Review: Eye by Marianne Micros

I was provided a digital advance reader copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

I suppose you could say the cover of this book… caught my eye. After reading it, I’m not quite sure what to make of it. Eye is a loosely thematic collection of short stories that mostly center around, you guessed it, the eye. About as strong is the focus on Greece: its myths, its history, and its superstitions, most prominently the “evil eye.” The author is a retired English professor of Greek heritage, and both of these facts come through in her writing.

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The first half of the book includes stories that take place on various Greek islands, most of them about the evil eye, the advent of modernity in rural Greece, or both. The similarities between the stories make them tend to run together, especially when the same handful of names is recycled across stories. It’s unclear whether the author intended some characters to be present in different stories or if she simply wanted to emphasize how common these names are.

With so many stories in similar settings with similar topics, it becomes clear that some are weaker than others, less fleshed out, scraps that could easily have been excised from the collection. “No Man” is a decent introduction to the concept of the evil eye, so I understand why Micros chose to place it at the beginning, but as a story, it falls flat compared to the eerie tone that was likely intended. “The Midwife” and “Thirteen” are likewise unimpressive, and “Paved” is just difficult to read.

Here is where I may have a difference in opinion with someone with an M.F.A. Most notably with “Paved,” but also in some of the other stories, Micros uses experimental, semi-poetic formatting. Her previous publications have been mainly poetry. While I do enjoy poetry, I have limited patience for experimental formatting in prose or prose-like works unless it is done exceptionally well. In my view, Micros uses tired textual tricks that do little to enhance the stories and simply make them less accessible. If this sort of thing is your bread and butter, though, you may find it more interesting than I did.

Out of the swath of stories about traditional Greek life, the title story “Eye” is the most complex and complete, and it forms a clear nucleus to the other works in this section of the text. “The Sacrifice” and “The Secret Temple” also have some freshness to them, although they still aren’t top-tier.

The second half of the collection branches out into more diverse topics, both more fantastical and more realistic than the first. “One Hundred Eyes” takes something of a risk with perspective by telling the tale of Io, who was turned into a cow, in the first person, but ultimately not much is added to the myth with this retelling. “The Cave of Lust” is the most bizarre of the collection and leaves the reader with some food for thought. It is based on Edmund Spenser’s Faerie Queene, which I have not read, and so I do not know how the original might inform the impression of someone who has read it. “The Changeling’s Brother” has a decent but predictable twist.

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Juno Discovering Jupiter with Io by Pieter Lastman.

The strongest of the collection are “The Minotaur” and “The Birthday Gift.” “The Minotaur” has a unique protagonist and concept, and my only complaint is that the metaphor involved is a bit too ham-fisted. “The Birthday Gift” is a curious, insightful comment on the nature of superstition.

The final story, “The Invention of Pantyhose: An Autobiography” is another dive into the word salad-y prose that I disliked in “Paved,” which is a shame, because there is some good content in there.

So, what’s the verdict? These stories aren’t poorly written, exactly, not even the ones with disagreeable formatting. They are structurally sound, as meticulously pruned as one might expect the words of an English professor to be. In terms of content, though, many of the stories suffer from unbearable homogeneity, and that extends to the voices of the characters as well. Each of the first-person narratives reads the exact same way, which defeats the purpose of first-person perspective. I would like the author to have examined a bit more closely who each of her characters are and try to express that through their narrations.

This book is not my cup of tea, but if you are particularly interested in Greek culture or enjoy a poetic, university English department-approved style of writing, it might be for you.

Rating: 2/5 stars.

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Review: Circe by Madeline Miller

When I was in middle school, it was one book craze after another. Harry Potter. Warriors. And, of course, Percy Jackson and the Olympians. Those were the books that drove waiting lists. My friends and I discussed what Greek gods could be our parents with the same fervor as we did our Hogwarts houses. In eighth grade, my best friend and I jumped at the chance to take Latin at the high school even though we’d have to get up an hour earlier for it. Percy Jackson ignited a passion for mythology in not only me, but an entire generation.

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Was there a girl out there who didn’t want to be Annabeth Chase?

With that in mind, it’s no wonder that Madeline Miller’s books have done well. Swamped with schoolwork, the craze for The Song of Achilles passed me by, but I still heard about it and saw it on stands in the library. Now, Circe is the book that everyone is talking about, and seeing Rick Riordan’s stamp of approval, I couldn’t help but check it out.

Circe certainly speaks to the demographic that grew up on Percy Jackson, but when it comes down to it, this is a very different sort of book. More tragedy than comedy, it echoes with the pain and wisdom of millennia. Circe’s voice is distinct, that of a soft-hearted woman who has loved and lost countless times, collecting scars like so many flowers. She narrates her life story in the first person from start to finish, only once getting ahead of herself when she prematurely mentions Odysseus.

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As I read the book, I would occasionally pause to wonder whether an incident belonged to established mythology or was an invention of the author. More often than not, when I looked it up, it turned out to be the former. I slowly realized that both my freshman English class, which cast Circe as a capricious sorceress, and my Latin education, which largely ignored mythology that wasn’t to do with Aeneas, had completely failed me on the subject of Circe. Beyond that, while I am able to draw lines of relation where they are most essential, my teachers rarely had the time to explain the big picture of Greek mythology, like how the house of Atreus so often mentioned in Homer has its curse originate in Tantalus, or how Circe is related to figures such as Helios, Pasiphaë, and Medea. When I read these tales, I used to read them in isolation.

Of course, the Circe of the Odyssey is one of many obstacles for Odysseus to outwit, an exotic sorceress who he seduces and strips of her powers against him. In that sense, her story as told by Homer is that of a male power fantasy. With the slightest critical eye, though, it’s easy for a woman to find a recognizable face in Circe. She turns men into pigs? We’ve all met a man more porcine than human at some point. She’s a witch? In the modern day, it’s accepted that “witches” are often just women who have gained more power than is socially acceptable. With those associations at her fingertips, Miller leans into a sympathetic, feminist portrait of the character.

This is no lazy attempt to capitalize on trends, however. Miller is a scholar of classics, and her expertise shines through in the text. She draws on tales both familiar and unfamiliar to create a cohesive life story rather than a collection of pieces. Her take on Glaucos and Scylla I thought was particularly inspired.

In a thread she introduces through Glaucos and Scylla, then returns to throughout the text, Miller explores the concept of becoming one’s true self. Circe, an oddball among gods and mortals alike, struggles to find a companion in a cruel, isolating world. She searches for fulfillment in her brother Aeëtes, in her various lovers, and in her son Telegonus. No matter where she looks, the gods are too uncaring and the mortals too transient. Immortality proves to be a curse rather than a blessing. In this version of the story, at least, she does find what she’s looking for in the end.

I shouldn’t neglect to say that the prose is gorgeous. Circe’s narration is shot through with description that channels the sort of nostalgia we humans tend to have for lost ages we have never seen with our own eyes.

I recommend this book for anyone with an interest in Greek mythology and to lovers of strong female characters. In fact, Miller seems to argue through the text that Circe is the prototypical strong female character. Even if you don’t have a hunger for either of those things, Circe will satisfy your appetite for a well-told story.

Rating: 4.5/5 stars.

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Review: The Cake Tree in the Ruins by Akiyuki Nosaka

I received a digital advance reader copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

There are many wars going on around the world, many children and families are suffering, but these hardly affect those of us living in peacetime and we become inured to the images of suffering that we see on TV. I feel strongly that people should be aware of the reality of war and why we should do everything in our power to avoid it—whether it affects us directly or not. That is why stories like the ones in this collection are so important.

— Ginny Tapley Takemori, translator

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Akiyuki Nosaka is best known as the author of “Grave of the Fireflies,” an award-winning short story that was adapted to film by Studio Ghibli, becoming one of the most critically acclaimed animated films of all time. The stories in this collection are diverse, but like “Grave of the Fireflies,” they also concern the tragedies of World War II, particularly as seen through the eyes of children and animals. This short story collection is an expansion on the 2015 English-language publication of The Whale that Fell in Love with a Submarine. It includes five additional stories not included in the original English publication, making a total of twelve.

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Nosaka presents war as a calamity that inevitably strikes innocents who cannot fully understand it or be complicit in its violence. The personification of animals, child-oriented tone, and elements of magical realism throughout the book give the stories a fairy-tale feeling that contrasts with their dark subject matter.

Content below the cut contains spoilers.

Continue reading “Review: The Cake Tree in the Ruins by Akiyuki Nosaka”

Review: Cold Comfort Farm by Stella Gibbons

Cold Comfort Farm is apparently one of those pieces of popular culture that is common knowledge… if you’re from the U.K. Personally, I hadn’t heard of it until this year. I’m glad that I did, though, because it’s possibly the funniest book that I’ve read in my life.

The cover of the edition I have seems like a mysterious contradiction to a person not already aware of the contents of the book. It has the standard staid cover design of the Penguin Classics series, but the image chosen to represent the personality of the novel is a goofy-looking cow with its nose pressed into the camera. Even though there are great works of comedy in the canon, the expectation remains for “classic” literature to be serious literature. Cold Comfort Farm is delightfully un-serious.

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Here’s the premise: Flora Poste, a bright, sensible young woman, moves out to the country to live with a pack of gloomy relatives who think they’re cursed, then solves their problems for them with practical common sense (with the help of her personal guidebook, The Higher Common Sense.)

It’s a parody of British rural melodrama, a genre that I have never read, but as I sank into the book, I found that many of the archetypes involved are more familiar than I expected. There’s Flora Poste, the plucky heroine, Seth, the town player and family favorite, Reuben, the disparaged heir, Amos, the old religious crank, Judith, the gloomy aunt wracked with guilt, and so on. The core of it all is, of course, the crazy old head of the family, Aunt Ada Doom, never the same after the traumatic events of her childhood. What happened to her? She saw something nasty in the woodshed. What did she see? No one knows, but it sure was nasty. Unspeakable, one might say.

While I may not be directly familiar with the works parodied in the novel, I found plenty of literary background to contextualize it for me. There are numerous references to the Brontë sisters, and certain elements of the plot and characters have a hint of Austen in them as well.  Amos, for example, calls to mind the servant Joseph in Wuthering Heights with his talk of hellfire and damnation, and Mrs. Beetle somewhat resembles Nelly. Furthermore, the wild child Elfine has parallels to Cathy Linton with her tendency to roam in the fields and her forbidden love. Aunt Ada Doom recalls Jane Eyre with her role of mad recluse. And, of course, the odious Mr. Mybug, who is a Brontë conspiracy theorist, could easily pass for a rejected suitor from an Austen novel.

Although the book is derivative in nature and full of humorous references, it stands on its own even without that context. Stella Gibbons is just plain funny. She fills her pages with intentionally purple prose, marking her personal favorite passages with asterisks. In another life, she would be a shoo-in for the Bulwer-Lytton Fiction Contest.

As the plot progresses, Flora strips away the veneers of gloom and doom from each of the characters, revealing them to be regular people in most cases, or at the very least a manageable sort of odd. The catch is that Flora herself is not an entirely normal person. She’s more like some kind of deranged Mary Poppins, a fact that brings the farce to a whole other level.

The whole book seems written for the screen, and there is apparently a much-loved film adaptation that I intend to watch as soon as possible.

Cold Comfort Farm is designed to make you laugh, and it undoubtedly achieves that aim. The entire time that I was reading it, I kept pausing to read funny lines out loud to my friend. I’m in the habit of being a bit obnoxious that way, but my friend laughed, too, so you can rest assured that the book really is that quotable.

I don’t have any complaints about this book. If there’s anything, it’s simply that beyond the humor, there is little else to it. I think that what separates a good comedy from a great one is the ability to treat a serious subject. By joking about the serious things, we can relieve some of the pressure and come at them from new angles. In Cold Comfort Farm, there is no real substance. At the same time, this book wasn’t meant to be substantial, so all is well.

Cold Comfort Farm is a light-hearted read with universal appeal. I especially recommend it to both fans and haters of Wuthering Heights, the Brontë sisters, and Austen.

Rating: 4/5 stars.

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Review: Pachinko by Min Jin Lee

A few weeks ago, I picked up Pachinko alongside its fellow National Book Award finalist, Sing, Unburied, Sing by Jesmyn Ward. Sing, Unburied, Sing took home the prize last year, but Pachinko has won my heart.

Is that too cheesy?

The novel follows the history of a Korean-Japanese immigrant family. It begins in Busan, Korea in 1910 and ends in Yokohama, a main port city of Japan neighboring Tokyo, in 1989. With the narration in omniscient third person, many characters, major and minor, contribute their voices to the telling of this story. The sprawling network of characters has a nucleus in Sunja, who is not so much a main character as a central one. It is her unexpected teenage pregnancy that serves as the catalyst for the events of the book, and as she weathers the storms of life, she slowly transforms from a wide-eyed girl to an elderly matriarch of many sacrifices.

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The variety of perspectives reflects the research that Lee conducted while preparing it, which included interviews with numerous Korean-Japanese people. She has also expressed her desire to tell the stories of “minor” players in history, such as minorities, women, and the working class, and so the ensemble cast includes all of these. About her narration, Lee has said, “above all, I wanted the narrator to be sympathetic to every character’s plight.” This even-handedness lends the book an interesting realism when it comes to the thoughts and feelings of the characters — after all, everyone can justify their actions within the safety of their own minds, no matter how unreasonable those actions may seem to other people.

A major thread that runs through the narrative is Christianity: the characters’ relationship to it or lack thereof. Sunja’s husband, Isak, is a Presbyterian minister, and their marriage contains parallels to the book of Hosea. When the imperial Japanese government cracks down on Christianity, there are nods to the story of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego. Although Isak is an exemplar of Christian love, faith, and humility, other characters have more complicated religious viewpoints and struggle with the idea of God. Sunja, for example, wonders whether she will see her father in heaven and feels attached to the ancestral traditions of her upbringing.

The male characters of the family line, Yoseb, Noa, Mozasu, and Solomon, each have their own burdens to bear, and even having biblical names can be a struggle in a country where they are extremely uncommon. There is a push and pull in how each character lives up to, runs away from, or simply ignores his name. These names are badges of both their Christian upbringings and their foreignness, and some of the characters wish to break away from both of those things. The politics in a name are even more evident as each Korean is required to take on a legal Japanese name. As the younger generations become more and more Japanese, they more often choose to pass as native Japanese to avoid discrimination, although their legal statuses remain as foreigners. Outside of the context of the book, Korean-Japanese people are still not considered full Japanese citizens today.

The game that gives the book its name, pachinko, does not come into play until midway through the book, when Mozasu gets a job at a pachinko parlor. Pachinko is a type of pinball/slot-machine game that sidesteps Japan’s anti-gambling laws by offering prizes that can be exchanged for cash. Historically, it has been affiliated with yakuza, or Japanese organized crime. It’s also one of the only industries where early Korean immigrants could get a leg in, owing to widespread discrimination.

While pachinko plays a role in the livelihood of Sunja’s family, it also serves as an extended metaphor for life itself, and particularly the chances taken by immigrant families as they build their lives in new countries. Some of the Korean characters work in pachinko, but none of them play it. Instead, they play the game of life. This connection becomes explicit in the story of one of my favorite characters, Etsuko: “[She] had failed in this important way—she had not taught her children to hope, to believe in the perhaps-absurd possibility that they might win. Pachinko was a foolish game, but life was not.”

Being a family history, Pachinko necessarily reflects on parenthood and on connection and disconnection between generations. The plot flows so gradually through time that changes in technology and cultural norms can catch the reader by surprise, and characters that once seemed full of life transform into two-dimensional cutouts in the eyes of their descendants. The effect is to follow a trajectory opposite of most novels — in the end, when their adventures are over, some of the characters seem less than they were in the beginning, even when we know that they must be more. Most novels, of course, don’t follow characters past the end of their own stories, and in stopping there, they leave them frozen in states of self-realization in the mind of the reader. Not so in Pachinko nor in life — the waters of time must flow onward.

The characters of Pachinko struggle to bridge the generational gap between parents and children. Parents wonder why their children don’t respect the sacrifices they have made for them, and children run relentlessly toward the future, determined to blaze their own paths. Heartbreakingly, it is the mothers who often suffer the most in these situations: Yangjin, Sunja, and Etsuko all experience some kind of abandonment from their children. “A woman’s lot is to suffer,” they repeat time and time again. The tragedy of their familial discord is a powerful reminder to love and respect the parental figures in your life.

Pachinko is a complex and lovingly crafted novel that clocks in at nearly five hundred pages long. Min Jin Lee clearly put in the work to make it as historically accurate as possible, and the details buoy the story, giving life to the various settings while refraining from over-exposition. It has the fire and pluck of an adventure novel, the emotional tension of a family drama, and the scope of an epic. I recommend it to anyone looking to get invested in a book with substance. This is a truly great modern novel.

Rating: 5/5 stars.

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Review: Sing, Unburied, Sing by Jesmyn Ward

The other weekend, my cousins and I were visiting my sister at her apartment. Owing to the heat wave, we stayed indoors as much as possible, and when we went out, we brought with us ice-cold water bottles filled to the top. While we were there, she showed us around the neighborhood, and of course, when we saw the bookstore, we just had to go in. I made two purchases that day: Pachinko by Min Jin Lee, which I’ve been meaning to pick up for a while, and, upon my sister’s recommendation, Sing, Unburied, Sing.

Sing, Unburied, Sing is a sweltering book, perfect for the dog days of summer. It captures the mood of a day so hot it makes the air shimmer, one where the sunlight microwaves your brain within your skull. The jacket aptly describes it as “part ghost story, part road novel.” It’s set in rural Mississippi, and toward the beginning, the timing is hard to place. At certain points, it feels as though it could be set during almost any time in the second half of the twentieth century, at least until mentions of Hurricane Katrina and the BP oil spill fasten it much closer to the present.

Leonie, a black woman, is the neglectful mother of two children, thirteen-year-old Jojo and toddler Kayla. In their daily lives, the children depend on their maternal grandparents, Pop and Mam, to take care of them. When Michael, their white father, is released from prison, Leonie takes the kids along on a road trip to pick him up. The twist is that the prison in question, Parchman Farm, is the same place where Pop had been incarcerated many years before. Jojo, knowing this, begins to uncover the haunting story of Pop’s past. Meanwhile, Mam lies bedridden at home, slowly succumbing to cancer.

As you can see, there are a lot of moving parts to this story, but within the context of the book, these elements connect in a sensible manner. The story is told in alternating perspectives with two main threads: Leonie’s road trip and Jojo’s ghost story. There isn’t a sharp distinction between the threads, and we occasionally see the same event from the viewpoints of more than one character.

Jojo is a caring, gentle boy who is fiercely protective of his sister. He is observant and in some ways mature beyond his years, but there is still an undeniable boyishness to his thought processes. Leonie, on the other hand, is caught in a state of arrested development along with Michael. She and Michael are a sort of modern Romeo and Juliet, two youths in love despite a blood-stained color boundary between them. Leonie’s immaturity and shortsightedness make her perspective less enjoyable to read than Jojo’s. While her past motivates some of her behavior, it does not, in my view, fully explain the extent of her actions and inaction throughout the novel.

The plot is neatly woven together, and magical motifs give the story a pleasant blush of color. Ward uses lush descriptive prose to bring the pages to life; however, her description is more effective in some places than others. In slower stretches of the book, mainly the road portion, the writing can be unnecessarily purple. There are pieces of dialogue padded by descriptions that had my eyes jumping right past them before I caught myself. Still, in other sections, the same style of writing shines. The first and last chapters are especially compelling. Jesmyn Ward is a writer with prodigious talent in this area, but I think that to give her writing maximum impact, she should use flowery language with a bit more restraint.

Sing, Unburied, Sing is a distinctly American book. It tells its own story by incorporating those that Americans are familiar with. Slavery. Segregation. Inhumane prisons. Lynching. Racism. Police violence. It hints at the politics underlying the disasters of Katrina and the BP spill, lets them seep into the environment of the story without making them the main focus. And Parchman Farm, formally known as Mississippi State Penitentiary, is a real prison with a dark history. Ward mixes beautiful literature with harsh realism, giving the story a bite that has made it stand out to both critics and the reading public.

While I recognize the merits of this book, I didn’t enjoy it as much as I anticipated. Since it was so highly rated by others and recommended to me by my sister, I was hoping to be wowed, because usually my opinions do line up decently well with critical consensus. In this case, that didn’t happen. I am admittedly not much of one for road novels, so it may just not be my type, but I also think there are real weaknesses that have been glossed over with the hype around it. Sing, Unburied, Sing has the literary style signature to M.F.A. writers, of which Ward is one. That style tends to be popular with critics– it ticks certain boxes in their requirements for what makes a good book. Don’t get me wrong. It is a good book. It is not, my opinion, a great one, and that’s fine.

If you’re stuck with long hours on a road trip this summer or trapped inside by the heat, Sing, Unburied, Sing will match the mood magnificently. If you’re ordinarily a fan of critic’s picks, it’s probably up your alley. If you’re looking to read a novel with relevance to current events, you’ll find them seamlessly integrated into the fabric of this story. My one caveat is that this book contains dark themes including explicit violence and drug use.

Rating: 3.5/5

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Review: The Blazing World by Margaret Cavendish

But we wonder, proceeded the Spirits, that you desire to be Empress of a Terrestrial World, when as you can create your self a Cœlestial World if you please. What, said the Empress, can any Mortal be a Creator? Yes, answered the Spirits; for every human Creature can create an Immaterial World fully inhabited by Immaterial Creatures, and populous of Immaterial subjects, such as we are…

I asked my cousin if she knew any older classics written by women. Having read it for a college class, she came up with The Blazing World, saying, “it’s pretty wild.”

That’s an understatement.

It’s tempting to try to market this book as a “first.” First sci-fi novel, first utopian fiction by a woman, even first Mary Sue are some titles I’ve seen bandied about. I think that’s because it’s easier than trying to describe the actual story, which, as stated, is wild.

In short, a woman gets kidnapped by a man who wants to marry her, but a storm kills her captors, and she drifts to another world, the Blazing World, that can only be reached through the North Pole. She quickly becomes Empress, does some science, makes friends, and eventually goes back home to take over the world. Simple stuff, you know?

The story can be a bit hard to get to. The language is archaic and littered with run-ons. The Blazing World was published sometime between Shakespeare and Gulliver’s Travels, and if you’ve read the latter, you’ve got a solid idea of how readable the prose is.

Another similarity with Gulliver’s Travels is the plethora of references to contemporary science and politics– in this work, more science than politics. This is because it functions as a companion to Cavendish’s scientific work, Observations upon Experimental Philosophy. To be clear, her grasp of science is about as strong as that of any educated person in the 1600s, which is to say, laughably poor in the eyes of a modern reader. That being said, given the information available at the time, Cavendish’s arguments are lively and fairly reasonable. A large portion of the novel consists of exposition in the form of extremely detailed world-building, which is where she lays out most of her philosophical and scientific ideas.

It’s really a testament to the human imagination that Cavendish creates a world that is so absurd, yet so internally consistent. She puts many modern fantasy writers to shame in terms of sheer creativity, nothing like the recycled fairy tales and faux-medieval settings that have crowded the landscape. In this sense, The Blazing World is a sci-fi novel: it looks toward the future rather than the past. It’s concerned with innovation and possibility.

Does Cavendish have a flair for intricate plots and surprise twists? Not at all. She is bullishly straightforward, and this is what gives the book its “Mary Sue” flair. The main character becomes the Empress of the Blazing World right out of the gate, and she is beautiful, intelligent, and powerful beyond reason. Like a child playing pretend or a 7th grader writing her first fanfiction, Cavendish gives the Empress everything she could want and more, describing her bejeweled outfits and chariots in excruciating detail.

Interestingly, the Emperor who the Empress marries to gain her title plays very little role in the story. Instead, the two principal characters are the Empress and her best friend, the Duchess of Newcastle. …Wait a moment. The Duchess of Newcastle? Wasn’t Margaret Cavendish the Duchess of Newcastle? Yes, Cavendish did the self-insert hundreds of years before it became a fanfiction trope. She also centered her narrative around female friendship, or “Platonick Lovers,” rather than romance, which is pretty rad.

In the end, the beauty of this book is in the nature of the Blazing World itself, and the text repeatedly reminds the reader that we, too, can create and rule worlds that belong only to ourselves just by imagining it.

From a literary perspective, The Blazing World is a hot mess. From a historical perspective, it is a funky, ostentatious, and beautiful relic of a woman who had the means to be bold, educated, and creative way back in the 1660s. I recommend it to anyone with a curiosity about the history of women in fiction, or anyone who didn’t want to bash their head in after reading Gulliver’s Travels.

Rating: 2/5 stars.

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