historical fiction

REVIEW: Deathless Divide by Justina Ireland

Deathless Divide is the sequel to Dread Nation so there may be vague spoilers for the first book in this review.

After the fall of Summerland, Jane McKeene hoped her life would get simpler: Get out of town, stay alive, and head west to California to find her mother. But nothing is easy or as it seems and soon after Jane arrives in a town called Nicodermus, she comes to believe it’s not as safe as everyone believes. Jane soon finds herself on a dark path as she’s out for revenge and closes herself off from the world. But one person won’t let her shut herself off completely. Katherine Deveraux never expected to be allied with Jane McKeene. But after the hell she has endured, she knows friends are hard to come by – and that Jane needs her, too, whether Jane wants to admit it or not.

Amazingly, Deathless Divide is even better than its predecessor. It’s told in dual perspective with the chapters alternating between Jane’s point of view and Katherine’s. it’s great getting to see things from Katherine’s perspective and she becomes a much more fleshed out character as you learn more about her past and how she struggles with the fact she can pass for white. Also, both perspectives are equally gripping and they both have distinct voices which is always a plus for dual narratives.

Jane honestly has gone through so much and she is such a fighter, but her quest for revenge and how desensitised she has become to killing the dead, puts her in a precarious place. She likes to think she doesn’t need anyone but that’s not the case and it takes a long time for her to sort all those feelings out in her head.

Jane and Katherine’s friendship is really the heart and soul of this book. Jane needs Katherine and Katherine wants to be Jane’s friend. They balance each other out and have fought and survived together, meaning they know one another unlike anyone else. There are other relationships in Deathless Divide, romantic or otherwise, but none of them are as strong or as important as Jane and Katherine’s.

In Deathless Divide you learn more about how the shamblers (the undead) have affected the rest of the country, and there’s even mentions of outbreaks around the world showing it’s not a localised event. Deathless Divide combines different genres and themes in an interesting way; it’s a survivors story, there’s Western elements, there’s a deeper discussion of bioethics and experimentation, and there’s a lot of trauma and how that can effect someone’s psyche.

All the while Deathless Divide continues to work as an alternate history because there are so many actual historical elements included and adapted for this scenario. For instance, the explanation for the Chinese arriving on the West Coast and how that effects things and how no matter what, it’s Black people who are always at the bottom of the theoretical social ladder.

Deathless Divide really goes to dark and unexpected places and it’s all the better for it. It doesn’t shy away from the harsh realities Jane and Katherine live in the; the racism, the cruelty, the threat of death at any moment – from shamblers or humans – and it’s still an action-packed story with lots of twists and turns. It also has a very satisfying if a little bittersweet ending to what really is a fantastic duology. 5/5.

REVIEW: Dread Nation by Justina Ireland

When the War Between the States was derailed when the dead began to walk the battlefields of Gettysburg and Chancellorsville, America’s history took a different turn. In this new nation, safety for all depends on the work of a few, and laws like the Native and Negro Reeducation Act require certain children attend combat schools to learn to put down the dead. Jane McKeene is studying to become an Attendant, trained in both weaponry and etiquette to protect rich white folk. It’s a chance for a better life for Negro girls like Jane, but not one Jane wants. Almost finished with her education at Miss Preston’s School of Combat in Baltimore, Jane is set on returning to her Kentucky home. But when families around Baltimore County begin to go missing, Jane is caught in the middle of a conspiracy, one that finds her in a desperate fight for her life against some powerful enemies – not all of them undead.

I find alternate history stories fascinating. They can easily not work if they change the outcome of a big historical event, but then present things are 100% better or a lot of society’s problems are solved now that change has been made. That’s not the case with Dread Nation. While the outcome of the Civil War is different as the Union states and the Confederacy have had to stop fighting in order to fight the dead, that doesn’t mean prejudices and racism has disappeared.

Jane and the other Black girls at her combat school now have a skill that can be used by society, but that doesn’t mean they are treated well by white people, especially those in positions of power. It’s the way Dread Nation combines the horror of racism with the horror of zombies that is really interesting. Jane is not just fighting against the dead, but also the systematic racism that’s prevalent in every situation she encounters.

Jane is a great character. It took me a little while to warm to her as she’s so headstrong and doesn’t know when to stop when it comes to answering back her superiors. But she’s also smart, resourceful, and can lie like a rug. She’s one for tall tales and can think outside the box which is important when she’s put in dangerous situations.

Her reluctant friendship with Katherine, another girl from the school who can pass for white (which in term brings about a lot of interesting discussions of race and how Katherine feels about what her perceived skin colour can get her), is great as they are so different. Jane is a rule-breaker, constantly looking to learn things people would rather people like her didn’t, whereas Katherine is more reserved, looking forward to the life of an Attendant and doesn’t wish to rock the boat. They are both extremely capable of taking down the undead, or shamblers as they’re known.

The shamblers are unsettling and the way they’re described makes their presence felt almost constantly. They are a threat that’s always on the peripheral of Jane’s life, and when one or two or a dozen are near, it’s a fight to survive.

Dread Nation is a fast-paced, action-packed story with an interesting premise that lives up to the potential. It’s the first book in a series and I’m looking forward to continue it as there’s still so much to learn about the shamblers, how they group together, and what the government of each state is planning to do about them. 4/5.

READ THE WORLD – Hungary: The Door by Magda Szabó

Translated by Len Rix and narrated by Siân Thomas.

Emerence is a domestic servant – strong, fierce, eccentric, and with a reputation for being a first-rate housekeeper. When Magda, a young Hungarian writer, takes her on she never imagines how important this woman will become to her. It takes twenty years for a complex trust between them to be slowly, carefully built. But Emerence has secrets and vulnerabilities beneath her indomitable exterior which will test Magda’s friendship and change the complexion of both their lives irreversibly.

The Door was an interesting read. From the very beginning you’re captivated by the relationship between the two women and how it developed over time. Magda narrates the story of their relationship. She and her husband are quite privileged and so they can do their writing and not be bothered by such trivialities as housework, they employ Emerence as their housekeeper. That is after Emerence interviews them and deems them suitable employers.

From the outset, the relationship between Magda and Emerence was interesting because they had such different personalities. Emerence was secretive and had her own way of judging what was important or not. Magda was more “normal” and often cared about how things would appear to others. A lot of the times they clashed was because neither of them were very good at communicating what they were feeling or wanted.

At times, neither of them were particularly likeable and they were both so set in their ways it was frustrating to see them not try and understand the other. Over time, Magda learns to understand Emerence and her moods, but Emerence never seemed to understand or appreciate what was important to Magda if she saw it as frivolous.

The title refers to the door of Emerence’s home. She is an incredibly secretive woman and lets no one inside her home, including the police. Her refusal to do such a normal thing as welcome others into her home confuses Magda and adds to the mystery of Emerence.

The narrator of the audiobook did a really good job, changing their voice slightly for key characters and the pace they narrated really added to the haunting tone of the book. Because The Door is generally a melancholy read. Emerence has had a difficult life and the way she slowly opens up and describes events makes both Magda and you as the reader, wonder if everything could possibly be true. The Door is set in Hungary from around the 1960s and spans a couple of decades, and there’s often references to World War II and its effects on the country and the people, and also the government rules. It often seems like it was a difficult time for everyone and even Magda and her husband struggled at times, but then there is also a clear class divide between Magda and Emerence.

The Door was a fascinating read about two very different women and how they eventually found a common ground. It’s nice to see such a complex friendship where they both make mistakes and aren’t always clear about how they feel. 4/5.

READ THE WORLD – Turkey: The Architect’s Apprentice by Elif Shafak

Sixteenth century Istanbul: Jahan is only a boy when he arrives in the city bearing an extraordinary gift for the Sultan. He has no family or possessions to his name except Chota, a rare white elephant destined for the palace menagerie. There they learn to guard against the scheming of animal tamers, gypsies, deceitful courtiers and the mischievous Princess Mihrimah. Jahan travels on Chota’s back to the furthest corners of the Sultan’s kingdom and back again. But one day he catches the eye of the royal architect, Sinan, a chance encounter destined to change Jahan’s fortunes forever as it enables him to enter the marble halls where the treacherous plot.

I found The Architect’s Apprentice a really slow read. That’s because it is more of a character study of Jahan and while there are incidents in his life, they are like a footnote in how he grows as a person. There’s really not as much action as I was expecting, especially with the blurb mentioning lies and deceit – I thought there would be a lot more political intrigue than there was.

A lot of time passes in The Architect’s Apprentice, it spans decades of Jahan’s life, and it really took me a while to realise that. I didn’t realise that Jahan was growing up because it seemed to take a long time for him to start maturing and evolving as a person. Plus, while things were happening to him, it just seemed like it was one event after the other and it was difficult to gage the passage of time.

For the most part I did like the writing in The Architect’s Apprentice. There’s some lovely passages and the descriptions of Instanbul and the various temples and buildings Jahan is involved with building and designing are vivid. It really does make the city feel alive and it often felt more of an interesting character than the human characters.

The relationship between Jahan and Chota the elephant was a big part of the story and one of the more interesting parts. They were incredibly close, and it frequently seemed like Chota understood what Jahan was saying and what was happening around them. The times when Jahan was with Chota made him feel like more of a real person as Chota seemed to bring out the best of him and he seemed more animated and not just a spectator in his own life when he was with Chota.

Perhaps it’s my fault going into The Architect’s Apprentice with vastly different expectations so what the book actually was, was a disappointment. Still if you like a slow-paced historical fiction novel set during the height of the Ottoman Empire then maybe try The Architect’s Apprentice. 2/5.

READ THE WORLD – Georgia: The Eighth Life by Nino Haratischvili

Translated by Charlotte Collins and Ruth Martin.

Trigger warnings for rape, domestic violence, forced abortion, and torture.

At the start of the twentieth century, on the edge of the Russian Empire, a family prospers. It owes its success to a delicious chocolate recipe, passed down the generations with great solemnity and caution. A caution which is justified: this is a recipe for ecstasy that carries a very bitter aftertaste. Stasia learns it from her Georgian father and takes it north, following her new husband, Simon, to his posting at the centre of the Russian Revolution in St Petersburg. Stasia’s is only the first in a symphony of grand but all too often doomed romances that swirl from sweet to sour in this epic tale of the red century.

The Eighth Life is a sprawling epic, following one family through the generations for over one hundred years, spanning the twentieth century and beyond. It gives an insight into what life was like in Georgia when it was a part of the USSR and controlled by the powers that be in Moscow, and how the struggle for independence does not go smoothly.

The story of the Jashi family in The Eighth Life is told by Niza to her young niece Brilka. She recounts the family history, from her great-great-grandmother Stasia to her and her sister Daria, and all of the love and tragedy that befalls the family and their close friends in that time. The different members of the family experience so much heartache, it’s almost cruel or depressing how unlucky or sad their lives often turn out. Nothing ever runs smoothly for them, and there are so many instances when actions of previous generations have unforeseen repercussions on their descendants. Whether the tragedies that befall each member of the family is down to having a taste of the amazing yet potentially cursed chocolate, is down to you to decide.

This family saga takes place during the heights of communism. Various historical figures are mentioned either explicitly by name, or through their nicknames or other references. If you know more about the important figures in Russia and USSR’s history, they may be easier to pick up than if you don’t. Personally, I studied the Russian revolution in college and then only have a passing knowledge of Stalin and Lenin and know little about the other important figures of that time. I was still able to follow the passage of time, and with the Jashi family connected to the KGB and Moscow top brass, it was an interesting way to learn more about this period of history and how the extreme rules and surveillance could effect the everyday person.

At over 900 pages long The Eighth Life really is an epic novel. It takes its time to develop the many characters, but it also does a great job at keeping track of the family connections, and the little call backs to past events or conversations work really well. It’s an engaging read, and the writing is often beautiful. It’s fascinating to see how much can change in one person’s lifetime. How history can affect them in both big and small ways, and how events can shape a person so completely.

The Eighth Life is a fascinating yet often harrowing read. It doesn’t shy away from the realities of war or from how cruel people can be to one another, and how some people must close themselves off from feeling anything in order to survive. This might make The Eighth Life sound like a depressing read, and it can be at times as you wonder at how much suffering a person can take, but it also captures the many emotions people go through in life. There’s still love in its various forms, and hope, and freedom. It’s just unfortunate that those who are in love or free, can’t always experience it with the ones they want to the most. 5/5.

READ THE WORLD – Tibet: Love in No Man’s Land by Duo Ji Zhuo Ga

Translated by Hallie Treadway.

The Changthang Plateau lies in the centre of Tibet. A vast, rolling grassland stippled with azure-blue lakes and ringed by snow peaks, it is home to seven-year-old Gongzha and his family who live, as their ancestors have done for centuries, by herding and hunting. But it is 1967 and the Cultural Revolution is seeping across China. Not even the grasslands of Tibet are immune. As the Red Guard systematically loot and destroy Tibet’s monasteries, Gongzha helps hide two treasures belonging to his local temple: an ebony-black Buddha marked with an ancient symbol and a copy of the twelfth-century text the Epic of King Gesar, written in gold ink. The repercussions of his act will echo across the decades.

Love in No Man’s Land is a sprawling epic that goes from the 1960s to the 1990s. In that time, you see how life for the families who live on the grassland of Tibet change a lot, but at the same time they still keep a lot of their traditions and history. For instance, even though roads and cars start to become more common, there’s still so many places where modern civilisation hasn’t touched it and people still live how their ancestors did before them.

The writing in Love in No Man’s Land is beautiful and evocative. It really paints a vivid picture of both the harshness of the vast grasslands but also the beauty of them too. With the mountains and lakes, the wild animals (wolves, yaks, antelope and bears all play a big part), and the changing weather, it all feels so magical and far-removed from “the real world”.

Love (as you might guess from the books title) is a big theme of this book. Gongzha has a childhood sweetheart, he loves his family and he’s respectful of the grassland and the creatures who live there. He has a big heart and seeing him deal with tragedy from a young age (death and violence are not uncommon in the communities he is a part of) and how that shapes him is interesting.

As well as Gongzha and his personal journey, a big part of Love in No Man’s Land is this mystery surrounding an ancient symbol. It’s in caves, on statues, on bears, and it seems to be a part of the very essence of the grassland. Gongzha encounters it at different points in his life, each time learning a bit more about his people’s past and how they could possibly be connected to the symbol, but it’s not something that he spends his life pondering.

While Gongzha is the main protagonist you meet a lot of different characters. These people dip in and out of Gongzha’s life, and sometimes they’re the children of someone Gongzha used to know, meaning it can be difficult at times to keep track of who is who and how they’re connected to one another. That being said, having so many characters helps this word feel lived in and real. Love in No Man’s Land is in the third person and while the majority of the book is from Gongzha’s point of view, a lot is also from the point of view of the various characters that are in Gongzhas life, even if for a short while. Some might be the focus for only a page or two, while others have more of a decent sized chunk. There are some coincidences where people encounter one another and don’t realise at first that they might have a couple of people already connecting them. But on a whole, these connections seem organic as they are a people who have lived in this part of the world for generations and rarely move far from their families.

I learnt so much about the Tibetan herder’s lifestyle and how it’s evolved over the years from reading Love in No Man’s Land. I think I preferred the atmosphere this book evokes more than anything and I didn’t always feel that connected to Gongzha which is probably down to us having so different lives. It was still a fascinating read – especially this mystery to do with the symbol – and a beautifully written one too. 4/5.

READ THE WORLD – Saint Kitts and Nevis: Only God Can Make a Tree by Bertram Roach

Adrian is the son of a black Caribbean woman and an Irish immigrant father and is blessed with the pale skin and European features to allow him social mobility in the rigidly hierarchical society of twentieth-century Caribbean life. He falls in love but is offered the opportunity to improve his social standing, and thus the rest of his life, if he can suppress his heart’s desire and decide with his head. Will he choose Julia, the only woman he has ever really loved, and settle for being an overseer, or will he opt for the plantation-owner’s daughter, Alice Mills, who could provide him with the social standing he has always dreamed of?

Only God Can Make a Tree is a short book at less than 150 pages, and it is a quick read both because of its length and because of the writing style. It’s written very simply and is very much a book where it tells you what’s happening and what characters are feeling rather than showing you through metaphors or flowery language. This makes it seem like it’s not a very well-written book as you can’t easily connect with the characters and the plot is just laid out in front of you. It took a while to get used to how it was written, but its blunt, on the nose approach to this story did make it easy to read and sometimes engaging.

For such a short book it covers a lot of time and different characters lives. Adrian is the main character but as the choices he makes have knock on effects onto the people around him, you get snippets from other characters points of view as they struggle to deal with the fallout of his actions. The latter half of the book spans more time as Adrian fathers’ children and they grow up and have to live with Adrian being their father and what that can mean for them.

Adrian is a character that’s equal parts infuriating and sympathetic. While his actions are his own, and they are often reckless and hurt women who do love him, he is boxed in by the hierarchical society and has limited options if he desires to climb the social ladder. Adrian has high aspirations in a society that won’t really allow him to have those aspirations. He is a man that’s almost trapped between two societies because of his parentage, he can pass for white a lot of the time, but at the same time many white people will never see him as anything but black and will treat him accordingly. There’s also how Adrian appears to be destined to make similar mistakes to his own father, and all the rum that’s available is not good for any of the characters.

The sections about life in Saint Kitts and Nevis in the twentieth century were interesting. White, often English, people still owned the cotton and sugar cane plantations but now they pay people to work the land, albeit very cheaply. The former slaves are now labourers. As not a lot of time has passed since the abolition of slavery, there’s still some tension as the white plantation owners believe that the black people are still savages deep down. Often the glimpses of Caribbean society and how it works were more interesting than Adrian’s life. Though that being said, how Caribbean society works had a direct effect on Adrian and how is life panned out so the intersection between the two was also interesting.

I read Only God Can Make a Tree in less than two hours but I’m not sure how long this story will stick with me. It’s a concise family saga that gives a unique insight into post-slavery Caribbean and how one man’s aspirations can have long-lasting and unexpected effects. 2/5.

READ THE WORLD: Bangladesh – The Good Muslim by Tahmima Anam

Maya Haque – outspoken, passionate, headstrong – has been estranged from her brother Sohail for almost a decade. When she returns home to Dhaka hoping for a reconciliation, she discovers he has transformed beyond recognition. Can the two, both scarred by war, come together again? And what of Sohail’s young son, Zaid, caught between worlds but desperate to belong?

I didn’t realise this until I went to Goodreads to mark this book as read, but The Good Muslim is the sequel to A Golden Age. I didn’t know The Good Muslim was a sequel and I don’t feel I really missed out on anything as it reads like a standalone novel.

The chapters alternate between different points in time, the early 1970s and the mid-1980s. The chapters in the early 1970s are during the aftermath of the Bangladesh Liberation War, as Sohail comes back from the war and he and his family attempt to get used to what peace means. The chapters in the 1980s are when Maya has returned home after being away for over seven years. She struggles to reconnect with her brother and a nephew she doesn’t know. The vast majority of The Good Muslim is from Maya’s point of view, in both the flashbacks and the present day.

A lot of the tragedy of these two siblings drifting apart comes from the fact that they are so different. They are either headstrong or reserved, and either they don’t listen to one another or are unwilling to talk about their experiences. Sohail is haunted by his actions during the war, while Maya has been dealing with the aftereffects of the war as she has worked in clinics across the country, performing abortions on women who were raped by soldiers and were shunned by their families. Both Maya and Sohail are affected by the conflict but they deal with it in different ways and it can be frustrating to see how they keep meeting at cross-purposes when they clearly did care about one another.

The rift that developed between Maya and Sohail is ultimately down to religion. After the war, Sohail becomes very religious, in fact he’s almost a zealot who appears to have his own followers and he forgets about all other responsibilities and attachments as he pursues his commitment to his faith. Maya doesn’t understand this or how much her brother could change after the war. Maya’s stubbornness is frustrating at times as she is so convinced that her idea of religion is the correct one and barely even attempts to understand her brother and his beliefs. Meeting her young nephew, she tries to help him as he doesn’t go to school and has no structure to his life. This adds to the conflict between Maya and Sohail as he has vastly different ideas of what his son should be learning and how he should be living.

The ending of The Good Muslim is what has the most impact, but unfortunately the kind of slow burn of a plot as you gradually learn more about Maya and Sohail’s experiences during the war and how that shaped them into who they are today, does take a bit too long to pull you in and make you deeply care about the two of them. 3/5.

READ THE WORLD – The Channel Islands: The Book of Ebenezer Le Page by G.B. Edwards

Narrated by Roy Dotrice.

Eighty years old, Ebenezer has lived his whole life on the Channel Island of Guernsey, a stony speck of a place caught between the coasts of England and France yet a world apart from either. Ebenezer himself is fiercely independent, but as he reaches the end of his life, he is determined to tell his own story and the stories of those he has known.

First of all, I’ll say that I did really enjoy the narration by Roy Dotrice. I don’t know if they are an old man themselves or they’re just that good at voices and accents but they truly embodied the cantankerous Ebenezer Le Page. It was like listening to an old relative recount their life in the corner of the living room and as they rambled on so much and mentioned so many people it was almost easier to just nod your head and tune them out. I think I might have done that with The Book of Ebenezer Le Page as there’s not a lot that has stuck with me and I’m only writing this review the day after I finished the audiobook!

The Book of Ebenezer Le Page is a sprawling epic about one mans life. Ebenezer is writing about his past 80 years of life and all the people he’s met, loved and lost. He is one of the oldest people on Guernsey and has never left the island. He talks about so many people that it would’ve been handy to have had a family tree! So many people that he mentions are his cousins (or second or third or fourth cousins), or sometimes they are known as cousins, but they aren’t actually blood related. Then there’s his friends that he talks about too that might also be distantly related to him in some way.

Ebenezer lives through two world wars and remarkably doesn’t seem too changed by either of them. Guernsey was occupied by the Nazis during the Second World War but while how Ebenezer dealt with the occupation is featured, it’s not an overly big or dramatic event – it’s just something that he and his friends and neighbours have to deal with. Having to just “get on with things” seems to have been Ebenezer’s life moto. He’s a proud man, and a self-sufficient one, and he’s happy to work for a living rather than getting a pension in his old age.

Ebenezer really is the epitome of an old man who has seen many things and just doesn’t know how the world works anymore. It can make him equally judgmental and oblivious. For instance, he’s very quick to judge some people and can take an instant dislike to some of them. However, when he opens his home up to tourists and has a gay couple stay with him, he thinks they are very pleasant chaps and doesn’t understand why a neighbour would say horrible things about them. It’s hard to tell whether he just doesn’t think “that sort of thing” goes on, or if he genuinely doesn’t care.

It’s not the events or anecdotes in The Book of Ebenezer Le Page that have stuck with me, instead it’s the feeling this book gave me. It’s strangely nice to hear someone, even a fictional someone, tell you their life story and see how it intersects with real world events. Ebenezer has a distinct narrative voice so even though he is obviously telling you about the various events and people in his life, they are still interesting because of how he felt about them.

I wouldn’t read The Book of Ebenezer Le Page again, and I’m not sure who I would recommend it to, but it is a strangely calming and enjoyable read and an interesting way to see how and island and its people may or may not have changed over the decades. 3/5.

READ THE WORLD – Algeria: The Tongue’s Blood Does Not Run Dry by Assia Djebar

Translated by Tegan Raleigh.

A collection of short stories that were written in 1995 and 1996 – a time when, by official accounts, some two thousand Algerians were killed in Islamist assassinations and government army reprisals.

This collection of short stories is split into two parts. The first is titled “Between Desire and Death” and the stories are equal parts romance and the horror of death and violence. The second is titled “Between France and Algeria” and centre on characters who are pulled between the two countries and may not feel they fully belong in either of them.

Even though they were more shocking and tougher to read, I preferred the stories in the first part of The Tongue’s Blood Does Not Run Dry. They are little snapshots into a character’s life as they deal with the threat of violence and assassination for their beliefs or heritage, or its about what happens after a loved one is killed. The stories focus on women and how they struggle to deal with the changing cultural landscape in Algeria. There’s some liberation but then there’s those who fear liberation and want to kill those who they feel don’t have the correct values.

There’s an underlying feeling of grief through all of the stories in The Tongue’s Blood Does Not Run Dry. Grief for a loved one who is assassinated, grief for the loss of naivety, grief for the loss of a culture, a home, or a language. A lot of the stories feature characters who were born and raised in Algeria but then moved to France as they got older. With that move came the issue of identity, whether they saw themselves as Algerian or French or a mixture of both, and perhaps guilt or fear over what was happening in Algeria, especially if they were removed from it and seemingly safe.

Once again, reading a book for my Read the World Project has led me to do more research about a certain moment in a countries history that I knew nothing about. These short stories came about from conversations between the author and fellow Algerians who lived in Paris, so there’s truth behind the fiction which makes these stories even more wrenching. The Tongue’s Blood Does Not Run Dry is a collection of short stories where each one is impactful as the last. 4/5.