First Lines: I must write this account, and when I have finished, I will burn it.
This book caught my eye for a couple of reasons. First, I knew of Julie Berry. I have one of her books, The Amaranth Enchantment, on my bookshelf at home. As a cute take on a fairy tale-esque world, I’ve read it a few times and enjoyed it. But this book looked vastly different from that, as a historical fiction charged with potential heresy, the equivalent of a witch hunt, and the dark side of religion. I was intrigued.
Dolssa, a young gentlewoman with mystical abilities to communicate with Jesus, is being hunted. On the run from a friar obsessed with burning her for heresy, Dolssa must stay one step ahead of him. When Dolssa meets Botille, a wily matchmaker in a small seaside town, she’s found the ally she’d been looking for. In 1241, these lands are struggling to recover from a bloody Crusade that destroyed most of Provensa (what we now call Province, France). Hiding from the Catholic church will not be easy. Can the girls put themselves at the mercy of a town that could betray them in an instant?
I thought the setting and subject matter for this story was incredibly unique and interesting. I haven’t read much from the Middle Ages, especially in France (or Provensa, if we’re being technical), but I have dipped into the *lovely* record the Catholic church had around this time. (To be fair, societal rules from 800 years ago are vastly different from our societal rules now. But it’s still really hard to imagine a church being this ruthless.) Also it was just fascinating to read about how a girl who claimed to talk to Jesus was treated.
I liked the cast of characters. Botille is primarily our narrator for most of the story, and she’s a great mix of strong independence and the humility required of women at the time. I liked that she was fierce while still realistically fitting into her time period. Dolssa had more of this kind of humble strength that hovered just below most people’s radar. Truly, what I liked about these girls was that they were clearly very strong without being physically strong, like most of the butt-kickers we admire. They were clever and a bit sneaky, but that’s what they needed to be to survive.
As I kind of alluded to above, we do get to see the dark side of Christianity in this book. This isn’t the church you see on Sundays. This is more “grab your torch and pitchfork” when it comes to evil. Souls who haven’t committed a terrible sin like heresy can be redeemed, but others are lost forever. It was hard for me to wrap my mind around the fact that Dolssa, who is performing miracles on command, is being hunted for conspiring with the devil. But that’s just how it was back then. And it was truly frightening to see the impact of the church on people back then. There’s an awesome and extensive author’s note at the end of this book that shows some of this in more detail.
I also thought the action kept the story interesting. The pace moved well and never really got slowed down by anything.
The only real qualm I had with the story was that there were a lot of characters and by the end of the book, there were a few I had given up on remembering who they were. I liked the characters, don’t get me wrong, but it was a lot to keep straight, especially when I can’t remember the names of all my students yet. Oh, and they speak a language called Occetian or something similar to that which basically looks like most other Latin-based languages. Mostly a cross between Spanish/Italian and French. And while that was cool to see that language, the words weren’t always fully explained for what they meant. Still, after a few times seeing the word, I usually figured it out.
Overall, I thought it was a fascinating story that managed to be both hopeful and horrifying. Which is a weird combo, but it worked.