Review: Historical Fiction

Book Review: Daughter of the Sun by Barbara Wood

I’m going to try to go spoiler-free today. I’m also going to be perfectly honest and say that I got this for 1 euro from a sale at the library. It was the most interesting looking book in the box based on the summary on the back, which wasn’t saying much, but I hoped that the fascinating historical setting would make up for what was clearly a horribly cliched and uninteresting plot. But whoever wrote the summary on the back of this book clearly didn’t actually read it. So don’t put anything in stock by that. I won’t even dignify it by repeating it (though, honestly, just follow the link at the bottom of the post and you can read Amazon’s description. It’s pretty much the same).

What this book is about is a community made up of two cultures, one ruling over the other. Hoshi’tiwa, the main character, is a naive country girl thrust into the very center of the politics, power struggles and conflict. Both cultures’ superstitions dictate that Hoshi’tiwa is special, though they disagree upon how; as such, every friend and enemy that Hoshi’tiwa makes in this new environment has an agenda, and she has to learn to hold her own among them.

Set in pre-colonization North America, Daughter of the Sun is a story about conflicts between cultures, revolution, spirituality, love and trust, set against the backdrop of the Chaco Canyon, circa 1150 A.D.

My knowledge of American history is sketchy at best, so I won’t pretend to be qualified to nitpick on that. Just one thing that I will nitpick, though: the story seems to have this premise that the People of the Sun kiss nose-to-nose, and the Toltecs mouth-to-mouth. Yet there is an awful lot of mouthing at non-mouth body parts on the part of People of the Sun, too. Isn’t that rather odd?

No, I get that it’s to make the love scenes more familiar. I guess that my question is more…why are we spending so much time on love scenes when they clearly aren’t very important? It’s not half so graphic as the average thriller or romance novel. It’s not even that frequent. Most of the sex that happens in the book is merely implied. I think that there couldn’t have been more than 3 actual sex scenes, and none of them longer than a page. It was a welcome surprise. (Not that sex isn’t fun to read about now and then. But it has to be written well, and also—most importantly—has to serve a purpose beyond merely being a sex scene. It’s very frustrating to me that sex scenes creep into books in the oddest places, just for the sake of having a sex scene. This book was decidedly not like that, and every relationship, every “joining of bodies” was part of the actual story.)

And yet I feel like about a third of the book is spent referencing sex, implying sex or wanting to have sex. Even without any actual sex scenes. There’s a fair bit of kissing, too, though that rather confused me since the author is sometimes quite vague and it confuses me sometimes as to which type of kissing it’s supposed to be.

Hoshi’tiwa does grow up, from a timid girl who waits for her betrothed to come rescue her from the shame that she’s been forced into wrongfully, to a strong, outspoken woman who does as she feels is right, whether alone or followed by her people.

The forbidden love that is so lauded by the back of the book between Hoshi’tiwa and the Toltec holy leader is there, but is mostly just undercurrents for most of the book. By the time that you hit the point where anything actually happens between them, the story is in full swing and you’re just hitting the end of the rising action leading into the climax. The affair is important, and pushes the plot forward, yes, but I feel like the story may well have gone the way it did without them actually having the affair.

I started reading this book with a sense of irony, not really expecting to enjoy it or fall into it. I was enthralled, much to my surprise, within the first hundred pages. I can’t say why, because I simply don’t know what element it was. Maybe it was Hoshi’tiwa’s simple love, faith and trust. Maybe it was the loving descriptions of pottery, the steps taken to create it and make it beautiful, and the superstitions associated with it in these cultures. Maybe it was the well-rounded characters, whom always turn out to be more than you may have expected when you first met them on these pages. Maybe it was the raptures to spirituality. Whatever it was, it was gripping.

The cast of characters is quite rich and diverse, though at a glance may seem small and narrow simply because some characters play their crucial roles within less than ten pages and disappear from the story, while others have stories that play out over hundreds of pages. Ultimately, I found the experience a satisfying one, though others may feel differently.

My one complaint is that Hoshi’tiwa herself didn’t get enough development. Certainly, hers was the primary story arc, and made to be very emotional. She loses several loved ones over the course of the story, and grows (as I previously stated) both more self-reliant and confident. She learns to be a leader. And yet that was all.

Other characters had very nice story arcs. Several characters were introduced as though they were being set up as antagonists…and as the story went on and you’re made to see them more fully, you begin to sympathize with them and love them. When the trials and tribulations of their respective lives change them, you can see it happening. You see their sorrows and hatreds and resentments grow or fade, vanish or consume them. Like I said, everyone has their own agenda. No one is present purely as “the friend to this other character.” They all have secrets to hide, and they all have pasts and futures.

And so, next to all these characters, Hoshi’iwa begins to look small. Certainly, she grew from girl to woman. But what else? She never let hatred consume her. In fact, there is one point in the story when she is stated to hate a certain other character…but she loves him, too, and simply sums it up as feeling betrayed.

Darn it! Another Mary Sue.

I find Mary Sues easy to read. This I will grant. But having one as the main character when you have such a diverse cast? Hoshi’tiwa herself makes no mistakes, unless misguided by those around her; she is forgiving, understanding, open-minded and loving. And yet, I cannot see in her anything deserving of the widely respected (and quite possibly revered) leader of her people that she becomes.

There is a certain…”if only” that Jakal thinks about, near the end. Had this “if only” happened, I think that Hoshi’tiwa would have been the perfect sort of leader. But as things play out? No. I feel that she lacks any real wisdom, any true knowledge of human nature and the human heart, because her own is so very simple and loving.

Still, the fact remains that I enjoyed this book. It’s a good historical novel, and I suppose that you could call it a romance if you liked, though I would not like and so will not categorize this review as such. The author clearly loved the setting and the history that she was writing about, and her interest is palpable—and this makes this a very rewarding book in and of itself.

I’d say 7.5/10.

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