March 23rd, 2013


Sold for Endless Rue, by Madeleine E. Robins

Review copy provided by Tor.

I have long complained that I don't know where to find historical fiction recommendations the way I do SF or even mysteries. This is still true, but it means that I am particularly motivated to recommend good historical fiction myself in case someone else is having the same problems.

Sold for Endless Rue is set in thirteenth century Italy, and it deals in part with the efforts of Italian women at the time to have a place in the emerging medical science. That, for me, is its major strength: it features the kind of genuinely researched historical characters that a lazy reading of history would ignore. They have interesting personal backgrounds and reasons for their ambitions, and they are not uniform in their choices.

One of the things about being a writer and hanging around other writers is that it makes me a lot more careful not to second-guess process when I'm reviewing (or even informally chatting about books, which is more what I do here). This is a Rapunzel story. It is a story that asks, assuming that the witch is not Sauron--assuming that we are talking about a human being with human reactions--what would motivate her? What would get her to the point in her life where she would behave in such an extraordinary way? And for me, the Rapunzel elements--the familiar outline of the fairy tale--are not the strength of this book. I would be perfectly happy if this was a springboard for Madeleine Robins to write several more historical novels set in early Renaissance Italy without a single jot of fairy tale inspiration to any one of them. But. BUT. That is not always how writing books works. To be tautological about it, people can only write the books they can write. And the fact that the Rapunzel elements were not the strength for me not only doesn't keep them from being the strength for someone else, but it also doesn't keep them from being the only way a particular author could write a particular book at all. If pondering fairy tales gives Madeleine Robins the ideas for historical novels set in thirteenth century Italy--or fifteenth century Bohemia, or ninth century Tunisia--then I say come on, fairy tales.

The "witch" of this particular tale, Laura, is not a modern heroine. She does not get an ahistorically triumphant ending (although it isn't all grim, either), and she doesn't always identify the same behaviors in the same way as we would. She is emphatically more modern than many of her peers, and yet Robins is clear that modern for the thirteenth century does not align her identically with contemporary views on medicine, religion, romantic relationships, or any of a number of things. There is sexual trauma in this book, so if you are having a day (week, lifetime, whatever) when you are just not up for that, be forewarned. But it's a great deal more about herbalism and ambition and the lives we make for ourselves and our families with our expectations than it is about the trauma. Different paths are accepted in this book--not just accepted but cherished--within the framework of the time and place. And that's one of the things the best historical fiction can do beautifully.