Book Review: Warrior Daughter by Janet Paisley

Inspired by first century AD warrior women, Janet Paisley’s Warrior Daughter is a gripping adventure about one young woman’s struggle to survive in the harsh Celtic wilderness.

2,000 years ago on the Isle of Skye, a warrior is born.

Daughter of an Iron Age warrior queen, Skaaha is wild, headstrong and revered. But she is also a child, and when a chariot race leaves the queen dead and her menacing rival Mara in her place, Skaaha’s charmed life lies in ruins.

Vulnerable, her future imperilled, Skaaha seeks to forge a life beyond the new queen’s reach. But with rumour, fear and danger sweeping the island, she cannot remain unmoved. Broken by brutal misfortune, alone in a world of mistrust, Skaaha must unearth the courage to confront her enemies in defence of her people.

Illuminated by the great Celtic fire festivals, Warrior Daughter is inspired by the historical Scathach, a fierce warrior woman of the first century AD and forerunner to the equally ferocious Boudicca.

I read a lot of historical fiction, but this is the first novel I have read which could be referred to as prehistorical fiction. Set in the first century on what later became the Isle of Skye, Warrior Daughter tells the story of Skaaha as she struggles to forge her own way forward in a wild and often brutal world where enemies are not always easily seen.

I was struck almost immediately by the sheer amount of research the author must have done in crafting this novel. Paisley weaves historical detail into the narrative seamlessly, demonstrating an impressive understanding of a world so far removed from our own, from its druid beliefs to its calendar structured by ancient festivals and the lunar cycle. When combined with her superb, evocative prose, the impact was magical, effortlessly transporting the reader to the middle of the action, from spear fights to the great fires of Beltane. Her success in managing the subject matter so well must not be understated: it is one thing to bring alive documented history, but to bring alive a period and a people which predate recorded history so vividly, is quite frankly magnificent.

The story is structured around the stages of Skaaha’s life, from the death of her mother in childhood through to around the age of eighteen. Although it is a third person narrative, the focus is always on Skaaha, documenting the twists and turns of her life, the challenges and the hardships she faces. Some of the subject matter is agelessly familiar, such as growing up and coming of age, but much of it is not. Living in a matriarchal society of goddesses and warrior queens, Skaaha is revered as the child of Queen Kerrigen and the descendant of the Goddess Danu – an identity which raises her up among her own people but also makes her a target for vengeance, hatred and rivalry. At times the plot is very hard-hitting; a reflection of the times in which it is set, no doubt, but more sensitive readers may wish to exercise caution as graphic violence and sex are frequent features of the novel.

I found Skaaha to be a well-drawn and engaging character who I liked very much; she is a strong female heroine who is bold and brave, but also almost broken by her circumstances and the realisation of her own vulnerability. The story is supported by a fine and colourful cast of characters, from Skaaha’s moon-crazed aunt Jiya, to the wise and otherworldly Ruan, to the thoroughly hateful queen of spite, Mara. To be honest, I struggled to choose a favourite. Nonetheless, I always found myself rooting for Skaaha to find the courage she needs to succeed, to steer her own course and to become who she truly is. Whether she does or not…well, you’ll just have to read the book to find out.

An epic, heart-stopping prehistorical adventure which would work wonderfully as a film. Five stars.

Book Review: Moxie by Jennifer Mathieu

Vivian Carter is fed up. Fed up with her small-town Texas high school that thinks the football team can do no wrong. Fed up with sexist dress codes and hallway harassment. But most of all, Viv Carter is fed up with always following the rules.

Viv’s mom was a punk rock Riot Grrrl in the ’90s, so now Viv takes a page from her mother’s past and creates a feminist zine that she distributes anonymously to her classmates. She’s just blowing off steam, but other girls respond. Pretty soon Viv is forging friendships with other young women across the divides of cliques and popularity rankings, and she realizes that what she has started is nothing short of a girl revolution.

This book was a rare experience for me for two reasons. One: it is a young adult novel, which is not a genre I tend to read. Two: I loved it so much that I read it in less than twenty-four hours. Vivian, a sixteen year old high school student from a small town in Texas, decides to start a Riot Grrrl-inspired zine called Moxie to vent about the sexism and harassment which is commonplace in her school. Vivian’s small act of defiance quickly grows into a movement, empowering young women (and men) across the school to challenge the behaviours and indeed the wider school environment which are both so patently unacceptable.

I am loathe to use the term ‘girl power’ but effectively, that is what this story is all about. The homage to the Riot Grrrl movement of the early 1990s is heart-warming and (for those of us of a certain age) a little nostalgic. Mathieu does a really good job of crafting an engaging, entertaining plot filled with interesting, complex characters. The protagonist, Vivian, is drawn very realistically; a typical sixteen year old girl who just wants to get on with her studies and keep herself out of trouble. However, she also cannot help but see the unfairness and discrimination going on all around her and ultimately rebels, and rightly so! She is joined by her friends and classmates, an interesting supporting cast who are all different but ultimately come together in mutual support and recognition that they are more powerful together than apart.

In terms of the plot Mathieu deals well with a range of issues which confront young women, from sexist jokes in the classroom, to the institutional sexism of targeting female students over their appearance, to the most sensitive and serious issues like sexual assault. I also liked that the story was not framed as boys versus girls; indeed, not all the young women in the story were keen feminists (at first, anyway) and not all of the boys were participating in the sexist behaviour, with some actually joining in with the Moxie revolution. The result is a realistic story about growing a movement, taking back control, and realising that we are all more similar than we are different. It is also a story about feminism and what it means to be a feminist in an age when people often talk about feminism as though it’s no longer relevant. I’m not normally one to quote at length from books but these few lines, when Vivian realises the power of what she’s started, really struck a chord with me:

“This is what it means to be a feminist. Not a humanist or an equalist or whatever. But a feminist. It’s not a bad word. After today it might be my favorite word. Because really all it is is girls supporting each other and wanting to be treated like human beings in a world that’s always finding ways to tell them they’re not.” 

In short, this was a highly entertaining, relevant and powerful read. Five stars.

Awesome Authors of the Womankind

Today is International Women’s Day, a day which commemorates the women’s rights movement around the globe. It is also known as the United Nations Day for Women’s Rights and International Peace – two very big and very pertinent topics in these turbulent, unpredictable and sadly occasionally regressive times. The 2018 International Women’s Day campaign theme is #PressforProgress, a timely reminder that there is still much to do in terms of achieving gender parity across the globe. It is important, I think, to celebrate our considerable successes, and 2018 marks one of the biggest achievements of women in 20th Century Britain with the centenary of some women gaining the right to vote. But it is equally important to be reminded that there is more work to be done – the recent #MeToo, #TimesUp and gender pay gap campaigns can attest to that.

While we are talking about reminders, it feels like a good time to mention that I’m still accepting submissions for the Women’s Suffrage Anthology I plan to put together this year. The deadline for submissions is April 30th, so don’t delay! Find out more here.

It also feels like an appropriate day to talk about influential, inspiring women! There has been a great deal of discussion about this in recent weeks, with media and news outlets running features and polls and creating lists of female greats from the arts, politics, history and other cultural icons. In keeping with this spirit I thought I’d put together my own list, specifically focused on some of the female writers, past and present, who have inspired me on my own journey:

Philippa Gregory

The Queen of Historical Fiction is one of my all-time favourite authors. Without a doubt Philippa Gregory was the writer who inspired me to embark on my own journey into writing historical fiction. Her keen eye for historical detail and deep understanding of the characters she portrays sets an extremely high standard for literature and, in my opinion, has helped to raise the reputation of a genre which was often dismissed as whimsical.

Virginia Woolf

I remember reading Woolf’s essay, A Room of One’s Own, and not being able to get her words out of my head. As a female writer in the 21st century context, this idea of the value and importance of literal and figurative space is one that I return to frequently as both a source of reflection and creative inspiration. So who’s afraid of Virginia Woolf? Not me.

Susie Orbach

I read Orbach’s Fat is a Feminist Issue at university as part of my first year undergraduate Women’s Studies course. It was a book which really resonated with me and got me thinking seriously for the first time about body image, about the way we see ourselves and the social moulding of women and girls which begins at such a young age. I remember being struck by the notion that losing weight could really be about losing space – in the literal sense women striving to diminish themselves and take up less room in the world. Powerful stuff which has stuck with me all these years later.

Naomi Wolf

Another favourite from my time as a Women’s Studies undergrad, Wolf’s sharp look at beauty and physical perfection as a means of social control is the sort of book which will change the way you look at beauty ads! I loved this book – it was a real eye-opener and the first time I had read anything which challenged me to look, REALLY look at the images that I, as a young woman, was being bombarded with on a daily basis.

Christina Rossetti

If I’m in the mood for reading classic poetry, it’ll probably be something by Christina Rossetti. Her work is beautiful and stunning, and In the Bleak Midwinter is still my favourite Christmas carol.

Charlotte Bronte

It’s quite hard to choose between the Bronte sisters but for me Charlotte is my favourite, largely because I absolutely adore Jane Eyre. Writing at a time when female writers were subject to considerable prejudice (a fact which Bronte herself observed when choosing her masculine-sounding nom de plume Currer Bell), Charlotte and her sisters’ works stood out and are celebrated as classics to this day.

Elizabeth Gaskell

Another celebrated writer of the Victorian era, Gaskell wrote novels, short stories and biographies during her career, including the first biography of Charlotte Bronte. My favourite of her books is without doubt North and South – for me this novel is the epitome of the Gaskell’s sharp and capable social commentary framed within a wonderful story of romance across the class divide.

Mary Wollstonecraft 

A writer and a woman who needs no introduction. I read Wollstonecraft’s Vindication of the Rights of Woman as a student of history. I am still in awe of that book.

Tracy Chevalier

Best known for The Girl with the Pearl Earring, for me Chevalier is one of the best historical writers of modern times. Like Philippa Gregory, her work has inspired me on a personal level. Her stories are captivating; literary and yet wholly accessible. Falling Angels is my favourite of her books; I found its exploration of the late Victorian cult of death utterly fascinating.

MJ Rose 

Rose is the author I credit with introducing me to historical fantasy. In recent years I have read a lot of her books but without doubt my favourites are her Daughters of La Lune series. The stories are (quite literally) magical while the settings, from Belle Epoque Paris to New York in the roaring twenties, are rich and evocative. As a writer her books have given me a new perspective on writing about magic and weaving a touch of the fantastical into stories.

So, that’s my list! Which female writers do you find influential or inspirational? Please feel free to comment below.