Category Archives: History

The Dark Mirror by Juliet Marillier

(This “review” was originally posted 6/20/2006 at, which closed down at the end of August in 2009. [Most of the members can now be found at RAFO.] It has not been edited, since I cannot remember the novel in question. Seriously. The cover [I read the blue twilight edition) is lovely, and that is all I recall.])



The Dark Mirror: Book One of the Bridei Chronicles (Bridei Chronicles 1)I have rather stringent standards for retellings of myths/ancient histories, so I’m not entirely certain how valid this review is going to be. book review Juliet Marillier The Bridei Chronicles: 1. The Dark Mirror 2.  Blade of Fortriu 3. The Well of Shades

The Dark Mirror, book one of The Bridei* Chronicles, follows the life of Bridei, king of the Picts from 554 A.D, from his early life to his ascension to the throne. Marillier makes no bones about the fact that a lot of the things in the novel – the pagan religion, the magic, etc., are derived from educated guesswork. What we have is a fairly competent retelling, with a dash of destiny, magic and elves (the Good Folk) thrown in for taste.

Characterisation is competent, believable. Nothing very surprising shows up re: the hero-who-would-be-king Bridei, or his druid-mentor Broichan, or his childhood companion Tuala (Tuala might be more interesting in the later books, since she’s got some fairly heavy mysterious/Good Folk strings in her background). In fact, some of the minor players are more interesting than Bridei and Tuala, and Marillier has drawn them quite well. If I read the further novels, it’ll be for the minor characters, and not Bridei himself.

The plot doesn’t lag, but four or five days after I read it simply cannot remember what happened that was enough to fill six hundred odd pages. A lot of the time is spent simply reflecting on emotions or what has happened or on dialogue. It’s a fairly standard young-boy-is-groomed-to-be-king plot, no huge surprises. As most retellings of this sort, the characters and the peoples are involved in wars, territorial rights, honour, marital alliances – and of course, negotiations between the established religions and the newer Christianity. Again, Marillier handles this last quite well, and if I read the next few novels it will be to see how she handles this negotiation.

I cannot really point out anything that is wrong with the novel. But it’s… well, it’s not exciting. I don’t need to read the next novel, and I have no deep urge to look up the history of the Picts (what is known of it) and their legends. Marillier is not boring, I was thoroughly engaged throughout the text. And yet. There’s something missing, that essential oomph of good readering, and I guess I’ll be more likely to pick up the next book if I don’t have to pay for it, if I have time and nothing else to read.

My rec? Eh. Pick it up if it’s on sale or in a library. Borrow, don’t buy.

*Pronunciation: brid (rhymes with bid) –ay (as in day). I spent too much time calling him Bride-ee. This did not help.


The Famished Road, by Ben Okri

(This “review” was originally posted 6/22/2006 at, which closed down at the end of August in 2009. [Most of the members can now be found at RAFO.] It has been edited, just a little, for spelling and grammar. It has NOT been edited for style, and it is blunt and tactless and appallingly unfluid. I apologise. I cannot find the review Larry wrote right now, but I am sure it must be around somewhere.)

The Famished Road

How boring is this cover?


This is the one I had! It is so much prettier, yes?

I made the bad mistake of reading Larry’s review of this work yesterday and then couldn’t find any words of my own to describe it. Rather than pull a Kaavya Vishwanathan, I waited a day. It was… important that I find my own words to describe this novel because I found it so utterly – what’s the word? Enthralling? Powerful?

May you never walk / When the road waits, famished. – Wole Soyinka

Written in 1990, The Famished Road is set in a Nigeria that is facing the chaos of Independence. The protagonist, Azaro (actually Lazaro, only there are some uncomfortable connotations re: Lazarus, ergo the nickname) is an abiku – in the Yoruba tradition, this is a soul who exists between life and death. His former spirit companions continually call Azaro back to the spirit-world, and they’ll try anything from temptation to outright kidnap to get him back where they think he belongs.

There are spirits. Everywhere. And not wimpy ghosts who walk through walls either. These are more gutsy beings who’ll throw stones and take human form and possess your body or take you from life to another realm…

If you’ve read Midnight’s Children, then I’d say that The Famished Road is built along the same concept as that wonderful novel, only subtler, and perhaps more chaotic. (In fact, the first hundred pages are so chaotic that I wasn’t sure I liked the novel. Everything seemed… tangled and disparate. But Okri weaves those disparate threads in together so that by the end you’re left with this mythic feeling, not just in Azaro but in his father, his mother… his friends and community.)

Everything is seen from Azaro’s point of view, and his narrative ranges from sparse-and-harsh to sparse-and-epic (the latter showing up at unexpected moments, all the stronger for it). There’s no pity, no Lapierre-esque the-poor-are-noble ethos. Caught between the fevered spirit world and the hungry real world, Azaro watches his people – the poor, the hungry, the ambitious – deal in their own ways with poverty, disease and political thuggery. Azaro’s narrative is relentlessly objective. Have I said harsh, yet?

Azaro himself is delightful to read. I mean, once you stop thinking in terms of sadness or suffering, Azaro is a beautiful character. Born smiling, the child is full of defiance, curiosity, wanderlust. (And brevity of dialogue. Okri constructs several dialogues in which one participant – often Azaro – contributes nothing but the same word, over and over. It never gets old.) And, of course, depth of perception, courtesy his spirit roots (that is entirely the wrong phrase, but I don’t know how to put it at the moment.)

Other characters are worth mentioning – Madam Koto, who builds herself into the myths around her, Azaro’s parents, who suffer for him, because of him; the photographer (who has a name which I’ve forgotten!!!) who comes and goes, suffering from a persecution complex – or is actually persecuted, I never did figure which. They’re warm, inscrutable, eccentric, insane, bitter, loving… take your pick.

It’s a moving work. It’s a work about a nation that’s scrambling to build something of itself, and not quite sure yet how to go about it. It’s about the good that follows the bad, and the bad that follows the good. (Life, theuniverse, and everything in Nigeria.)

Read this novel. Bump it to the top of your list. (And remember to get past the first 120 pages if you don’t like it at first.)

I, Claudius by Robert Graves

(This “review” was originally posted 6/22/2006 at, which closed down at the end of August in 2009. [Most of the members can now be found at RAFO.] It has been edited, just a little, for spelling and grammar. It has NOT been edited for style, and it is blunt and tactless and appallingly unfluid. I apologise.)

I, ClaudiusI have a hard time pinpointing what exactly I like about this novel. A large part of me until now has simply screamed “Everything!” which is very convenient but not very helpful when it comes to writing a review.

So. After the success of his Goodbye to All That, Graves penned two “companion volumes of unorthodox Roman history” (from the “Note on the Author” carried in my edition). The first of these was I, Claudius, the second, and sequel, Claudius the God. The novels chronicle Roman history after the death of Julius Caesar to the death of the emperor Claudius (which would mean the accession of Nero, the guy who fiddled). I, Claudius takes us up to the death of Caligula. We’re talking sometime between the years 44 BC and 41 AD. The novel(s) are written as Claudius’ secret autobiographies, because, in part, his official histories were a “dull affair, by which I set little store” and the current accounts are to be taken as the unvarnished truth. File:Claudius (M.A.N. Madrid) 01.jpg

Claudius takes us through about four generations of Roman rule, and as far as I can make out the political history is for the most part accurate – or as accurate as these things can get. What Graves examines in the novel(s) is the motivations, and motivators, of the people in power.

That’s the dull stuff.

What’s interesting – even fascinating – about the narrative is the amount of unofficial power Graves places in the hands of women – particularly Livia, wife of Augustus (of pax Romana fame, I think, though I’m not sure right now). Livia is the ultimate evil stepmother, manipulating Augustus, her son Tiberius and her grandson Caligula to her own ends, killing off relatives she finds inconvenient or unmalleable. Livia’s not all bad, of course – her influence over Augustus is the direct cause for some very good administration in Rome and through the Roman Empire. If you don’t mind reading feminine empowerment into evil old hags with boundless ambition, then Livia (and a lot of the other wives-of-great-men in the novels) is Betty Friedan.

The novel deals with several people, a veritable rabbit warren of a family tree, most of the players have the same name, or similar names, but Graves/Claudius takes the time to make sure we can keep them all straight. I’ve never had trouble keeping up with who was who in the novel(s), though I have had trouble when I was reading Colleen McCullough’s works. Claudius follows a names-for-dummies system. (And he explains why, too, in the most avuncular fashion.)

The novel also deals with the conflicting themes monarchy and the idea of the Republic. The heroes (and Claudius constructs them as heroes, no matter how tragic their tales) are ardent Republicists, and yet must support the dictatorship – or worse yet, be the dictator. And of course, there’s the question of religion, and how it changes, and who controls it and why – and Christianity has its small but ironic role to play.

The novel is interesting as an alternative explanation of historical fact, and it provides an interesting analysis of the politics and social structures of the time. The real reason I loved the novel – and I daresay it applies to anyone who loves the novel – is its narrator. Claudius is humble, ironic, pompous, perspicacious. With the zeal of a bloodhound he follows his family history, sparing no one in his telling, not even himself. His tone is, what? Scathing, ironic, condemning, laudatory… and delightful to read. I’ve found people laughing – or snorting in disgust at what some of the “bad Claudians” have done – and I’m told I’m no different, though I’ve never really kept track.

Claudius’ narrative sucks you in and keeps you until he lets you go. His tale is by turns tragic, funny, bathetic, pathetic, outright insane… it’s tragic-comedy in a grand style, narrated by a dry and unimpressed old man who knows better than everyone else, because he’s more fun than they are, so there. He’s the underdog who survived by dint of… well, by dint of being the underdog and not getting in people’s way, I suppose you’d put it. The reader finds her/himself incredibly sympathetic towards Claudius without in any way feeling that he’s being a weenie whiner – which, in retrospect, is always an amazing thing, since so very much seems to be against him. You wouldn’t mind being related to this guy, except for the fact that you’d probably be dead. Or insane. Or perverted. Funness.

There’s not much more I can say… Read it! It’s fun! It’s interesting! It’s brilliant!

Hiding from the Holocaust


So. The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas by John Boyne was one of the big children’s books of the year for 2006. Or perhaps it wasn’t. it has a nine-year old boy named Bruno as protagonist, and is told almost entirely from his point of view – actually, that’s a lie. There’s an omniscient third person narrator who explains Bruno to the audience. This third person narrator is very clearly an adult. What’s not clear is who his listeners are.

Bruno is nine years old, and he lives in Berlin… until his father gets a new job which requires them all to leave and live in Out-With. Out-With is Bruno’s attempt to pronounce Auschwitz, and I daresay you know what this story might be dealing with. Bruno’s nine-year old persona allows other mispronunciations like “Fury” for Führer. The construction of the novel – a very short novel it is, too – tries to keep the facts of where Bruno is a secret from the child reader throughout the novel, and from the adult reader for a short amount of time. (Surprise is meant to be an integral part of the novel. The blurb tells you little more than that there is a fence, and that the book is not for nine-year olds.)

Well, there they all are, Bruno and his older sister and his mother and his father, in a house outside Auschwitz boundaries. Bruno explores – ho hum, a nine-year old boy who explores a lot – and meets a boy standing on the other side of the fence. Shmuel is the only boy Bruno’s age around – even if he’s on the wrong side. He wears striped pyjamas, a drab blue and grey. The two become friends.

Over the course of the novel Bruno discovers that the people on the other side of the fence are “not people”, according to his father. He learns to fear the way in which these non-people can be treated when they’re brought over to his home to perform menial labour. He learns to distrust young soldiers who treat these non-people badly. He learns that fear can make you betray your closest friends… blah blah.

It’s a learning book. I suspect the marketers expect that the child who reads the novel is expected to have a parent nearby who will say, Well Honey, there was this thing called the Holocaust…

I wonder how this book translates into German. What happens to the Out-With and the Fury.

Anyway. At some point, Bruno’s mother decides they can’t live next to hell anymore, and she and the children are set to move back to Berlin.

Bruno goes to say goodbye to Shmuel. A lot of the book has talked about Shmuel’s thinness, and worries about living in the camp – worries muted down so Bruno cannot recognise their severity – and now, today, Shmuel’s father is missing. Bruno wants one last adventure. He slips under the fence, into Out-With, into Auschwitz. He borrows a pair of striped pyjamas, to blend in, and he and Shmuel hunt for the missing father. (Missing absent and distant fathers are a theme of the text.)

And of course, they get herded into a gas chamber and they die.

When Bruno’s father finally figures out where his son has gone, he feels guilt and responsibility.

It’s a moving text. A lot more gripping than the blunt thing I have described here. And therein lies my problem.

The Holocaust is a big thing. Important, historically and even now. It carries a great deal of baggage. People make it their lives’ work to deny it happened, or find more and more proofs that it did.

The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas is not about Shmuel. It’s not about the various Jewish people Bruno meets and feels sorry for, or feels friendly toward. It’s about Bruno. Who ignorantly and voluntarily puts on a pair of striped pyjamas and dies for it. Bruno’s tragedy. Bruno’s innocence.

Shmuel is, in many senses, Bruno’s narrative double. They are friends, they share the same birthday. They both search for Shmuel’s father (In this text that means something). They hold hands when they die. But the book closes on Bruno’s family’s grief at his death/disappearance.

Does the book make us feel the horror of the Holocaust by linking Bruno and Shmuel? Or does it simply push that aside by making us look at a random accidental victim? Is Bruno’s death meant to punish his soldier-father, who is in charge of Auschwitz? Take that, Nazi man, see how you feel when your son dies?

The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas doesn’t actively refer to the Holocaust in any way. It actively hides it, and to my mind, even negates it. I am sorrier for Bruno than I am for Shmuel.

This isn’t right. Is it?