In this post are two shorter reviews of books that are set in other countries that I highly recommend. Both provided two things I love: rich historical detail and strong, interesting characters. Both are also set in places I’ve visited: Budapest and Pompeii.
The Wolf Den by Elodie Harper
Recommended by Lory at Entering the Enchanted Castle, this novel about enslaved women in ancient Pompeii was a fantastic read. The main character, Amara, is a highly educated young woman, but when her father dies and she and her mother are starving, she is sold into slavery, first as a house slave but ultimately as a prostitute in the notorious Wolf Den, an actual place that has been discovered in Pompeii, with small cells decorated with paintings of erotic activities. Amara’s life is terrifying – she is not only beaten and raped but also has to go into the streets to sell herself and is assaulted regularly by her master to keep her in submission. It’s even more terrifying because Amara herself is too smart, too independent to submit to this kind of life – but she’s also smart enough to know she has no option to do otherwise if she’s to survive.
Where the writing really shines in this book is in Harper’s depiction of Amara’s daily emotional struggle. She forms friendships with the other women but realizes that none of them have any control over their daily lives and could be gone in a moment. She also begins a relationship with another slave in town, and is torn between caring for him and knowing she can’t be in a relationship if she lacks basic freedom over her own body. And she and the other women struggle with developing feelings for the man who controls them, which Harper depicts as almost a necessary delusion if they are to get through their days. I loved the complexity of these different emotions. Amara never stops dreaming – and scheming – to reach freedom, even if that means stepping on others. There were times in this book that I didn’t like her very much, but I always sympathized with where she was trying to go.
I also loved how much this book is grounded in real facts and history about Pompeii, from the details about lamps and frescoes to the use of real names and places that can be seen today (for example, the ancient Romans had “fast food”, hot meals that could be served quickly and cheaply). I walked through the streets of Pompeii and Herculaneum about ten years ago and found it fascinating, though I doubt I gave a lot of thought to the people who were enslaved there, and I’m not sure if I saw the Wolf Den. I would certainly think about it differently now.
I read this book for the TBR Pile Challenge and Backlist Reader challenge. It’s the first in a trilogy, with the third and final book coming out later this year.
This Rebel Heart by Katherine Locke
I discovered this book through a list on Polygon of the best fantasy and science fiction books of 2022 (courtesy of Mr. CG, who keeps an eye out for these kinds of things). The book takes place in 1956 and is based on a real Hungarian revolt against the Communist regime. Csilla is a typist for a newspaper in a time when everyone has to watch every word and gesture, as people are being “disappeared” all the time. Csilla’s parents were executed by the government, and just recently pardoned (their execution is deemed a “mistake” though it’s too late to rectify it). Csilla and her aunt are trying to get out of the country, until a student asks Csilla for help.
This book is set in a fascinating time, from the Holocaust to the Russian occupation. It’s much more historical fiction than fantasy, but I loved the subtle weaving of magical realism throughout. For example, Csilla talks about how colorless their life is, and I thought at first that was a metaphor until she begins to actually see colors in things. Also, the river speaks to her, which again could be metaphorical, until it isn’t. And there’s my favorite of mythological creatures, the golem.
The book is beautifully written, though it’s more conceptual than action-driven, so it was a bit slow-moving at times, and since I was listening on audio I sometimes had a little trouble following the story. But it was a book unlike any I’ve read, a thoughtful blend of magic, history, and philosophy. It’s more a book about how rebellions are built one small step at a time, rather than a close retelling of actual events. It’s also a vivid homage to the people of this place and time, those who were lost and those who fought back.
I recommend either of these two books for readers who want to be immersed in history and a different country and time, and who want great storytelling and character development.
One of my favourite travel activities is pairing books with places, and these sound like two great reads – although with confronting subject matter, so I’ll need to wait till I’m in the right frame of mind.
I’ve actually been thinking about the prostitutes of Pompeii and other places recently, as I’ve been working on a travel memory piece with a dark edge. I’ve been thinking about how we snigger at the phalluses carved into stone in ancient Roman settlements, and don’t consider that the women in the brothels were almost certainly sex slaves, and what that might have meant for them.
Great review of The Wolf Den, and These Rebel Hearts sounds fascinating too. The latter sounds a bit reminiscent of something Le Guin might write … which is an automatic recommendation in my book.