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Authenticity is not enough, apparently

I'm reading the last of three historical novels by Kathleen Herbert, who I first encountered as an authority who had written academic studies on Anglo Saxon religion and culture.   The last book is titled 'Bride of the Spear' and -  that title really should have warned me.   The spear in question belongs to the god Lugh, and you really don't want to think about the novel's premise about that spear, fertility, and a ritual involving 8 year old virgins.    This may possibly be accurate, or at least, supported by the available evidence, what there is of it - but still.  Ewww.

It made me think about what makes me go on reading and why I may actually give up on this book half-way, even though it is fluently and carefully written with many beautifully descriptive passages, and is set in a period that greatly interests me (late sixth century) and full of fascinating side details.

 I'd noticed in the previous two books that Herbert's characterisation often seemed a bit erratic.  People would suddenly change their minds on things and go rushing off  to do the exact opposite of what they had previously said they would do.   Which is something that people do, admittedly, but it's often quite annoying when they do it in real life, and even more so in fiction.   In this novel,  this is taken to extremes.  I think Herbert may be a woman who really believes 'all men are rapists' and writes male characters accordingly.   I can cope with unlikeable content and upsetting events (up to a point) - but only if there are likeable characters to engage with.  When all the male characters are liable to think 'hmm, now for a spot of rape!' as a brief time out from their daily routine - and almost all the female characters are intriguing to do down the other female characters - the whole thing becomes unreadably unpleasant.

Plus, this is a period where very little information survives, so I'm fairly sure that at least some of the religion and beliefs are made-up rather than real. Choosing to make up such an extreme and nasty take on the sources makes me wonder about the accuracy of the whole thing.

 I don't really believe in a world where people are randomly horrible to each other *all the time* - and it doesn't make me want to read about it, no matter how well written or researched.  Humph.


( 6 comments — Leave a comment )
14th Feb, 2013 16:22 (UTC)
I tracked down these three books, based on what you said before -- not that you'd recommended them but because I was intrigued -- so it will be interesting to see if I find them as unsatisfying as you have. Though they're quite low on my 'to read' pile at present!

Personally, I think -- and it's hard think of a way to express this -- that people adjust to their circumstances. You can't survive in a state of constant terror, so if the world's giving you Vikings, or high child mortality, or nuclear weapons, say, you cope (or not) because it's normal. But historians often imply that 'the past was different' = 'the past was unbearably worse', overlooking the fact that part of the difference is that people judged good and bad by different standards...
15th Feb, 2013 13:29 (UTC)
Oh, would be really interested to hear what you think of them when you finally get to them (my to read pile is a bit that way too...). On one level (worldbuilding/history), I really like them - the 'unsatisfying' is mostly on the characterisation level. They would have been a real boon during my long-ago history degree- making it much easier to remember which one was Oswy, Oswin, Edwin, Oswald, etc (historical fiction excellent for that, I reckon :-D )

I agree with you about the differing standards. Understandably fiction tends to prioritise the dramatic over the boring/mundane - but definitions of mundane are likely to vary.

I just find it an unlikely depiction that everyone in history was nasty brutish and short, apart (of course!) from Our Heroine. But if they were, then how would Our Heroine know to react with horror...?

The horrible ritual Lugh-sacrifice in this book is horrific to my eyes (and to Our Heroine's) - but for someone for the right culture, I suppose it might be closer to a child undergoing a routine gynecological inspection by a qualified professional today? I mean, not fun, but how would she know she was supposed to find it horrific? It's only horrific because the reader is a modern person who knows the whole thing is really unnecessary hokum. Hum.
15th Feb, 2013 00:00 (UTC)
COSIGNED. But you know that.

Honestly, I think when people write about the past as a horrible place full of rape and trauma and very little else, it says much more about them than about history.
15th Feb, 2013 13:31 (UTC)
I was so much hoping to like these books!

I didn't give up in the end, and the second half of the book is a bit better. But I kind of felt that she was actually more interested in the rapey thoughts than in the political manoeverings or social history, which is so disappointing. Bah.
15th Feb, 2013 02:39 (UTC)
I recall reading a book about Romans in Britain and I just about gave up when there was a lovingly detailed anatomically correct description of someone being impaled through their asshole.

You could just say "They impaled the poor bastard on a spike" and leave it at that. Actually, scratch that, I think a good writer could've described an impalement without once specifically referencing what it feels like to have a spike shoved up your ass. :/
15th Feb, 2013 13:33 (UTC)
:-ooooo *quails*

Am with you there, how much detail does one really need...?

Such a pity, when these are so *nearly* really enjoyable to read.
( 6 comments — Leave a comment )

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