ricardienne: (christine)
At a library book sale, I came across Sarah Emily Holt's Lady Sybil's Choice, and the frontispiece plus first paragraph caught my attention:
Alix says I am a simpleton. I don't think it is very pleasant. Sometimes she says I am a perfect simpleton: and I cannot say that I like that any better. Nor do I think that it is very civil in one's sister to put her opinion on record in this certainly perspicuous, but not at all complimentary manner.
Excellent! I thought. It sounds like a 19th century version of Catherine Called Birdy! The narrator, Elaine, is the youngest daughter (age 14 at the beginning) of the Count of Poitou during the Second Crusade; the novel takes her from her home in France to the Holy Land as she goes to accompany her elder brother, the knight Guy, to the court of the Kingdom of Jerusalem.
Here There Be Lots and Lots of Christianity, but also some other interesting things )
ricardienne: (tacitus)
Book Review: Song of the Nile by Stephanie Dray. This is the sequel to Lily of the Nile, and takes Cleopatra's daughter, Cleopatra Selene, from young adulthood through her marriage to Juba, the client king of Numidia and the early years of her reign, as she negotiates with Augustus and tries to regain her ancestral throne in Egypt.

I am arguably one of the worst people for this book, because I care very deeply about a completely different, slightly overlapping set of trivia about this period and place. It is very hard for me not to judge this book on its depiction of Vergil, for example, (that sound you hear? The gnashing of my teeth). But I shall try to put that out of my mind, discussing instead things that are of general interest. (But before I do that, one more tiny nitpick: Dray has her characters call Parthians "the Parths" as, apparently, an ethnic slur. And this just doesn't work for me at all, because the Parthians are properly Parthi, that is, you can't shorten the name any further because it's already a monosyllabic stem! Even if Romans formed diminutives (whether affectionate or contemptuous) by shortening, which they didn't. Seriously, what's wrong with parthiculi or parthelli? OK, consider that nit picked. Back to our regular programming.)

The audience for this must be YA. But there's some pretty heavy stuff -- (semi-graphic) rape (of a minor), internalized victim-blaming, extremely messed up sexual politicking, the virgin/whore dichotomy, not to mention incest, but that's the healthiest relationship in the book, honestly-- and the complexities aren't morally signposted the way they usually are in YA. Either it's careless and irresponsible, or it demands a high level of critical thought from the reader.

I don't really know what spoilers one should give with historical fiction. On the one hand, yes, the broad outline is fixed. On the other hand, if you don't happen to be up on your history of the last couple decades of the first century BCE, the plot isn't really any more fixed for you than the plot of Hamlet or Oedipus the King is fixed for someone who isn't familiar with those stories. And it's no easier to find out whether Selene ever returned to Egypt than it is to find out whether Hamlet ever killed Claudius (and the former is a much more obscure piece of trivia than the latter!).

Here there be spoilers, if you think such things can exist here )
ricardienne: (christine)
So. This past weekend I obsessed about a couple of small points of grammar, but today I cornered Professor D. and geeked out at her about obscure syntax issues and Rules and text-editing, and now I think I have some of it out of my system. The other half won't be gone until after my presentation on Wednesday, though. The other thing that dominated my life this weekend also converged into a Thing, because I read Death Comes to Pemberley, a couple of the Victorian-Steampunk short stories in the Kelley Link and Gavin J. Grant Steampunk! anthology, and watched the finale of Downton Abbey. The result may have been that when I dragged myself away from JSTOR around 12:30 and fitfully fell asleep, I had dreams about the Dowager Countess and the pluperfect subjunctive.

I shall cut as soon as there are spoilers -- no worries. But first I would like to draw your attention to this article from the NY Review of Books (spoiler alert), which is, naturally, doing it's "critical takedown of overrated pseudo-intellectual television programming" thing. I think it's incredibly entertaining that so serious a publication as the NYRB has an essay whose first third is basically a shipping manifesto/plea for Lord Grantham/Bates* I always like to say that I learned how to do close reading by discovering the Harry Potter fandom in high school (back when…only 4 books had come out) and that fandom is basically an exercise in criticism of a sort; here the lines are definitely getting blurred!

I will say one thing about P.D. James's P&P sequel-cum-murder mystery: it was successful as a mystery: combining interesting period procedural details with red herrings and a not-too-obvious denoument. But I was expecting more Lizzie and Darcy tease each other and solve mysteries, and in that, I was disappointed…in this respect it is very like Downton: a noble, proud, and distant gentry obsessively caring for their dignity and their estates. Elizabeth and Darcy barely had any page-time together (she being busy bring jellies to the tenants and dealing with the housekeeper, while he was off doing the sorts of things that a magistrate of the county has to do when his estranged brother-in-law is found over a dead body on his estate.) I mean, Jane Austen characters are always more than paragons of social virtue! The best character by far was the eccentric and crochety fellow-magistrate Sir Selwyn Hardcastle, who got all the best one-liners and occasionally even provoked Darcy into being a little bit sardonic (obviously, Elizabeth was given no opportunity to indulge in such things.) [Also: aren't the Selwyns an old Harry Potter family? I'm just saying that Sir Selwyin's being a wizard would explain a lot.] I would say that it was a bit of a dystopian, Haha, You Thought It Would Be Happily Ever After Did You?, ironic sequel, but it wasn't. James obviously felt a great deal of affection and respect for Austen's characters. Too much respect. Spoilers for Downton Abbey S2 and Death Comes to Pemberley start here )

Also: these paper dolls are pretty amazing.
ricardienne: (tacitus)
So as you know, I have a thing about finding novels, the trashier the better, about Tacitus, because there really aren't that many.* And I have just found another one, a German (self-published?) YA time-travel fantasy.

As far as I can tell, it's about a young boy named Steve who, while his family is on vacation in Ephesus, gets thrown back in time to Domitian's reign, where he gets embroiled in some sort of prophecy about a mysterious child who will show the emperor how to become a god...

Anyway, "der junge Senator Tacitus" seems to be skulking around the corners quite a bit, although in at least one point he's ranting about how evil Domitian is for persecuting Christians (which makes no sense); I've been looking at the preview on Amazon, and I can't quite tell whether Domitian is affably evil and Steve is deceived about his new friend/patron's intentions, or whether Domitian is Misunderstood By The Senatorial Establishment and Tacitus is the Villain.
Hilarity Ensures )
ricardienne: (tacitus)
This book looks terrible but awesomely so: British chieftain's son in exile/captivity in Rome hangs out with Tacitus and Titus and has adventures? Sign me up! Only it appears to be self-published and basically non-existent. Too bad.
ricardienne: (library)
My last load of library books included some really terrible ones. I'm not going to write about the sequel to this historical murder mystery because I have only gotten three chapters in, and I cannot read it rationally. At all. All I can think is: "WHAT GOOD DOES IT DO TO MAKE TACITUS A WILD-EYED EMPEROR-HATING IRRATIONAL INDIVIDUAL? ALSO: HAVE YOU READ ANY OF THE WORKS OF THESE PEOPLE AT ALL RECENTLY? YOU'RE DOING IT WRONG!" (also: Tacitus unable to read critically? Tacitus?)

But I digress, because what I wanted to post was that I just finished Sarah McLean's The Season (ya, romance, regency), and it was terrible in an entirely different way. Or maybe in not such an entirely different way. I am not particularly a reader of romance, so I probably have an inherent bias against this kind of novel. Nevertheless. The characters were boring, the romance was contrived (by which I mean that it was contrived that they didn't just get together on page 1), and the "mystery" was not mysterious at all. So much not so that I don't feel any spoilery compunctions about complaining about the cliché of the Evil Uncle Who is Jealous That His Older Brother Got the Dukedom. Wouldn't it be nice if the younger brother were bitter and jealous and cranky but, in a twist, not evil and murderous? Or, if he were evil and murderous, but not because he was (*wah*) not loved as much as his brother?

And yet, that isn't even what I wanted to write about, because I ended up reading with my OED in hand, so to speak.

My first foray into worrying about words was while reading a series of mysteries set during the Wars of the Roses. One character described another as a "Puritan," and I thought, "Wait a minute. Does that even work?"(It doesn't.)

The line is hard to draw. In most historical fiction set more than a few hundred years back in an English-speaking place, there is an assumption that the characters are not really speaking the words that I am reading (or at least I read with that implicit understanding, and I hope the authors wrote with it!). In most fantasy, you assume that the characters are *actually* speaking some entirely different language; much futuristic sci-fi dialogue has to be *really* in, at the very least, some futuristic dialect of my language (and, obviously, they aren't really speaking English in Star Wars.)

So in one way, picking at anachronisms is crazy -- there may be an occasional historical novelist who can pull off "authentic" speech, but would a novel in the various dialects of 13th century England be readable by most people? A Lindsay Davis mystery in the painstakingly-reconstructed Hellenic-inflected vulgar Latin of the 1st century? So I try not to worry about it, just as I try not to get too antsy when one character in a heroic fantasy describes another as "Stoic" (really? Can you have Stoics without Seneca? Without Marcus Aurelius or Epictetus?)

But on the other hand, words do matter and do provide context. To a certain extent -- no, to a large extent what we read in dialogue is what we imagine the characters are saying. And so the intersection between our sense of words and their histories and their usage in a supposedly "historical" or "fantasy" novel does matter. I did an OH NO YOU DIDN'T double take and then giggled a lot when Tamora Pierce introduced "spintry" as lower-class slang for a male prostitute in her Provost's Dog novels. Because this is an exceedingly erudite word in the history of English: it has a few 17th and 18th century attestations, where it was clearly pulled straight from Tacitus and Suetonius (there might be a ref. in Juvenal and/or a later grammarian, too) as a highfalutin' literary term (it's not that relevant that we now think that the Latin word (spintria) probably referred not to a male prostitute or brothel but to (a female) one who specialized in exhibitionist group sex, but that's an interesting bit of information, so I'm including it anyway). Now obviously, none of this makes the word inappropriate for appropriation into Pierce's fantasy world. It's still funny, though.

The anachronism usually works the other direction, however. There were two really egregious slang usages in Sarah McLean's novel: "impact" as a conjugated transitive verb in a metaphorical sense. The OED doesn't give the verb "to impact" with any other examples than as a passive participle. We know that it is used differently now, but there are enough complaints from prescriptivists about it that surely someone would have flagged it! The other was "obscenely" in the hyperbolic meaning of "very." Obscene doesn't seem to have been used to mean anything other than, well, "obscene," until after the last print edition of the OED (obviously, print sources lag spoken usage, but I still really question a young noblewoman c. 1815 using it like this and it not sticking out).

Eponyms are obviously problematic, as are words taken from movements or particular historical events. (How would you describe Raglan sleeves in fantasyland? Could you describe some as a "Martinet" before Martinet?) But what about vaguer things? I got quite hung up when the main character of McLean's novel joked to her girlfriend that "they say women are more evolved than men." This seems to me like a very post-Darwininan kind of statement. On the other hand, evolution as a scientific term (having to do with developing and unfolding) was around from the 17th century, and there was probably some drift into metaphorical usage. I can see a conceivable meaning of "women are more cultivated than men," but I think that I'm bending over backwards for a sloppy author in doing so.

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