Series: River of Time #1
Summary: Gabriella Betarrini is used to spending her summers in Italy. The daughters of archaeologists, Gabi and her sister equate vacation with hovering outside old Etruscan tombs, desperately waiting for something exciting to happen. One day, while peeking into one of the tombs, they find more adventure than they bargain for. Two handprints, which inexplicably match their own, are printed on the wall. Touching them activates a mysterious time vortex, which transports Gabi to medieval Italy, on the fridge of a battle. She immediately finds herself in the midst of territorial wars and political intrigue, fighting for her own life while trying to find Lia, who never appeared beside her in the 14th century.
Review: In Waterfall, Bergren tells an engaging story. Perilous battles, unfolding romance, and the mysteries of the time tunnel keep the book interesting. There are few dull moments in medieval Italy. It is that excitement Gabi falls in love with as she decides that a life often in peril – from war or from the threat of disease and pre-modern medicine – is precious, and therefore well-lived. The reasonably quick pace of the story, complete with a scattering of life-threatening battles and midnight journeys, keeps the reader feeling the fullness of life Gabi observes.
The reader is constantly reminded that this is not pure historical fiction, but rather a story of time travel. Gabi, though she feels a certain belonging in the 14th century, is a product of her 21st century upbringing. She appreciates the chivalrous protection of the knights who surround her, but is more outspoken and independent than any woman they have ever encountered. And, of course, she wields a sword. Though the story of a modern warrior maiden can be unrealistic, Bergren makes it work. Gabi knew a little of swordplay from her father’s teaching her to fence. And though her skills grow quickly during the course of the novel, she does, originally, find a real sword too heavy to hold, and initially relies on the element of surprise to give her an advantage. There is a good balance of her saving and being saved, and an appreciable element of everyone’s needing to rely on each other.
Many of the characters fall into recognizable categories – the handsome warrior heir; his jealous, too-sweet fiancé; the best friend with an infallible sense of humor – but the good characters are convincingly lovable, and Bergren tells a story gripping enough for this reader to forgive any clichés. And, for those who find themselves lost in this story and wanting more, Bergren has so far published two full-length sequels and a novella, that latter available just as an e-book at this time.
Goodreads: The Lais of Marie de France
Summary: A collection of twelve short stories recorded by Marie de France and translated into prose. The stories are classic lais Marie heard told during her lifetime, often featuring brave knights, lovely ladies, and a bit of magic.
Review: The Lais of Marie de France is the perfect medieval read for anyone who enjoys fairytales. Each short story features elements that fans of the genre will recognize and love—beautiful women trapped in towers, daring knights who perform feats of arms to capture their attention, mysterious boats that sail themselves. One is even about a king who creates a contest for the hand of his daughter in marriage: any men who can carry her straight up the nearby mountain without resting can have her.
However, there is a catch to these tales. Excluding the aforementioned available princess and the lady in Marie’s version of “Lanval,” most of these beautiful women are married, and the knights who come to lift their spirits are technically adulterers. Marie condemns none of them, however. The only characters who are punished suffer pain or death not because of their extra-marital affairs, but because their secret love prompted them to other actions, such as murder. Indeed, Marie seems to approve of adultery that is composed of a “pure” love. When one of the dashing knights is killed by his lover’s jealous husband, his death is proclaimed profoundly “unjust,” and the son he helped conceive is destined to avenge the deed. Clearly Marie’s stories function on their own morality, where women trapped in unhappy marriages have the right to find true love somewhere else, which is quite different from the Church’s. Her writing was popular, so clearly there was something common and resonating enough about this scenario that allowed it to appeal to a wide audience.
Marie’s acceptance of these affairs will probably be slightly disconcerting to modern readers, but her treatment makes the situations seem natural enough that the tales cannot be ruined by it. Many of the husbands are all but absent from the story, making it easy to forget them. A couple are so cruel that the reader wants to side with the woman. And often the adultery is relatively pure—gazing from a window, sending love notes from afar. It is still wrong, of course, but it is easier to palate when it is not lewd. Despite the circumstances, there will always be something at least a little beautiful about sending a woman you cannot have a note hidden beneath the feathers of a swan.
Published: 1160 (translation 1999)
Goodreads: Siege of Jersusalem
Summary: Nero sends the Roman generals Titus and Vespasian to Jerusalem when a messenger arrives announcing that the Jews will no longer pay tribute. But Titus and Vespasian have just been healed of grievous illnesses by Veronica’s veil, and they see their battle as not only a political move but also as a means to avenge the death of Jesus.
Review: Siege of Jerusalem is an interesting mix of the romantic, the religious, and the historical. The main theme is the criteria of a just war—which necessitates the author’s choice to present Titus’s and Vespasian’s conversion to Christianity before they head off to fight the Jews. They then have both religion and the empire on their side. Once there, they must negotiate the brutal violence, deciding whether they should offer or accept peace treaties and how many people they can let walk from the city alive.
The war itself is depicted in full gory detail, such as one might have encountered in The Song of Roland. Bones break, brains fly, blood is everywhere, and a woman eats her own child because everyone in Jerusalem is starving. Not the usual descriptions one expects to find in a text so heavily focused on the religious, but very much with precedent and quite in the tradition of epic poems. Readers who are particularly queasy will probably not enjoy this book.
Another obvious concern for modern readers is the apparent anti-Semitism. According to the text, the Christians are right, and the Jews are wrong, and they willingly murdered God. The introduction notes the correlation between the violence of the crucifixion scene that begins the poem and the later violence enacted against Jerusalem in retribution. Obviously, a bit of historical perspective can help dampen any discomfort, as well as the knowledge that author probably had never met a Jew in England at the time. The Jews are in a way the unknown, faceless other, and another group could function just as well as the enemy. Also, both the author and the Romans offer the Jews a bit of mercy. Titus at one point calls them “fierce men and noble,” (871) and they are granted a lot of credit for inventing ingenious ways to defend their city. Does all this make the text fair? No. But its unfairness is part of what gives it historical value.
Published: 14th Century
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