ricardienne: (tacitus)
So I started Pierce Brown'a Red Rising -- basically, it's as if Brown read the Hunger Games and thought, "you know what this needs? More gritty manly realism and more angsty chosen-one manpain. Let me take care of that." Our hero is a young, hardworking everyman "Red" (ie low-caste) in a hardscrabble mining colony in District 12 on Mars in a future that uses classical names for everything; when his beloved wife is executed for a simple act of defiance, he falls in with The Rebellion and learns that Everything The Government Tells Us Is a Lie: Mars has been terraformed for centuries, and while his people labor in slavery beneath the surface, the ruling elites of the Capitol the Gold caste lead lives of absurd excess.

Where I am right now, our hero is undergoing a process of having his body remade into that of a Gold so that he can infiltrate the Hunger Games the academy where the sons and daughters of the elite fight it out in brutal game of survival of the fittest in order to determine who dies and who goes on the be the next generation of Ruthlessly Evil Overlords of Mars. Okay, yes, it's terrible, and I am really annoyed that the whole plot is motivated by manpain over the Death Of My Beloved, My Angel, The Gentle Light of My Life Whose Beauty and Inner Strength Made Life Worth Living. But (a) the writing isn't awful and (b) I have an obligation to read all the terrible faux-Rome sff.

Anyway, there was this paragraph:
“My body is not all that changes. Before I sleep, I drink a tonic laden with processing enhancers and speed-listen to The Colors, The Iliad, Ulysses, Metamorphosis, the Theban plays, The Draconic Labels, Anabasis, and restricted works like The Count of Monte Cristo, Lord of the Flies, Lady Casterly’s Penance, 1984, and The Great Gatsby. I wake knowing three thousand years of literature and legal code and history.” (ch. 12)


So...a mix of "classics" and made-up "future classics", but I don't get the narrative that they are trying to tell -- apart from the fact that, uh, I guess the only books that survived into the future were the contents of an American high school English classroom? This kind of passage seems like a great place to briefly tell a narrative what this future-evil-privileged society values and fears. Apart from the fact that I don't trust the author enough to be sure that when he says "Ulysses" he means James Joyce and not the Odyssey (ditto for Metamorphosis: Kafka's Die Verwandlung or Ovid's Metamorphoses?), I don't really get what this set of texts is supposed to do: the Iliad and Anabasis makes a certain kind of sense as classics for a military elite; I suspect that (the?) Metamorphoses(?) is a nod to the transformations that the elite of this society undergo to become superhuman (but...I'm pretty sure that either Ovid's or Kafka's would be on the "restricted" list as far as messages about metamorphosis and society and the fate of the human when s/he is forcibly transformed by (unjust) power structures. Ditto Sophocles. For fuck's sake. Have any of these people read the Antigone?). The Odyssey is probably there because this is all about our hero's love for his wife.

However, I think that overall, these are pretty terrible lists to represent a ruthless, power-hungry, corrupt class of Rome-emulating rulers. Where the fuck is Thucydides? Where's Machiavelli? Where's Ayn Rand? HOW CAN YOU HAVE REALPOLITIK WITHOUT THUCYDIDES? (and where's Tacitus? How can you have imperial Rome without Tacitus. YOU CAN'T.) Where's Lucan? I bet this society would love Lucan. And, of course, let's not even ask why this is completely euro-centric reading list.

I also think that one could be cleverer with the whole "restricted reading" list, although it hangs together a bit (themes of dystopia, Hobbesian excess, and revenge). I mean, 1984, Lord of the Flies...can you be more cliched? Put some real protest writing or anti-injustice writing on there. Make a more explicit allusion to your antecedent of the Hunger Games (wouldn't that be clever?) Or put the Aeneid (!!!!!). When I write a trashy ya dystopia novel about a futuristic oligarchy that models itself on Rome, remind me to throw in an aside about how the Aeneid is a deeply subversive and restricted text because of Vergil's problematization of empire and ambivalence about power. We'll call it The Revenge of the Harvard School.
ricardienne: (christine)
It seems that the publishing industry is trying to make Cleopatra Selene into the new 'Tudors' -- this is the third recent historical fiction treatment. I haven't read Michelle Moran's Cleopatra's Daughter, but I have read the first two books in Stephanie Dray's trilogy, and now, Vicky Shecter's Cleopatra's Moon.

The tropes seem to be pretty constant: Cleopatra's family is extremely (and un-historically) Egyptianized, Selene is a devotee of Isis (Isis rigorously part of the Egyptian pantheon, usually) and a complete, patriotic partisan, Octavian/Augustus is the evilest person who ever eviled, Greco-Egyptians are cultured, intellectual, open-minded and gentle while Romans are brutal, patriarchal, and uncivilized.

Shecter, like Dray, seems to be hampered by history, which puts an awkward necessity (there will be spoilers coming up) on the way that their narratives go. Spoilers for History )

In conclusion: You could write so many awesome YA novels set in this general period. Livia in the late 40's and 30's: 16 years old and newly married, watching her male relatives get killed, fleeing around the Mediterranean and doing everything she can to protect who's left. "Turia", also newly married and having to play party politics and work really hard in a man's world to keep her family hidden and get amnesty for them. On a lighter note, Sulpicia and the Tibullan circle hanging out, writing love poetry, and maybe getting involved with Gallus and that whole debacle. Heck, someone should take Julia seriously, and not just dismiss her has the frivolous, immoral daughter of Augustus with a million affairs (it's frustrating that these Cleopatra Selene novels, in trying to rehabilitate one or two ancient women, just reapply and intensify the stereotypes to all of the other (in)famous women of the period) -- recall that all of the men she was rumored to have been involved with were *also* all of the remaining descendants of the oldest senatorial families. Julia the dedicated republican idealist, anyone? To move a bit later: what about a novel about teen-aged Agrippina the Younger and her mother? What about Epicharis? What about Berenike? (What about the Arrias and the Fannias? What about Servilia?) The field is wide open, people!
ricardienne: (christine)
I'm reading Vicky Alvear Shechter's CLeopatra's Moon, yet another YA novel about Cleopatra Selene (daughter of THE Cleopatra), because we aren't ever going to get *good* Roman-world YA novels unless people demonstrate that they read even the terrible ones. (No, I am not really deluded into thinking that my library account does anything in this regard.)

It's really bad, though. There was a really awful scene where the main character goes to a synagogue in Alexandria and debates a Rabbi (nb it's clear Shecter has forgotten that Judaism was a sacrifice-religion at this point.) about free will and the role of women in the Edenic fall, and ZOMG totally stumps him wow!1!. And just. You know, if this guy supposedly hangs out with the scholars in the Library of Alexandria, I'm thinking he would be able to explain the philosophical principles of his religion to an 8-year-old.

Of course, Cleopatra's Greek tutor appears not to have read Homer, let alone be aware of, oh I don't know, the philosophical and scholarly work that was the WHOLE POINT OF THE LIBRARY, so maybe it isn't strange that Mr Rabbi has gotten complacent.
"And what does our Greek heritage say?" Euphronius asked us.
"That we cannot outrun our fates," I answered. "Hubris, the great crime against the gods, was thinking that we could. And hubris took down even the best of men, like Achilles and Oedipus." (p. 30)

"Now, Euphronius continued, "how can Achilles' great rage be the fulfillment of the will of Zeus?"
"Because everything that happens, even bad things, must be the will of the gods, otherwise they would not happen," Alexandros said after our tutor called on him.
"Yes."
...
"Euphronius turned to me. "And what happens when humans try to escape their fates?"
"They either end up dead like Achilles or blind like Oedipus," said Euginia.
"Yes. Now let us look a little closer at what we really mean by hubris...," Euphorion continued. (p. 36-7)


I mean, I know that it's probably not fair to expect a YA novel to represent the past at this level of detail, but I will point out that we do actually know a lot about the standard schoolroom exegesis of Homer in antiquity! A correct answer to the first question, as it happens, would be "Because, as the Cypria tells us, the Trojan War was Zeus's plan for ridding the world of surplus population, and the death among the Greeks caused by Achilles' quarrel with Agamemnon served that plan." (I'm not saying that it's a particularly brilliant interpretation, but that's ancient primary school for you!)

But I really object this claim that's she's had them make twice, Achilles' death is somehow caused by his attempt to circumvent fate and that this demonstrates that mortals have no free will (apart from the fact that being punished for attempting to oppose the will of the gods kind of *does* imply free will. But let's ignore that for now). Um, have you read the Iliad, Vicky Shecter? You know that part where Thetis tells Achilles that he has two possible fates: to go home and live a long life in Phthia without glory, or to die young in battle and win kleos aphthiton? I suppose you could make the argument that Patroclus dies as punishment for Achilles' contemplation of the former choice. But ultimately, Achilles very definitely chooses the latter. And he dies in battle, through some fairly dodgy divine machinations, but in no way as the result of having "tried to escape his fate".

And I'm not even going to rant about this bizarre, reductive, and completely wrong definition of hubris. ARGH ARGH ARGH PEOPLE ARE BEING WRONG ABOUT THINGS I KNOW THINGS ABOUT.
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 )

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