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REVIEW:  Bitter Greens by Kate Forsyth

REVIEW: Bitter Greens by Kate Forsyth

Bitter-Greens

Spoiler (Trigger Warning): Show

This book has a rape scene.

The amazing power and truth of the Rapunzel fairy tale comes alive for the first time in this breathtaking tale of desire, black magic and the redemptive power of love

French novelist Charlotte-Rose de la Force has been banished from the court of Versailles by the Sun King, Louis XIV, after a series of scandalous love affairs. At the convent, she is comforted by an old nun, Sœur Seraphina, who tells her the tale of a young girl who, a hundred years earlier, is sold by her parents for a handful of bitter greens…

After Margherita’s father steals parsley from the walled garden of the courtesan Selena Leonelli, he is threatened with having both hands cut off, unless he and his wife relinquish their precious little girl. Selena is the famous red-haired muse of the artist Tiziano, first painted by him in 1512 and still inspiring him at the time of his death. She is at the center of Renaissance life in Venice, a world of beauty and danger, seduction and betrayal, love and superstition.

Locked away in a tower, Margherita sings in the hope that someone will hear her. One day, a young man does.

Dear Ms. Forsyth,

It’s rare that I read a romance book these days that I don’t already have some idea of how the plot will play out. Sometimes I can predict exactly what will happen when and it’s these books that usually almost put me to sleep. So when I come across a book which surprises me as well as delights me with its originality, I get excited. This is such a book even if maybe, technically it isn’t all a romance.

After a bit of backstory, I was expecting the book to quickly jump to the Rapunzel story, as after all that’s what the book is about, right? But no. Instead an amazing start details how Charlotte-Rose gets sent away to a convent. I felt like I was along for her self pitying leave taking of the glory that was the court of the Sun King at Versailles, the bumpy and cold trip to the even colder and bleaker convent as well as the meeting with the sadistic Soeur in charge of postulants. Before I knew it, I was totally wrapped up in the shock Charlotte-Rose feels about this alien world and the women who inhabit it.

It’s a fascinating opening and I found myself learning new things that are effortlessly added to the narrative. Plus they are things that need to be there or have a use rather than just as a show off of research done. I wasn’t in any hurry for Fairy Tale to begin because Charlotte-Rose is so interesting and fun to read about. She’s certainly not an easy person to like at times but I was pulling and rooting for her nonetheless.

Once the kinder Soeur Seraphina begins to tell her fairy tale, I got lost in that world as well. I can see it, touch it, sense it. As with the first section, I was floating along in a happy reading daze as the story unfolded around me. I’d read and read and eventually come up for air to discover that pages had flown by and hours sped past. Seraphina takes the story far past what I grew up hearing and reading by adding backstories, shading in details and giving the whole a glorious color and life.

In the Brothers Grimm version I read as a child, poor Rapunzel’s day to day existence locked up in the tower is skimmed over. Here we see how horrifying, lonely and boring it was. I like the fact that Margherita uses her brains to stay sane and does have agency. She’s told there’s no escape but she tests that to the limit. She makes nice when she has to but never forgets her three truths.

My name is Magherita.

My parents loved me.

One day, I will escape.

But wait, there’s more. We even get the Bella Strega’s point of view and if anyone deserved to get her revenge while learning the arts of herbs and scorcery it’s Selena. She’s tough to begin with and, after what happens to her mother, gets even more hardened early on in her life. I can feel sympathy for what she endured but it is hard to feel sorry for her given what she does to others who had nothing to do with her mother’s fate. However she did come by her mindset of “me first and I must stay beautiful” honestly though.

As I continued to read the book, it was clear that an overriding theme for all the women is that historically, women were at the mercy of men. The witch who taught Selena said it right – a woman could be a nun, a wife or a whore. And the actor who first broke Charlotte-Rose’s heart imparted a secondary truth – a woman needs to be pretty or rich or preferably both to prosper in their world. These realities of the times serve as the impetus for the women’s actions.

It’s also easy to see the parallel between the story within a story in that Charlotte-Rose suffers some of Margherita’s fate – both are locked away, far from loved ones and places at the whim of another. Both have to rely on themselves and both manage to shape their fates as much as it was possible for women to do.

The story was unique and engaging, informative without being a history lesson. I had no idea what would happen next and I can’t tell you how much this thrilled me. The flashbacks opened the beauty and decay of the city of Venice, the glittering world of Versailles and the horror of the revocation of the Edict of Nantes. In writing the book you truly were enjoying a world Charlotte-Rose could only dream of and in reading it I had a wonderful time. B+

~Jayne

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REVIEW:  Illusions of Fate by Kiersten White

REVIEW: Illusions of Fate by Kiersten White

illusions-of-fate-white

Dear Ms. White,

Your latest novel, Illusions of Fate, is a departure from Mind Games and Perfect Lies, a duology about a pair of sisters gifted with special powers that make them ideal for espionage. Instead, we go to an alternate world reminscent of Victorian England. Except filled with magic.

Born on the island of Melei, Jessamin has gone to the country of Albion to get an education. Of course, it’s not so easy. Melei is under the colonial control of Albion, and Jessamin herself is the result of a union between a Melei woman and a visiting scholar from Albion. To no one’s surprise, the scholar couldn’t care less about them but Jessamin’s mother still hopes the man remembers them. Jessamin is more practical than her mother. She doesn’t want any sort of relationship with the man — except she has no problems blackmailing him into helping her gain admission into the university. The professor has a wife, you see, who has no knowledge that her husband has an illegitimate daughter with a foreigner. This fact right here was more than enough to cement my affection for Jessamin as a heroine.

Being biracial — and visibly so; no passing here — Jessamin is the target of racism and bigotry from her peers. This is why she causes a sensation when she attracts the attention of Finn, a young noble of Albion who has recently come to the city. Even more startling is when he “shadows” her — his shadow leaves his body and attaches to hers, granting Jessamin two shadows. This is the equivalent of a soulbond. Some people are scandalized. Some people are entertained. Finn sets out to win Jessamin. And Jessamin just can’t be bothered with all this nonsense.

But it’s not all fun and games. Finn has enemies among the Albion peerage. Albion, you see, is torn between minding its own business or expanding its imperialistic designs even more. Finn has managed to prevent the latter from happening but when he shadows Jessamin, a rival on the opposing side finally sees a chance to leverage the young lord to change his mind. Jessamin has no magic so you’d think this would leave her out of her depth. Thankfully, she’s very clever and doesn’t see why Albion social boundaries should restrict her as she isn’t from Albion at all.

This was a really charming book. I really liked Jessamin as a heroine. It was refreshing that despite the fact she found Finn very hot, she was dubious about his intentions. This was in line with her background — her mother got taken in by an Albion gentleman who used her and left her, and she had no intention of suffering the same fate. It was nice to see a YA novel touch on the effects of colonialism and imperialism, both on a larger level and a personal level.

I adored Eleanor. She was a great supporting character and ally for Jessamin, who gets catapulted into Albion’s upper society thanks to Finn’s shadowing her. I thought she was hilarious and brave despite the pressures put upon her by everyone else.

Overall, I thought Finn was all right. Not an asshole in the slightest. That said, I admit that I thought less of him when he made it all about himself about Jessamin’s reticence about reciprocating. So what if he’s not racist and doesn’t care about the color of her skin? I’m happy for him. But he has to think about what it means that his non-racist views are extraordinary in this society, on top of realizing that sure, maybe he’s not racist but Jessamin will have to live her entire life dealing with bigoted perspectives. No amount of his love is going to cancel that out. Sorry, it’s not enough. It’s believable that he doesn’t realize the structural racism inherent in society — he’s only 19, after all. But I would have liked to see more pushback against his defensiveness, and less Jessamin capitulating to his side. She has a reason to be defensive. Her mother’s story is far more common than Jessamin’s, after all.

I really enjoyed Illusions of Fate. Your writing style is so comfortable, that it’s easy to sink into the story. I loved Jessamin as a heroine, and I loved that even though she was ostracized by the color of her skin, this didn’t mean she had no female friends or allies. The romance was sweet, and I admit I was charmed by Jessamin’s crow friend. Add in the exploration of colonialism and imperialism, and I’m all yours. Can’t wait until your next book. B+

My regards,
Jia

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