Thursday, June 26, 2014

Book Review: The Queen's Handmaid

Through the BookLook blogger program, I had the opportunity to read and review another Tracy Higley historical fiction novel The Queen's Handmaid.  I wanted to give the author another try after not fully enjoying her last novel So Shines the Night.  Historical fiction is one of my favorite genres and I was intrigued by the setting of a handmaid in the palace of first Cleopatra and then Herod's wife (40-35 BC era).

The story unfolds from the perspective of Lydia, an handmaid first to Cleopatra in Egypt, and then through a series of plot twists and intrigues ends up as the handmaid to Herod's new wife Mariamme in Judea.  She searches for identity and purpose though exploration of religion, art, and observation of the 'royal privileged' around her.  Soon into the novel, she is given a mysterious task of delivering sealed scrolls purportedly lost prophesies of Daniel, to the Chakkiym in Jerusalem who only stand on the steps of the temple once a year.

As the plot twists unfold from Egypt to Rome to Masada to Jericho to Jerusalem and sometimes back again the reader can easily get lost in political detail of marriages and alliances.  I will say while Higley did a superb job of keeping the integrity of the era alive, it was almost to a fault because even with the help of timelines, it was simply too difficult to follow names of rulers (since many of them were the same anyways) and who was married to whom.  The plot twists also revealed Lydia's desperate attempt to rid herself of the burden of the scrolls but the inevitability that they are buried in her room for years on end waiting to be revealed.

My initial experience with Higley's writing was somewhat disappointed as I felt bogged down by detail as it was cumbersome to read.  I unfortunately had a similar experience this time.  Higley's attention to detail, while a strength, I believe also plays as a weakness in the overall arch of the story. I was also bothered by the extreme graphic nature of the execution descriptions and sensitive to the overt sorcery in the spiritual battle Lydia faced.  For someone who is sensitive to brutality, violence, or even anxiety I would proceed reading with caution as Higley's prose leaves little to the imagination.

There is a little bit of everything in this novel.  Political alliances, treason, intrigue, love story, friendship, a battle of good vs evil, mystery, and even redemption.  However, all of these themes combined into one novel do make it a bit overbearing.  Yes, it was in attempt to keep historical accuracy, but in fiction one can take a few more liberties.

I will say, the ending of the novel had me gasping and shouting out in disbelief and a little awe.  It was a fabulous ending that I was not expecting- a redeeming quality.

Before reading this novel, study the timelines in the beginning carefully and read up a little on the Cleopatra, Octavian, Marc Atony, Herod, and Aristobolus era.  While it may reveal some spoilers later in the novel, I think one would struggle less in understanding the characters.

3 out of 5 stars.

*I received a copy of the novel in exchange for my unbiased review.