Book Review: Savage Kingdom by Benjamin Woolley

“And thy blush being turned to indignation, thou shalt wash, hast washed thy feet in the blood of those native unnatural Traitors, and now becomest a pure English Virgin; a new other Britain, in that new other World; and let all English say and pray, GOD BLESS VIRGINIA.”

Samuel Purchas, Purchas his Pilgramage (1623)

Savage Kingdom: The True Story of Jamestown, 1607, and the Settlement of America by Benjamin Woolley

★★★★☆

Four centuries ago, and fourteen years before the Mayflower, a group of men — led by a one-armed ex-pirate, an epileptic aristocrat, a reprobate cleric and a government spy — left London aboard a fleet of three ships to start a new life in America. They arrived in Virginia in the spring of 1607 and set about trying to create a settlement on a tiny island in the James River. Despite their shortcomings, and against the odds, they built Jamestown, a ramshackle outpost that laid the foundations of the British Empire and the United States of America.

Drawing on new discoveries, neglected sources and manuscript collections scattered across the world, Savage Kingdom challenges the textbook image of Jamestown as a mere money-making venture. It reveals a reckless, daring enterprise led by outcasts of the Old World who found themselves interlopers in a new one. It charts their journey into a beautiful landscape and a sophisticated culture that they found both ravishing and alien, which they yearned to possess but threatened to destroy. They called their new home a “savage kingdom,” but it was the savagery they had experienced in Europe that had driven them across the ocean and which they hoped to escape by building in America “one of the most glorious nations under the sun.”

An intimate story in an epic setting, Woolley shows how the land of Pocahontas came to be drawn into a new global order, reaching from London to the Orinoco Delta, from the warring kingdoms of Angola to the slave markets of Mexico, from the gates of the Ottoman Empire to the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains.

Savage Kingdom is not dry, like so many history books. Instead, littered with primary-source material that gives us an incredible window into the late 16th and early 17th centuries, it reads like a gripping story, and is a detailed play-by-play of the establishment of the State of Virginia. Who knew American history could make for an edge-of-your-seat read? (Maybe you did, but a childhood of mind-numbing U.S. history books had me thinking otherwise.)

It is easy, in learning history, to see only large-scale cause-and-effect — e.g., “Marie and Louis lived lavish lives and poured enormous amounts of money into decor and war, the Crown went bankrupt, the people were unfairly taxed; therefore, starving and impoverished, they became an angry mob, executed Marie and Louis, and initiated the French Revolution.” In reality, this view is too narrow; history is a confluence of events, and every detail plays a role — the whispered gossip, the words and works of the artists and critics, the legislative habits that become difficult to break. Woolley takes those details into account in Savage Kingdom, which gives us a look at events around the globe at the time of Jamestown’s inception. Above all, Savage Kingdom is a fascinating glimpse into life and politics in the early 1600s, particularly for English explorers and Spanish conquistadors, colonial settlers, British investors, and the indigenous peoples of the East Coast.

America has a long history of drawing the oddballs and outcasts, and of their persistence toward the goal of achieving social and economic mobility through hard work (“the American dream”), and this tradition began many years before the Mayflower landed in Plymouth. The settlers of Jamestown faced stunning adversities — often catalyzed by their own penchant for evil and destruction — but against all odds, managed to conquer them, just as they did the Powhatan‘s land. When I started the book, it was with respect for my country but disgust for the behavior of its pioneers; having finished it, my feelings toward the Virginia venture are now as varied as the opinions of all those involved. It is clear that an astounding amount of effort went into researching and writing this book, and it earns 4 out of 5 tobacco plants from me.

I believe that a book should challenge readers and push us outside our comfort zones to expand our world views. You can definitely expect this book to challenge you. It challenged me to empathize with the settlers of Virginia. The atrocities committed during America’s founding years is the stuff of nightmares, so I was also challenged to push myself through some of the more grotesque occurrences — it never grew boring, but it did occasionally become nauseating and stressful. It is a story that needs to be told, but I’m skeptical of the idea that the gory details need to be explicitly shared. That is absolutely a matter of opinion, and I can see and understand the other perspectives: that it wouldn’t be an authentic account otherwise, that to omit the injustices done would be a further injustice, that summarizing what occurred as opposed to laying it all out in detail opens the door to alterations of history. I absolutely respect those views, but it is nonetheless the gory details that prevent me from giving the book full marks.

Content Advisory: Several disturbing instances of torture and murder are described, which may be upsetting to some readers. The archaic language of Woolley’s primary sources is quoted very often, and Woolley’s own writing, while eloquent, may be equally difficult for a younger reader. Therefore, I give Savage Kingdom an R rating and would advise an educator to read it herself before recommending it to a young person, to ensure that young person has the maturity level necessary to appreciate it. And make sure that young person knows how to use a dictionary.

Featured Image: James Forte at Jamestowne 1607 by John Hull (1607)

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Book Review: A Natural History of Dragons by Marie Brennan (Memoirs of Lady Trent #1)

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A Natural History of Dragons by Marie Brennan

★★★★★

All the world, from Scirland to the farthest reaches of Eriga, know Isabella, Lady Trent, to be the world’s preeminent dragon naturalist. She is the remarkable woman who brought the study of dragons out of the misty shadows of myth and misunderstanding into the clear light of modern science. But before she became the illustrious figure we know today, there was a bookish young woman whose passion for learning, natural history, and, yes, dragons defied the stifling conventions of her day.

Here at last, in her own words, is the true story of a pioneering spirit who risked her reputation, her prospects, and her fragile flesh and bone to satisfy her scientific curiosity; of how she sought true love and happiness despite her lamentable eccentricities; and of her thrilling expedition to the perilous mountains of Vystrana, where she made the first of many historic discoveries that would change the world forever.

Take Indiana Jones, make him into a woman, place her in Victorian England and sprinkle in some dragons and you have the perfect beginnings of an excellent adventure.

Isabella Camherst is a female Indiana Jones in a world similar to ours, but with a few notable differences: Isabella’s country is reminiscent of England during the Victorian era, the most advanced technology is steam-powered, and dragons are just another species of wildlife, if one of the more enigmatic creatures out there. Very little is known about them as a species during Isabella’s youth, and what is known is enough only to fill one leatherbound book, Sir Richard Edgeworth’s A Natural History of Dragons, a book which, despite the perplexing references to anatomy, little Isabella, who is fascinated by dragons, sneaks off her father’s shelves to read and study again and again.

Sneaking the book away is necessary because natural philosophy isn’t a subject meant to be taken up by women. Very few subjects are meant to be taken up by women, in fact: women are meant to be elegant, modest helpmeets whose pleasure is derived from serving as hostess, mother, and wife, and in partaking in properly feminine hobbies like reading novels and strolling through parks.

There isn’t anything particularly wrong with that life, other than that Isabella would die a little inside if her thirst for knowledge weren’t daily quenched in some capacity. I’m sure every scholarly person can relate to Isabella’s craving to know. While coming out to Society, she even deliberately seeks out a husband who will keep a library and support her book habit! (Don’t tell my husband about that; he might start to ask questions.) “Where knowledge is concerned,” reflects Isabella, “I am as greedy as the mythical dragons in the stories, sitting atop their glittering hoards.”

But Isabella isn’t just studious and ink-nosed; she’s adventurous, too. From going on dragon-researching expeditions to falling into smugglers’ pits in ancient ruins, Isabella’s memoirs read like a classic adventure story, but one told in the voice of a gutsy, intelligent, clever, and capable woman reflecting on her youth. She is one of those rare characters who you so desperately want to befriend that you wish you could pull them right out of the pages and make them real.

Too frequently I come across a lack of professionalism in writing — sheer laziness, really, whether in fully fleshing out characters or clearing up abundant typos. Marie Brennan, on the other hand, has considered every detail, right down to interspersing the book with Isabella’s sketches. The effort Brennan went through to perfect her book makes it shine all the more.

Between the thrilling adventure tale and the memorable Isabella, the first installment of Isabella’s memoirs earns 5 out of 5 dragon’s bones.

Cleanliness & Content Advisory: A Natural History of Dragons is intended for adults, but because it’s written like a Victorian memoir, there really is no gore, sexual content, or cursing — unless you consider words like “godsend” to be curse-words, in which case Isabella has this message for you:

To those of my readers who flinch at minor blasphemies of the sort: I must warn you that there will be more ahead. Mr. Wilker restrained his language around me in our Vystrani days, but as we grew more comfortable with one another, he revealed a casual habit of naming the Lord. If I edited his language here, it would misrepresent his character, and so I pray you pardon his frankness, and mine. We were neither of us very religious.

Aside from occasionally needing a dictionary, a young adult could easily read this book. I would give it a PG-13 rating.

Book Review: The Magic Bunny by Paddy Comyn and Barry Sheehan

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The Magic Bunny by Paddy Comyn and Barry Sheehan

★★☆☆☆

The Magic Bunny is an accompanying board book to the adorable Jellycat bunny (sold separately), Oliver’s first stuffed animal, but unfortunately it’s a rather mediocre little story. It gets the point across — Bunny will keep you safe at night until mom comes and wakes you up in the morning — but the rhyme lacks eloquence, and the illustrations are simplistic and pale and bland in color.

Magic Bunny

They were so lacking in contrast and color that Oliver wasn’t interested in them, though with any other book he’s giggling and smiling at the images and trying to grab them right out of the page. I thought it would be cute to have the book that matched his toy, but having read it I wish I hadn’t wasted my money!

The deficiency in art and writing would earn this book one star if it weren’t for the message of the book. I really respect writers who seek to reassure children and make them feel safe and secure. Having a tiny body is tough stuff! The last thing a child needs is to have their concerns invalidated. While The Magic Bunny is probably not a book Oliver and I will be picking up again and again, those few times we do read it will help to reassure him that he is well-loved and quite safe. Between the book’s message and its shortcomings, it earns 2 out of 5 bottles of milk.

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You should still get the soft and adorable Jellycat bunny, though! So huggable.

Book Review: The Farthest Shore by Ursula K. Le Guin (Earthsea Cycle #3)

“He is the earth and sunlight, the leaves
of trees, the eagle’s flight. He is alive.
And all who ever died, live; they are reborn
and have no end, nor will there ever be an end.”

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The Farthest Shore by Ursula K. Le Guin

★★★☆☆

In this third book in the Earthsea series, darkness threatens to overtake Earthsea: The world and its wizards are losing their magic. But Ged Sparrohawk — Archmage, wizard, and dragonlord — is determined to discover the source of this devastating loss.

Aided by Enlad’s young Prince Arren, Ged embarks on a treacherous journey that will test their strength and will. Because to restore magic, the two warriors must venture to the farthest reaches of their world — and even beyond the realm of death.

I was disappointed that The Tombs of Atuan deviated from the theme of the classic fantasy adventure story of the kind that A Wizard of Earthsea was, so I was happy to get another world-crossing journey from Le Guin. An aging Sparrowhawk travels with 17-year-old Prince Arren of Enlad to save magic from dwindling out in the world and to right the Balance, and Arren learns about the nature of the balance between life and death and why death is essential for life. Le Guin sprinkles philosophical lessons throughout the books of the Earthsea series, and while I don’t agree with all the opinions she offers in The Farthest Shore, I still appreciated the food-for-thought, and the journey into darkness to return the world’s light was a pleasant story to read.

While I enjoyed the plot, and found The Farthest Shore to be quite a page-turner, I felt that there were several elements that were lacking. The most notable for me was character development. Yes, Arren does undergo quite a “hero’s journey,” but his personality felt paper-thin throughout, lacking substance. You couldn’t tear him free of the pages and plop him into the real world; he lacked fears, ambitions, passions, secrets. Though I adored Sparrowhawk in both A Wizard of Earthsea and The Tombs of Atuan, in The Farthest Shore he felt like the typical wizard trope: an old, graying man with a lined face who has seen a lifetime of wondrous things and who is now serious and pensive and troubled by a great darkness, and who lives in physical and emotional isolation from others and who saves his magic, cast with his trusty, ever-present wizard’s staff, for great works. They weren’t believable as people.

Another objection I had with The Farthest Shore was its brevity. I think it could have been a five-star book if it had been at least twice as long (my edition is roughly 300 pages, but they are very small pages) — if Le Guin had given herself more time to mold the story, I’m sure she could have solved the character development problem, too. Because it feels like a race to reach the end of the story, many of the scenes that aren’t explicitly related to Arren and Sparrowhawk’s main objective feel random and unnecessary. These scenes neither further the story nor help the characters grow, and they take precious time away from the main focus of the book, so why are they are even there? If Le Guin had maintained the tale-telling writing style she used in A Wizard of Earthsea, it would have worked, but for whatever reason, and to my disappointment, she chose not to carry that style through the rest of the series.

Because it is a lovely little adventure story but seriously lacking in depth, pacing, and character development, I give The Farthest Shore 3 out of 5 fire-breathing dragons. I’m not very motivated to finish the rest of the Earthsea Cycle; with so many books on my TBR shelf, I’m not sure I want to pursue the rest of a series that’s proven to me to be rather mediocre. Nonetheless, I still highly recommend the first installment in the series, A Wizard of Earthsea.

Cleanliness & Content Advisory: The Farthest Shore has more dark themes than its predecessors in the Earthsea series. The physical and mental consequences of drug abuse are witnessed, slavery, infanticide, and murder are mentioned, the main characters get injured, and there is a rather violent scene in which someone is nearly beheaded. Therefore I’d give this a PG-13 rating.

Read my reviews of the earlier books in the Earthsea Cycle:
A Wizard of Earthsea by Ursula K. Le Guin (Earthsea Cycle #1)
The Tombs of Atuan by Ursula K. Le Guin (Earthsea Cycle #2)

Have you read The Farthest Shore? What did you think? Did you choose to continue reading the rest of the series?

Book Review: The Tombs of Atuan by Ursula K. Le Guin (Earthsea Cycle #2)

“You are like a lantern swathed and covered, hidden away
in a dark place. Yet the light shines; they could not put out the light.
They could not hide you.”

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The Tombs of Atuan by Ursula K. Le Guin

★★☆☆☆

In this second novel in the Earthsea series, Tenar is chosen as high priestess to the ancient and nameless Powers of the Earth, and everything is taken from her — home, family, possessions, even her name. She is now known only as Arha, the Eaten One, and guards the shadowy, labyrinthine Tombs of Atuan.

Then a wizard, Ged Sparrowhawk, comes to steal the Tombs’ greatest hidden treasure, the Ring of Erreth-Akbe. Tenar’s duty is to protect the Ring, but Ged possesses the light of magic and tales of a world that Tenar has never known. Will Tenar risk everything to escape from the darkness that has become her domain?

After adoring nearly everything about A Wizard of Earthsea — the characters, the writing style, the plot — The Tombs of Atuan was a serious let-down. I had gone into it expecting the same elegant, myth-like writing style utilized in A Wizard, but instead found the writing to be simplistic, as if it had been “dumbed down” for young readers; the assumption that it’s necessary to talk down to a young reader has always been my largest pet-peeve with young adult fiction, and the reason I skipped the entire genre as a kid.

Arha serves dark gods of a similar nature to the shadow encountered in A Wizard. They are nameless, formless beings of immense power who Arha, groomed from a very young age to be the high priestess of the Tombs of Atuan, reveres unquestionably, until the day she realizes that some others don’t believe, that it’s actually possible not to believe in or respect the gods. Part of Arha’s coming-of-age includes finding out that things she believed to be inherent truths are actually things she is able to have opinions about and, if she dares, disagreements with. This aspect of the book I found very compelling, and I have to commend Le Guin for her skill at developing Arha’s character and describing the internal journey we all go through when we reach that point of challenging everything we’ve been told is true. I closed the book feeling like I could relate very strongly to Arha, and as if I had made a “book friend.”

Unfortunately that’s all it is: a coming-of-age story. Where A Wizard of Earthsea was high fantasy with a story of self-discovery quietly and deftly woven in, The Tombs of Atuan is solely about Arha’s growth and internal dialogue. The bland, simplistic writing style and a plot that bored me bring this book down to 2 out of 5 buried treasures.

Cleanliness & Content Advisory: Despite religion being a central theme of the book, The Tombs of Atuan is considerably darker than A Wizard of Earthsea. Because human sacrifice and death are mentioned but never explicitly shown, I give it a PG rating and recommend it for 10-12+, depending on the maturity level of the young person.

Read my reviews of the other books I’ve read in the Earthsea Cycle:
A Wizard of Earthsea by Ursula K. Le Guin (Earthsea Cycle #1)
The Farthest Shore by Ursula K. Le Guin (Earthsea Cycle #3)

What did you think of The Tombs of Atuan? Leave me a comment and let me know!

Book Review: A Wizard of Earthsea by Ursula K. Le Guin (Earthsea Cycle #1)

“It is very hard for evil to take hold of the unconsenting soul.”

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A Wizard of Earthsea by Ursula K. Le Guin

★★★★★

Ged, the greatest sorcerer in all Earthsea, was called Sparrowhawk in his reckless youth. Hungry for power and knowledge, Sparrowhawk tampered with long-held secrets and loosed a terrible shadow upon the world. This is the tale of his testing, how he mastered the mighty words of power, tamed an ancient dragon, and crossed death’s threshold to restore the balance.

This was a really phenomenal coming-of-age story, and written in the most unique way, as if Le Guin wasn’t simply relating events, but offering a legend to the reader, as if narrated by a storyteller well-traveled in her world of Earthsea, who had listened to all the tales told of the fabled wizard Sparrowhawk. She sets this fascinating tone immediately, right in the first paragraph:

The island of Gont, a single mountain that lifts its peak a mile above the storm-racked Northeast Sea, is a land famous for wizards. From the towns in its high valleys and the ports on its dark narrow bays many a Gontishman has gone forth to serve the Lords of the Archipelago in their cities as wizard or mage, or, looking for adventure, to wander working magic from isle to isle of Earthsea. Of these some say the greatest, and surely the greatest voyager, was the man called Sparrowhawk, who in his day became both dragonlord and Archmage. His life is told of in the Deed of Ged and in many songs, but this is a tale of the time before his fame, before the songs were made.

If you are a fan of mythology, I think you will appreciate the style. I read J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Silmarillion, the background legends and mythology surrounding the Elves and the ancient history of Man, simultaneously, and was struck by just how many parallels I found in the writing styles. I think Le Guin was certainly inspired by hero-centric myths like Beowulf. She refers to the “tradition of fantastic tales and hero stories,

which comes down to us like a great river from sources high in the mountains of Myth — a confluence of folk and fairy tale, classical epic, medieval and Renaissance and Eastern romance, romantic ballad, Victorian imaginative tale, and twentieth-century book of fantastic adventure such as T.H. White’s Arthurian cycle and Tolkien’s great book.

“Afterword”

It was a very human story, too, dappled as it was with the shadow of evil and illuminated by enchantment, and with a really exquisite ending that I think anyone about 12 and older could relate to. I wish I had read this book as a teenager, because I think it would strike a much deeper chord with people just learning who they are and perhaps struggling with or afraid of that understanding, as teenagers often are, but it was well worth the read as an adult.

A noteworthy aspect of A Wizard is that the main character, Ged or “Sparrowhawk,” is dark-skinned. He hails from an island where dark skin is the norm, and, flipping traditional stereotypes on their head, where the light-skinned folk are considered a violent people, reminiscent of the Vikings. I don’t feel that we encounter people of color in a flattering light nearly enough in the world of fantasy, especially young adult fantasy, and it seems that Ursula K. Le Guin felt the same way.

The part of the [fantasy] tradition that I knew best was mostly written (or rewritten for children) in England and northern Europe. The principal characters were men. If the story was heroic, the hero was a white man; most dark-skinned people were inferior or evil. If there was a woman in the story, she was a passive object of desire and rescue (a beautiful blond princess); active women (dark, witches) usually caused destruction or tragedy. Anyway, the stories weren’t about the women. They were about men, what men did, and what was important to men.

It’s in this sense that A Wizard was perfectly conventional. … In other ways my story didn’t follow the tradition. … A great many white readers in 1967 were not ready to accept a brown-skinned hero. But they weren’t expecting one. I didn’t make an issue of it, and you have to be well into the book before you realize that Ged, like most of the characters, isn’t white.

His people, the Archipelagans, are various shades of copper and brown, shading into black in the South and East Reaches. The light-skinned people among them have far-northern or Kargish ancestors. … Ged is copper-brown and his friend Vetch is black.

“Afterword”

I won’t name names but tell me you haven’t read a fantasy novel in which the dark-skinned characters were rare and the few who existed bent more towards evil than good. I know that I’ve read many.

Ged quickly became one of my all-time favorite characters, and his unique journey of self-discovery, self-mastery, and raising his confront of evil earns 5 out of 5 wizard’s spells. I am very excited to read the rest of the Earthsea Cycle!

Cleanliness & Content Advisory: I’d call this a “clean read” and would give it a G-rating. There is no sexual content, swearing, or violence (it’s a very unique fantasy read!). I think it would be appropriate for middle grade and above, but would probably recommend 12+, as the coming-of-age story would be most appreciated by someone who is coming of age.

Read my reviews of the other books I’ve read in the Earthsea Cycle:
The Tombs of Atuan by Ursula K. Le Guin (Earthsea Cycle #2)
The Farthest Shore by Ursula K. Le Guin (Earthsea Cycle #3)