October 15, 2010



Selene of Alexandria by Faith L. Justice    ★★★★★

Blood pounded in Selene’s ears, beating to the rhythm of her bare feet thudding on the hard beach scrabble. Her breath came easy as she crested a low ridge and took a moment to glance back. Through the deep shadows of the early dawn, she saw her older brother Nicaeus and his best friend Antonius struggle out of a shrubby wash at the bottom of the ridge. She threw her head back and shrieked a triumphant ululation. Arms wide, she hurled herself down the slope with wild abandon.

I confess: after reading the first chapter of Faith L. Justice’s debut novel Selene of Alexandria, I was dubious. Here was the story of a young, well-to-do Christian girl in fifth century Alexandria, determined to become a physician despite the restrictions of her class and gender. To get her way, she plans to disguise herself as a boy, come to a lecture by the famous Hypatia, and persuade the Lady Philosopher to support her dream. Here we go, I thought. I’m about to watch a boring invincible heroine take on Big Bad Society and come out on top.

Boy, was I wrong.

There is nothing boring about any of Justice’s characters. Selene struggles believably with a girl’s dreams and a young woman’s fears in a city torn apart by disease and political intrigue. She is admirable without being invincible; her decisions have consequences, from the dismissal of her favorite maid to embroilment in a lethal street fight between Christians and Jews. Hypatia, far from the bloodless young martyr of nineteenth century paintings, is a mature woman whose affection for Selene and passion for the fate of her city make her profoundly likable. Justice gives even the villain, the new Patriarch of Alexandria, believable motivations and a drop of the reader’s sympathy.

Justice clearly did her research. Fascinating historical details shine from every page without overwhelming the central narrative. One of my favorite anecdotes appears on page 86:

”Magnificent, isn’t it? It’s the symbol of our city. It’s nearly as tall as the Great Pyramid.” Hypatia shaded her eyes from the sun glare as she looked up. “An amusing story tells that the king who commissioned the lighthouse wanted only his name on the monument. The architect craftily inscribed his own name in stone and covered it with plaster on which the imperial inscription appeared.”

“Clever man.” Orestes laughed. “Over the years, I assume the plaster peeled leaving the architect’s name?”

“Of course! Would you like to see the inscription? We can climb to the top. The lighthouse affords a wonderful view.”

As can be seen from the excerpt, there are a few tiny typos throughout the book—mostly missing commas, a case of “accept” for “except”—that a copyeditor might have caught, but they hardly mar Justice’s smooth, lucid prose. Selene of Alexandria has received high praise from a number of reviewers and deserves every word of it. This book is outstanding, not just for a first novel, but for any novel. Once you’ve read it, I’m sure you’ll join me in waiting impatiently to read Justice’s next project!

Selene of Alexandria by Faith L. Justice. Published by Booklocker.com. Purchase at Barnes & Noble, Amazon.com, Booklocker.com, or a bookstore near you.

Thank you to the author for generously providing a review copy.


Napoleon Concerto: A Novel in Three Movements by Mark Mellon     ★★★★☆

Dense mist envelops the shore. The sea heaves beyond, barely discernible, a gray, turbulent bulk fringed by dirty white curling surf…Napoleon rides again, ready to risk another throw of the dice in an endless quest for glory.

In this exciting work of alternate history, inventor Robert Fulton joins forces with Irish naval hero Wolfe O’Sheridane to offer Napoleon an invincible French navy, capable of taking on the British juggernaut. Mellon divides the novel into three movements. The Allegro follows the machinations of Fulton and O’Sheridane as they seek support from patrons that include the Empress Josphine; we encounter a number of colorful historical figures, such as Fouche and Talleyrand, and some of Mellon’s own creations, such as the lovely countess Ghislaine. This opening section bursts with political intrigue and a well-paced action sequences, setting up the “What if…?” question that the rest of the novel answers.

I don’t want to spoil the plot by summarizing the second and third movements, Adagio Un Poco Mosso and Rondo: Allegro, but I will say that Mellon follows his premise to a logical conclusion that nevertheless feels fresh and unexpected. As with Faith L. Justice’s Selene of Alexandria, history provides a rich background without taking over the story—obviously, this becomes more true as the novel progresses, leaving our world’s time line farther and farther behind. O’Sheridane, Napoleon, and the rest are hardly the kind of characters you could expect to encounter in real life, but Mellon takes care to show that there are honorable and dishonorable people on both sides of the conflict, and even the great Napoleon is not without his flaws.

I’m a little disappointed that so many of the individual characters’ fates are left unexplained at the end of the novel. I also found Mellon’s prose a little rough in parts, perhaps the effect of trying to adopt a nineteenth century writing style, though there is something theatrically entertaining about the dialogue:

”Oh, la, M’sieu Robert, if I may so call you, such an exalted personage would feel out of place at my humble salon. Yet, you may find some of my guests amusing enough, perhaps?”

“I entertain no doubt all will prove uniformly delightful.”

And so they did for Fulton learned long ago social climbers had no choice where they trod as long as it was ever upward. New faces passed, officers with red sashes, high collars stiff with gold braid, some old but still vigorous, many savagely scarred by battle. Men of business, science, and the arts shuffled past, contrastingly dull in subdued civilian clothes, despite the occasional flash of an embroidered waistcoat. The gentlemen’s wives, simpering coquettes, and dour matrons, preened in fine gowns and glittering diamonds.

I highly recommend this book for fans of “hard” alternate history that really looks at how things could have been, and what would happen next.

Napoleon Concerto: A Novel in Three Movements by Mark Mellon. Published by WhoooDoo Mysteries, a division of Treble Heart Books. Purchase from the publisher, Amazon.com, or a bookstore near you.

Thank you to the author for generously providing a review copy.