Monday, November 28, 2011

Stephanie Dray's Books of a Lifetime

Stories are about the soul. They tell us who we were, who we are, and who we want to be. I suppose I’ve always loved historical fiction because it’s sometimes too painful to look at who I am and too scary to look at who I might still be, but the past gives me clues to both. 

When I started this list, I was certain that all those literary novels I read in college would end up on this list. They were important award-winning books, many of which made me feel very smart to have read. But when I look at the books that I actually treasure, I realize that they are the not the polite and quiet little novels about ennui. The novels I treasure are the ones that elicit some very powerful emotion from me.

The first Roman era historical I ever read was Quo Vadis, by Henryk Sienkiewics. I’ll confess right now that I was an impatient teenager and skipped over some of the long drawn-out descriptions. Moreover, the deeply religious theme of this novel did not touch my soul. However, this was a book I shared with my father and my sister. It was the first time we all read a book and started talking about it together. That bonding experience was special for all of us. The second thing that made this book so important to me is that for all it was set in ancient Rome, the politics were surprisingly modern to my ear. That people who lived so long ago and in such an alien culture could be so similar to me was an eye-opener. For those of you who have read the book, you know that it’s a total nail-biting thriller towards the end. It captured my attention and wouldn’t let go; it may even be responsible for my lifelong love of classical historicals.

Much later in life, I stumbled over Wilbur Smith’s River God. Now, as historical fiction, this novel falls afoul of all kinds of rules. It’s really a melding of historical time periods with a mix of fantasy thrown in. It’s an adventure story aimed squarely at the masses. It’s accessible and beautiful and probably considered low-brow in some literary circles, but this was the first book to teach me how much fun historical fiction could be. I swooned over the narrative voice of an arrogant slave telling me the story of two star-crossed lovers in ancient Egypt. And I cried when things went terribly wrong. And I didn’t care that it wasn’t all true, because it should have been.

Octavia Butler’s Wild Seed, for me, was a revelation. We have in this book two characters who are god-like and one of them is both evil and sympathetic. It’s a science fiction book--I suppose I should say that up front. Doro is a being who farms people. You read that right. The heroine is a shapeshifter, but not of the variety you typically see in commercial fiction today. It’s a story about slavery, gender, race and … desire. Because of that, I never remember that it’s science fiction and always think of it as a psychological drama, a power struggle both epic and tragic. It’s historical, fantastical, and allegorical. Can you both love and hate someone at the same time? This book says that you can. It’s not for the faint of heart, but it captured mine.

Making up this list makes me realize that I’m more demented than I realized. Apparently, books that make me cry are books that I love. And one has to truly be a little deranged to love Philippa Gregory’s Wideacre the way that I loved it. I love books about bad girls and you just don’t get any worse than Beatrice Lacey. The narrator of Wideacre is unlike any main character I have ever encountered before with the possible exception of The Marquise de Merteuil from Dangerous Liaisons. At first, I read Wideacre because I was shocked. Then I kept reading because I couldn't wait to find out what awful thing she'd do next. But eventually, I became so absorbed in the darkness of her heart and the desperation of her struggle that I was unaccountably moved to tears. Ultimately, Wideacre must be understood as a woman's fable. A lesson in violent passions unrestrained by conscience. A myth of epic proportions. And though it purports to be historical fiction, there are some plausibly deniable fantasy elements that make it more speculative fiction than anything else. Beatrice is a woman and a goddess, with all the potential for destruction that entails and this book still haunts me.

About Stephanie…

Stephanie graduated with a degree in Government from Smith, a small women’s college in Massachusetts where–to the consternation of her devoted professors–she was unable to master Latin. However, her focus on Middle Eastern Studies gave her a deeper understanding of the consequences of Egypt’s ancient clash with Rome, both in terms of the still-extant tensions between East and West as well as the worldwide decline of female-oriented religion.

Before she wrote novels, Stephanie was a lawyer, a game designer, and a teacher. Now she uses the transformative power of magic realism to illuminate the stories of women in history and inspire the young women of today. She remains fascinated by all things Roman or Egyptian and has–to the consternation of her devoted husband–collected a house full of cats and ancient artifacts.


Sorceress. Seductress. Schemer. Cleopatra’s daughter has become the emperor’s most unlikely apprentice and the one woman who can destroy his empire…

Having survived her perilous childhood as a royal captive of Rome, Selene pledged her loyalty to Augustus and swore she would become his very own Cleopatra. Now the young queen faces an uncertain destiny in a foreign land.

Forced to marry a man of the emperor’s choosing, Selene will not allow her new husband to rule in her name. She quickly establishes herself as a capable leader in her own right and as a religious icon. Beginning the hard work of building a new nation, she wins the love of her new subjects and makes herself vital to Rome by bringing forth bountiful harvests.

But it’s the magic of Isis flowing through her veins that makes her indispensable to the emperor. Against a backdrop of imperial politics and religious persecution, Cleopatra’s daughter beguiles her way to the very precipice of power. She has never forgotten her birthright, but will the price of her mother’s throne be more than she’s willing to pay?

Berkley Trade October 2011 (Trade Paperback)
# ISBN-10: 0425243044
# ISBN-13: 9780425243046

Purchase Info


  1. I remember loving Quo Vadis as a teenager! I tried reading it again a few years back and couldn't get into it, but it definitely contributed to my love of historical fiction way back when.

  2. Funny! I've read Quo Vadis as a teenager too. Never tried it again though...

  3. This was great -- Wildeacre was a totally over the top shocker for me, but I loved that it was wicked and unabashed. It warms my heart to see Dray consider it a fav!

  4. Wicked and unabashed is a great way of describing it, Audra! Thanks for the warm welcome, everyone.