Sex and Sexuality in Ancient Rome, by L J Trafford: A Review

Many long years ago, I took courses from a Scottish Studies professor who, hands down, was the most entertaining lecturer I ever had. He combined serious scholarship with stories – sometimes scurrilous – that made us howl with laughter. L J Trafford’s Sex and Sexuality in Ancient Rome fits that model: solid research told in an accessible manner, and it too had me howling with laughter in places.

Divided into sixteen chapters covering everything from ideals of beauty, the sex lives of Emperors, and what constitutes good sex (from the point of view of a Roman male), this is all presented in a fairly light-handed manner. While Trafford does acknowledge that Roman morals and behaviour cannot always be judged by 21st century standards, she also does not shy away from pointing out the inequalities and lack of choice for many Romans, especially those who were enslaved.

I was pleased to see that women’s sexuality was not ignored, as it often is in books on this subject. The information (opinion) still comes from men, who were doing most of the writing at the time, and much of it is as eyebrow-raising as men’s thoughts on women’s sexuality often are…but then we have Ovid, who wrote that mutual pleasure was the goal of sex, and that women’s orgasms were important and desirable. I learned more about women’s sexuality in ancient Rome than any other topic, and for that alone the book was worth reading.

Trafford also shows how some things never change. The sex lives of prominent people, including (maybe particularly) the emperors and their wives, were topics of discussion, and the reputation of many an emperor was dragged in the dirt by the poets, satirists and orators of the day. What we would now view as homophobic slurs were common insults, but this isn’t how the Romans saw it. The gender of your sexual partner was (almost) irrelevant; what position you took – the active or passive partner – was. The passive role was unmanly, and Roman men could not be unmanly. Some of the insults remain the same to this day.

I read Sex and Sexuality in Ancient Rome as a novelist, judging it for its usefulness in world-building. It is full of tidbits that, judiciously adapted, would certainly add to the verisimilitude of historical fiction set in ancient Rome. That along the way I was entertained, educated, but also made to think reflects Trafford’s grasp of her subject as well as her skill as a writer. Highly recommended.

The Place Below: The Maer Cycle Book III, by Dan Fitzerald

In The Place Below, Dan Fitzgerald brings his Maer Cycle to a satisfying conclusion. A generation after the first two books of the series, Sasha, daughter of human and Maer, is now an adult. Empathic, sensitive to touch, her natural skill with languages and communication enhanced as needed by magic, Sasha is searching out the tombs of the Ka-lar, the ‘forever kings’ laid to rest in a form of stasis hundreds of years earlier.  Then one day, her empathetic connection to the minds of the dead encounters an awakened, living Ka-lar among a branch of the Maer who themselves are legendary: the underground-dwelling Skin Maer.

The book alternates between the viewpoints of Sasha and Kuun, the awakened Ka-lar, and they serve as counterbalances to each other: Kuun, who at first presents as confident and powerful, slowly reveals motives and doubts; Sasha, who presents as unsure and solitary by nature, grows into her own competence and agency. Familiar characters—Sinnie, Finn, Tcheen—are reintroduced, but as characters to support Sasha in her quest, not to direct and overshadow her.

Kuun, the scholar-scientist Forever King, choosing stasis in the face of unfinished research in a time of plague, is a nuanced and ambiguous character, his motives slowly revealed over the course of his narrative. Again, Fitzgerald’s themes of communication and understanding play into the development of his character and his actions.

Like Fitzgerald’s first two books, this is fantasy with few battles and heroics of a martial sort, but with questions asked and answered about the power of language; about acceptance of differences that are superficial; about what we might sacrifice for the good of the whole. Commonalities that connect, not contrasts that divide. Sasha, neither human nor Maer, embodies both the possibility and the questions that arise about differences between Maer and human, a question that will be, finally, answered through Kuun’s determination. Recommended (as is the whole series) for readers wanting character-centred fantasy that makes them think.

Find The Maer Cycle, including an omnibus edition with bonus features here.

Dan Fitzgerald

Dan Fitzgerald is the fantasy author of the Maer Cycle trilogy (character-driven low-magic fantasy) and the upcoming Weirdwater Confluence duology (sword-free fantasy with unusual love stories). The Living Waters comes out October 15, 2021 and The Isle of a Thousand Worlds arrives January 15, 2022, both from Shadow Spark Publishing.

He lives in Washington, DC with his wife, twin boys, and two cats. When not writing he might be found doing yoga, gardening, cooking, or listening to French music.

He can be found on Twitter or Instagram as danfitzwrites, or on his website, www.danfitzwrites.com



Bjørn Larssen’s Storytellers in Audiobook Format

From Tantor Media September 7th.

If you don’t know this marvellous book, here’s my review from its release day in 2019.

Storytellers-cover

Set against Iceland’s harsh but beautiful landscape in the late 19th and  early 20th century, Bjørn Larssen’s debut novel Storytellers explores the multi-generational effect of the evasions, embellishments and outright lies told in a small village. The book begins slowly, almost lyrically, pulling the reader into what seems like situation borrowed from folktale: a reclusive blacksmith, Gunnar, rescues an injured stranger, Sigurd. In exchange for his care, Sigurd offers Gunnar a lot of money, and a story.

But as Sigurd’s story progresses, and the book moves between the past and the present, darker elements begin to appear. Gunnar’s reclusiveness hides his own secrets, and the unresolved stories of his past. As other characters are introduced and their lives interweave, it becomes clear that at the heart of this small village there are things untold, things left out of the stories, purposely re-imagined. Both individual and collective histories – and memories – cannot be trusted.

The book was reminiscent of Kazuo Ishiguro’s The Buried Giant, in both theme and mood. Both books deal with the unreliability of memory; both are largely melancholy books. And perhaps there is allegory in them both, too. Storytellers is a book to be read when there is time for contemplation, maybe of an evening with a glass of wine. It isn’t always the easiest read, but it’s not a book I’m going to forget easily, either.

Jati’s Wager, by Jonathan Nevair: A Review

I’m pleased to be participating in the Storytellers on Tour blog tour (Aug 29th – Sept 4th) for Jonathan Nevair’s second novel in his Wind Tide series, Jati’s Wager.

A space opera heist brimming with action, twists, and turns that doubles as a story of personal growth, mentorship, and sacrifice.

Ailo is a streetwise teen surviving alone on the remote moonbase, Tarkassi 9. She wants nothing more than to flee into the wider world of the Arm. When her chance arrives, she makes it no farther than the first ship out of the system. That’s where Jati, the Patent War veteran and general fighting the Monopolies, gives her a second chance. It’s an unlikely partnership, but Ailo’s rogue status is just what Jati’s People’s Army needs to drive the final spike of victory into a weakening Garissian Council.

A team of experts assembles and hope rests on Ailo’s skill, stealth, and tenacity to pull off the impossible. It’s a wild gambit, and a moral code may need to be bent, or broken, to achieve success. When an internal shadow rises, casting doubt on their plans, Ailo and Jati are forced to weigh the cost of revenge against honor and justice.

My Review

Your own survival is paramount when you’re a street kid. You learn to be fast, to be silent, to move in and out of the shadows; to trust your instincts; to rely on your own judgement. You develop coping mechanisms, too; mental ones, to give you support, advice; a friend you can rely on. But all your experience and all your wiles aren’t foolproof.

When stowing away on a ship leaving the moonbase she’d grown up on doesn’t go the way Ailo had hoped, she becomes part of a crew under the legendary Jati, general, Legionary, idealist.  Ailo has to learn to trust more than the part of her mind she calls Gerib, her ‘imaginary friend’ who guides and counsels her, and to see herself not only as an individual but as part of a team with a larger purpose.  As the links between her hidden past and the cause Jati is fighting for are revealed, skills that have lain latent in Ailo’s mind: skills of tactics and strategy, of language, and the fusing of the two that make for skilled diplomacy, begin to emerge. But those are not the only reason Ailo is valuable to Jati. Is she the last piece in the puzzle that will bring them victory against the Garassian council?

Fast paced and complex, Jati’s Wager is a book that needs your full attention. Packed with action, the story moves forward rapidly, but the action invites deeper moral questions, not just for Ailo, but for the reader. There is a war to be won, but can it be done in a way that leaves the long history of violence, of conflict and retribution, behind?  What is the moral path for a warrior? – not a soldier, someone who follows orders, but a warrior, making mindful, conscious choices, aware of the myriad consequences. Is vengeance – or sacrifice – ever appropriate? The questions of personal survival versus the collective good; the role and meaning and restrictions of history, and the power of language are woven throughout the story, reinforced in many ways, large and small, creating layers of meaning and contemplation in both the reader and Ailo.

Jati’s Wager is the second book in Jonathan Nevair’s Wind Tide series, but it can be read as a standalone. Links to his first book, Goodbye to the Sun, are present and important, but sufficiently explained that the reader does not need to have read it (although I strongly suggest you do!) In the background, not only do the myths of the Trojan War have a presence, but the author has quietly included references to classic science-fiction, ideas from Carl Sagan, and – in a sentence that made me bark with laughter – a nod to Apocalypse Now.

Highly recommended, both for lovers of space opera, and readers that like books that make them think.

Like a chance to win a copy?

http://www.rafflecopter.com/rafl/display/e832e988101/?

Prize: A print copy of Jati’s Wager by Jonathan Nevair – US/UK Only

Starts: August 29th, 2021 at 12:00am EST

Ends: September 5st, 2021 at 11:59pm EST

Book Information

Jati’s Wager (Wind Tide (#2)) by Jonathan Nevair,

Published: August 18, 2021 by Shadow Spark Publishing

Genre: Science Fiction, Space Opera, LGBTQ+

Pages: 425

CW: death of parent (mentioned), death of mentor, verbal abuse, graphic violence and death, blood, homelessness, trauma, guilt, kidnapping (mentioned)

POSSIBLE ULTIMATE TOUR EXPERIENCE TICKETS: Let’s Get The Party Started, Represent, Lost In Space, Snark It Up, The More The Merrier, The Wings Of Change

Book Links

Goodreads: https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/58579886-jati-s-wager

Amazon: https://www.amazon.com/gp/product/B099QM63SQ

Author Info

Jonathan Nevair is a science fiction writer and, as Dr. Jonathan Wallis, an art historian and Professor of Art History at Moore College of Art & Design, Philadelphia. After two decades of academic teaching and publishing, he finally got up the nerve to write fiction. Jonathan grew up on Long Island, NY but now resides in southeast Pennsylvania with his wife and rambunctious mountain feist, Cricket.

You can find him online at www.jonathannevair.com and on twitter at @JNevair

Website: https://www.jonathannevair.com/

Twitter: https://twitter.com/JNevair

Instagram: https://www.instagram.com/jnevair/

Publisher Info

Shadow Spark Publishing

Website: https://shadowsparkpub.com/

Twitter: https://twitter.com/ShadowSparkPub

Instagram: http://instagram.com/shadowsparkpub

Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/shadowsparkpub/

The Unseen, by Laury Silvers: A Release Day Review

The Unseen, as well as being a police procedural set in 10th century Baghdad, is also an investigation of the balance men and women must find between their existence in the physical world and their desire for human connection and love, and the call of the immanent god to a greater purpose, the subsumation of the life of the flesh in the life of the spirit. That Laury Silvers manages to balance the temporal story of her characters with their spiritual journeys in both a setting and faith unfamiliar to many readers (including me) speaks to her skill as a writer.

The title, as always with Laury Silvers’ books, has multiple meanings within the text, but one ‘unseen’ is the Twelfth Imam. Hidden from view; his very existence is a point of debate and division among the Shia of Baghdad. With tensions already high, when a man is killed in a way that parallels the death of a martyr two hundred years earlier, the city is ready to explode into violence. Grave Crimes investigators Ammar and Tein must find the man responsible before the caliph’s troops enforce peace. But Tein’s sister Zaytuna has a prophetic dream that points to the killer – or does it?  And will Ammar and Tein listen?

As in her earlier books, The Lover and The Jealous, 10thcentury Baghdad is evoked through the senses of the characters. We see the world through their eyes, smell what they smell, taste what they taste. We know, their inner doubts and turmoil as the events of their lives, personal and public, conflict with their values. 

Parallels with today’s politics abound. Difference of opinion over who should lead them causes rifts among the Shia, providing opportunity for other to infiltrate and to feed those fires. Senior police officers are all too ready to provide a scapegoat for the crime. But alongside these conflicts, Zaytuna and Tein, and Ammar too, all have a chance to find a path to a modicum of contentment in their lives, although none easily.

By this third book, readers know the main characters well, and I found myself strongly invested in their personal stories, but also intrigued by the solving of the crime. Highly recommended for readers who want a book that asks a lot, emotionally and morally, of its characters, and does not pretend there are easy solutions.

Laury Silvers is a North American Muslim, raised in the United States but finally at home in Canada. Her research and publications as a historian of religion focused on early Islam, early Sufism, and early pious and Sufi women. She taught at Skidmore College and the University of Toronto. Silvers also published work engaging Islam and Gender in North America in academic journals and popular venues, was actively involved in the woman-led prayer movement, and co-founded the Toronto Unity Mosque. She has since retired from academia and activism and hopes her novels continue her scholarship and activism in their own way. She lives in Toronto.

Laury’s website

Amazon.com link

Legacy of the Brightwash, by Krystle Matar: A Release Day Review

The choices we make are complex, and our reasons for making them sometimes understood, sometimes not. We are influenced by our upbringing, our society and its place in it; by an immediate situation. Sometimes no choice is right, or safe, or even moral: like Odysseus, we are caught between Scylla and Charybdis, deciding which choice leads to the least grief.

Tashué Blackwood, the protagonist of Legacy of the Brightwash, is a man who has had to make such a choice. In a complex world of power and subservience, Tashué walks carefully, following the law and staying safe, even through the imprisonment of his son for refusing to give in to the laws of the Authority and register his Talent; even through seeing his son’s mother taken to a breeding program to give more children with Talent to the Authority.

But all men have a breaking point. For Tashué, it is the discovery of a mutilated child’s body on the banks of the Brightwash, a child with an unfamiliar tattoo on its neck. Torn by offered power and influence; by a woman whose love is forbidden to him; by his love for his son and by his own conscience, Tashué is a man fighting not only a corrupt society, but his own past.

Krystle Matar’s debut novel has both outstanding world-building and character development. There is nothing superficial or stereotypical about either her world or the people in it. While clear parallels can be drawn between Matar’s fictional world and our own, it stands as a unique creation. We are shown pieces of its structure, but like a partially completed jigsaw puzzle the outline is there, and some parts are more complete than others, but it’s not a finished picture – just like most of us don’t have a thorough picture of our own histories, either personal or of the world in which we live. Instead we have hints, echoes, memories, allowing the reader to slowly build a concept of what has shaped both the world and its inhabitants.

It’s an immersive world: Matar uses all our senses to evoke luxury, horror, pain, exhaustion, love. Characters’ thoughts are shown to us, their fears and obsessions, their momentary joys, their disgust and doubts. That Tashué is a tormented man is made abundantly clear. Matar is a skilled writer: words and sentences and paragraphs flow, show, sometimes overwhelm the reader with sensation and emotion.

The magic – Talent – is nearly irrelevant to the book, except as a metaphor for difference, for something that can be used to separate one group of people from another, to control and degrade – and sometimes because of that constant debasement, explode. The truth behind the mutilated child is both horrifying and a logical extension of the arrogance and privilege of the ruling class who see only themselves as truly human.

Legacy of the Brightwash isn’t an easy book; it raises many questions that resonate in our current world. Its ending raises more questions than it answers: mysteries have been solved, but Tashué is far from being free of conflict – nor is he likely to be. Truly a magnificent first novel. I look forward to its sequel.

Featured image: Image by Brigitte is always pleased to get a coffee from Pixabay 

The Archive, by Dan Fitzgerald: The Maer Cycle (#2)

Published: December 4, 2020

Genre: Fantasy

Age Group: Adult

Pages: 306


In Hollow Road (book 1), three companions discovered the monsters of legend were all too real…

Rumors among the Maer tell of an underground library called the Archive, which houses a wealth of knowledge and terrible magics that could be used to start the biggest war seen since the Great Betrayal. A mixed group of humans and Maer set off on an historic quest to find the Archive and protect it from those who would use it to destroy everything they hold dear. As the cold of winter bears down upon them, they trek through forbidding mountains beset by dangers they could have never imagined. They follow a set of ancient clues deep into the Silver Hills, forging surprising alliances and making new enemies.

The humans and Maer are linked by more than their quest to find the Archive and stop an insidious war. A mystical surrogacy may bridge the gap between two peoples, and many hearts entwine as their adventure hurtles toward its bloody conclusion.


In The Archive, Dan Fitzgerald returns to some of the same themes as in Hollow Road, Book I of The Maer Cycle: the building of alliances through communication and a defense against a mutual enemy; the importance of shared language and history; the understanding that arises from seeing past external differences to find common humanity.

The human protagonists from Hollow Road: Sinnie, Finn, and Carl, along with Maer companions, including Finn’s lover Fabaris, are seeking The Archive, a legendary repository of the written history of the Maer. Believed to lie deep in the mountains, finding it entails more than one danger. Among those dangers are the Wild, or Free, Maer: clans who have remained living outside of the settled Maer community. Enemies of both the Maer and humans, they will need to be convinced – by diplomacy or a show of force – that these strangers are not there to destroy or assimilate them, but for a greater cause, one that is as important to the Free Maer, too.

The world Fitzgerald has created is expanded in The Archive; the reader learns more about its history, its geography, and its cultures, while still leaving us with tantalizingly unanswered questions to draw us into the next book. It, like its predecessor, is a quiet book, primarily character-driven. There is plenty of conflict, but not often the sort that needs weapons to solve, although battle will play an important role.

Relationships develop further in this book, both friendships and sexual relationships (of many kinds, all seamlessly fitting into the story and the world), and with those relationships characters too are deepened and developed, increasing the stakes and the emotional impact of events. One of my small niggles with the story came here: in furthering Finn and Carl’s relationships, Sinnie seemed to be neglected – or perhaps my sense of her as a little on the sidelines is purposeful.

Once or twice specific word choices jarred me out of the pre-industrial world Fitzgerald’s characters inhabit, but overall the writing is smooth and effective; the plot and action well-paced, and the characters compelling. Oh, and did I say there are dragons? Feathered dragons! Strongly recommended for readers who want more from a fantasy world than battles, blood and beer.

Amazon: https://www.amazon.com/dp/B08M68H1HQ

Goodreads: https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/55780840-the-archive

Giveaway!

http://www.rafflecopter.com/rafl/display/e832e98855/?

About the Author

Dan Fitzgerald is a fantasy writer living in the Capitol Hill neighborhood of Washington, DC with his wife, twin boys, and two cats. When he is not writing, he might be gardening, doing yoga, cooking, or listening to French music. 

His debut fantasy novel Hollow Road, the first book in The Maer Cycle trilogy, was published in September by Shadow Spark Publishing. The Archive comes out on December 4, and the trilogy concludes with The Place Below in March 2021.

Books and merchandise are available at https://shadowsparkpub.com/dan-fitzgerald.

Find out more about Dan and his books at http://www.danfitzwrites.com, or find him on Twitter or Instagram, with the handle danfitzwrites in both places.  

Author Links

Website: http://www.danfitzwrites.com/

Twitter: https://twitter.com/danfitzwrites

Instagram: https://www.instagram.com/danfitzwrites

Goodreads: https://www.goodreads.com/danfitzwrites

Hollow Road, by Dan Fitzgerald

I’m pleased to be participating in the Storytellers on Tour blog tour for Hollow Road, Book I of The Maer Cycle by Dan Fitzgerald.

Legends describe the Maer as savage man-beasts haunting the mountains, their bodies and faces covered with hair. Creatures of unimaginable strength, cunning, and cruelty. Bedtime stories to keep children indoors at night. Soldiers’ tales to frighten new recruits.

It is said the Maer once ruled the Silver Hills, but they have long since passed into oblivion.

This is the story of their return.

Carl, Sinnie and Finn, three companions since childhood, are tasked with bringing a friend’s body home for burial. Along the way, they find there is more to the stories than they ever imagined, and the mountains hold threats even darker than the Maer. What they discover on their journey will change the way they see the world forever.

Travel down Hollow Road to find out which legends are true, and which have been twisted.

Three friends on a journey together: what a classic start to a fantasy story! Two men: an apprentice mage and a soldier; one woman, a skilled archer. They’ve been hired (and well paid) to take the dead body of a friend back home for burial. Too well paid, in truth. Why?

Danger lies on the road home; danger that comes from legend and story: the Maer, a humanoid people reputed to be cruel, fierce fighters. But as Finn, Sinnie and Carl discover, the perceived danger from the Maer is mostly that: a perception, the result of fear and lack of communication. The Maer are as human as they are, although their appearance is different, and their culture perhaps more advanced than the three companions’ own.

Hollow Road is the first book of a trilogy. It serves as a wonderful introduction to Fitzgerald’s world, introducing the societies, the conflicts, and the main characters deftly. The three main characters are distinct personalities: conflicted Carl, who’d wanted to be a mage but had no skill; Sinnie, a woman who knows she can’t settle to the village life of her mother; Finn, the young adept who quickly will outstrip his mentors. Each has a role to play in the tentative alliance with the Maer, and each have things to learn from them.

The scale of Hollow Road appealed to me. The world is small (so far); the action takes place in a limited geography, devoid of huge armies, fortresses to storm, or vast distances to travel. Sufficient small details build the world without weighing down the story, building a believable iron-age society with some magic, but not so much that it dominates. Finn’s body magic assists the trio in their goals, but only in a way equivalent to Carl’s prowess with a sword and Sinnie’s skilled archery.

I had two small niggles with the story, neither major. One is the pacing of fighting scenes, where I felt tension could have been increased by a change in the rhythm of the narrative; the other is in some of the language in dialogue. Fitzgerald’s characters speak naturally, often using modern words in an iron-age setting, and while for the most part I didn’t find this jarring, one or two words did jump out at me as inappropriate.

As with all good speculative fiction, Fitzgerald has asked some hard questions about our society; about how we judge and fear people by their outward appearance. His characters – and readers – see that once true dialogue begins, commonalities outweigh differences. But while individuals learn this, and accept the Maer as human, will the Realm, the larger government which is only hinted at in this first book? Hollow Road ends with questions that should make the reader impatient for the next book in the trilogy, The Archive, due out December 4th. It certainly made me frustrated that I couldn’t keep reading the story immediately!  Strongly recommended for readers who like character-based fantasy with a solid plot.

Win a signed paperback copy (US only) of Hollow Road!

September 13, 2020 at 12:00am EDT to September 20, 2020 at 11:59pm EDT

Hollow Road by Dan Fitzgerald. Adult Fantasy, 243 pages, published: September 17, 2020 by Shadow Spark Publishing.

Book Links

Goodreads: https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/54801285-hollow-road

Amazon: https://www.amazon.com/dp/B08FDPR332

Author Information

Dan Fitzgerald is a fantasy writer living in the Capitol Hill neighborhood of Washington, DC with his wife, twin boys, and two cats. When he is not writing, he might be gardening, doing yoga, cooking, or listening to French music.

Find out more about Dan and his books at www.danfitzwrites.com, or find him on Twitter or Instagram, with the handle danfitzwrites in both places.

Author Links

Website: http://www.danfitzwrites.com/

Twitter: https://twitter.com/DanFitzWrites

Instagram: https://www.instagram.com/danfitzwrites/

Goodreads: https://www.goodreads.com/danfitzwrites

Ruskin’s Copper Shadow, by Jennifer Wineberg

Ruskin’s Copper Shadow is set in Victorian times, and it has the feel of a Victorian novel, a mix of Dickens and Trollope and a touch of Wilkie Collins. Not quite a roman à clef, nonetheless the life and passions of its central character, the Canon, reflect and mirror in spirit some of the life of the polymath and social reformer John Ruskin.

John Ruskin

For a modern novel, the pacing is slow and the story, like a stream in summer, slowly meanders among characters and settings, but if you relax and drift along, the view is enjoyable. A debut novel based to some extent on some unexplained history in the author’s family, it examines the all-to-frequent occurrence in Victorian (and later) society – who fathered the child of a servant? It looks at the manners and expectations of Victorian society, and the gulf between the strict propriety of the Church and the upper classes, and humane behavior; it examines guilt and redemption.

Ruskin’s Copper Shadow won’t appeal to everyone. It’s very much an allegory: several characters have no identity beyond their titles: the Canon, the Magistrate; others are stock figures. But they were in Dickens, too, many times. Sometimes the reasons for the Canon’s behaviour are unclear, as that meandering stream divides and one stream goes underground for a while here and there, but it always re-emerges.  I enjoyed where its currents took me.

Amazon.com

Photo credits:

Featured Image: Wallington Hall, Northumbria: Glen Bowman, licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license.

Portrait of John Ruskin by W.& D. Downey, Photographers, London. Public Domain.

(By one of those strange 6 degrees of separation coincidences, the photographer William Downey was the grandfather (or maybe great uncle) of a friend of my father’s here in Canada.)

Songbird: A Novel of the Tudor Court

A review with a guest blog from the author, Karen Heenan.

I absorbed my father’s love for Tudor history almost by osmosis, and it’s never left me, although the better-known aspects of Henry VIII’s six wives and his rift with the Roman Catholic Church were never the parts that interested me the most. Social history and the lives of people who were not courtiers or nobles, but still affected by the massive changes that Henry brought to England during his reign, are my area.

Karen Heenan’s Songbird caught my attention as soon as I heard about it, pre-publication. I knew about Henry’s love for music: he was reputed to be a skilled musician himself. I knew, vaguely, that he had court singers and minstrels, and with a little thought I would have related the name William Cornysh with Henry’s court, and I might have even known he had something to do with music.

This tale of Bess, a young girl sold to the King for her pure, lovely voice, and of her training to be part of the troupe of singers who entertained Henry and his court plunges the reader into the lives of a group of young men and women of the back corridors and rooms of the palaces. Like all royal servants, they had little control over their lives; they were subject to royal demands and whimsies: sing now; travel now; perform now, as they moved in and out of favour.

It would be easy to see them as pawns, unimportant, but Heenan crafts a rich and satisfying story around three lives, the girl Bess, the boy Tom, and the outsider Robin. The names expected in a Tudor court story are there, of course: Henry himself, Queen Katherine, Anne Boleyn, Cardinal Wolsey. But they are the minor characters.  Through Bess’s eyes, we see events unfolding that are familiar to any student of Tudor history, but we also see the intimate details of her own.

Heenan writes with confidence and style, vividly drawing the reader into the Tudor court. Each character in her story is fully real, even the enigmatic Robin, and as they mature over the course of the book, their personalities develop. They become much more complex, but in ways that seem fully consistent with the children the reader first meets.

Court intrigues and politics; the fear of almost-random death from disease or accident; the divisions of class and the restrictions of religion: all these form the background to a bittersweet love story that unfolds over the course of the story. Each colours Bess’s view of life. her expectations, and her determination to grasp as much control of her life as is possible for a young woman in her position.

I wanted to read this book in one long sitting, immersing myself in its beautifully drawn world both familiar and new. I didn’t: I rationed myself, to enjoy it longer. I await its planned sequel with impatience.

William Cornysh and the Alchemy of Fiction

by Karen Heenan

Songbird was inspired by a throwaway fact in a biography of Henry VIII: the music-obsessed King once purchased a child from his mother to sing in the chapel choir. That was all it took to send me down the rabbit hole of history.

Then, of course, it occurred to me that meant I would be writing a book about music. I knew next to nothing about Tudor-era music, its structure, or its instruments. Thankfully, my main character, Bess, was a singer, so I could start there and learn as I wrote.

I quickly encountered the King’s Music, the name used for the royal company of minstrels who entertained at court, both publicly and in private, and placed Bess among them.

On researching the Music, and the topic of Tudor music generally, it was impossible to miss William Cornysh, who, in addition to being a significant composer of music both religious and secular, was Master of the Children of the Chapel Royal, and also managed many of the musical and dramatic entertainments at court.

Those few facts were enough to start building the man, and then, with the strange alchemy that is fiction, when I learned more about him, those new facts fit the character I had created. Cornysh was talented, hard-working, and seemingly underappreciated, having only been rewarded with a grant of property shortly before his death in 1523. He was also a father figure to the choristers, many of whom were quite young. When the court was in London, the children often spent nights at Cornysh’s house with him and his wife, Jane, giving them a taste of normal life.

Much of my research for Songbird was done in the dark days of the pre-internet era, which on one hand meant I stumbled across interesting facts that I didn’t know I needed, but on the other meant I didn’t always find what I needed, except by the same happy accident.

As an example, the story had moved on from Bess’s early days with the Music, and Cornysh was mentioned only rarely. Then, while reading an online article totally unrelated to him, I saw a mention of his sudden death.

What to do? He wasn’t a major character at that point, and leaving him alive wouldn’t be egregious because history would not be changed in service to the story, but my sense of accuracy meant I could not suffer a man to live who had actually died.

Back I went to give him his end, and the story was actually stronger for his loss.

Songbird is available on Amazon