OBIR: Occasional Biased and Ignorant Reviews reflecting this reader’s opinion.
The Nightingale’s Tooth – by Sally McBride
Publisher: Brain Lag, Milton, Ontario, 2023.
Cover art: by Concept Art Scenery
Coming of age means a lot to every girl, but Vara is surprised to learn that, in her case, it means the Grim Reaper gets dibs on the first dance.
Takes place in 13th century France, says a blurb. Actually, in the independent Vascone (Basque-like) Kingdom of Navarre which historically straddled the Pyrenees for a number of centuries. Cool. Lately, a life-long Classics-era freak, I’ve been getting into Medieval history, a subject I am vastly ignorant about, though I do know a little.
For instance, I know the Kingdom of Navarre hugged the Bay of Biscay on the West Coast, and that part of it still exists as a province of Spain. I think Pamplona—with its famous “Running of the Bulls” which should really be titled “Running of the Masochists Hoping to Die”— is the provincial capital. Which is why I was a bit startled to discover Vera and her family live in Perpignan, a town on the east coast close to the Gulf of Lions. Perpignan, as far as I know, was never included in the territory of Navarre.
So, while getting into the characters and the plot, the history-pedant buried, parasite-like, deep in my brain was getting more and more confused. You see, I had assumed from the outset that this was a fantasy (because magic is part of the fabric of culture) taking place in a seldom-used—and therefore potentially refreshingly interesting—historical setting no doubt researched well-enough to convey credible details to add veracity to the plot. Kind of a standard approach to writing historical fantasy. Something to take for granted and then get on with enjoying the characters and the conflict-plot confronting them.
True, as far as that goes, but the book (and the author) goes much further. Despite my determined effort to assemble the deftly inserted historical tidbits (no noticeable info dumps) into a pattern resembling the historical record, it gradually dawned on me that the book is an alternate history, and a widely and wildly imagined alternate 13th Century alternate Earth at that.
A couple of choice items that greatly intrigue me convinced me of this.
First, that in this world the Library of Alexander still exists, maintained by the local Caliphate, and that Vara’s Grandfather, a renowned scholar and much feared magician, hates the Librarians with intense passion, because they keep ignoring his letters arguing that having all the surviving scrolls of Classical knowledge in a single location makes them very vulnerable to destruction, and that, at the very least, copies should be sent to other countries to establish subsidiary libraries so that nothing will be lost if the Alexandrian Library burns. However, the custodians of the Great Library, enjoying a monopoly on their vast repository of books, and fully supported by the local Chamber of Commerce (it is implied), refuse to do this.
Second, one of the factors influencing Vara’s plot to run away from home is that the Vikings have ceased attacking European nations, including Britain, as they much prefer the recently discovered wealthy (though fiercely defended) organized nation states in the New World, none of which have been conquered by anyone. Indeed, it is implied that Mayan and Aztec ambassadors and traders are increasingly to be seen in port cities throughout Europe. Consequently, Vara concludes that Britain, despite being barbarian (though their Cambridge scholars seem to know a thing or two), would be a safe place to seek refuge.
Essentially throw-away details, these and many more add to the complex texture of the background environment, weaving a rich tapestry of fascinating glimpses of alternate possibilities of plot and characterization that suggest Vara’s story may be far from over. I can easily see a trilogy in the making, or maybe even a series. Just the thought of Mesoamerican nations interacting with European nations as equals excites me. Not to mention a conflict involving their respective Gods.
Ah, yes… Gods. There’s a whole bunch of them. The Abrahamic religions exist, Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, but only in isolated pockets. They haven’t supplanted Paganism as yet in this alternate Earth. However, it doesn’t mean Zeus or Mars or Mithras are still mainstream. Everyone knows about them, and here and there pockets of the faithful survive, but mostly the most popular religions are newly evolved and consequently hip and cool to those seeking the latest revelations of the divine. In particular, a certain monotheistic God being pushed by an up-and-coming dictator…
But before I get into that I should mention that everyone, even the atheists, accept the existence of the elder Gods, vast, uncaring creatures rumoured to feed on mortals. They get blamed for everything nasty. Nobody worships them. Everybody fears them. But since they remain invisible, except for their alleged cruel acts, most people get along ignoring their existence. Trouble is, Vera can see them, and she’s afraid they are watching her. All the time. As if waiting for something they know is going to happen, but she doesn’t.
Vara suffers from many visions. It bothers her that her best friend doesn’t take them seriously and is embarrassed whenever she has a “fit.” But what’s worse, is that Vara’s family DOES take her visions seriously but won’t tell her why. Young teenagers who’ve freshly undergone puberty are paranoid at the best of times, but in Vara’s case, her future may be infinitely worse than she’s ever imagined. She begins to suspect she may be a Resura, an immortal. It doesn’t mean you can’t die, you can, many times, but you don’t stay dead. That’s the good news. The bad news is that a Resura remains psychically (and therefore physically) the absolute slave of the first person to kill them.
Immortal slaves, though rare and darn hard to come by, are extremely useful possessions. They make superb assassins, for one thing. Especially since each can magically transform among three different beings of their choice, but always the same three, none of them necessarily their original appearance. This reality is one of the natural “laws” of magic in this world. It’s fixed. It’s a given. There’s no escaping it.
Needless to say, the prospect of possibly being a Resura gives Vara far more to worry about than wondering if her acne will make her less popular no matter what dress she wears. Normal teenage angst is a pointless luxury. After all, Resura in the service of evil adults can be everywhere or anyone. There’s no one she can trust with her life. Not even her parents.
Sooner or later, if she is indeed a Resura, she will be faced with choices. First and foremost, whom would she prefer to be her murderer? Has to be someone she’s willing to serve for the remainder of their life. And what forms will keep her safe, hidden, yet invincible in battle and life in general? Safe from what? Well, the nuisance of being killed multiple times in the course of a single fight, for one thing. Besides, time can bring many complications. What happens when her original master dies? Nobody seems to know.
Vara is about 13 or 14-years-of-age. She understands she’s not mature enough to cope with her problems as well as she needs to be. She’s often given to fits of despair and panic. Liable to burst into tears unexpectedly. She hates that. Still, her high intelligence and perceptive vision (in more ways than one) prove distinct advantages. She’s forced to rely on her instincts and intelligence to make snap decisions with immediate consequences. Most of the time they serve her well. But not always.
It strikes me, in my usual simplistic manner, that Vara’s conundrum is a bit like a gamer contemplating what characteristics to acquire before starting a game of Dungeons & Dragons. What forms to take, for instance. A snail is liable to be ignored most of the time, but it’s not much good in hand-to-hand combat with an armoured knight. A lion, on the other hand, offers possibilities, but the trouble is the second you step into view everybody in sight is liable to yell “Look out! A lion!”
And did I mention there are magical means to capture a Resura and prevent them from harming anyone? To imprison them for all eternity if need be? Being immortal can seem like becoming a God, like possessing God-like powers, but not if you’re reduced to something shown to dinner-guests for the sake of cheap, sadistic laughter. Even Gods can suffer. Ask Prometheus.
Vara attempting to fathom her future is like teenage-me taking a trigonometry exam. Incredible number of options storming through my head and none of them offering a solution. But at least the examiner wasn’t out to kill me… as far as I can remember.
It may seem like I’m giving too many spoilers away, but I’m not. I’m merely describing the complex nature of the conundrums facing Vera at the beginning of the novel. Right from the get-go she is facing certain death, and that be the LEAST of her worries! Somehow, she has to figure out how to stage manage her afterlife. Not, I point out, your average teenage angst problem, but something rather unique and intensely interesting. How often, reading a book, do you root for the main character to die, providing she can accomplish the task to her best advantage? It makes for a very personal relationship with her plight, if only because you keep asking yourself how YOU would deal with the problem.
I don’t normally identify with young teenage girls (I hope that doesn’t come as a surprise), and my views on death (acceptance of the inevitable) were shaped by my readings of Cicero and Montaigne in my teenage years (believe it or not), but I have to say my attention was absolutely riveted on the twists and turns of the plot as Vara sought to either escape her fate or control it. I was rooting for her all the way.
For this reason, I believe this book has outstanding appeal for many different types of readers and not just young girls. Anyone who has ever felt even the vaguest annoyance at fate’s habit of showing up at your door before destiny arrives is bound to delight in Vara’s intense efforts to grab both fate and destiny, knock their heads together, and force them to do her bidding… so to speak. Most protagonists in novels have a quest/problem to deal with. Vara’s is particularly exciting, as it resonates on a deep psychological level (maybe there’s something wrong with me?) that I believe everyone can relate to. Fascinating stuff.
Ah, yes, I was going to mention religion in the service of politics. In this alternate world the Kingdom of Navarre is part of a Europe-wide decaying empire originally founded by Attila’s Huns. The local Governor, Lord Petru Dominus, is one of these charismatic leaders who plague the world every so often, a Hitler or Napoleon-type, utterly without empathy and ruthless to an extraordinary degree, who nevertheless convince their followers they are the greatest thing since sliced bread (not yet invented in this world), and naturally Petru’s ambitions know no bounds. He will do anything to expand his power, such as killing every potential Resura he can get his hands on in order to enslave them. Vara is a prime target.
Petru is a follower of Sarafism. This is a made-up religion which has nothing to do with Salafism, a theologically intense branch of the Sunni Sect of Islam. I believe the author’s intent is to provide an equivalent, suitable to intense medieval religiosity, of the wholly-invented, but much venerated, Hellenistic Greco-Egyptian God Serapis which the Ptolemies used as an icon to focus national pride. Representing a combination of Osiris and the sacred bull Apis, Serapis was portrayed as a Zeus-like Pluto with a snake as his chthonic symbol. Interesting, because the symbol of Saraf is a snake. A clue as to origin of concept, methinks.
Certainly, Petrus Dominus makes faith in Sarafism the sole arbiter of national power and, not exactly coincidently, the fundamental proof of faith in HIS power. To believe in Saraf is to believe in Petrus. Clinging to any other religion merits the death penalty. A not uncommon political policy, often employed by dictators.
Main point is, though Saraf may have originally been an obscure prophet in the past of this alternate world, the religion of same as promoted by Petrus is 100% propaganda designed to promote absolute power for Petrus and is 100% as fake as he is. Except that he WANTS to believe it and goes out of his way to pretend to believe it, as do his followers.
And this is the not-so-hidden subtext surrounding the character of Petrus. He’s a superb example of the so-called great men of history, mass-murdering megalomaniacal narcissists all, whose self-love and over-the-top confidence is somehow infectious to the point of rock-star mania on the part of political followers, as seen in many a newsreel of ecstatic “fans” of Hitler and other “charismatic” rulers addicted to supreme power.
The most troubling aspect of such regimes is that the majority of citizens of such seem determined to be trampled underfoot by one man’s colossal ego, determined to be humiliated and treated like sheep, determined to be the ultimate masochists. They absolutely adore those who hold the power of life and death over them and often are eagerly willing to sacrifice themselves for the glorious leader. In history it happens over and over and over. It appears built into the human psyche.
In this book, McBride explores—in addition to her delightfully imaginative history and the amazing complexity of Vara’s character, not to mention other assorted characters each pursuing their own agenda—every conceivable attitude possible under such an absolutist regime, ranging from grim indifference to rote support to tacit opposition to outright rebellion. The book is virtually a primer outlining the strengths and built-in flaws of monstrous dictatorships. Quite surprising to find in a book supposedly focused on a girl’s coming of age.
So, I’ve looked at this book from a historical point of view, a religious point of view, and a political point of view, and find it eminently satisfying from all three perspectives. Oh, and a fourth take, seems quite authentic when it comes to recounting the emotional rollercoaster every young girl goes through transforming from child to young adult.
Overall, a complex, sophisticated, and thought-provoking tapestry of multiple themes enlivened by telling detail and imaginative, original interpretations of attitudes and various social norms beyond what the reader anticipates. A very superior piece of work. I felt great reading it. My sense of wonder got stirred at a furious rate. Am very happy about that. Highly, highly recommended.
Buy it at: < The Nightingale’s Tooth >