Thursday, August 17, 2017

Review: The Sworn Virgin by Kristopher Dukes

There have been many strong women throughout history but often their stories or circumstances have been lost with time. One tradition of strong women that I had never heard of before was the tradition of Albanian sworn virgins. When a woman declared herself a sworn virgin, she vowed to stay chaste and take on the persona of a man, giving her an unusual amount of control over her own life in the patriarchal society in which she lived. Kristopher Dukes' new novel, The Sworn Virgin, imagines the life of one young woman who takes this vow.

Eleanora is the beloved only child of her father. She frequently accompanies him on his travels to heal others but her true love is art and drawing. She has never learned to cook and keep house, leaving all of the traditionally feminine jobs to Meria, the stepmother who raised her. Her dream is to go to art school in Italy but that dream dies when her father is killed in an honor killing and she is left alone in the world with only her stepmother, living in a mountain village where she has never quite fit in. The two women struggle to survive, coming close to starvation.  In a bid to provide a better life for both of them, Meria ultimately sells Eleanora in marriage to a brutal, local man.  As her only escape from this unwanted marriage, Eleanora declares herself a sworn virgin. This gives her the ability to support herself and Meria, avenge her father's murder, and gives her the status of a man. But her life is not made easier by her new status and she resolves to run away, abandoning the stepmother she now detests to her fate, until she discovers a gravely injured man. Returning home with Cheremi, she works to heal him and eventually falls in love with him, dangerously jeopardizing her sworn virgin status.

The novel reads as if it was two different stories. First it is the tale of a spoiled but strong willed young woman who loved her father and appreciated stepmother, even if she took her freedoms for granted. Then there's the brief bridge of Eleanora's sworn virgin status. And finally, there's a romance that strips all of her hard earned strength from her character. The first section is quite slow and full of exposition. The bridge is short and not fully developed despite it being the most interesting part of Eleanora's story. The third section, focused on the romance, is the least interesting piece of the tale and yet it seems to draw out the longest. Eleanora's character seems changeable, but not in a particularly good way. She goes from spoiled but generally loving, to autocratic and hateful towards her stepmother without even pausing to try and understand the motivations of this woman who has loved and cared for her for almost her entire life, finally becoming subservient and trapped by her relationship with Cheremi. Only in the end is there any glimpse of the forged steel backbone that she wielded so dictatorially over Meria. And although this might sound like a criticism of a strong woman, suggesting that she be softer and more accommodating, it really isn't. She's an unsympathetic character in every incarnation. Her whiplash changes in personality dependent on whether she is wearing men's or women's clothing feels too conveniently symbolic.  Meria too is anything but consistent as a character going from loving to resentful and angry in no time flat.  The romance as a whole is not particularly believable and Cheremi's character is not fleshed out beyond his good looks and his obsession with finding his brother's killer giving the reader very little indication why Eleanora would rush into calling him her soul. Not exactly the story of a woman saved by a man, but not as far off as I had hoped when learning about the custom of sworn virgins, I wished for a grander story for Eleanora and a coming into her own as a woman choosing her own path. Although I did not, others seem to have found this in the book so readers curious about the custom of sworn virgins or life in the mountains in Albania in the early 1900s and other historical fiction fans might want to give this a try.

For more information about Kristopher Dukes and the book, like her on Facebook. Check out the book's Goodreads page, follow the rest of the blog tour, or look at the amazon reviews for others' thoughts and opinions on the book.

Thanks to Trish from TLC Book Tours and Harper Collins for sending me a copy of this book to review.

1 comment:

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