; they’re all very different characters. I found each of them appealing in their own way. There’s a natural rivalry among the sisters at first, because only one can be chosen as heir, even if two of them aren’t particularly interested in the job, and they all initially assume that the mysterious blackmailer is one of the three of them. But as the threats escalate, the three begin to work together. I loved watching them get to know each other, and figuring out their various strengths. Zofi is a fighter, Ren understands court machinations, and Akeylah is the researcher who can find anything in books.

I really liked the magical system in this book. People use blood magic, a system of tithing that gives them boosts in speed, agility, and other abilities. Zofi’s people, unbeknownst to everyone else, have figured out a way to harness the blood magic to their advantage. And there’s a more sinister form of blood magic, the forbidden Vulgar Arts, which involves tithing against someone else’s blood and can be used to curse someone.

The book also has some decent diversity. Most of the characters are described as having darker skin, and one of the sisters is queer. There’s not a ton of romance, but the most prominent is between two women.

I highly recommend this book, and I will be anxiously awaiting the sequel (there’s a big cliffhanger, and I can’t believe I have to wait over a year to find out what happens).

I received an ARC from Amazon Vine.

Review: Not Even Bones

Not Even Bones
By Rebecca Schaeffer
Published September 4, 2018 by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt

Nita sometimes worried–well, not worried precisely, because it didn’t actually bother her, but thought about in a concerned way–that she was a bit of a sociopath. She was socially inept, she hated people, and the only thing that made her feel calm and peaceful was cutting up dead bodies. There was normal, there was abnormal, and then there was Nita.

Warning: Not Even Bones is not for the faint of heart.

In a world where supernatural creatures are real and out in the open, there’s a thriving black market for supernatural body parts. Nita’s mother hunts and kills supernaturals, and Nita dissects them so the parts can be sold. She tells herself that it’s ok. She’s not doing the killing, and they’re mostly bad creatures who hurt people. Then one day, her mother brings home a live boy and orders Nita to start removing pieces. From a live boy. Nita has her limits, and this is it. She lets the boy go, and then she ends up in a cage herself. Her only chance for escape is to test the limits of how monstrous she can become.

Not Even BonesNot Even Bones is really good and completely unexpected. It’s definitely a bit gorier than most YA books, what with all the body parts being chopped up, but if you can handle some blood, I highly recommend it.

Nita is a fascinating character. She is actually a supernatural herself, as is her mother (they’re an unnamed and unusual sort of creature who can heal themselves), but she’s ok with carving up other creatures. Her upbringing has been very odd. Her mother pulled her out of school years earlier, and although her parents are still married, she’s usually on the road with her mother and rarely sees her father. Her mother is a straight-up sociopath, and Nita both loves and fears her. (When Nita was younger and refused to cut up some fluffy harmless creatures, her mother killed them anyway and left the bodies in Nita’s bed. Not exactly Mother of the Year.)

This book delves into what what makes a monster. Are you destined to be a monster if you’re a supernatural? Does what Nita is forced to do to survive make her a monster? Nita makes an uneasy alliance with a zannie, a creature that feeds off the pain of others. The zannie Kovit has definite lines he won’t cross, but his very nature forces him to eat people’s pain. Nita starts out with lines she won’t cross, but they get blurred quickly. She’s in a cage, with people threatening to chop her up piece by piece, and self-preservation is key.

Not Even Bones has some good diversity. Nita is Latinx, and Kovit is Thai. The book takes place entirely in South America. (The author lived in Peru, where the book is initially set.) It also has no romance, which is a little unusual (and very welcome) for YA (although the stage is set for a potential romance down the line). This is the start of a trilogy, and the book ends on not quite a cliffhanger, but a definite “whaaattt?” moment. I’ll be anxiously awaiting the next book.

I received an ARC from Amazon Vine.

 

Review: Sadie

Sadie
By Courtney Summers
Published September 4, 2018 by Wednesday Books

Sadie is a nasty little gutpunch of a book. Part true-crime podcast, part revenge narrative, this book is compulsively readable.

Reporter West McCray is on the trail of Sadie Hunter, a missing girl. A few months Sadieearlier, Sadie’s 13-year-old sister, Mattie, was murdered. Now Sadie herself is gone, apparently of her own volition. The reporter isn’t sure about the story at first, thinking it’s just another missing girl, but he quickly finds himself sucked in.

Sadie Hunter has had a rough life. Born to a teenaged single mother, she never knew her father. She grew up in a trailer, and her mother is disinterested and neglectful. Sadie has a bad stutter, something that probably could have been ameliorated with help, but her mother just didn’t bother. Sadie’s entire life has been based around taking care of her younger sister, and when her sister is murdered, Sadie is left rudderless. But she finds a new purpose: searching for the man she believes killed her sister.

The narrative switches between Sadie’s first person narrative, and transcripts of the podcast. I think the switch between narrative styles works really well, both in terms of revealing clues to the mystery, but also to give the reader a break from the intensity of Sadie’s narrative. The transcripts are by their very nature a more detached narrative, but then all of a sudden, there will be a revelation that makes you sit up and take notice. It’s a really clever format.

This book is brutal. Because of her stutter, people tend to underestimate Sadie, but as she says:

“I’m the result of baby bottles filled with mountain dew. I have a system that doesn’t quite know how to process the finer things in life. My body is sharp enough to cut glass and in desperate need of rounding out, but sometimes I don’t mind. A body might not always be beautiful, but a body can be a beautiful deception. I’m stronger than I look.”

Sadie’s narrative is hard to read at times. She’s so single-minded, but danger lurks at every turn and it’s sort of like watching a horror movie, where you want to scream, “No, don’t go in there.” Her journey takes her to a lot of ugly places, and she meets some awful people. There’s a sense of inevitability about her quest, and even with all the dread I was feeling, I couldn’t put the book down.

West McCray is ambivalent about the story at first. As awful as it is to say, girls go missing all the time and he doesn’t think the story is that interesting. But May Beth, Sadie and Mattie’s surrogate grandmother, won’t let things go and her determination makes him decide there’s something more to the story. As he investigates Sadie’s disappearance, he finds himself emotionally involved in the mystery.

This book was so gripping, and I can’t recommend it enough. Courtney Summer has a long backlist, and I’ll be checking her earlier books.

TW: child molestation