Thursday, 25 June 2015

The Emperor's Second Wife (The Rise of the Aztecs Series Book 3) by Zoe Saadia

The Emperor’s Second Wife is the third book in The Rise of the Aztecs series and this is a series that goes from strength to strength. Zoe Saadia has created a world of intrigue, excitement and compelling alliances and invites her readers to immerse themselves in her wonderful stories.

All of Saadia’s stories are steeped in the history and culture of the ancient Americas and, as the stories have developed, I have found myself easily identifying regions and tribes that were, in the beginning, just names that washed over me. This in itself is a tribute to Saadia’s historical knowledge and passionate story telling.

In The Emperor’s Second Wife, the setting for the story moves from The Highlands to Tenochtitlan when Kuini, Coyotl and Dehe arrive there in order to forge alliances against the Tepanecs. The trio are reunited with Kuini’s uncle, the impressive former Aztec Warlord. Most importantly though, we also get to reconnect with Coyotl’s sister, Iztac, who we last saw in The Highlander being married off to the Tenochtitlan Emperor.

This story, more than the others, is one of politics and intrigue as characters jockey to find positions of power after the Emperor is murdered by his Tapanec first wife. Iztac was his second wife but it is the first who assumes power, ruling in the name of her young son. The political situation is volatile and treachery lurks, it seems, around every corner.

Much as I loved the first two stories, the beauty of this one is that it is the turn of the female characters to shine. The series, true to its historical context, reflects a world that is male dominated. Regardless of their status, women are simply “merchandise”. Slave girls can be taken and abused by men as and when they wish and high status princesses, such as Iztac, don’t fare much better. Already married off as a political pawn at just fifteen, as a widow, Iztac is once again in the market for being used to assure favours from leaders in other lands.

None the less, Iztac, Dehe and even the villainous Empress become forces to be reckoned with throughout the story. Iztac and Dehe are inevitably on a collision course due to the fact that they both love Kuini but they are more alike than probably either one of them would care to admit. They are both strong, determined and fiercely loyal. As the men wait for opportunities to depose the Empress, it is the women who move the plot forward and rid Tenochtitlan of the tyrant. Predictably, it is the men who benefit from the power vacuum although the reader is left with the sense that Iztac will always be a guiding force from behind the scenes.

In The Highlander, Kuini and Iztac were young lovers, parted by circumstances beyond their control. The prospect of their reunion then is a thrilling one for the reader. It would seem though that this is a couple who are destined to be star crossed lovers. Iztac’s role is to play a part in the new Tenochtitlan regime while Kuini is a warrior, happiest in battle.

My favourite character in Crossing Worlds was Dehe and my heart went out to her as she had to watch Kuini and Iztac reconnect. However, she is a formidable girl in her own right and connects with a renowned Mayan healer called Kaay, who passes on her skills to Dehe. The relationship between Dehe and Kaay is, for me, one of the high points of the novel. Both prickly, independent characters they none the less grow to care deeply for each other with Kaay taking on the guise of a grumpy mother figure.

While the women are the main impetus within the story, Kuini and Coyotl are forging alliances and we are introduced to Tlacaelel, the illegitimate son of the deceased Emperor and the perfect foil for Kuini. The end of the story is somewhat sombre but we are left with the promise of what is to come. I can’t wait to get started on the next story and I’m guessing Tlacaelal will play a prominent role along with the characters we have already grown to know and love. 

Thursday, 18 June 2015

Ultra Violence by Mark Barry

Ultra Violence, a book ostensibly about football hooliganism, might seem like an incongruous choice for a middle aged woman. However, this is a book that is about so much more than football and it resonated with me on so many levels.

Mark Barry’s book is set, as is his want, in Nottingham and so vivid are his descriptions of the city, it becomes almost a central character within the story. Anyone who grew up in a northern city in the late 70s and 80s will recognise a way of life that is basically defined by drinking and clubbing. Barry gives us a glimpse of the past when city centres were vibrant hives of humanity rather than the sterile city living environments that are more common now.

Barry structures his novel by interspersing chapters that are set during the recession of the 80s with chapters depicting the current recession. The comparison between the two is stark and serves to show how much has changed in the intervening years. Rather unusually, Barry opts to tell his story in the 2nd person and his protagonist remains nameless throughout. Surprisingly this technique creates a style of conversational intimacy and Barry’s main character comes to represent every man, or perhaps every northern working class man, whose community, hopes and dreams were decimated by Thatcher.

Barry’s homage to the traditional working class family is evident in his warm representation of a father working every hour to provide for his family and a mother whose prime function is to keep the home together. Thus is Barry’s story born, as his protagonist at the age of 13 finds himself the victim of a vicious, unrelenting attack at school. Barry’s description of the attack is unflinching and brutal and is a testament to his skill as a writer. Essentially it is an experience that changes the protagonist’s life forever.

Not long after this, whilst at a football match with his dad, he witnesses the violence of football hooliganism for the first time and is so excited by it he gets an erection. His subconscious need to connect with a violence, that is larger than himself, clearly comes from his sense of disempowerment after the attack at school. He has seen firsthand how violence becomes a living entity in its own right and how being part of a mob changes people. After all, even his own dad advises him, “Son, if you can’t beat them, join them.”

As the young man becomes more immersed in football hooliganism, he finds the sense of identity that he’s missing in a world that is rapidly changing. Hoards of young men, let down by a political system that benefits the wealthy while leaving the masses jobless and hopeless, band together to find structure and purpose in the name of football. Barry constantly refers to the hooliganism as war and, like war; it has its own set of rules and rituals.

It’s inevitable that time marches on and our protagonist and his friends leave hooliganism behind, stepping aside for a new generation of warriors. However, a chance meeting with an old pal coincides with the protagonist’s work life and home life teetering on the brink of implosion. As he feels increasingly emasculated and powerless, he becomes drawn once more to the life he thought he’d left behind.

Barry raises the question of whether violence is indeed part of the human condition. He cleverly invites us to become caught up in the adrenaline fuelled action and then occasionally drip feeds us reminders of the human consequences of the violence. The man almost kicked to death, the student who loses an eye and the hapless passersby forced to witness the bloody horror taking place on their streets in broad daylight.

You might expect the characters in Ultra Violence to be unlikeable thugs but Barry injects them with both pathos and humour, which allows us to take them to our hearts. The novel ends as the men, who have all seen better days, gather for one last battle and there is something gloriously moving about it. This is not simply a book about football but rather a book about politics. The politics of governments that disenfranchise people until they have nothing to lose and the personal politics of men who create their own world and live by their own laws of conduct.

Tuesday, 9 June 2015

The Cunning Woman's Cup by Sue Hewitt

The Cunning Woman’s Cup is such a rich and layered read, I hardly know where to start. In any other hands, the complex structure and stories within stories might have lacked cohesion but Sue Hewitt asserts herself from the onset as a writer who is in complete control of her craft. I was in her thrall from the very first page.

The story, on the surface, is a simple one – the tale of two elderly women, Alice and Margaret, who meet by chance and forge an enduring friendship. The story ripples out from the two women, however, and incorporates other stories of people whose lives interconnect with theirs. The story is set mainly in the village of Duddo in Northumberland, where a stone circle overlooks the village, lending a mysterious and spiritual atmosphere. The ‘cup’ of the title is unearthed which leads to the past impinging on the present and setting in motion dramatic changes.

Alice and Margaret are polar opposites. Alice has been widowed after a long and happy marriage and has spent her life caring for others. She is a traditional woman and fears ideas that challenge her Christian way of life. Margaret, by contrast, is an independent, spiky retired professor, who never married, choosing instead to travel extensively. One of the most enjoyable and life affirming aspects of the novel is the fact that Alice is in her late 60s and Margaret in her 80s but they still live full and exciting lives. There is not even a whiff of a stereotypical elderly person in this book, Hewitt’s senior citizens are all full of passion and zest for life.

The novel concerns itself with both spiritual and everyday issues. Alice’s traditional views are shaken by the arrival in the village of Avian, a psychic healer. Many people in Duddo, including Alice’s late husband hold pagan beliefs, celebrating the land and nature as represented by the stone circle. I found Hewitt’s exploration of grief and the afterlife to be particularly poignant.

At the same time, Hewitt highlights many modern dilemmas, not least the way in which elderly people can often be ignored and lonely. She also depicts the differences between rural and city life and how seeming success can bring hollow rewards as people try to buy happiness. We also see how young people can become lost without guidance and purpose. Hewitt touches on several very relevant social issues in a way that is both realistic and moving.

The structure of the novel is very interesting and clearly demonstrates Hewitt’s skill as a writer. Each chapter begins with a first person account from Mordwand, an ancient Celt who is the ‘Cunning Woman’ of the title. She survives being aborted and abandoned before being taken in by the old medicine woman who performed the abortion. Ironically, she then takes over from the woman as an abortionist and healer. Mordwand’s angry spirit lives on amongst the stones with terrible consequences for one family in particular. After the short account from Mordwand, Hewitt switches to 3rd person narrative, which allows her to develop all of the characters in her novel equally. In addition to this, some of the story is also told via letters sent between Alice and Margaret.

I loved this novel and found myself totally immersed in the life of Duddo, so much so I felt almost bereft when I finished it. It is a warm, deceptively cosy read which snakes its way into the reader’s heart, raising some provocative philosophical questions.

Monday, 1 June 2015

Crossing Worlds (The Rise of the Aztecs Series Book 2) by Zoe Saadia

Crossing Worlds is the second book in The Rise of the Aztecs series and consolidates Zoe Saadia’s skill as the creator of a world that is both thrilling and believable. A world in which readers can fully immerse themselves.  

Crossing Worlds picks up the story of Kuini and Coyotl, two years on from The Highlander. The boys are now seventeen years old and have honed their skills as warriors whilst battling the Tepanecs, who have invaded Coyotl’s homeland and killed his Emperor father. Exiled from the Lowlands, Coyotl is forced to take refuge with Kuini’s estranged family in the Highlands.

Much as I enjoyed The Highlander, I enjoyed Crossing Worlds even more. I suppose this is inevitable as we get to know the characters and their stories more fully. Kuini and Coyotl are as different as can be and should be natural enemies and yet their friendship is deep and enduring. Ironically, both of them seem to have been born into the wrong world as Kuini loves the life of a warrior which is more in keeping with the Lowlands, while Coyotl prefers the gentle pace of life of the Highlands. Unfortunately, neither has the luxury of choosing their own destiny as events conspire to dictate their choices.

Saadia’s love of history is once again clearly demonstrated as she highlights the politics, not only between the different communities but within Kuini’s village, where his war leader father faces attacks on his position from all sides. At the same time, he is trying to encourage a new alliance with their traditional enemy the Lowlanders, in order to stand up to the more aggressive and powerful Tepanecs.

One of the themes I particularly enjoyed is the way Saadia explores the dynamic between father and son. Kuini left his village after discovering his father’s heritage but during the course of the novel he is forced to acknowledge that he misjudged him. Kuini’s father stands by his son in the face of much criticism about his friendship with a Lowlander. He recognises his son’s potential as a warrior and leader and sees a lot of himself in Kuini.

I also liked the way that Saadia develops the representation of women in a very male dominated world. Kuini’s mother is the main priestess and a great healer but she has to publically defer to men, even though in private her husband respects and listens to her opinions. I loved the character of Dehe, a strong independent girl who, shunned by the villagers, lives by herself in the woods. Dehe, like Kuini’s mother is a great healer and Saadia hints at her potential to play an important role in the future stories.

Saadia ends her novel at the point where Kuini, Coyotl and Dehe are about to leave the Highlands and ensures that we are desperate to follow their adventures in the next instalment. Saadia’s prowess as a writer is clear in the way she captures and maintains our interest with the twists and turns of the plot. At the same time, however, she provides a very human face to this period in history ensuring that we engage with the events and the implications they have on many lives.

If you like a series in which you can become fully absorbed then I recommend this one wholeheartedly. Crossing Worlds could be enjoyed as a standalone but nothing beats reading the series in order to fully get to know the characters. Meanwhile, I can’t wait to read The Emperor’s Second Wife, which is the next book in the series.