Anne Fortier clearly aims to be the Dan Brown of 'women's fiction.'
Her protagonist, Diana Morgan, 'feels' very much like The DaVinci Code's Sophie Neveu, and the plot itself bears many similarities, making little references to many of the same things. (How many novels find an excuse to bring up 'hieros gamos'?)
From the basic book description, I found the concept very appealing:
An Oxford lecturer and expert on the legends of the Amazons makes discoveries that lead her to believe that an Amazon 'cult' may have persisted to the present day.
Unfortunately, I didn't really enjoy this book. My biggest problem with it is a problem I've also had with Dan Brown's books: a character is presented who is supposed to be a brilliant expert. How do we know they're an expert? Because the author says so. We certainly never see them doing anything that shows their expertise, or thinking about the things that they're supposedly expert in. Diana Morgan is supposed to be a philologist – an expert in the study of ancient languages as they appear in historical sources. However, she doesn’t spend any time thinking about this, and the actual translating we see her do is done through a ‘cheat sheet’ – her grandmother’s notebook. (OK, there’s also one place where she translates Latin, on the fly, into ridiculously colloquial English.) Everything Diana seems to know about Greek history could have been gleaned from a middle school reading of the Iliad and the Odyssey, and a Wikipedia article on Heinrich Schliemann. She also doesn’t behave like a trained expert in any way: the scene where she’s reading an ancient, crumbling manuscript WHILE EATING A SCHNITZEL?!?!? As an archivist, I cringed. I mean, needs must, but no way in hell would anyone trained in her supposed discipline touch a manuscript like that while eating, even if they were starving to death.
As someone who’s worked at museums, I also found it unconvincing that even the most jaded, disillusioned museum curator would ever make a statement to the effect that historical research may not be desirable, as it “turns a beautiful myth into reality.” This is so antithetical to the view of anyone that would choose to go into museum studies that it’s absurd.
There are also other small things which constantly jar one out of the flow of the story. Some are practical. Like, we’re supposed to believe that a professional academic is such a poor typist that she finds the concept of using a keyboard with Arabic markings on the keys completely impossible? (If she’d just stated that the FILES on the laptop were in Arabic, and she couldn’t read them, that’d work… but.) Others are, well, political. There’s a (to me) very annoying Fox News-style undercurrent that infuses this whole book. There are constant ‘digs’ – against Socialists, Communists, Marxists, Big Government, etc. A mention of how only God can cause climate change. An inclusion of Ben Franklin’s ‘essential liberty’ quote, here recontextualized to support vigilantism. Mentions of the importance of having an armed citizenry. Comments about how super-wealthy capitalists are unfairly treated and ‘get a bad rap.’ It detracted from my enjoyment of the story.
Further, I feel like the book was full of wasted opportunities.
The author keeps skirting around the very interesting and complex debate about ownership of cultural heritage and repatriation of artifacts - but it never really gets into it in any real depth.
Oxford is such a rich (and well-known!) setting, but none of its peculiar and unique culture came through in the book at all. Our protagonist is supposed to have an American mother and a British father, but nothing about her felt British. It begs comparison with another book featuring a female Oxford academic: Dorothy Sayers’ ‘Gaudy Night.’ Fine, it’s a different time period – but after reading Sayers, I felt like I knew what it was like to walk the halls of Oxford. (And Sayers’ protagonist is 100% convincing AS an academic.) Here – no.
There’s also a good part of this book that takes place in the past, among the Amazons of antiquity. Again, their lifestyle and setting felt sketched out – I wasn’t convinced by any of the historical or legendary characters; I didn’t ‘see’ their world. The ancient characters behaved, spoke, and reacted to events like modern individuals, not as people from a very different culture would have.
On top of this, romance becomes a major aspect of both present and past stories. Now, I’m not against a bit of romance. Far from it. However, not only were both romances unconvincing (Hello? Ladies? You’re in the middle of a major THING here; don’t you think that it might distract you from sex?) but both objects of their affection were creepy, kidnapp-y, dishonest schmucks.
In the real world, anyone as smart as Diana supposedly is would’ve soon told all the creepy, ethically questionable people to screw off, gotten the hell out of there, and done her own research. And then there wouldn’t have been much of a book, I guess.
Copy received from NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.