First up: The King’s Last Song intertwines the story of Jayavarman VII, a 12th century Cambodian ruler, with the tale of the theft of his last work, an autobiography written on golden leaves. This is a beautiful, painful reflection on colonialism, the impact of war, and history. Unfortunately, very few of the characters achieve the emotional complexity of some of his other work. While I wouldn’t call it condescending, I would say that Ryman presents himself as an authority on Cambodian history and culture, and the reader as an inevitable tourist. At the same time, I’m torn, because this is a novel about believing that other people are humane and compassionate, and believe they’re doing something right… But geez louise, parts of it felt incredibly Orientalist. Gah.
Seconds: I first heard of Passion Play because of the pushback against its graphic rape scene. Basically, Passion Play follows the adventures of Ilse, a teenaged girl who runs away from a coerced marriage and finds herself embroiled in a political coup. In the interest of total honesty, I’m also presently emailing back and forth with the author for an interview. Anyways, Ilse only truly comes into her own towards the end, when greater emphasis is placed on her emotional recovery from trauma vs. what a perfect little rabbit she is. This is a little frustrating, since elements of that first half felt like the plot of YA book at the Christian bookstore, where you’re about to learn a very special lesson about running away from parental abuse. The other thing that bugged me is that at times it felt like Ilse had biodata (merchant’s daughter; likes to read; innocent; virginal/femme) but no past. The language, however, is beautiful. Bernovich strikes a tone both lyrical and fearful, which nicely captures Ilse’s emotional trajectory. I suspect that this will be a strong series that takes off in the second book, not the first, particularly since there is some top-notch world-building and the beginnings of a nicely Byzantine political revolution starting after Ilse makes it to a safe haven. To be honest, this story really starts to roll when its emphasis shifts from Ilse-about-to-be-a-victim to Ilse-the-survivor.
Michele Lang’s Lady Lazarus was an incredibly pleasant surprise. Set in the late 1930s, Lady Lazarus features the adventures of Magda Lazarus, a descendant of the Witch of Ein Dor. She and her sister and bestie are in grave danger: rising anti-Semitism makes it incredibly difficult to be a Jew and a woman in Eastern Europe. All this comes to a head when Gisele, Magda’s seeress sister, has a vision of the upcoming destruction and death. Magda embarks on a journey to save not only herself but her sister, her friend, and all of Europe’s Jewish citizens. Along the way, she discovers her blood-line’s legacy: as the oldest daughter of an oldest daughter and a descendant of the Witch, she herself has access to magical powers that enable her to cross the borders between Earth, Heaven, and Hell. Now, if only she’d bothered to learn the Hebrew alphabet on which this magic is based. Female relationships are central to this story. Yeah, there’s a bit of romance (Magda unwittingly tempts an angel) but the great thrust of this story lies in Magda’s love for her sister and Eva. Magda’s sheer stubbornness is rendered extra-poignant, because of the reader’s awareness of the histories about Lang is writing. This is the beginning of a powerful alternate history of Eastern Europe, particularly because of the Nazi werewolves, the Lazarii’s allegiance to Hungarian radicals, and Magda’s own conviction that she is fighting against a land that has no more use for her or other Jewish women. This was a refreshing story, particularly because so often paranormal romances/urban fantasy involves female characters who lose all internal motivation once they fall in love. The love story is really secondary to larger historical trends and Magda’s own understanding of herself as an older sibling. Also, the title is a call back to Sylvia Plath’s “Lady Lazarus,” with its themes of chosen destruction and rebirth. I love it when authors locate themselves in a feminist genealogy! <3