Wednesday, July 27, 2011
Historical Fiction: Selene of Alexandria by Faith L. Justice
Acquired: from the author
Read: for review (I received my copy of this book in return for a fair and honest review; how I acquired it did not affect the outcome of my review)
Reading time: six days
Teen-aged Selene lives in the Christian city of Alexandria. In A.D. 412, it is unusual for upper-class girls to enter professions, but Selene wishes to become a physician rather than marry a man of her father's choice. She succeeds in gaining the tutelage of Lady Philosopher Hypatia and other Alexandrian scholars, but the city is descending into a struggle between the Christians under the new, young bishop and all other religious sects, pagan and Jewish. In a city separating into sides in the midst of political intrigue, religious fanaticism, and personal ambitions, can Selene manage to make her dream come true?
Setting and characters: The setting and characters themselves are some of the most interesting aspects to this novel. It's set in the Roman Empire, but the Empire is the Christian one of several centuries after the gladiatorial, Caesar-run, pantheon-worshiping one of most other ancient Roman historical novels. It's a time period that I've never run into before in historical fiction, the one when classical civilization was fading into the "Dark Ages." Selene is a fascinating character, being a female physician-in-training (unusual but not unheard of), and the story of Orestes, Prefect of Alexandria, is told as well.
Writing: Selene of Alexandria is both well-researched and well-written. Faith Justice makes clear which characters are fictional and which were actual people, and she also includes a historical note at the end to further explain what is factual and what is creative license. She incorporates a wealth of historical details into the story, and these are worked in well enough that they seem natural, not just random research forced into the storyline. My biggest plaudit for this novel is that its story is completely believable. Selene, though an unusual character, is not so modernized in her opinions and actions as to be implausible. Her role in the larger story of Alexandria is not some fantastical place reached by an entirely improbable series of events, instead coming across as small yet still important, organized by chance in the manipulations of the city's leaders. Another situation and person could have been substituted in her spot; it just happened to be Selene.
Everything else: For some reason, it took me a surprisingly long time to get into the story. The author takes a while to set up the characters and story, but then there's several central characters and a complex plot. The novel got better after this, though. And better and better and better. By the end, I couldn't put it down. What started off as a slow plot kept getting faster and faster as tensions in Alexandria wound tighter and Selene and her family, along with everyone else, became more entangled in them. I'm hoping that Faith Justice will write another book about the characters of Selene of Alexandria, because even though the novel may have been written as a stand-alone, I want to see what happens to Selene, her family, and her friends as they move on after the conclusion.
One final praise: Selene of Alexandria is historical fiction written for historical instruction, not for romance, Christian inspiration, or any other reason. I really hate it when authors take wonderful-sounding historical settings and characters and don't use them to teach history. Really, that's the purpose of historical fiction, to spread historical knowledge in a fun, accessible way. This novel does an excellent job with that, as I learned a lot about this part of history.
Maturity Factor: A sex scene and an attempted rape.