“Confession is not betrayal. What you say or do doesn’t matter; only feelings matter. If they could make me stop loving you-that would be the real betrayal.” ― George Orwell

The Kiss of the Spider Woman – Manuel Puig
(El Beso de la Mujer Araña) 

n273641‘– Something a little strange, that’s what you notice, that she’s not a woman like all the others.’ This is how Argentine author Manuel Puig introduces his most highly acclaimed novel The Kiss of the Spider Woman.

What does this opening sentence tell the reader? Is it speech? Narration? The introduction of a protagonist?

In beginning the book in this way Puig throws the reader in at the deep end – there is no introduction, explanation or clue as to how the novel will progress.

This novel is unusual, formed as it is without any form of narrative voice – a primary feature of the traditional novel. Puig composes the novel almost entirely of dialogue, interlaced with periods, often extended, of stream of consciousness, providing the reader with nothing side from a dash (–) to show that the speaker (or thinker) has changed.

As such, the characters are never actively introduced, and their names only emerge through their conversation with one another. It is up to the reader to remain attentive in order to work out who is speaking, and keep up with the flow of speech. It takes some time, but as the story unravels it becomes apparent that the two main ‘speakers’ are cell mates in an Argentine prison.

The two protagonists are Molina, a homosexual window-dresser who is serving a sentence for ‘corrupting a minor’, and Valentín, a political prisoner, serving a sentence for his membership of a leftist organisation attempting to overthrow the government. In the seclusion of their cell these two men talk, or rather, Molina talks, while Valentín listens. Molina reanimates the films he so loves in order to light up the darkness of the prison cell, while the cynical minded Valentín allows himself to become absorbed by the scenes which emerge before him. Sometimes they talk all night long – given over to their desire to escape from their surroundings.

This is how the novel begins, with a film, or rather with Molina’s description of a film – Cat People if you are interested – and this introduces one of the most important aspects of the novel. Molina’s retelling of the films make up the majority of the novel, the effect of which is strange, I found myself absorbed by these subplots and a desire, just like Valentín, to know how the films end, while simultaneously desperate to know how the novel itself will begin to pan out.

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The storytelling is captivating, I felt at times as though I could see the film panning out before me, Molina’s descriptions, particularly those of the women, bring the scenes to life before your eyes.

‘She has her legs crossed, her shoes are black, thick high heels, open toed, with dark-polished toenails sticking out. Her stockings glitter, that kind they turned inside out when the sheen went out of style, her legs look flushed and silky’

While the eloquent, effeminate Molina and the gruff, radical Valentín present themselves as almost polar opposites the character that emerge through their conversation share a key similarity. Valentín believes in suffering for the greater good; while Molina believes in enduring all else for the magic of love, but each man feels destined to be alone, Valentín for want of the cause, and Molina due to his passion for heterosexual men.

Slowly, as the novel progresses and the men spend night after night wrapped in each other words, they begin to surrender themselves to one another, with each committing himself to the cause of the other.

In The Kiss of the Spider Woman Puig rewards his readers with a truly unique reading experience. Puig’s unusual style and abstract form choice combine to create a novel which is both deeply moving and incredibly thought provoking. The unique position if the reader within the novel allows for the development of an almost intimate character-reader relationship. As such Molina’s films serve as an escape, not just for the prisoners, but also for the reader.

Who is the spider woman?

The main question I found myself asking while reading this book was – what is the relevance of the spider woman? She is referred to just once, briefly in the novel, when Valentín tells Molina ‘– You, you’re the spider woman, that traps men in her web.’ Still this doesn’t give much away as to who, or what the spider woman is. It requires a little research.

Pur_12_aracneIn Latin American history, the Teotihuacán Spider Woman, or Great Goddess, is thought to have been the goddess of the underworld, and, somewhat strangely, of earth, water and possibly creation itself. While in Greek mythology the other spider woman, Arachne, was a mortal woman who was incredibly skilled in the art of weaving and challenged the goddess of wisdom and crafts, Athena, to a – for want of a better phrase – spin off and was transformed into a spider as punishment for her arrogance.

So which of these spider women lend themselves to Molina? Having read the book I feel I could attribute either of these personas to his character, although I’m not sure myself which Puig was referring to, if indeed he was referring to either. Puig presents Molina as a glittering weaver of great things, as a true an artist adept at creating beautiful scenes to distract and allure Valentín, but it also emerges that he is a great manipulator capable of influencing those around him for his own cause.

“Great empires are not maintained by timidity.” ― Tacitus

When in Rome

Inceptio and Perfiditas – Alison Morton

Having shown a keen interest in all things Roman since the age of 11, Alison Morton is a self-proclaimed ‘Roman nut’. She recounts how walking on the mosaic floors of the old Roman City in Ampurias started her wondering what a Matriarchal Roman society would have been like. This set the background for her alternative Roman history trilogy, the Roma Nova series. The first book in the trilogy, Inceptio, was published in 2013, with Perfeditas and Successio following soon after.


Inceptio

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In the first book of the trilogy Morton introduces the reader to Karen Brown; a seemingly ordinary marketing assistant who lives for her weekends spent volunteering at a New York country park. Her life is turned upside down when, following an altercation with a disruptive park visitor, she finds herself dismissed from her position. This is just the beginning, as Karen’s position as sole heir to her father multi-million dollar company leaves her as the target of government enforcer Jeffery Renschman. Her choice: stay in New York and risk being eliminated by Eastern United States Government, or flee to the mysterious Roma Nova, the European homeland of her late mother. Karen makes the not-so-difficult decision to see what Roma Nova has in store for her, only to find that her troubles have crossed the Atlantic.

The opening few pages of a book are often the most important, from a reader’s perspective at least. As soon as I started reading Inceptio I knew I was going to like it. There was no slow introduction to the story, with Morton instead opting to get straight in with the action. We are introduced to Morton’s main character, initially known as Karen, right after she bloodied the nose of a delinquent adolescent in the county park where she voluntarily spends her weekends. Despite this somewhat lively introduction to Karen, we are made aware straight away that that this is out of character for her: ‘I hadn’t knocked anybody down since junior high, when Albie Jolak had tried to put his hand up my sobbing cousins skirt’.

I found I sympathised with Karen, but not with the Karen in the book as such, but with the Karen she had been, before the book began. In the first chapter and a half, you get a sense of the woman Karen had been before made the mistake of punching the son of the second most powerful man in the country. The old Karen, the Karen before her life was turned upside down, seemed placid, and a little unfazed by life, working for money, without really caring about the job itself, like a shadow in the back of the office. Of course, given the colourful opening of the book, it’s obvious that Karen’s life is about to take a turn, but hard to tell if it will be for better or worse.

I don’t want to go too much into the plot with this review, for fear of revealing any spoilers, of which there are many. Needless to say the storyline that follows is certainly a gripping one. Morton feeds the reader small titbits of information, allowing them to come to the same realisations as the characters, while leaving the final aspects of the plot hidden until the very end, making for a satisfying read. While I liked the story that Morton created for her readers, I do feel that Inceptio serves first a foremost as a settling in novel of sorts, where the reader is introduced to the main characters, and the Roma Novan way of life, paving the way for the other books in the series. I think this is often inevitable for the first book in a series, however, and do not begrudge this fact.

There are several aspects of Morton’s work within this book that I really enjoyed. The first and possibly most important of which is Karen’s character. I think Karen is fantastic, but I also find her horribly frustrating. As Karen makes the journey to Europe she sheds her old identity, and seems to slip effortlessly into her new role as Carina Mitela, granddaughter of one of the most important women in Roma Nova. She is undoubtedly pleased with this turn of events, but finds herself craving freedom. She has gone from having an admittedly fairly mediocre but laissez faire life to being watched over constantly – anyone is bound to be a little overwhelmed by this. Now, the thing I find frustrating about Carina is her choice to sneak around and attempt to escape the eyes of those watching out for her security; it’s just asking for trouble. Of course she is frustrated, but she is also needs security, there are, after all, people trying to kill her – it just seems a little selfish and immature to me.  I am torn though, as it is also Carina’s independence, which makes her such a fantastic character. If it wasn’t for her perseverance and drive she wouldn’t have left the EUS, or become the, let’s be honest, kick ass character she develops into. Morton transforms her character from the ordinary marketing assistant who was Karen Brown, to a sassy, character changing, ninja in the form of Carina Mitela, a woman able to rub shoulders with some of the most dangerous characters in Roma Nova, while continuing to serve her family and country. Exactly the kind of woman you would hope to find in a matriarchal society.

Another thing I enjoyed about the book, which I am a real sucker for at times, was the relationship between Carina and Conrad. A blossoming romance I found myself hanging onto throughout the book. My image of Conrad, developed through Karen’s descriptions of this mysterious man, portrayed a Scandinavian Alexander Skarsgård figure, wholly divine.

‘His colleague was more than striking blonde hair long enough to slick back behind his ears. And tall. Several inches taller than me, even. Above a smiling mouth and straight nose marred by a scar, his eyes were tilted slightly upwards, red brown near the iris, green at the edges’.

While I loved the romance between the couple, I also enjoyed the fact that they’re relationship did not follow a traditional path, and although there is a definite love story within Inceptio, it is by no means central to the plot.

On the whole I found Inceptio to be an entertaining read and a great introduction to the world of Roma Nova.  I can really appreciate the work that must have gone into creating a book such as this. Morton has left no stone unturned in her creation of the alternate historical timeline, which bore Roma Nova. The book starts with ‘The boring stuff’, for those not familiar with the history of Rome, a category of which I am a member and so found very useful. Morton has also laid out every aspect of the country for the reader to discover in plain sight, the government structure, military, family values, traditions and even holidays, Saturnalia instead of Christmas, the importance of family day, the presence of the family courts and importance of the female figure head of the family. Nothing is left out, which helps to give the reader a very clear picture of this new and exotic place.


Perfiditas

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In the second book of the trilogy Perfiditas, the reader once again meets with Karen Brown, in her new and transformed state as Captain Carina Mitela of the Praetorian Guard Special Forces. Carina finds herself once more at the receiving end of an attempt on her life, which throws her full force into the depths of an extensive underground conspiracy to topple the government of Roma Nova. Taking matters into her own hands, as usual, Carina calls on some old acquaintances known for operating outside of the law to aid her in her quest to uncover the perpetrators and save her beloved homeland, a move which threatens to ruin both her credibility, and her marriage. The plot thickens, as Carina finds herself at risk, not only from the conspirators who seem determined to ruin her, but also from the very government she strives to protect.

Perfiditas picks up several years after the end of Inceptio, allowing for a more intense storyline, and less settling in. Morton is able to build up more of a storyline, and focus less on background and character development. This gives way to a really gripping plotline. Several times throughout the book things are completely turned upside down, adding a whole new dimension to story and prying a surprised gasp from the mouth of the reader at the end of each chapter.

One of the things I think I liked most about Morton’s second book, though, was the group she created to overthrow the government of Roma Nova. The PFPP – Paterfamilias Patria Potestas are most simply described as ‘a fundamentalist group, believing literally in the original Roman tribal values’. The group want to overthrow the matriarchal system that Roma Nova is founded upon, and are dismissed as living in the past, with one character describing their values as ‘only two and a half thousand years out of date’. The realistic nature of this group really spoke to me; in any society there are those who are anti-establishment, so such groups are bound to arise in some form or another. In a society founded on gender, this seems even more inevitable, as modern times bring forward the desire for equality or, the call for an overhaul of traditional gender roles.

Love once again comes into play in Perfiditas, but in a very different way to Inceptio. When Carina is forced to go undercover after having been framed as a conspirator she is initially devastated at having to distance herself from her family:

‘Normally, I relished the buzz of going undercover on an operation. But no adrenaline raced through my body now. I had no doubt I’d been on the brink of being arrested as a conspirator; I’d been trapped into deserting my post so would be pursued; I was cut off from my family, my children and my love. A cold wave washed through me. Deep down, I had never felt so alone.’

This image of Carina mourning her lost family is not a regular occurrence, however, and she does slip into her undercover role, a little too comfortably, and quickly falls back into allegiance with a group of old, less than legal, acquaintances. As she spends more and more time undercover, Carina becomes increasingly aware that she is developing feelings towards one of her criminal friends, feelings which, when resigned to, threaten to completely overwhelm her.

This aspect of the novel came as quite a surprise. Given the intensity of the relationship between Carina and Conrad in Inceptio, I did not expect her to ever look at anyone else. However, the fact that she does makes her all the more real in my mind. Carina is a person like everyone else; despite the things she achieves, she is not infallible. When this aspect of Carina comes out in the book, it seems almost inevitable that something will slip out of place. In admitting to herself her feelings, Carina lets her guard down, allowing herself to become blind to that which is right in front of her. When the reality of the situation comes to light, Carina is left not only knowing that she missed something, but with a feeling of betrayal so deep it is hard to shake, even as a reader.

Overall, I found that Perfiditas followed nicely in the footsteps on Inceptio, while succeeding in standing on its own two feet. The book has a fast paced and exciting storyline, in which it is easy to become absorbed. Morton grants the reader access to Carina’s inner thoughts, allowing the reader and Carina to puzzle though the mysteries and come to the same conclusions at exactly the same time. I felt breath catch in my throat when I read the lines ‘”I’ll never forget those black eyes.” She caught her breath, “They bored into me. I don’t think I’ve ever been so frightened in the whole of my life”’. Morton ensures that the reader known exactly to whom the black eyes belong, and that you are just as surprised, and heartbroken, as Carina.

Looking at the Roma Nova series as whole so far, there were a few things I found slightly problematic. Firstly, I was slightly irritated by Morton’s reference to non-Roma Novan reality. I picked up on references to Gladiator, James Bond, and Madame Butterfly. While I can’t say these references are incorrect, or shouldn’t be there, as the books are first and foremost fiction, and so Morton has poetic license to do as she pleases, I personally I feel these references were slightly out of place. I don’t feel they added much to the story itself – they were fleeting remarks more than anything, or comparisons in passages, which were already well described – and so I feel would have been better left out.

My other slight gripe, is that I found the books to be slightly too fast paced given the complicated nature of some of the names. Even with the glossary I found it difficult at times to keep up with who was who, and what exactly was happening, I occasionally found myself needing to reread whole chapters.  It took me quite a while to read both Inceptio, and Perfiditas I am normally quite a fast reader.

Despite a couple of minor irritations I did find both books to be entertaining and most impeccably written, both from a grammatical and literal viewpoint. I continue to be astonished the level of detail in which each book is written, Roma Nova really is a very thoroughly laid out alternate history series, and for this I applaud Morton. I would recommend any mystery or thriller fans wanting to try something new to look up the Roma Nova series.

Many thanks to Alison Morton for providing me with free review copies of Inception and Perfiditas.

“It is easier to forgive an enemy than to forgive a friend.” ― William Blake

Keep your friends close, but your enemies closer.

The Dain Princess – Raitt Black

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Raitt Black was raised in New England, where he developed a love of literature. He tells me “I grew up reading books of all kinds”, before revealing that his favourites are “fantasy, science fiction, and horror”. Black first discovered a love of writing while in elementary school and it became a passion that he continued to feed as he progressed through high school. After studying for a BA in communications and relocating to the warm beaches of California, where he was to meet his future wife, Black began work on his first novel. He describes his writing as primarily fantasy with elements of mystery, love and horror. His debut novel, The Dain Princess, was released in 2013.


The Dain Princess introduces the reader to Lyhnzi Kole Dain, the only living heir to the fictional Innbern Kingdom. A colourful and feisty young girl, Lyhnzi spends her days training for battle with the castle guards and creating mischief with the hired help. Despite her comfortable existence, Lyhnzi yearns for adventure. When the opportunity arises to leave her home of Matraigh and stay with family on the coast she jumps at the opportunity, completely unsuspecting of the terrifying fate that awaits her. In the story that follows, Lyhnzi finds her understanding of good and evil challenged as she realises that those that she thinks of as friends or foes may not be all they seem.

This novel would suit a young adult audience – while I enjoyed the story, I’m sure I would have appreciated it even more if I were a few years younger.

Certain aspects of The Dain Princess reminded me of Philip Pullman’s Dark Materials, a comparison I’m sure I’m not alone in making. Lyhnzi is rather like Pullman’s Lyra – the girls share similar backgrounds and the same strong, stubborn character, but the similarities do not end here. Lyhnzi is an only child who rarely sees her father, and spends her days rattling around in an enormous castle, sneaking through hidden passageways and causing havoc with the children employed in the kitchens. A section quite early on in the book in particular reminded me of a scene in The Northern Lights, in which Lyra is made to have her knees washed before dinner, and then sneaks out onto the roofs of the college:

“Tris, this afternoon’s tutor, insisted she be clean for her lessons, and that she wear a dress. The pants and shirt she wore to train with the guards were not ladylike, according to Tris. Lyhnzi quickly washed and dressed. She went to the door and pressed her ear against it. Not a sound came from the other side. The guards were still there, she was sure of it, and they would only wait a few more moments. It was time to make her escape.”

The universe of The Dain Princess appears very similar to and yet considerably behind that of our own world, with armoured guards, gilded tapestries, cities enclosed within castle walls and travel by horse and cart, as if stuck within the realm of medieval Britain. It takes some time before elements of fantasy work their way into the text and I think this works really well. In Black’s world, the fantastic walk among everyday people rather than exist in an entirely alternate enchanted world.

Elements of horror within the story further add to the fantasy realm of the novel. Black creates new and obscure creatures, and ominous presences which lurk in the forest where the children are camping. The dangers of the forests are first revealed to the children, much like in a horror film, by an uneducated local man, who, without going into detail, suggests they sleep with one eye open:

“‘Some men hunt over there, come back in day. In light, it’s normal. Animals run, birds chirp, but in dark,’ he shook his head and shivered. ‘Most nights is quiet, silent. What should be, don’t. No crickets or nothing. Every sometime it’s like screams, only west of river. I’d sleep awake if I was.’”

As the story progresses the children learn of some of the horrors lurking in the trees. One creature in particular stays hidden just out of sight throughout the majority of their journey, quietly stalking the children by day, and emerging at night with a signature blood curdling scream. With the creatures kept at bay only by the light of the fire, the children find themselves coming closer and closer to the burning red eyes of the creatures of their nightmares.

The Dain Princess has many elements of a classic coming of age novel. As with much young adult fiction, the reader grows with the characters. Encompassed within this is the theme of trust, which runs throughout the novel. The characters are forever asking one another “why should I trust you?”, and having their whole understanding of trust completely redefined. Those who seem the most trustworthy in the traditional sense, those Lyhnzi has grown up with and those who swear to protect her, may have ulterior motives in mind, whereas the most unlikely characters become the most genuine. The reader finds themselves following Lyhnzi on her journey of self discovery and she grows from a teenager into a woman, learning to ignore traditional stereotypes and have confidence in her own instincts.

The story does have a few editing issues. However, I think that with self-published novels this is somewhat inevitable, and while a professional editor’s eye would undoubtedly improve the novel I don’t feel that the issues dramatically detract from its merits. There are also a few characters whose stories I don’t feel are properly concluded at the end of the book. The reader may find themselves with a few questions left hanging in the air.

On the whole I found The Dain Princess to be an engaging and fun read. Black’s work contains elements of horror, mystery and fantasy, which when combined make for a well structured and entertaining novel. I would recommend this book to young adult readers, and those who have read and enjoyed the work of Philip Pullman and other fantasy novelists.

Many thanks to Raitt Black for providing me with a free review copy of The Dain Princess.