Friday, November 1, 2013

Book Club Friday: Strong Women and Sexist Men in Historical Fiction

Remember all the way back in September when I went on vacation with Beau and his family for ten days? Well, I read three books during that trip, and I'm finally reviewing the final two. (You can find my thoughts on Deerskin by Robin McKinley HERE).

I love historical fiction almost as much as I love fantasy fiction. I was thrilled to find two new novels at my local secondhand bookstore. The first is Stealing Athena by Karen Essex, a novel that parallels two stories of powerful women in history. The other is Fallen Skies by Philippa Gregory, a novel that recounts the story of a sexist asshole troubled veteran after World War I.


Summary of Stealing Athena from Essex's website

At the height of the Napoleonic Wars, the 21-year-old newly wedded Mary Nisbet, Countess of Elgin, a Scottish heiress and celebrated beauty, enchanted the power brokers of the Ottoman Empire, using her charms to obtain their permission for her husband’s audacious plan to deconstruct the Parthenon and bring its magnificent sculptures to England. Two millennia earlier, Aspasia, a female philosopher and courtesan who presided with her lover, the visionary politician Pericles, over Athens’ Golden Age, plied her wits and allure with equal determination, standing with him at the center of vehement opposition to his ambitious plan to construct the most exquisite monuments the world had ever seen.

In parallel stories that resonate hauntingly, Aspasia witnesses the dramatic events that lead to the construction and dedication of the Parthenon, and Mary Nisbet witnesses that same magnificent building’s deconstruction and demise.

Rich in romance and intrigue, greed and glory,
Stealing Athena is an enthralling work of historical fiction and a window into the intimate lives of some of history’s most influential and fascinating women.

My degree is in history, and three of my history classes in undergrad were focused on women's history. In my other history classes, I wrote as many papers as I could on women's history. And yet, I had never heard of Aspasia or Mary Nisbet. This book was awesome. I know it's fiction, but it's based on true people. I wanted to just shake some of the characters in frustration from the way they treated women. It's one thing to realize that women had zero rights in history. It's another to read dramatic accounts of historic assholes who screwed over women. But Aspasia and Mary are such kickass characters! They are both intelligent, unusual women for their time periods. I highly recommend this book to anyone who loves historical fiction.

Summary of Fallen Skies from Amazon- 

Lily Valance is determined to forget the horrors of the war by throwing herself into the decadent pleasures of the 1920s and pursuing her career as a music hall singer. When she meets Captain Stephen Winters, a decorated veteran, she's immediately drawn to his wealth and status. And Stephen, burdened by his guilt over surviving the Flanders battlefields where so many soldiers perished, sees the possibility of forgetting his anguish in Lily, but his family does not approve.


Lily marries Stephen, only to discover that his family's fa├žade of respectability conceals a terrifying combination of repression, jealousy and violence. When Stephen's terrors merge dangerously close with reality, the truth of what took place in the mud and darkness brings him and all who love him to a terrible reckoning.

I don't know how else to say this...

This book was depressing as fuck.

I LOVE Philippa Gregory. She is one of my all-time favorite authors. I own most of her books, even though I am broke and even her paperback books are expensive. 

But there is a reason this book was out-of-print for awhile. I'm assuming her popularity for her Tudor books convinced her publishers to reprint Fallen Skies, but it is so fucking depressing that I understand why it was out-of-print.

It is still brilliant, don't get me wrong. I mean, if anything, reading it just reminded me of the horrors of war and why I'm more of a pacifist in my oldish age than I once was. And just like in Stealing Athena, I felt tons of rage over the misogyny of the protagonist. I mean, this book literally spells out the virgin/whore dichotomy that some women were forced into by their husbands of all people. 

I would still recommend this book to fans of Philippa Gregory or fans of World War One novels. I just don't recommend spending money on it, unless you can get it secondhand like I did. I usually reread my Philippa Gregory novels, but this one depressed me too much to read a second time.

Linking up for Book Club Friday!

This post contains Amazon Affiliate links. Give me a few more years, and your purchases might buy me a tall soy chai.


  1. I usually read all of Philippa Gregory's books but never picked up Fallen Skies. And now given your review it might be a while before I get to it! Have you read her Earthly Joys books? They're ones of her lesser known books, but I read them back in college and really enjoyed them.

    1. I want to read the Earthly Joy books! I think I'm up-to-date with her Tudor books, at least the ones out in paperback. I was just at my secondhand shop the other day and asked if all the Philippa Gregory novels were out. They only had the third of the Earthly Joy books, and I want to read them in order!


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