Book Reviews

Last Updated 11/20/2008

Our book review site includes reviews of books related to various fannish series (such as Highlander, Babylon 5, Blakes 7 and the like), fannish activities, and other books fans might find interesting about history, mythology, feminism and the like. If you'd like to contribute a review to our site, please e-mail Ann at the address below. We'd love to hear from you. If you disagree with a review at this site, we hope that you will be inspired to contribute a review of your own in rebuttal!

Books About Troy's Cassandra
Leah CWPack

There are well-established fandoms out in the mainstream, based on figures and events, both historical (Custer, Edward III, Akenaten, Jack the Ripper, etc.) and semi-historical (Arthur, Robin Hood, etc.). There are scholarly books on the subjects, of course, but the fascination of these characters often inspires professional fiction as well. Because of the nature of the Immortals in the HIGHLANDER universe, some of these figures work their way into the lore of the series, either in canon or fan fiction. The character of Cassandra in HL remains a bit of a mystery; it was never made clear whether she was the actual figure in the Trojan legend, or simply named after her.

Troy is a city that existed only in legend until Henrich Schliemann actually unearthed the city in the 1800's and brought it into reality. What makes Troy unique is that much classical literature exists detailing the events surrounding the siege and destruction of the ancient city, and many of the people that were involved in those events. We have no way of proving which of these people actually existed, or which of their deeds actually occurred, but no one can study the story without coming to the conclusion that there must have been a good deal of reality upon which the legendary events were based. In a way, Troy was the world's first instance of a single event that received independently corroborated news coverage.

Among the many famous characters that were involved in the Troy story, mortal, god and demi-god. They include Helen, Achilles, Hector, Odysseus, Agamemnon, the Amazons, Ajax, Paris, and a host of others. There was also a woman named Cassandra. One of the many daughters of Troy's king and queen, Cassandra had the gift and curse of prophecy. She could foretell the grim fate of the city and its inhabitants, but nobody wanted to hear or believe her doom saying. A study of the Troy story reveals that Cassandra was caught in a world undergoing a profound change. Goddess worship was rapidly losing ground to more patriarchal pantheons, and women were beginning to lose their power within human society. Caught up in this world, Cassandra mourns what appears to be a human race gone mad with violence and lust, two very male pastimes. The abduction of the beautiful Helen is the reason for the war; the love of heroic bloodletting sustains it for ten years.

The books below are attempts to reconstruct the story of Troy into a fictional account, told from Cassandra's point of view. I recommend both, but will be very general in review in order not to spoil the stories for any readers.


(Click above if interested in ordering)

Inside the Walls of Troy by Clemence McLaren
Reviewed by Leah CWPack

This version of the telling of Troy's fall takes a dual approach; the first half of the novel is told from the point of view of young Helen of Troy; the second half is told by Cassandra. While not told in as complex a fashion as the other two, we do get some different insights into the players and events of this monumental event of ancient history. This telling includes no overt events of a supernatural nature, and it does sanitize any of the more graphic violent or sexual events. I didn't find the reluctant friendship that develops between Cassandra and Helen to be totally convincing. This telling might have been focused toward a slightly younger audience.

If you click on the picture above, you will be connected to the Amazon.com site for this book where you can read even more reviews of it from a variety of readers (as well as order it).


(Click above if interested in ordering)

Cassandra by Christa Wolf
Reviewed by Leah CWPack

A novel and three essays, the author writes a very scholarly account of the events surrounding the Trojan War. This account is translated from the original German, told in the first person. At first, I had some difficulty following the narrative. Cassandra's tells her story in non-sequential order, jumping back and forth in time as she reflects on what happened while a captive on her way to Agamemnon's palace. Nevertheless, I was drawn into the story and carried along, to share Cassandra's horror over the fate of the city and the people she had known. Instead of a character maddened by grief and frustrated prophecy, we get the impression of a very strong, practical woman caught up in events she fortells and cannot change, but comes to understand. And as she speaks to us, we come to understand them too. Read the essays as well; they give fascinating insight into how Wolf got pulled into the persona of her main character, and compelled to tell the story of her and her ancient world.

If you click on the picture above, you will be connected to the Amazon.com site for this book where you can read even more reviews of it from a variety of readers (as well as order it).


(Click above if interested in ordering)

Firebrand by Marion Zimmer Bradley
Reviewed by Leah CWPack

Bradley's style is very, very different from Wolf. She is a novelist first, not a scholar, and although she did quite a bit of detailed research before writing this story, she also takes artistic license at several critical points. This does not spoil the reader's enjoyment. Bradley tells the entire story of Cassandra's life, not just the Trojan War, and in the telling, we learn quite a bit about that part of the world at that time. The famous people she encounters come alive as people. The gods and goddesses are real, and their effect on mortals is capricious as they squabble among themselves. Amidst it all, Cassandra, a princess in the court of King Priam and Queen Hecuba, grows up to be an independent woman who is cursed to see glimpses of a terrible future, and stands by as witness as they happen. One thing emerges clearly from both novels; even though she knows what will happen, Cassandra does not attempt to flee the terrible destiny of Troy. She is as brave as any of the classical heroes she sees doing battle from the ramparts of the city, whether out of office as a priestess in the temple or as princess to the king. Braver, perhaps, because her own family refuses to believe anything she foretells to save them from their own folly, and eventually they condemn her as a madwoman. Ultimately, Bradley takes a different approach for the end of the story than the more well-known fate of Cassandra recounted in Aeschylus'  classical play Agamemnon. In the Iliad  itself, Euripedes had nothing to say about what happened to Cassandra after her abduction by the King of Mykenea, so she chooses to continue the narrative. Here lies my only real complaint with FIREBRAND. Up until that point, Bradley tells a very detailed chronicle of what Cassandra experiences. At the end of the novel, the woman goes off into the world for more adventures that sound as if they are utterly fascinating, but Bradley gives us only a few sketchy generalizations and draws the story to a rapid close. If you're like me, you would have gladly read a second novel that takes off into the events in the life of the woman named Cassandra after the more well-known tragedy of Troy.

By clicking on the picture above, you can go to the Amazon.com site for this book. The book is currently out of print, but they will do a book search for you or you can search for it in used books stores. In the meantime, there are tons of reviews of the book on the Amazon.com site.


(Click above if interested in ordering)

The Captive Soul by Josepha Sherman
Reviewed by Meredith Lynne

The Captive Soul centers around the existence of an Egyptian sword believed to house the captured soul of an ancient king. It's hanging about in a museum in New York, and MacLeod is in New York on business and stops by to see an old friend. While at the museum he views the sword and runs into Methos. They discuss a series of murders going on on the West Side, and eventually Methos sees a picture of a crime scene and determines that some strange symbols found there are actually Hyksos writing. He tells MacLeod about an insane Immortal he didn't get to behead in ancient Egypt, who might be looking for the sword in order to free the soul within it. They concoct a plot to draw the Immortal out so they can kill him. And then they do kill him. The end.

The present day story is broken up with many, many long flashbacks to 1573 BC, Egypt. Out of 212 pages, only 55 take place in the present day.

In the flashback, Methos becomes embroiled in a plot to overthrow the Hyksos rulership. Khyan (there's the K) is the "half-brother" of the Hyksos king, and he's insane. Methos has to win his trust in order to get close to the king, which he does. The plot succeeds and the king is killed. The priests condemn the king's soul to be trapped forever in his own sword.

I want to talk about the book on three levels: The purely mechanical, the story construction, and the characterization. First, mechanics.

I was deeply dismayed at the number of very basic mechanical problems. Between over-use of exclamation points -- in exposition, in internal monologue, in conversation -- and clumsy use of point of view, I found myself wondering if the novel had actually been edited before it went to press.

There were sections where the point of view character paused in mid-thought to consider how beautifully he was dressed, places where Egyptian characters paused in mid-thought to review the identity of a god who'd just been mentioned. Not once -- many, many times. The sentence construction was terrible, that's the best I can say for it. A six-line paragraph consisting of one sentence was the worst offender, but there were many, many other places where the prepositional phrases just got away from her. And did I mention the exclamation points? Many times I felt like the character doing the thinking was shouting to himself.

The language was alternately too dry and too florid. The sex scenes (and there were a few) were more amusing than anything else. The "love me! I will not break! I will not break!" scene in particular left me giggling. Gasps and moans of joy, silken flesh, yeah, yeah, yeah. <pause to quell irritation> It was kind of insulting.

The story itself was a frame story, obviously, with the greatest part of the action taking place in 1573 BC, in Egypt. This immediately distanced me from it; I confess I'm in it for the relationship between Mac and Methos, even on a purely gen level, and there just wasn't space for that in the 55 pages of mystery-solving and k'immie-hunting that took place in the present. The flashbacks didn't reveal much of anything about Methos beyond what sort of things had happened to him way back when. I didn't feel as if I'd learned anything new about the character that couldn't have been summed up in just a few lines. Most flashbacks in the episodes are less about the events that occur than they are about what these events mean to the characters involved in them, and they tell us something about who these people are. I found the flashback portion of the story to be intensely non-revelatory. The plot, which was no more than a k'immie of the week story dressed up with a lot of historical detail, was predictable and unexciting -- both in the past and the present. The ease with which Mac and Methos executed their plan to lure out Khyan the Crazy Immortal was -- pardon my descent into irritation -- sick and wrong. There was no tension, no fear it wouldn't work, and no reason to fear, apparently. They decided to do it, and they did it. End of story.

Even though it's pretty obvious I didn't like much of this book at all, the biggest stumbling block for me was the characterization. I had no sense I was reading about MacLeod and Methos, for one thing. In the present day there seemed to be no connection between them at all beyond a surface acquaintance. Mac thought a great deal about how mysterious and unknown Methos was and how very little Methos revealed about himself. Methos thought a great deal about not getting killed -- and didn't seem much concerned with whether Mac kept his head or not. The present-day Methos was distant, sometimes cold, and mostly disinterested. It was as if the author took the Methos we see on the surface on screen and made that all he is in the book. None of his heart showed through, and in several instances Mac is left reflecting on how cold and indifferent Methos is -- something that directly contradicts canon. Mac is quite well aware, canonically, that Methos cares a lot more than he likes to let on. The Methos Chronicles site places this after "Till Death" in the episodic time-line, and I'm certain Mac's got a better handle on Methos by that time than he's shown to have in The Captive Soul.

Mac himself is cardboard. He's the one who thinks quite often about what he's wearing. I never knew he was that concerned with his looks. He's just around to ponder the mystery that is Methos, to make an occasional sharp remark to remind us that Methos doesn't care much about mortals.

And that brings us to the k'immie. If Mac is cardboard, this guy is paper. He has no personality, he has no redeeming qualities, he has no complexity. He's just a mindless nutcase. There's nothing quite so boring, IMHO, as irredeemable evil. He loves his brother, and he likes seeing people killed. Now you know as much about him as you need to in order to understand his character and his role in the book.

Lest you think there was absolutely nothing I liked about this book, let me assure you, that's not the case. I could see, particularly in the flashbacks, the author trying to meld the Methos of the horsemen with the Methos we know today. I don't think she succeeded, but the effort was there. One scene in particular, in which Khyan asks Methos about a slave Methos has kind of fallen in love with and Methos denies any feeling for her, harks back to Kronos and Cassandra in a very subtle, skillful way. In fact, I think that was the only scene in the book that really, really felt like Methos to me.

I decided to buy the book based on reading a scene from it I found at the Methos Chronicles site, the one where Methos tells Mac he's given up his Boy Scout badges. I liked the scene on the site and I'm happy to report I still liked it when I read it in the book. It was, however, kind of like one of those movie-trailer things where once you've seen it, you've seen all the good stuff the movie has to offer. There were some amusing lines from Methos, and the author had obviously done some research into ancient Egypt.

So, basically: I wouldn't put this one on my shopping list if I were you. It neither contributes to nor detracts much from canon and reading it was one of the most frustrating, irritating experiences I've ever had with professional fiction. I had very high hopes for it, because I'd seen people saying good things about the author and because I'm having this whole resurgent conversion thing going. In the final analysis, however, there are plenty of people writing Highlander fan fiction who are much more worthy of your time and attention.

If you're interested in sites about Ancient Egypt, check out the links at the Donan Woods Ancient Egypt Site.

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