DUAL REVIEW: Spoil of War by Phoenix Sullivan
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.
Dhympna: 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.
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.
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.
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.