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Young Queens by Leah Redmond Chang

Young Queens by Leah Redmond Chang

Young Queens: Three Renaissance Women and the Price of PowerYoung Queens: Three Renaissance Women and the Price of Power by Leah Redmond Chang
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Young Queens by Leah Redmond Chang is a fascinating and beautifully braided story of the lives of three queens “as complex and flawed human beings, their potential co-existing alongside their faults and frailties.”

“Young Queens follows the interlaced lives of Catherine, Elisabeth and Mary over the course of two decades. Telling their stories as one reveals patterns about women and power that we may miss or discount when assessing any of them in isolation.”

I chose this book as my most recent read due to my interest in verifying the accuracy of some of my favorite TV series and films like Reign (2013–2017), Mary Queen of Scots (2018), and The Serpent Queen (2022). After reading Young Queens, all of these works will require a rewatch.

This book is so fascinating and fun (if you’re a history nerd like me)! I found it every bit as delightful as the elaborate films and series! It’s not easy to write nonfiction that includes well chosen details and paints such a rich picture of history but is also thoroughly entertaining with gorgeous prose and flow. This book, a glass of wine, and a hammock in my backyard made for the perfect summer reading experience.

Whatever aspect of these queens lives is of most intrigue and interest for you personally, it’s in this book. From the perils of travel via carriage to new lands, the complicated issue of trust amongst royals, the gross ignorance of the times of the human body and its functions, the author deftly sorts through details large and small and presents a captivating look at these brave and bold young queens from all angles.

I found it interesting how mental health wasn’t even considered in the 1500s. The behaviors and emotional issues that would have been the result of oppressive patriarchy and the trauma of bodies and lives being currency with very little daily autonomy would be so great, but were often written off as laziness, bad habits, or a symptoms of a physical ailment.

One example of this is an observation of Elizabeth, at age 14, after her marriage to the 34 year old King Phillip, “There were other signs of disorder, hints that Elisabeth’s daily habits were less than healthful. Sometimes Catherine found Elisabeth self-indulgent, ready to ‘take to her bed as soon as she felt the least bit ill’. She neglected to exercise. She had a particular fondness for meat and a bad habit of snacking too much, which Catherine believed brought on the dreaded vomiting. Others in Elisabeth’s circle also noticed these bad habits.”

With limited tools and knowledge, people relied heavily on folk medicine and religion for support. “In the sixteenth century, people believed in the four humours, the medical doctrine preaching that the health of a person depended on the proper balance of four liquids coursing through the body: blood, phlegm, yellow bile and black bile. A mild predominance of any one liquid determined temperament. A person dominated by blood, for example, might be ‘sanguine’ or cheerful. A person tending towards bile might anger easily. A more severe disequilibrium among the humours, however, was the basis of disease.”

What a trip reading Young Queens! I am in awe of the author. I imagined her in libraries, pouring over letters and texts, fully immersed into the lives of these women. This is truly one of my favorite nonfiction reads in a long time. I would definitely recommend to fans of historical nonfiction, Catherine de’ Medici (my favorite), Mary Queens of Scots, and Elizabeth of Valois! My favorite genre is generally fantasy, and this world of queens and kings truly satisfies that craving too.

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Clytemnestra by Costanza Casati

Clytemnestra by Costanza Casati

ClytemnestraClytemnestra by Costanza Casati
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

What I love about Clytemnestra by Costanza Casati:
• I fell in love with the powerful heroine
• I don’t usually like romantic moments in books/movies, but the few that are here are poetic, rich with sensory detail and a refreshing juxtaposition to the violence of daily life in ancient Greek mythology
• The details and dialogue illuminate beliefs and traditions that built these complex mythologies
• This book was quick read that I thoroughly enjoyed, and I also learned about a subject that can be somewhat inaccessible without a skilled guide
• Beach book for feminist smarties, dark academia/Classics vibes that remind me toppling the patriarchy is a daily task

Throughout the politics and power struggles were gorgeous descriptions of daily life, romance, terrible tragedy, and inner struggles amongst the Greeks. Detail and dialogue pulled me into the characters complex existence.

When she turns to him, he is staring at her, motionless. He has the stillness of animals about him. She wants to lean forward and trace the scar on his cheekbone. The desire is so strong that she can almost feel it under her finger—it is like a crumpled leaf. “My queen,” he says. Nothing else. The morning sun falls on his olive skin, makes his eyes glisten like snow in the sunlight. She is breathless, and she can’t bear it. She picks up her dagger and walks away.

Clytemnestra herself is someone who was raised to be a fierce warrior (which Spartans had a very specific definition of, but she was a warrior in every senses of the word), and yet she still had to suffer through patriarchal oppression and violence. Her power didn’t save her from being a pawn, sacrificed by her own family. In ways, she fought against the inequality inflicted upon her, but she did not escape its effect on her worldview and self-image. When a man discussed his failings with her for the purpose of connection and intimacy, she was disgusted by his vulnerability.

“It shocks her, when he speaks of his failings and weaknesses. The only other men she has known to do that were Tantalus and Odysseus, but they would do it in a way that asserted their power. They spoke of their mistakes to achieve something, to soften and bend the world to their will. That was what Tantalus had done to win her over. Aegisthus doesn’t speak of his failures to gain a reward. His purposelessness appalls her.”

Because Clytemnestra held all of the qualities of a great leader, within the paradigms which she was born, she saw vulnerability as a poor choice, a lack of skill, weakness. It was a necessity to keep iron walls around one’s tender spots, and she showed us how this was done again and again. There are plentiful insights throughout the story that give the reader a deeper sense of the world and struggles in which the characters live.

“It is noble to be gentle, to save others from pain. But it is also dangerous. Sometimes you have to make life difficult for others before they make it impossible for you.”

“Your hatred consumes you,” Castor says gently. “But it also keeps you alive.”

Clytemnestra stops pacing. She can’t help smiling. “You say you don’t understand politics, Aileen, but you understand people. They are one and the same.”

If I were to change the novel, it would be to add more scenes in different locations, additional insights into the development of various relationships, and filling in the jump in time between Clytemnestra leaving her home of Sparta and becoming the captured wife of a tyrant. I wanted to see more of what was happening in detail in other characters lives at times. I wanted to travel to other locations and meet more magical enemies, but the story centered mostly on Clytemnestra’s home bases. I’m sure this is following the actual origins of her story, but I found myself wishing for more, more, more.

I absolutely recommend this book to lovers of retellings of Greek and Roman mythology, fans of dark academia (afterall, I always imagine myself studying the Classics while reading The Secret History), and readers who enjoys beautiful, descriptive writing.

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Rainbow Rainbow by Lydia Conklin

Rainbow Rainbow by Lydia Conklin

Rainbow RainbowRainbow Rainbow by Lydia Conklin
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Truly brilliant, honest, queer stories told without judgment of the idiosyncrasies and paradoxes of the human experience. Rainbow, Rainbow by Lydia Conklin takes us inside queer and trans characters’ minds with raw awareness. It took a few chapters for me to adjust to the white-hot honesty, but I settled into a tempo of gratitude for these truths. They were like a map to some of my own memories of adolescence, past relationships, perceived mistakes or contradictions, and the shadowed aspects of all humanity.

It can feel disturbing to read about life’s most undiscussed internal battles and societal issues, and that’s exactly why this book left me contemplating the vital importance of bearing the discomfort of painful truths so we can see with clear and open eyes what’s essential for our growth. Maybe if we dared to be this honest and open with one another in day-to-day life, we could heal wounds and lessen the transmission of unhealed pain from person to person through every aspect of our societies.

Each essay helps us see through another’s eyes what it means to navigate bodies, identities, relationships, needs, and desires all while constantly evolving and changing within and without. Most stories want to promise us some kind of certainty. I know who I am, this story will show you my struggle and my resolution – that’s what we commonly see, but it’s not how we actually function. Rainbow, Rainbow flows more like real life. There aren’t neat resolutions or comforting moral lessons. It is raw, true, often ugly, not precious but sacred because we are so used to seeking inspiration in ideals and washing our hands clean by denying the messiness that is the human experience.

I would recommend this book to lovers of creative nonfiction and memoir, LGBTQIA+ readers, and fans of authors like Melissa Febos and Carmen Maria Machado.

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Siren Queen by Nghi Vo

Siren Queen by Nghi Vo

Siren QueenSiren Queen by Nghi Vo
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I just started reading this book for the second time and have already found new understandings of the story! Nghi Vo is fantastic! She’s masterful at creating unconventional, complex, magical worlds without overexplaining the mechanics. She teaches us her magic by immersion into beautiful yet ominous realities.

Dark magic is the life force that propels Hollywood’s elite to stardom in Siren Queen by Nghi Vo. Those willing to sacrifice whatever is asked get a chance to burn so brightly they become almost untouchable, immortal in more ways than one. These silver screen stars to be are willing to trade their mortality, and often their freedom, to mysterious forces so that they may rise above their own mundane humanity and the confines society has prescribed them.

Some of my favorite aspects of this novel were the Friday night fires and The Hunt, the world-building, the powerful protagonist, and the LGBTQ+ themes and characters. The magical world built is intricate but not tedious. There are worlds within worlds, subcultures, and secrets. The sex scenes are so well done I found myself gripping my Kindle a bit more intensely.

I felt as though I was an invisible companion standing right next to the protagonist, Luli Wei (her acting name) throughout the book. Her power and ambition, curiosity and passion were tangible. I felt how bright her star was burning before we knew who/what she would become.

“You’d rather be proud than happy,” Tara said, squeezing my hand. When I looked slightly offended at her words, she reached up to tuck a stray lock of hair behind my ear. “It’s part of you. I don’t think you would fight it if you could.”

Luli wanted to ascend, to leave behind what was forced upon her and live a life of her own choice, no matter how fraught with danger. She forged loyal connections with people who had an unusual spark and natural talent and didn’t let fear stop her from confronting even the most powerful players. And when she did, she knew how to stay cool because letting someone know you’re on the run inside is as good as giving them your soul.

Both a sophisticated fantasy novel and intriguing LGBTQIA romance, Siren Queen is my favorite book of 2022 so far. I would definitely recommend this read to fans of the Chosen and the Beautiful by Nghi Vo, Sorrowland by Rivers Soloman, The Hazel Wood series by Melissa Albert, and The Magicians by Lev Grossman.

 

 

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Juniper & Thorn by Ava Reid

Juniper & Thorn by Ava Reid

Juniper & ThornJuniper & Thorn by Ava Reid
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

At first, I rated this book a three, but after letting my review marinate and re-reading sections of the novel, its brilliance really deserves a four. This book really is magnificent in many ways. The prose is gorgeous, real-life effects of trauma are woven into classic fairy tale architecture making the story inescapably disturbing. Grimm’s fairy tales always made me want to hide under the covers as a child, but Ava Reid gave new life to those dark themes making them more present, real, and emotionally compelling, but at times just too much to bear.

When I started reading the book, I was immediately pulled in by its elegance and poignance, intrigued by the story, captivated by the magic and monsters, but the intensity of the abuse at Marlinchen’s home, and one particular scene which I will never read again, made all of the things I loved about the book slip into the background. I felt betrayed in a sense.

One scene, one character, made me originally give this book a lower rating. I didn’t expect such a scene in a fantasy/fairy tale novel, no matter how dark. When I read it, I felt myself go numb. I was reading in bed and woke my husband up to tell him what I read so I could process it. I put the book down for several weeks. While there is a trigger warning here on Goodreads, I didn’t see it until after reading the book. The scene and the character could be removed entirely and the book would not be less for it in any way, and I would have been free to entirely cherish this skillful interpretation of The Juniper Tree.

After a few weeks of letting the book sit, and with apprehension, I returned to the story so I could finish and review it. I was again taken into this world and wrapped up in its dark, painful, and achingly beautiful tale. I found myself invested in every character (all but one, as mentioned above), even the monsters.

Trauma is the backbone of this story. It ties all of the characters together. Even the main romantic relationship seems to be a trauma bond built on the need to escape and to find belonging. I find this interesting because it’s something classic Grimm fairy tales didn’t flesh out. They were dark and disturbing, but Juniper & Thorn takes this to the next level by showing the symptoms and consequences of trauma in the characters’ lives. I can only imagine writing this novel was both cathartic and emotionally exhausting.

If one scene were removed, I would recommend this book to those who love very dark fairy tales and witchy fantasy, main characters who unfold and discover themselves before your eyes, and rich prose that pulls you through each page to the next. As it is though, I found the novel to be too triggering to recommend widely. I don’t regret reading it, but I do regret not checking Goodreads prior for the trigger warning.

 

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