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REVIEW:  Search the Seven Hills by Barbara Hambly

REVIEW: Search the Seven Hills by Barbara Hambly

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In ancient Rome, a poor philosopher races to rescue his kidnapped lover before she is abused by the sinister Christian cult

The son of a wealthy Roman family, Marcus gave up the prestige and riches that were his birthright to devote himself to philosophy. His noble mind attracted Tullia, a Senator’s daughter whose father wanted her to have nothing to do with the penniless intellectual. The news that she is to marry a prosperous merchant shatters Marcus, who goes to her house, hoping to plead his case, only to see her attacked and abducted by disguised ruffians.

That she was kidnapped is tragedy enough, and it gets worse when he learns who took her: the sinister Christian cult. He knows not what vile rituals they will expose her to, and he does not want to find out. His lover in danger, the philosopher must turn warrior before it is too late.

Dear Ms. Hambly,

Why did I pick this novel to try? 1) It’s written by you 2) It’s written by you and 3) it sounded so very different from your other novels in showing how Romans might have viewed the early Christians. The opinion ain’t pretty with Marcus wavering between being appalled and horrified by them while Praetorian guardsman Arrius likens them to “tomcats in a sack.”

The action is a bit slow to get going and I wasn’t at first assured that I wanted to read about Marcus but as the book progressed, he grew on me. He’s not the typical “hero.” Instead he’s a disappointment to his hidebound, ghastly father – imagine being under that man’s thumb with him having the Roman paterfamilias power of life or death over you, an unknown and possibly disappointing helper to a crusty centurion of the Praetorian guard and the person who gooses a happily retired and reclusive general and former Governor of Antioch out of his overgrown city house garden. Together, the three of them are trying to retrieve Marcus’s childhood playmate who has been kidnapped by renegade Christians right before her wedding to an oily Syrian importer/exporter – and you know how *they* are. Or was she?

Several people have commented on this book and the extraordinary research that is slyly revealed with an almost unnoticed wink and nod. Early Roman views on Christianity? Typical tyrannical Roman father? A basic Roman orgy? A trip through the bowels of the Flavian Amphitheater? A quick and dirty guide to early Christian insults hurled at each other? Gotcha covered on all accounts.

Arrius is a man with a job to do who isn’t going to let anything – or maybe much – stand in his way. If torture is needed, it will be done. His is the cynical, world weary view of a lawman just doing his job who knows he better get it right or the Higher Ups will hear about it.

Sixtus is a fascinating old coot. Beloved by his slaves, almost forgotten by his neighbors he’s a man who’s seen too much and is haunted by much of what he’s done and seen. But he’s also a man of principles with old school honor.

Marcus is a middle son who was trying to make a go of being a philosopher. Now his search for Truth has turned over the cobblestones of Rome and exposed the dirty underside. He’s getting a rough and tumble education in real life and the seamier side of truth that his delicate ideals might not survive.

The plot takes twists and turns up through the Forum and down the narrow, dirty lanes of Subura. There are bath houses and brothels, lions and letches and liars. Lots and lots of liars though the reasons vary from understandable to reprehensible. I wanted to know what had happened to Tullia, who had taken her and why but at the same time, I didn’t want the book to end since I was having such a wonderful time watching all the characters interact, seeing Roman justice and laughing myself silly whenever 2 or more Christians got together and “discussed” theology. It reminded me of the old chestnut, “I went to a fight and a hockey game broke out.” If the final chapter is a bit too neat and clean, the nail biting finale the precedes it – and the just desserts ultimately served up to the villain – more than make up for it. B+

~Jayne

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REVIEW:  The Mapmaker’s Daughter by Laurel Corona

REVIEW: The Mapmaker’s Daughter by Laurel Corona

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A sweeping story of 1492 Spain, exploring how what we know about the world shapes our map of life

1492. During the waning decades of Spain’s golden age, Christian religious fervor culminated in the expulsion of all Jews and Muslims from the Iberian Peninsula. THE MAPMAKER’S DAUGHTER tells the story of these final years through the eyes of Amalia Cresques, the daughter of a mapmaker who has been living as a converso, hiding her Jewish faith.

As Amalia witnesses history in the making–the horrors of the Spanish Inquisition, the court of Henry the Navigator in Portugal, the fall of Muslim Granada, and the Jewish expulsion from Spain–she must decide whether to relinquish what’s left of her true self or risk her life preserving it. A mesmerizing saga about faith, family and Jewish identity.

Dear Ms. Corona,

The blurb of any historical book with a little used setting will generally catch my eye and make me stop for a second look. I know I mentioned in a recent review that sagas aren’t my “thing” and in that one I had hoped the interesting setting would overcome my reservations about it but here, it works for me. When needed, there were leaps in the narrative to branch periods when nothing of note would have happened. And since the narrator begins the book looking back over her life while at other times the present is superimposed on her memories, I was okay with her editing.

From the first page, I felt immersed in this far away world. The details of daily life in 15th century Spain, Portugal and Granada are interesting, pertinent and best of all seamlessly interwoven in the story. I didn’t get the feeling that facts were being shoehorned in just because you found them too cool not to mention. Instead they add to the “feel” and authenticity without seeming intrusive.

The central theme of the book is identity and what will we endure in order to preserve it. Amalia’s father and sisters were determined to live as conversos – former Jews who had converted to Christianity – in Sevilla while her mother was equally, if not more, determined to secretly be true to her Jewish faith in a world where anger against them could be sparked and lead to pogroms at any moment. As mentioned in the above paragraph, it’s the wealth of details about daily life in a Jewish household that centers the book and illuminates Amalia’s identity.

Amalia does go to palaces, witness certain events and is present to see firsthand many important people of her day, but I like that the strength of the story is in the women and how they make their homes and live their lives. Jewish identity is passed through the mother and the focus of the women centers on the household. The women of this family are boss and a source of rock solid steadiness for their men and children to depend on.

Obviously it’s impossible to read this book in 2014 and not think back to the events within living memory from the 1930s. As the restrictions on Jews began, I got nervous for Amalia and her extended family. When the hammer blows struck, one after another, I wanted to stand outside their households and yell, “Can’t you see what’s happening? Don’t you understand? You have to get out now.” Yet, I know from first hand sources that even as your rights are being stripped away and laws are being passed against you, people will still try and cling to what and where they know. They will believe beyond safety that things will get better.

Honestly I didn’t expect the Christians to come off looking good here. We are talking the start of the Spanish Inquisition. But I do have to admit that I was hoping for a more even handed portrayal of, at the very least, Amalia’s Christian family members. Instead her two sisters devolve into hard eyed harridans, the one sister’s children are grasping, rude little parasites while Amalia’s husband becomes a slaver and is revealed to be a homosexual. To me this takes the easy way out by making everyone evil rather than having anyone on the Christian side face a difficult decision of whether to show any love or loyalty to Amalia. The fact that all but one of the Muslim characters are shown positively made this even more glaring.

Amalia’s final decision about her grandfather’s atlas, which has been a central part of her entire life and which she’s sacrificed so much in order to keep, took me by surprise. But as I thought more about it, her choice made sense to me. Her family and her people are being thrown out of the country in which they’ve lived, and which they’ve culturally enriched, for centuries. What she does is her way of saying to them “we were here, remember us, this is what you’re losing.” B

~Jayne

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