Sunday, March 10, 2013

Review: The Mistletoe and the Sword by Anya Seton

Title: The Mistletoe and the Sword
Author: Anya Seton
Genre: Historical Fiction
Publisher: Chicago Review Press
First published: 1955
Pages: 256

Rating: 3 out of 10

Anya Seton is one of those authors who I know I really ought to have read by now, but somehow, I haven't. I was at Barnes & Noble's with an hour or so to spare, and this was the shortest book of hers on the shelf, so I decided to read it.
I'm sorry I did, because I have heard great things about Seton, and this was unfortunately my first read of hers.

This book was just bad. If I had to use only a single word to describe it, I would go with "awkward." Cheesy dialogue, a very badly written romance, a shaky plot, and weak writing made this book a complete waste of time for me. Out of all the thousands of books I had available to me at Barnes & Noble's, I had to choose this one.

In the beginning, the main character Quintus wastes no time in laying out what looks to be the rest of the plot for us. He is a young Roman soldier on his way into Roman Britain. His friends are going for battles and glory, but Quintus has another incentive. Years ago, his uncle was murdered by Celtic warriors, his bones left to never be buried. Quintus appears to (half-heartedly) believe that the druids placed a curse on his uncle, and he wishes to find his relative's remains and give them a proper burial.

Alright, so this is a fair enough story. It didn't seem to ever be filled out, though. Why exactly does Quintus care so much about his uncle that he is willing to travel across the world and risk his life? Sometimes it is implied that Quintus believes his entire family to be cursed, but it's never actually said, and no examples or reasoning for this thinking are ever given.
Besides that, it seemed a bit silly to me as well. So Quintus expects to find the exact place his uncle was murdered decades ago? How...? And even if he did, does he just expect his uncle's bones to be laid out neatly on the ground in plain sight, with a little sign reading "It's me, your uncle?"
The remains would, honestly, probably have been scattered by wild animals, and the bones left in their place would be grown over and hidden. And even if Quintus did find some bones, he would certainly have no way of knowing whose they were.

I was skeptical, but willing to see what the author did with it. However, Seton quickly abandons the lost uncle idea and wanders instead into another plot, about Quintus finding and rescuing a pretty young Celtic girl named Regan. This is where that bad romance I mentioned comes in.

The thing with the uncle is mentioned passingly a few more times, but it apparently wasn't that big of a deal to Quintus anymore after he got his first crush.
The romance was painful. Quintus rescues Regan from a riot close to the beginning of the book. She isn't very appreciative (in fact she is closer to hostile) seeing as she is cast as the familiar feisty, "I have to loathe you and try to kill you a few times before I fall hopelessly in love with you" girl. Yawn.
All of the conversation in the book is written clumsily, like actors reading lines, but it got twice as bad whenever Quintus and Regan spoke to each other.

I was surprised to see Boudica portrayed in a negative light, especially since the book seemed to be written with the view-point that although neither side was "bad" or "good," the Romans were more the villains than the Celts, who were just defending their country.
I don't mind traditional heroes of history being written as villains, or traditional villains being written as heroes. If done even passably well, it usually makes for a great story.
So it isn't that I'm biased about Boudica, it's just that, if you want to make her into a villain, have a reason!
In the book, Regan (who was raised in Boudica's court along-side the queen's daughters) is threatened with punishment by Boudica for speaking to a Roman. Instantly, Regan is against the woman who raised her, whining about how cruel she is. In reality, it seems to me that Boudica was very generous to raise the orphan Regan all her life without expecting anything in return.

The book is cheesy, sappy, and shakily written the whole way. I would advise you to skip it.