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DUAL REVIEW: Spoil of War by Phoenix Sullivan

Dear Readers,

January’s review kicked off quite a discussion here and around the web about this book.  I found the review persuasive, but as the arguments dragged on and became increasingly vituperative, I decided I would have to read it for myself in order to render an informed verdict. So I did. But I am not an expert on medieval history or Arthurian legends, so I recruited Dhympna to join me in reviewing the book. We’re calling this a Dual Review because we converge to the same grades even though we focus on different issues.

Spoil of War by Phoenix SullivanDhympna:  When I first encountered Spoil of War, I was curious about a book that could arouse so much ire in not just the reviewer, but also her readership. This book also engendered some fierce knight–errants. Out of curiosity, I looked up information about the book and often, when discussing this book, the author touted her degrees, careful research, and a tenuous connection to Marion Zimmer Bradley.  Lately, she has lamented that the Dear Author readership wanted her work to be anachronistic and employ some sort of self-empowered feminist historical revision.  I seek neither to revise history nor to promote anachronistic visions of history.

I am a medieval historian. I am also a lover of old bodice rippers, dark historical fantasy, dark fantasy, and historical fiction in general. So, not only did this book tweak my professional interest, but it also tugged at my book interests.  I also often like books that the Dear Author reviewers have panned or given an F to, so when Sunita asked me to do this review, I agreed.

I am going to look at the book from three perspectives—as a work of historical fiction, as a historical fantasy, and as a historical romance.  Now, before you get your knickers in a twist and tell me that I should not be checking historicism (or what some of you call historical accuracy) because it is fiction, please remember that the author has set herself up as an authoritative source and has stated in her product description that some of the unsavoury events are in keeping with the era in question.

Spoil of War as historical fiction:

The one objective question to ask in this review is: how in keeping with history is this book is (i.e. how strong is its historicism)? It is hard to not write a textbook about how insulting this book is. It reads like a freshman final exam in which the student, who has not studied, has included everything she knows about the Middle Ages in the hope of sounding smart and earning a passing grade. Indeed, if this were an exam on the early Middle Ages (only someone who knows nothing substantive about the history of the era calls it the “Dark Ages”), this student would fail.

When I first read the description of the book, I guessed that it was set in the late 5th/early 6th centuries. Later evidence, however, indicated that the book was set in the early 5th century. The female protagonist is described as a Briton or a Celt (you hear about the “Old Blood” all too often) and the male protag is a king who grew up in Genoa and has Roman blood (this is never explained and I was not sure what was meant by this). There seems to be a lack of understanding about the different Germanic tribes that were present in England in this time period.

I pinpointed the era from this quote:

“From my Emperor, Theodosius, aye. From my uncle, Ryan, too, if the cause were favorable. From His Eminence Celestine, certainly, if the pope were to command it.” (p. 231, all references are to the nookbook version).

Theodosius II was the Eastern emperor from 408-450. Celestine I was pope from 422-432. So, from this we can gather the events taking place are during the decade in which Celestine was pope.

All the errors made me wonder if the author just pulled in every medieval factoid she found (keeping in mind that the Middle Ages span over one thousand years), but I will limit myself to some of the highlights.

  •  Oh, the difference one letter makes. Where Rian may be perfectly acceptable and I would say that name is okay, Ryan is totally a 20th century name. I googled it and (given the author’s comment on the Dear Author review) it seems the author considers a questionable baby name website as authoritative. By the way, Oxford actually publishes a dictionary for first names.
  • In the opening of the book Elsbeth welcomes her father home and is asked by a scullion maid if they are to have a welcome feast. El responds:

“No feast. Steak and squash and bread will suffice. “

  • The problem is that squash comes from the New World. Steak is just possible, but roast would be a better word. Steak is from a Norse word and Elsbeth’s family is from a different Germanic language group, not to mention that according to the OED, “steak,” as the author is using it, is from the 16th century (the Norse version means meat on a stick).
  • The idea of Britain as some sort of nascent nation that needs to be united and Leo and El’s constant discussions about Leo uniting Britain. Um. No. There was quite a bit of regionalism in Britain at this time and most of the rhetoric about kings uniting Britain came from later eras. For instance, a writer in the 15th century may try to label someone the first great British King. Indeed, Geoffrey of Monmouth in his History of the Kings of Britain is guilty of this when he, for reasons of propaganda for his monastery, turns Arthur into the first great Christian king. We see this impetus again in the 19th century as historians looking for progress look for a clear progenitor. For more information on this tendency, see Patrick Geary, Myth of Nations: The Medieval Origins of Europe.
  • Many people take for granted that theology is an ongoing process and things like Purgatory and Hell need to be created. I doubt very much that Elsbeth would be ruminating on the “Harrowing of Hell,” since it is a concept that first appears in the 8th century in didactic art and pastoral texts. Nor would she wish Leo would find himself in the ninth circle of hell, because Dante won’t write the Inferno until the 14th century.
  • I found it odd that Elsbeth and Lynette often talked about sexual sin and other aspects of theology but never said boo about the sin of suicide. The era of the great martyrs had just ended, so the Christian populace would know all about that fine line between the virtue of martyrdom and the sin of suicide.
  • El also begs God and does a “Hail Mary,” but the confession and penitential structure is not in wide use until the Fourth Lateran Council of 1215 (this is when everyone is required to go to confession).  Mariology is also not popular until the 10th century. Evidence for “Hail Mary” as a devotional practice does not exist until the 10th and early 11th centuries. And Marianism is adopted differently in different regions.
  • Why is a Briton/Celt praying to Norse deities, especially ones for which we only have textual evidence in the 8th century?  Now, I get that it is hard to keep all those pesky little Germanic tribes straight, but the Britons/Celts did have their own pantheon(s), and we have information about them. The author seems to think that Celt=Norse or Germanic tribe=Norse, which is not the case.
  • Finally, I had a good chuckle when Gareth talked about the longboats coming down the waterways to raid (he says, “I hear there are barbarian invaders to the north who ride about in longships attacking villages as they go.” p. 74). The Norse actually don’t start raiding the Anglo-Saxons regularly until the 700s. While it is probable that some Norsemen moved around in the 5th century, there seems to be confusion between this era, known as one of the greatest eras of people moving about (the Great Migration Era), and the height of Viking culture as the author is using it. It is dangerous and insulting to conflate differing Germanic groups, Celt, Druid, and Norse theologies. Syncretism did exist, but not like this.
  • Castles like the ones described in this book are purely out of the 12th century. Now, I get that this is an easy mistake to make since most of the well-known Arthurian legends come from this era or later and Camelot is often described as a kingdom out of the High Middle Ages, but still.  Elsbeth’s father would have lived in a long hall and Elsbeth probably wouldn’t have had her own room.

Now, remember that quote I started with? The one where Celestine is pope?  Towards the end of the book, Leo says:

“Pope and Rome have given their consent. Emperor Theodosius put his seal to it at Michaelmas and Constantine blessed it the day after the Feast of St. Luke.” (p. 717, my emphasis)

Normally, in a case like Leo’s, he may seek papal dispensation for his marriage (actually it is more common in the High Middle Ages, but since the author is disregarding what era her characters are in, well…in the 5th century, I am not sure the Pope or the Eastern Emperor care).  Notice that the pope changed?  The problem is that Constantine I was pope in the late 7thand early 8th centuries.

—Grade F 

Spoil of War as historical fantasy:

This book focuses primarily on Elsbeth and her constant wanking over how she feels for Leo. It contains few political machinations and if it had been labeled as such, I would have felt compelled to write a letter of complaint and request my money back because the book is heavily structured as a historical romance.  I felt the “Arthurian Legend” bits were used as window dressing for the angsty wank between Leo and El. Get rid of Uther and Cameliard and the story really has nothing to do with Arthurian legend. I was also confused to comparisons that author made between her work and Mists of Avalon—I just don’t see how they are comparable.

—Grade F

Spoil of War as historical romance:

This is the genre that Spoil fits the best.  It really appears to be a formulaic late 80s/early 90s diet bodice ripper. I say diet because it lacks colour and any sense of the vibrant effervescence that is characteristic of books from that era. El was boring, her internal whining was tiresome, and the continual “big misunderstandings” that kept her and Leo from an ongoing, frenzied bonk-fest (because when they weren’t fighting they were having very boring, very vanilla vaginal sex) threatened to turn me into a drooling narcoleptic. Seriously, the “love” scenes between Leo and El were a steady diet of lackluster “insert tab A into slot B.” If you are going to have your characters going at it like rabbits in early spring—well, rabbits in any season really—then at least shake it up and include some variety. Different locations do not count.

—Grade D-

Overall:

I was very disappointed with this book. From the disjointed, choppy writing style where the author uses faulty descriptions (smoke as thick as cheesecloth?), to the poor use of language—I felt like I was reading an essay where the author desperately wished to convey how smart she was, which meant that not only did the descriptions fail but I was left sincerely wondering about the author’s voice.  I was expecting a dark look into the baser, dank recesses of the human nature, but instead of teeth and grit, I got an old man who forgot his dentures and was gumming on my finger. This book promised a dark and gritty story and it failed to deliver.

And what was up with BDSM Uther? It would have been nice to have seen the political complexities of The Pendragon, crafted into someone who oozed evil (if you wish to go that route), rather than turning him into a comical 8-bit villain. It was all too predictable.

[Note 1: For the purpose of this review, I am defining the Early Middle Ages as 400-1000, High Middle Ages 1000-1315, and Late Middle Ages as 1315-1500. There is much debate among medievalists about how to chronologically define these eras, since eras tend to be cultural constructions that are applied by later generations.]

[Note 2: There are many other examples of word mis-usage and historical mistakes, but to list them all would have made the review even longer. These examples, as well as the primary and secondary sources used in the analysis, are discussed here.]

 

Sunita: Needless to say, I was prepared for the drumbeat of rape, violence, rape, violence, war, war, rape, violence. What I didn’t expect, given the rape/violence/war emphasis, was that the story would be so. damn. boring. Yes, boring. Even rape, violence and war are dull when the reader is forced to see them through the Elsbeth, the narrator’s, perspective. This is because Elsbeth is an annoying, tedious, immature heroine.

Elsbeth clearly sees herself as an intelligent woman, because she has long conversations with King Leo, the putative hero of the story, about the place of women in her society, how Leo’s Roman society treats women, the prevalence of war, her misery at being a captive, etc. etc. etc. When Leo isn’t around, she talks to anyone else she can find and conducts internal monologues on the same topics. But Elsbeth is one of those unfortunate people who is not nearly as smart as she thinks she is, and as a result these passages read a bit like bad high school history lectures:

Only now did it occur to her that Leo’s victory over her father had had an effect far more insinuating than she had let herself first believe, reaching into generations yet unborn, generations not yet dreamt of. Would even the child of Ruth’s child still be gnashing its teeth in anguish over Leo’s conquest? Or would the world by then have moved on, leaving some history-shaped thing abandoned on the wind-swept moors to bother one no more? Minoa had blossomed for a time, then Egypt and Greece, and no one mourned their passing save for philosophers looking for a Golden Age that had never been and now would never be. Heroes fallen, dynasties tumbled, whole peoples crushed or absorbed into the vast world scheme as the Norns kept spinning fate and weaving life and death out of the very fabric of existence.

This has nothing to do with the story, it just serves to try and convince us that Elsbeth is intelligent and well-read (how she would have come by this knowledge is its own mystery). It would be more effective if we were shown these attributes through Elsbeth’s actions. Alas, we more frequently read musings like this:

The idea of lying with the man who had warred upon her father reviled [sic] her, though reason and logic had softened her repugnance some. War, she reminded herself, was an inevitable part of life.

War may be an inevitable part of life, but getting the hots for the man who killed your beloved father and burned down your home is not. Why is she debating whether or not to lie with Leo when she succumbed to his overwhelming hotness the day after he conquered Olmsbury, when she felt “peculiar sensations through her abdomen and loins?” And a few days later she has similar sensations at Cameliard:

She was trembling again, but this time it was not from shame nor anger nor hatred. Here before the queen, before a hall full of nobility, she suddenly felt a warmth, a tensing in her loins.

There has been considerable debate about whether this book should be classified as historical fiction or historical romance, but I honestly don’t see how it could be categorized as anything but romance. I don’t know of any historical fiction written in third person POV that spends the entire book in the female protagonist’s head; not Penman, not Dunnett, not Heyer’s medievals, not Chadwick, not Pargeter. And historical fiction generally has, you know, stuff happening. In this book, exciting events occur off-page, but we don’t experience them because Elsbeth doesn’t. Almost everything we see is something that happens to Elsbeth, and that’s mostly sitting around, talking to people, having sex with Leo, or getting raped by not-Leo. Toward the end of the book Elsbeth stupidly gets caught in a big battle, but unfortunately she does not die, she just gets captured and raped again (with some gratuitous BDSM-as-perversion scenes to add insult to the tedium).

And yet, despite the utter banality of most of her thoughts and conversations, Elsbeth is seen by everyone in the book as beautiful, intelligent, brave, knowledgeable, articulate, and irresistible, essentially embodying a Mary-Sue level of perfection. Even Patrise the Welsh villain, who supposedly hates her because she sees through his ruses, was smitten from the first:

She’s a prize to turn any man’s eye. How could I resist?

Of course, Leo is the most smitten of them all. A man who loses his intelligence, sense, and backbone when he’s in the presence of the heroine may be some readers’ idea of the perfect hero, but I prefer my ideal man to have a working brain that lives north of his navel.

–Grade D- 

Sunita

 

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Sunita has been reading romances since she ran out of Cherry Ames, Student Nurse and Chalet School books and graduated to Mary Stewart and Georgette Heyer. Other old favorites include Mary Burchell, Betty Neels, Elsie Lee, and Edith Layton. Among current writers, she reads and rereads Anne Stuart, Tamara Allen, Sarah Morgan, Marion Lennox, Josh Lanyon, and Susanna Kearsley. She blogs as VacuousMinx and tweets as @sunita_p.

70 Comments

  1. Ros
    Sep 06, 2011 @ 06:45:39

    This is reviewing above and beyond the call of duty!

    For a book set in the early middle ages which also features rape and war but has considerably greater literary and historical merit, I would recommend Melvyn Bragg’s Credo. It isn’t a romance, though there is an intense love story running through the book, and it is extremely violent but I loved it. As a warning, it does have by far the most graphic and horrific rape scene I have ever read.

  2. Klio
    Sep 06, 2011 @ 07:02:23

    I’ll have to revisit this with some examples when I’m more perky and can get to my bookshelves (no, I am not starting my first morning before getting back to the workaday grind lolling dazedly half-conscious in the tub reading my favourite blogs, no, not at all), but this line from Sunita’s portion of the review puzzled me: “I don’t know of any historical fiction written in third person POV that spends the entire book in the female protagonist’s head.” I’m not sure why female POV would be a disqualifying characteristic for hist-fic. I tried to think up a few possible reasons, but that’d just be guessing what you intended.

    One book I adore–mediaeval, romantic, gritty, and all, not but so much with the rapey-is CATHERINE CALLED BIRDY. That’s written in first person, so for third person, the next one from that author, Karen Cushman: THE MIDWIFE’S APPRENTICE. Both are tight little books written for young adults, but marvellous. I have a bunch of other female-POV books on the tip of my tongue such as The Goddess of Yesterday (?), but I admit I’m fuzzy on whether they’re first or third person. And fuzzy on the titles. Gotta get out of this tub.

  3. DS
    Sep 06, 2011 @ 07:11:47

    When it comes to names, I think the SCA website should get an author within bowshot of a period name with a period spelling. At least the articles on naming cite their references unlike the average baby naming site.And to come back around, I’m pretty sure that MZB was an early member of the SCA.

  4. Lynne Connolly
    Sep 06, 2011 @ 07:13:04

    Good job, Sunita and Dymphna. Actually, I found Dymphna’s discussions of the historical aspects fascinating and I learned some details from it.

    Many times when I pick up a book set in the Regency, I feel the same way, only to be told that “this is a romance, not a history book.” To my mind, that’s no excuse, neither should it be. It’s both a history book and a romance, surely. But recently I’ve kept away, feeling like a bit of a spoilsport.
    I might well start again, in the hope of finding a great new author to read. I doubt the original reviewer picked up this book thinking she’d like a book to pick apart. She was probably (feel free to correct me if I’m wrong) looking for an interesting, unusual read.

  5. Deb
    Sep 06, 2011 @ 07:14:50

    You had me at “squash”

  6. Chelsea
    Sep 06, 2011 @ 07:25:34

    As I said before, historical accuracy is not among my hot button issues when it comes to romance. But sloppy and inconsistent character development is. I probably would have avoided this book anyway, having been warned about the frequent rapes. Telling me that the characters are stupid, underdeveloped, and dull just puts the last nail in the coffin.

  7. jmc
    Sep 06, 2011 @ 07:28:59

    Squash? My trust in the author’s historical research died right there, regardless of other content or writing issues. Squash in Arthurian Britain ranks up there with ancient Egyptians eating pizza as an anachronism that pings my bullsh!t meter.

  8. RBA
    Sep 06, 2011 @ 07:35:00

    I think there’s a difference between selective historical accuracy and historical stupidity.

    Too many historical romance writers seem to think they can mess with history however they like – and they do. I simply cannot turn off my mind enough to enjoy historicals where an author can’t even bother to make a quick trip to Wikipedia to find out who the monarch was at the time their book is set. It’s quick and painless, and I don’t ever want to pay an author who treats me like an imbecile.

    That’s one of the main reasons why I read about one historical romance for every ninety-nine contemporary romances. Even the historical heavies like Lisa Kleypas pepper their books with Americanisms and other inaccuracies.

    In the same way I hate it when romantic suspense writers completely screw up their military stuff, I believe any published historical romance writer who expects us to pay to read their work should show us some respect. They should put a decent amount of effort into researching their books.

  9. Klio
    Sep 06, 2011 @ 07:39:00

    “Steak and squash” seems like such an oddly specific thing to have the characters say, too. The author could have gone with “meat and bread and stewed vegetables” or some such thing and play it safe. Oh my, a good, full-fledged copyeditor is a book’s best friend.

  10. Dhympna
    Sep 06, 2011 @ 07:53:21

    @Klio:

    You’re right. As much as I tend to loathe using wikipedia as a sole source, quite a few of the issues I talk about could have been fixed if wiki had been consulted.

    Normally I would not care so much about “accuracy” (really historicism, because accuracy is an imprecise term) but that came up quite often in the previous discussion about this book.

  11. kara-karina
    Sep 06, 2011 @ 08:16:30

    Absolutely gorgeous review! Thank you, thank you, thank you!
    “insert tab A into slot B” – dying of laughter…

  12. helen
    Sep 06, 2011 @ 08:29:42

    Hmm, I think I’ll skip this one! One I loved (although it was set in 11th century) was Shield of Three Lions by Pamela Kaufman.

  13. Darlene Marshall
    Sep 06, 2011 @ 08:33:17

    This was such a thoughtful, insightful review. I enjoyed reading it for the scholarship the reviewers brought to their effort.I also appreciated them pointing out why you need to have both reasonable historical research and great writing if you’re going to pitch your work as “authentic”.

  14. Annemarie Hartnett
    Sep 06, 2011 @ 08:40:15

    Way to go Dymphna (and Sunita) on breaking this down so thoughtfully. Like Chelsea said, historical inaccuracy can be overlooked for an otherwise killer book, but a book that is just plain bad? Pass.

  15. Barbara
    Sep 06, 2011 @ 08:52:28

    *standing ovation*

    I really, really loved seeing the perspectives of all three reviewers and Dhympna’s just-the-facts look at it that took apart the author’s whine against January’s review frankly made me smile (I know, it’s petty of me, but there it is).

    I wonder if the Longhorn shapeshifter book that Jane reviewed would be a better investment.

  16. cayenne
    Sep 06, 2011 @ 09:14:46

    Great work, and thanks for your terrific analysis. I can tolerate a bit of inaccuracy in historicals (such as Kleypas’ Americanisms, because if I wanted to read a Regency-era romance in period prose style, I would…read one from the period), but blatant bullcrap, whinily defended when challenged by people who know what they’re talking about, is definitely not OK.

    I was also thinking of Kaufman’s Shield of Three Lions; I seem to recall it as relatively accurate, but I read it prior to gaining my history degree (lo these many years), so really, it could be be egregious crap too. I should see if my copy’s still around.

  17. Jan
    Sep 06, 2011 @ 09:29:47

    Anyone here read Danegeld by Susan Squires? I always thought that was a romance novel that painted a realistic picture of the Viking raids on Great Britain – even with the touch of magic included.

    I really liked it – even with all the violence (and there’s a lot of it both on hero and heroine).

    I’d recommend it, although now I’m a little scared it won’t be as carefully researched as I thought it was.

  18. Dhympna
    Sep 06, 2011 @ 09:34:09

    @cayenne:

    If you write a rocking, kick ass book–even I will ignore lapses in historicism.

    @Jan:

    I haven’t read that one and tend to have a soft spot for viking historical fiction (romance and not). I will have to check it out. Eh, don’t worry about suggesting it, I promise to put my red pen away. ;)

  19. Sunita
    Sep 06, 2011 @ 09:35:28

    @Klio:

    this line from Sunita’s portion of the review puzzled me: “I don’t know of any historical fiction written in third person POV that spends the entire book in the female protagonist’s head.” I’m not sure why female POV would be a disqualifying characteristic for hist-fic. I tried to think up a few possible reasons, but that’d just be guessing what you intended.

    Ach, I put that very badly. What I meant was that a single POV seems rare in historical fiction unless it’s first person (if a random check of my bookshelf is any indication). There is usually a lot of plot, and the author shows events from multiple perspectives.

    Thinking about it further, I think that a female POV is likely to be even more problematic for a number of historical settings because there were a lot of places women couldn’t easily go and so information would have to come through dialogue, exposition, etc.

    I didn’t mean to say that I don’t like female POV, I do. I just want the female to be interesting!

    And thanks for the compliments, everyone! All credit should go to Dhympna. I am not at all knowledgeable about this era, so a lot of the mistakes went right past me. If the characters and story had been good I would probably have enjoyed it, given my ignorance.

  20. Sunita
    Sep 06, 2011 @ 09:36:55

    What Dhympna said:

    If you write a rocking, kick ass book–even I will ignore lapses in historicism.

  21. Jackie Barbosa
    Sep 06, 2011 @ 10:01:54

    I commented the other day on Twitter that it seemed Jennifer Blake’s comment that Spoil of War contained “myriad period details” seemed accurate–as long as one assumed that she meant details from myriad periods.

    The errors in religion/theology would probably have gone right over my head (I studied Classics, but anything after Hadrian’s reign ended in 138 CE is pretty hazy for me), and I honestly don’t know that I’d have figured out it was set in the 400s as opposed to, say, the 1,000s.

    But squash? In Britain? Before Columbus? Seriously?

  22. Introducing the “mistorical,” and The Uses and Limits of History in Romance - Dear Author
    Sep 06, 2011 @ 10:33:19

    […] DUAL REVIEW: Spoil of War by Phoenix Sullivan […]

  23. cayenne
    Sep 06, 2011 @ 10:38:09

    @Jackie Barbosa:

    But squash? In Britain? Before Columbus? Seriously?

    You’d be surprised (or maybe you wouldn’t be) by how many people have no clue about food origins – they figure that a food has always been here. My declared areas in history were military & North American Colonial, but my major interest is in transformative episodes (plagues, volcanos, mass migrations and conquests, etc.) and follow-on effects. Unfortunately, many, many people learn world history in date lists and cute mnemonics, which don’t provide context. If someone wasn’t aware of anything other than “in 1492, Columbus sailed the ocean blue”, they would be unaware that the Columbus and the other colonizers brought back corn/maize, squash/pumpkin, tomatoes, potatoes, chocolate, and chilies, and that if it hadn’t been for the Indians teaching colonists about cultivating the Three Sisters, the US probably wouldn’t be here.

    So the inclusion of something like that in a supposedly Middle Ages book would stand out to me as a head-shaker, but I’d mostly accept it as proof that the author is an idiot who doesn’t do research.

  24. L.K. Rigel
    Sep 06, 2011 @ 10:59:01

    I’m drooling over that dictionary of first names.

    Thanks for this useful and entertaining review.

  25. Angela
    Sep 06, 2011 @ 11:00:44

    @Sunita:

    Ach,…

    And now I read your entire comment with a Scottish accent – I think this is what I get for doing my re-read of Kresley Cole’s Immortals After Dark :P

    @Jan: Definitely adding the Susan Squires book to my TBR! I love Viking historicals

  26. Patricia Briggs
    Sep 06, 2011 @ 12:01:06

    Robert Gellis is my go-to author for romance/historical set in the middle ages. Happily, I’ve recently noticed that they are being republished by various houses (Harlequin did a few, Ellora’s Cave is doing some). I have several of my own copies of all of her books.

    I’ve got a degree in history, but I can mostly ignore stuff even as egregious as battles that are rearranged — except for one in which the author acknowledged the change, but said in the end notes that she did it for “dramatic effect” when it was obviously a too-late noticed mistake. Had the battles happened in her book’s order, it would have changed the outcome of the Napoleonic war. Switching-up which ruler should be on the throne or midieval Irish peasants eating potatoes doesn’t cause much more than a snicker (unless it is supposed to be a historical novel). But for some reason, hay bales make me crazy. Middle Ages folk apparently ride on hay bales in wagons. Regency misses sit on the hay bale in their stable while being seduced by their handsome lord.
    Hay bales are modern era. When I was a kid, my old riding teacher would talk about the days of loose hay with reverse nostalgia.

  27. Michelle
    Sep 06, 2011 @ 13:05:27

    I wonder if Jennifer Blake’s sales were affected at all. It just seems so dishonest to give a glowing review to a terrible book just because the author is family.

  28. Saranna DeWylde
    Sep 06, 2011 @ 13:09:24

    I drooled when I read about that dictionary of first names. I must have it.

    A very thorough analysis, Dhympna.

  29. Jayne
    Sep 06, 2011 @ 13:30:22

    @Angela: I read the Squires book when it was released and remember liking it. One thing readers might want to know is that the hero is raped by the villain.

  30. Angela
    Sep 06, 2011 @ 13:44:41

    @Saranna DeWylde: I drooled over the dictionary of first names too, especially as I was just looking for something like that this weekend!

    @Jayne: Thank you! Definitely good to know going in :) I looked for it in Kindle, but didn’t see it. Will have to check the UBS.

  31. Courtney Milan
    Sep 06, 2011 @ 13:53:52

    This review had me clicking the “order” button instantly.

    …and I can’t wait to get my new OUP book of names.

  32. Janine
    Sep 06, 2011 @ 14:20:46

    @Courtney Milan: LOL! Maybe we should put in buy buttons for that? I have the Oxford Dictionary of English Surnames but now I want the one for first names too.

  33. Aleksandr Voinov
    Sep 06, 2011 @ 15:38:17

    Yeah, I just bought the book on the founding myths of Europe. (And another one. Godsdamn the book-buying trigger-finger.)

    Also, while it seems almost a waste of time to expend so much energy on such a car crash of a book, the reviews were awesome – really funny, well-written and insightful. Dhympna made me laugh out loud several times. Great work, and for a noble cause, too.

  34. Dhympna
    Sep 06, 2011 @ 15:50:34

    I subscribe to the Medieval Review (anyone can add their email to the list-serve, reviews for various medieval monographs and anthologies are emailed out)and a favorable review for Britain After Rome: The Fall and Rise 400-1070 just appeared in my email inbox. It focuses more on material/archaeological evidence.

    @Aleksandr Voinov:

    Thanks Aleks. I hope you enjoy the Geary.

  35. Jayne
    Sep 06, 2011 @ 16:11:56

    @Courtney Milan: I could see myself getting lost in that book of first names and not emerging for days. And then only for enough water and sustenance to keep me going for a few more days.

  36. Dhympna
    Sep 06, 2011 @ 16:15:46

    @Jayne:

    I guess I should mention (or shouldn’t if you are going to get lost in it) that Oxford also offers the dictionary as an electronic database. Most university will have access as well as (possibly) bigger municipal libraries.

    I get lost in the online Oxford Historical Thesaurus.

  37. Deb
    Sep 06, 2011 @ 16:21:21

    Because one of my favorite hobbies as a ten year old- and as a 39 year old- is to sit with a dictionary of Greek mythology, add me to the list of people biting their lips over the name dictionary.

  38. Lynn S.
    Sep 06, 2011 @ 16:32:01

    Shouldn’t the cover of this book have been a neon-lit hint on what the reader was getting into. Screams it out to me with no uncertainty. The fact that the author appears to want to cloak the prurient nature of what she is selling in the guise of history and then can’t get the history remotely right is laughable.

    @Klio: Regarding the weirdness of the steak and squash, I’m going to guess the author at least knew meat and potatoes was a modern phrase.

  39. Dhympna
    Sep 06, 2011 @ 16:36:21

    @Lynn S.:

    See, but even the cover let me down because the prurient elements lacked prurient pruriency. I wanted prurient and I got vanilla mush.

    That and the chick on the cover looks nothing like how El is described.

  40. L.K. Rigel
    Sep 06, 2011 @ 16:55:38

    About that dictionary …

    This reminds me of that scene in Say Anything where Ione Skye shows John Cusack her dictionary. I’ll bet all of us drooling over the names dictionary related to that scene, ha.

  41. Unbiased Observer
    Sep 06, 2011 @ 17:16:16

    @Dhympna: @Lynn S.:

    For me, the cover was a flashing neon hint that this story wouldn’t be historically accurate. I workout five days a week, yet I don’t have half the muscles of that King Leo guy. I guess he ushered in the era of PX90 as well as high-rise castles.

  42. Klio
    Sep 06, 2011 @ 17:23:22

    @cayenne:

    they would be unaware that the Columbus and the other colonizers brought back corn/maize, squash/pumpkin, tomatoes, potatoes, chocolate, and chilies

    This reminded me of the Blackadder episode when they’ve brought potatoes back to England and no one is quite sure what to do with them. I think in a dandy play on tobacco they settle on “smoke them.” By which I mean to say, even someone with a pop-culture knowledge of history should, if one wants to be an author, be aware enough to have noticed that all foods weren’t available to all peoples in all times. Well, one should.

    Add me to the list for dictionary lust. Many of my friends and relatives couldn’t understand why the heaviest thing I toted back with me from living overseas was a great big wonderful dictionary.

  43. Dhympna
    Sep 06, 2011 @ 17:23:23

    @Unbiased Observer:

    I feel like I have to point out that a cover is not truly indicative of accuracy. I just read two erotica stories that had awful, modern, horrid, and anachronistic covers, and yet the author managed to be pretty true to the time periods she was writing about.

    I don’t judge historicism by a book’s cover. If I had been, then those two books would have been worse than SoW in terms of being “accurate.”

  44. Jayne
    Sep 06, 2011 @ 18:33:17

    @Dhympna: Cruel Temptress!

  45. Janine
    Sep 06, 2011 @ 18:57:14

    @Jayne & @Angela:

    I read the Squires book when it was released and remember liking it. One thing readers might want to know is that the hero is raped by the villain.

    There was also a horrific rape of a secondary character (the heroine’s mother, perhaps?). But otherwise I remember liking Danegeld too.

  46. etv13
    Sep 06, 2011 @ 19:04:01

    For my money, the definitive 5th-century King Arthur book (but definitely not a romance) is Rosemary Sutcliff’s Sword at Sunset. (I own a copy of The Mists of Avalon, but could not get through it. I keep it simply because for a while I had a collection of Arthuriana going.) My all-time favorite medieval romance is Grace Ingram’s Red Adam’s Lady. (Which, interestingly, dates to the early 1970’s and yet features a terrific heroine who manages to keep the hero from raping her by knocking him on the head with a stool, yet is far from being unrealistically “spunky” or “feminist”. Also the hero, when he comes to his senses, comes to his senses and is pretty damn terrific too.) And to whoever mentioned Pargeter (Sunita?): I loved The Bloody Field and The Marriage of Meggota, but can’t bring myself to re-read them because they are so sad.

  47. Lynn S.
    Sep 06, 2011 @ 22:25:22

    @Dhympna: I was going to mention the lack of prurient punch but pulled back since I haven’t read the book and don’t intend to. So while the problems with the history are obvious, the pruriency isn’t for me to comment on (just between us, I imagine vanilla was generous of you). I’ll agree that the publishing industry is interesting with the covers and you can’t use them as indicators. But this book is self-published,the author is in control of that aspect, and I know what the cover is saying to me although there is also a sword in a stone on the cover, so maybe I’m missing the bigger picture. On the sillier side, do you think that Elsbeth-like models have more dignity perhaps?

    Jayne is right (and wouldn’t Cruel Temptress make a great name for a novel).

  48. Dhympna
    Sep 06, 2011 @ 22:38:00

    @Lynn S.:
    Here is the original stock photo. (I know someone who was thinking of using it.) Not much was really done to alter it.

    You’re right. You can do more with your cover when you self-publish. I normally grade book covers on my site and this one would not rank terribly high because of the inconsistencies.

    @Jayne:
    Y’all had better be good or I will find new dictionaries to tempt you all with. ;)

  49. Dhympna
    Sep 06, 2011 @ 22:40:10

    I would like to thank Isobel Carr who helped keep me sane and contributed a few items to the list that is appended to my review. I was remiss in doing so in my original review.

  50. Rebecca LB
    Sep 07, 2011 @ 01:34:50

    As a fellow medievalist (just grading the first batch of student papers), I cannot express how much I appreciate this review. YES.

    Thank you @Dhympna!

    Out of curiosity, are there medieval romances that you would particularly recommend? It is a genre I generally avoid because of historical inaccuracies. I can look over historical inaccuracies in regencies and other periods. But I didn’t spend years reading primary sources from those periods. (And secondary sources, and teaching…) I don’t mind some historical inaccuracies as long as its a great story as well, though they are some things that will completely jar me out of a story (generally perceptions of religion in the Middle Ages).

    What am I missing out on?

  51. KKJ
    Sep 07, 2011 @ 03:05:57

    (warning: lurker coming out of the closet….)

    In seeking out historical romance, I would never be drawn to something like Spoil of War simply because of the godawful cheesy-porn cover art. Which makes the tacked-on “Arthurian Saga” subtitle even more pathetically ironic (ironically pathetic?) – it just screams “TAKE ME SERIOUSLY, PRETTY PLEASE?”

    Here’s a tip: MZB and Rosemary Sutcliff wrote Arthurian Sagas. Mary Stewart’s Merlin Trilogy is an Arthurian Saga. Don’t even THINK of comparing yourself to them. Doing so immediately results in an “I’ve read Mary Stewart, and you, ma’am, are no Mary Stewart” gag reflex.

    If you tout your Master’s in English as a credential, you obviously had to go through rigorous academic reviews to earn that degree. Now ask yourself this: if you submitted a dissertation that jackhammered Dante’s nine circles of hell into a polytheistic Celtic worldview, how would you defend it to the committee?

    Would your professors pat you on the head with an indulgent smile before handing over your gift-wrapped invitation to the Pulitzer Prize ceremony, or would they rip you a new one after recovering from the laughing-induced chair-falling?

  52. Jayne
    Sep 07, 2011 @ 03:49:54

    @Rebecca LB: I would agree with ETV13’s rec of “Red Adam’s Lady.” In fact, you can read my review of it here.

    http://dearauthor.com/book-reviews/draft-red-adams-lady-by-grace-ingram/

  53. coribo25
    Sep 07, 2011 @ 06:12:05

    @Rebecca LB: Elizabeth Chadwick (the english one) writes a whole range of medieval romances usually based around real characters from history. She’s also a medieval re enacter and I have to say her stories feel right and are great reads. Also Sharon Kay Penman is worth a try.

  54. Mely
    Sep 07, 2011 @ 10:01:13

    This was a really great set of reviews! I appreciated both Dhympna’s historical perspective and Sunita’s more literary narrative and trope analysis. But I do second @Klio’s nitpick about Sunita’s statement that:

    I don’t know of any historical fiction written in third person POV that spends the entire book in the female protagonist’s head; not Penman, not Dunnett, not Heyer’s medievals, not Chadwick, not Pargeter.

    Like @Klio, I don’t think that the historical is defined by (or distinguished from romance by) the multiple POV characters or by only having single male POVs (and like Klio I also adore Karen Cushman’s medievals. :) Books I would classify as historical fiction with female narrators/single POV characters include Cecelia Holland’s Great Maria, Gillian Bradshaw’s The Beacon at Alexandria, Tracy Barrett’s Daughter of Byzantium, Elizabeth George Speare’s The Witch at Blackbird Pond, Laurie Halse Anderson’s Chains, Katherine Beutner’s Alcestis (possibly more historical fantasy than historical fiction), Elizabeth Wein’s A Coalition of Lions … A lot of these (but not all) have romantic elements, but only one them fits the HEA requirement of romance-as-a-genre and even that one spends a lot of time on the protagonist’s interactions with people besides her romantic interest. I might argue from my list that the single female POV/narrator form is more typical of YA historical fiction than adult, but I’d want to think about it more first.

    In some ways I feel like this is belaboring a trivial point, but I also feel like it gets at ideas about what’s considered “historical fiction” and what’s considered “historical romance” and how frequently women’s narratives are (mis-)characterized as romance even when they’re not. I’m not saying that Sunita is trying to dismiss women’s non-romance narratives! It’s easier for me to think historical novels with a single male narrator/POV character than a single female one, and I think that’s telling, just as much as the popularity of single vs. multiple perspectives in novels says something about what we culturally consider necessary to construct historical narratives.

    And I do think that’s something that goes back to the book in question, and its author’s and readers’ assumptions about the constraints that existed on women’s lives, and the stories that can be told about women’s lives, at other times in history. I generally find that — as undeniably sexist and limited as most of history over most of the earth was for most women — women frequently were accorded more social and sometimes more legal power than pop history beliefs indicate.

  55. Sunita
    Sep 07, 2011 @ 10:12:51

    @Mely: Thanks very much for those suggestions! As I said upthread in a response to Klio, I was drawing on my bookshelf, not doing a random search.

    You’re both quite right, and I think the point I was trying (and failing) to make was that the single-person narrative (whether male or female) is more difficult because it requires other ways of providing the information. Of course authors can do it, and good ones often do, so that they can keep the immediacy and power of the single-POV.

    In this book the problem for me was that Elsbeth’s life was mostly that of a captive, and her thoughts were mostly uninteresting, so the single-POV really closed the reader in. It exacerbated the weaknesses of the book.

  56. Sunita
    Sep 07, 2011 @ 10:24:01

    @etv13: Yes, I can’t reread the Pargeter either, for the same reason. But what a phenomenal series.

    @Aleksandr Voinov: Believe me, we thought about that. But it’s as much about the claims for the book as the book itself, and I didn’t feel comfortable addressing the claims without a full read and review.

  57. Unbiased Observer
    Sep 07, 2011 @ 10:39:24

    @Mely:

    “I generally find that — as undeniably sexist and limited as most of history over most of the earth was for most women — women frequently were accorded more social and sometimes more legal power than pop history beliefs indicate.”

    Interesting. My experience has been different, for the most part, in that I’ve found women to have had less power than pop history indicates (a notable exception being parts of East Asia where women were equal with men until the spread of Confucianism). Maybe that is because pop history focuses on outliers like Joan of Arc, etc.?

    Can you provide an example or two of common women having more power than previously thought?

  58. Joanne Renaud
    Sep 07, 2011 @ 16:54:08

    Thanks for figuring out what year this book takes place, Dhympna. A friend of mine asked the author when the book takes place, and she never answered. So this book allegedly takes place in the 420s-430s? That’s… interesting. I love how the Byzantine character is named ‘Lynette.’ Lynette the Byzantine.

    …Yeah.

    Another historical nitpick: how the hell does Elsbeth know about Minoan Crete? Or ‘Minoa’ as Ms. Sullivan calls it. The term ‘Minoan’– to describe Bronze age Cretan civilization– was coined by Arthur Evans in the early 1900s. It was Evans who discovered these people, what they did, what they looked like– the Minoans had been lost to history for millenia. Even the Romans had no idea who they were, asides from a vague idea about Minos and Pasiphae. AARGH!

  59. GrowlyCub
    Sep 08, 2011 @ 06:37:22

    @Rebecca LB:

    Roberta Gellis has written some terrific medieval roms (the Roselynde sextet taking place during Henry II’s, Richard Lionheart’s and John Lackland’s reigns); her earlier books written in the 60s can also be defined as rom, but may have some elements that could turn modern rom readers off a tad. I love them even though they contain one of my absolute no-nos (Bond of Blood, Knight’s Honor, The Sword and the Swan, mostly Stephen’s reign and the conflict with Matilda).

    I highly recommend Gellis.

  60. Klio
    Sep 08, 2011 @ 08:32:27

    I’m enjoying all the new discussion this peculiar book has inspired. I’m sorry to see the thread slide away down the front page into the past :)

    @Unbiased Observer: What sort of power are you thinking of? Equality in written law, or equality in the practicality of day-day life? An ancient Egyptian, a Roman shopkeeper, or a library scholar, a high priestess with religious exceptions, or an independent concubine, a Theodosian queen, or a French king’s mistress? I know that one form of legal power is more difficult to pin down than the other, and women were often pushed back into restrictive boxes when things became too lax in practice, but exploring that is one of the joys of historical fiction (and straight-up historical study) to me.

    On the broader question of providing a comprehensive POV through a single female character: if the setting isn’t completely restricted to a few hundred naked Spartans (I will pause and contemplate that a moment), an author should be able to find a plethora of POVs. There are myriad ways a woman can witness the events of her time, the machinations of rulers, the churning of religious conflict, or the struggles of science and literature and exploration, without being, say, a participant in warfare. Though you could find woman who did that too, or who could be inserted as a POV (Ahmose Nefertari, Fulvia, Cleopatra, Boudicca, etc.). I don’t give more modern examples because other eras aren’t my expertise, but I see no reason a writer can’t find as many female POVs to express the full scope of history as they can male, and won’t need to resort to lots of people relaying news to the heroine and more than a hero would new extra information.

    And after all, a man who spends most of year in the army will have no perspective on what’s going on behind the scenes or in the streets of his hometown, so that POV might be even less informed than the woman back home in the palace or the manor or the shop.

  61. Klio
    Sep 08, 2011 @ 08:36:47

    @myself: “any more than a hero would need” and other assorted typos. Ah well. I think you’ll get the gist :)

  62. Darlene Marshall
    Sep 08, 2011 @ 08:44:34

    “if the setting isn’t completely restricted to a few hundred naked Spartans (I will pause and contemplate that a moment)”

    Thank you for that, Klio. I believe I’ll pause and contemplate for a moment also.

  63. Dhympna
    Sep 08, 2011 @ 10:02:28

    @Unbiased Observer:

    Women in the Low Countries in the High Middle Ages had various legal rights and could participate in business. There was also a very high level of literacy among what we would now think of as the “middle class.” See Walter Simons’ Cities of Ladies.

    Later some of these beguine communities that Simons mentions devoted themselves to educating other women (even some of the poor) and giving them a trade (usually textiles/weaving).

    The role of women in the economic and legal spheres in the Low Countries is sort of at odds with their relationship with their husbands. That being said, compared to other areas, women did have more “power” in a sense (and especially when compared with other regions). See Eric Bousmar’s “Neither Equality Nor Radical Oppression: The Elasticity of Women’s Roles in the Late Medieval Low Countries.” In The Texture of Society: Medieval Women in the Southern Low Countries

    My point being is that there are cases where women, while not equal, did hold more power/authority than pop history accords them.

    Also, is this what you meant by an example?

  64. Unbiased Observer
    Sep 08, 2011 @ 16:20:26

    @Klio: Equality in written law and day to day life are the kinds of things I’m wondering about. I’ve generally found that rank comes before sex, (A male slave obeys a female master, a male minister bows to a royal concubine, etc.) I should note, though, that my knowledge of European, Middle-Eastern, and South Asian cultures aren’t much higher than pop levels — I’ve read about such places with interest but haven’t studied them thoroughly.

    On the POV of a single female character, I completely agree with you. It just depends on the type of story told. You can even put her in the army if you go the Mulan route.

    @Dhympna: Ah, those are precisely the examples I’m talking about. Thank you for enlightening me. I suppose my East-Asian studies colored my perception of the west. A popular saying among a Confucian Dynasty was “A family with an educated girl is sure to collapse.”

    Thanks for the links, too. I eat up history books.

  65. KKJ
    Sep 09, 2011 @ 00:49:29

    Can we have an “Ask the Historian” thread? I am loving all these fabulous factoids!

  66. How a book earns the Mistorical tag: A case study | VacuousMinx
    Sep 09, 2011 @ 13:18:39

    […] and I completed and posted our Spoil of War Dual Review over at Dear Author. Dhympna did an amazing job, and I tried to hold up my end of the […]

  67. Spoil of War: Or, Kiddie Rape and a Komodo Dragon in Arthurian Britain
    Sep 25, 2011 @ 06:15:02

    […] reviews have been written about this book– first by DA_January on Dear Author, and then a dual review by Dhympna and Sunita. All of them address the many problems that this book possesses– the ethical problems, and […]

  68. Joanne Renaud
    Sep 25, 2011 @ 06:28:44

    I was so interested in Dhympna’s observations about this trainwreck of a book, that she lent me her copy of “Spoil of War.” After a few weeks of struggling to read this thing, once I was done I decided I had to review it too. I hope you guys enjoy.

    As for what it was like, it managed to go beneath even my minimal expectations… For example, did you know that a komodo dragon features prominently in the story? It was dazzling to behold, that’s for sure.

  69. Saku
    Dec 26, 2011 @ 00:26:59

    It was a geart and fun review. I’m always shocked how people can dare to write a historical fiction book when they have no idea and (shockingly often) don’t care about historicism.
    But as for the Ryan name thing… The name deprives from the Gaelic “riaín”, being a diminuitive for the word “rí”, which means king. The character Y – amongst others – does not exist in modern Gaelic, but perhaps did then, when Gaelic was not written at all, so I guess when somebody English tried to write it at anytime, the transcription (or watever it’s called) might well be Ryan, especially in times – and languaes – without spelling rules.
    Dunno if it has been said before. I really enjoyed the review, but I ought tu utter this ;)

  70. JanetR
    Mar 09, 2012 @ 14:38:14

    I have been collecting books set in Arthurian times and came upon this review in a search…don’t think I’ll be buying! It’s not necessarily the rape that is the problem; I accept those times were violent It’s the fact that recurrent rape seems to be the main PLOT of the book, not just an occasional incident.
    The historical inaccuracy grates, too–especially if the author claims to have some kind of knowledge of the period (when obviously having none.) I don’t expect a book to be accurate to the point of being boring, or weighing down the story with detailed descriptions of how things were made back then, or diatribes on the political situations of the day. I do expect the basics are adherred to, however—that names are roughly of the period (Elspeth,Ruth,Ryan are all inappropriate, and Gunther and Olmbury are pure Saxon), that pantheons of Gods are not mixed up (Celtic and Norse-yikes!), that clothing is appropriate, no hooped dresses,bosom-exposing bodices,ermine,certain colours and so on. And what was that the author thinking going on about these dark skinned,dark eyed Romans (this is supposed to be set at the end of Roman rule in Britain, I presume- Romano-British were mainly native Britons who had been Romanised, most without a drop of Roman blood.) And then the author has the heroine perpetuate the awful ,boring ‘celt’ stereotype of a pale-faced redhead (when in fact the vast majority of ‘celtic’ people tend to dark hair…the author has obviously never seen a lot of Welshmen!) That,of course, not forgetting that NO ONE in Britain or Ireland called themselves a celt before the 1700’s…
    I nearly choked when I read the bit about the flint-tipped arrows! (That would be more appropriate in my own forthcoming quasi-Arthurian novel, Stone Lord, but then it’s a story actually SET in that era!) Uh, stone arrowheads pretty much died out after the bronze age! They were regarded as magical ‘elf shot’ when found in the fields in medieval times and later.

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