October 15, 2011


The Circle Cast

The Circle Cast by Alex Epstein    ★★★★★

It began with a look.

Morgan le Fay remains one of the most fascinating, and the most puzzling, characters in Arthurian legend. She appears as Arthur's sister and sometimes lover, a Queen of Orkney and sorceress of Avalon, sometimes Camelot's enemy yet, at the end of Arthur's life, one of the queens who escorts him to his sleep on the Blessed Isle. In his debut novel, Alex Epstein imagines the "lost years" of this enigmatic woman, after her childhood is violently disrupted by Uter Pendragon's seduction of her mother, Ygraine, and before she reappears as a powerful sorceress at Arthur's court.

To protect her daughter from Uter's jealous violence, Ygraine sends her young daughter Anna, newly renamed Morgan, to live with an Irish ally, Ciarnat of the Deisi. But just as violence broke up Morgan's life at Din Tagell, the tribal wars in fifth-century Ireland make it difficult for her to find a safe place in her exile. Morgan becomes a slave to a witch-woman in a village on a lake, masquerades as a convert in an outcast community of Christians, and finally finds love—and a measure of power—as the wife of an Irish war chief. But all the while, her true desire is to return to Britian, and take revenge on the man who destroyed her childhood.

Woven throughout the daring escapes and fierce battles are Morgan's experiments with magic. Epstein borrows heavily from modern Wiccan tradition to create a magic system where the sorceress's relationship to the land is as important as, if not more important than, her allegiance to a particular god or goddess. As Morgan's beliefs and desires change, so does the strength of her magic, and the spell-casting passages provide a beautiful and mystical look at Morgan's emotional life.

The night before, Morgan had prepared a circle. She did it to calm herself, and to feel the land. When she travelled to new lands, she felt disconnected until she scribed a circle and reached into the land. It would not work for her until it knew her. […]

She let fear into her heart. She let fear and desperation become an empty vessel inside her, drawing strength into her. She thought of her years of slavery, and the destruction of the Deisi, and Gabran and his cruel iron collar. She thought of the storm that had tried to sink her boat before she reached Ireland. She thought of the man with Bretel's face, and the torches in the woods outside of Din Tagell, and how her mother had cried with passion.

Fire rushed into her from nowhere and everywhere. Her breath was the air and her veins were fire, her blood was water and she was part of the earth she was standing on. She was angry, and scared, and she would not let her lover's people lose this battle.

Unlike many recent retellers of Morgan's story, Epstein does not attempt to rationalize or defend his protagonist. Morgan is a strong warrior and sorceress who is nevertheless a deeply damaged person, repeatedly choosing her revenge over a chance at happiness and peace. The ending of the novel brilliantly addresses the question of if and how a life dedicated to revenge can be turned to other purposes, while leaving the gate wide open for a possible sequel.

For fans of Arthurian reimaginings, The Circle Cast is a must read, and even readers who have been disappointed by vague historical settings and authors more interested in defending their characters than developing them will find this novel a welcome departure from the norm. The Circle Cast is a quick read, but one that will stay with you long the closing image .

Please see the interview with Alex Epstein in the current issue of Lacuna, where the author answers questions about research, religion, magic, fifth-century Ireland, and where readers can expect to see more of Morgan!

The Circle Cast by Alex Epstein. Published by Tradewinds Books. Purchase from the publisher, Amazon.com, or a bookstore near you.

Day of Revenge

Day of Revenge by Deanna Proach    ★★☆☆☆

Dusk is rapidly turning into night. Dark shadows loom over every corner of the parlor in the La Font manor. Emmanuel shudders in response to the cold shivers than run up and down his spine. Where is Samuel? He was supposed to return over two hours ago. Is it possible that he met Monsieur La Metz? Or did something terrible happen to him and I do not yet know about it? Emmanuel nervously twists a lock of his thick, wavy hair around his index finger. Nausea grips his stomach. The only sound to be heard is the soft murmur of servants' voices in the kitchen and the bustling of Madame La Font's skirts as she walks to and from the library and drawing room. The noises in the background intensify his anxiety.

Since at least the time of Dickens, there has been an unfortunate tendency in novels of the French Revolution to flatten the complex, dynamic, and philosophically-rooted politics of the era to two sides in a conflict of brute force; on one side, the mob of bloodthirsty revolutionaries, and on the other, the upright and unjustly assaulted aristocrats. Despite the wealth of studies and biographies available to the modern researcher, Deanna Proach's Day of Revenge accepts this two-dimensional Revolution at face value, and the emotional drama of her aristocrat protagonists is never quite enough to overcome the novel's historical inaccuracies and prose faux pas.

Day of Revenge follows a fluctuating cast of aristocrats, centered around Emmanuel d'LeVasque and Samuel La Font, as they seek to lead a Corsican army against "the Robespierre government" that is butchering innocents throughout France. An ex-Jacobin named Henri Varennes leads a smaller, parallel counterrevolutionary conspiracy in Paris. Equally prominent, though not clearly connected to the counterrevolution plot, is the love story of Emile d'Voliere, a young nobleman and friend of Emmanuel, and Elle, a servant who is cruelly abused by her master.

To point out the most egregious historical errors—for example, the novel begins on "25 July 1793" in a France already in the grip of "the Robespierre government," while in actuality, Robespierre wasn't elected to the Committee of Public Safety until July 27 of that year; later, Georges Danton and Camille Desmoulins are mentioned as allies of Robespierre on the Committee, while the real Danton could hardly be conceived of as Robespierre's ally, and Desmoulins was never on the Committee to begin with—is actually somewhat beside the point, since the novel's copyright page contains the following disclaimer:
…In certain cases incidents, characters, names, and timelines have been changed for dramatic purposes. Certain characters may be composites, or entirely fictitious. This story is created for entertainment purposes. Opinions, acts, and statements attributed to any entity, individual, or individuals may have been fabricated or exaggerated for effect. The opinions and fictionalized depictions of individuals, groups and entities, and any statements contained herein, are not to be relied upon in any way.

But, while the author has established her right to rewrite history, I have to wonder why she choose to do it in this particular fashion. Why take a vibrant and intriguing historical period and reduce it to a Revolution=bad, Aristocrats=good simplicity that negates the point of reading about the French Revolution in the first place? In particular, why take as protagonists a group of privileged aristocrats, for whom the most onerous demand is: "Hide your fortune. Bury it, and dress like citizens of the working class. Pretend that you are on the side of the revolutionaries" (p. 26)? After watching the abuse Elle endures from her master, and even from the aristocratic friends of her lover, I for one did not feel a lot of sympathy for Proach's aristocrats, no matter how "tough" it is for them to bury their fortunes.

Admittedly, these are the rather subjective reactions of one particular French Revolution aficionado. If you accept Proach's revolution as one taking place in an imaginary France, completely divorced from the actual French Revolution, you have a reasonably effective suspense novel. Proach makes a good effort to create an atmosphere of paranoia around Samuel and Henri, and her occasionally faltering plot keeps the illusion of motion through her use of present tense. Samuel's 'off-screen' conflict with his brother Maximus, Elle's difficulties with Emile and his family, and Emmanuel's courtship with the Corsican Lisabetta at the end of the novel all contain moments of real emotional drama.

Unfortunately, this drama is often obscured or overshadowed by Proach's flawed prose style. Day of Revenge contains numerous blatant grammar errors, even spelling mistakes. Question marks are dropped, singular verbs are used for plural subjects, you're/your and their/there confusion abounds, "Marquise" is spelled once "Marquais," and "violas" grow in a garden in place of violets. In one particularly gruesome case of preposition confusion, a rug is "handmade from a young Russian woman" (p. 24)! Proach's physical descriptions can go on for pages, and include repetitive phrases like "blond haired" and "the color of pastel peach." Within a paragraph, narrative, dialog, and italicized quotes of characters' direct thoughts frequently repeat information: "He knows exactly what Samuel is thinking and it has everything to do with Maximus and his two sons. 'I know who you are thinking about,' he says" (p.17).

I suspect that how much you will enjoy this novel increases in direct proportion to your lack of interest in the French Revolution. If you have spent time researching the historical revolution and the real people involved, then the historical imprecision and flat characterization of men like Robespierre, Saint-Just and Danton will probably be provoking and distracting. If, however, you prefer a simple novel of intrigue and human drama, and can forgive or overlook some less-than-expert prose, Day of Revenge may be just the book you're looking

Day of Revenge by Deanna Proach. Published by Inkwater Press. Purchase from the publisher, Amazon.com, or a bookstore near you.

A Penny Always Has Two Sides

A Penny Always Has Two Sides by Steffie Steinke    ★★★★☆

As I sat beside my mother's hospital bed, holding her hand, trying again to be close to her, I couldn't help thinking about my foster mother and asking myself why I hadn't been with her when she needed me, when she was at the end of her life.

In some ways, A Penny Always Has Two Sides is not an easy book to read. Steffie Steink'es memoir of growing up in wartime Germany relates difficult experiences that most of us are lucky enough not to have faced, from an unstable and sometimes abusive mother to the bombings and abuses of the second World War and its aftermath. Despite the grim subject matter, Steinke maintains a warm, conversational tone, and her striking observations and powerful story make this book a must-read.

Steinke was born in 1936, the daughter of an unwed mother named Rosi and a married S.S. officer. Since Rosi and her grandmother were unable to care for the baby, Steffie spent the first four years of her life with her beloved foster parents, Meta and Herman Pech, only to be taken back by her birth mother when she married in 1940. In only a few words, Steinke deftly portrays the distinct personalities of the parental figures in her life, especially her two mothers.

I never got close to my mother. She was very strict and unforgiving, and I think the bond a mother has with her baby from teh first day she holds it was simply never there. She had no understanding or consideration for a child. For instance, if she told me I should do something and I didn't do waht I was told at once, I would get a slap right away...

After the war broke out, Steffie and her mother were evacuated to Poland, where they shared a town house with the Mueller family. Steffie befriended the daughter, Renate, who soon died of scarlett fever, and the grandfather, called Opa. When the Russians liberated Poland, Steffie, her mother, and the Muellers faced nightmarish months of imprisonment and ill-treatment, including the rape of Steffie's mother and Frau Mueller. This memoir forcefully reminds us that war hurts the innocent on both sides of a conflict.

With the help of a kindly Russian officer and a Jewish pharmacist, Mr. Anaszevich, Steffie and her mother survived and returned to Germany, where they became citizens of West Berlin. Steinke continues her story up until the time she met and married her husband, Deitmar.

If this book has a flaw, it is only that Steinke marks out themes at the beginning that don't quite reach a conclusion at the end. Despite from its importance in the opening, her relationships with her birth mother and her foster mother become less emphasized as the book progresses, until in the last chapters she seems to be ending a different book from the one she began.

Nevertheless, this memoir is insightful, inspiring, and vividly paints a face of WWII history few non-Germans have considered. As the title reminds us, there are two sides to every story, and Steinke's story is one worth listening to.

A Penny Always Has Two Sides by Steffie Steinke. Published by Inkwater Press. Purchase from the publisher, Amazon.com, or a bookstore near you.

Thank you to Alex Epstein and Inkwater Press for generously providing review copies.