Last week I conducted an interview with Rebecca Hazell, the author of The Grip of God and you can see that by clicking HERE. It was very interesting and since then, I’ve also completed the book. To read my thoughts about it, you can see my review below the cover. I also have a giveaway of the novel, courtesy of Rebecca. To enter to win an e-copy of The Grip of God, please leave a comment below after the post saying you wish to enter, and your email so I can contact you!
The Grip of God, by Rebecca Hazell, is a full-length novel featuring the story of Princess Sofia, a young teen of privilege who was close with her father, the monarch of the ancient 9th-12th century Kievan Rus (the ‘land of Rus’). Since you may not have come across much fiction surrounding this area during the time period, Kievan Rus was the precursor to the areas of Ukraine, Belarus, and Russia with the center being Kiev. Their Slavic dynasty fell to the Mongols in the 1240s, which is primarily where The Grip of God begins.
Princess Sofia, who is independent and strong even at a young age from her many travels with her father (her mother had died), and though still a child by our standards at an age then in which most noble women were beginning to be sought after for political marriages, her father had yet to choose a suitor for his prized daughter. Once a threat was appearing in Kiev, he sent her away for protection, but she was quickly captured by the barbaric Mongols. She is appalled at their actions, their brutality, she is raped (losing her innocence), and doesn’t understand a word anyone is saying. Through her strange ordeal, she battles her emotions over this strange band of people, learns to understand who the servants are, the other women, and pieces together her situation. As she learns that she has been taken by one of the premiere young men who adores her long red hair, and is pranced (or thrown) around in front of the Khan as they figure out she is a Princess, she is kept by the man who initially found and raped her.
The novel had at first started slow for me, written in first person and without much dialogue until almost 100 pages in when she begins to try to communicate with people of her new surroundings, a traveling camp of Mongols who are moving and conquering those all around them by massacring, murdering, pillaging, and dominating with force. In this situation, she begins communicating with some of the other women and servants, who try to care and protect her and teach her to view the ways of the others and what motivates them. She meets people who are thrown together and surround each other, but who have various thoughts, opinions, religions. She learns that all people are generally motivated by many of the same things and that most have faith, even if not always in the same way. She “comes of age” by learning compassion for all those around her–the sick, the poverty stricken, the mourners, the captive, those serving, and those being served.
Halfway in, I started to appreciate the social message within the book and became invested in Sofia’s emotional process as she grows into a woman and learns about herself as she learns about others. Though she grew up with slaves at her side in Kiev, she always had a heart for the peasants that served her father. Her compassionate and open heart serves her well as being at first abhorred by the brutality of the Mongols, she learns to understand how they operate and she finds compassion for those around her as well as for her captor who becomes her Master. Though, of course, never for some of the acts that they do, which Hazell sometimes portrays in overly graphic detail. I found it curious in fact that she shared the disgusting details of their murders and customs, yet didn’t go farther during any rape other than to say it happened and leaving Sofia sad and confused. I would have liked the rape scenes to be portrayed as awful acts as well, though maybe it’s a given.
Sofia knows she is lucky that he actually tries to please her and he does love her, even if outside the tent he is still a Mongol and a murderer. She does begin to gradually teach him that some of his acts are inhumane and he begins to show some mercy, even if Khan dictates that they should not show mercy. He begins to care a little more for captives and to show compassion for villagers in areas they overtake. Though sometimes he can’t and it shocks Sophia as she grapples with the question, “have a I changed his heart or not?”
Sofia struggles also with understanding Christianity, Orthodox Christianity, Paganism, Judaism, Islam, and Buddhism and how they all operate separately and together in the world. She begins to sense that all these people believe in something bigger than themselves, like God, but in different ways. She compares them all in her head throughout the novel, which shows us as a reader how all are connected. Most all people want to believe in something. Yes, we are connected by our heart and love. Having something to believe in gets people through the horrors of life that was so harsh during those medieval time periods when so much war and illness dictated life. People either clung to the faith of their ancestors, or chose to believe personally in something due to a method I like to think of as “trial and error,” you know….they used an amulet or prayed to an idol and something happened, therefore, they keep doing it and calling on it in times of need. This book really sought to speak to how all these religions were connected to each other by a common factor (when practiced correctly and not used for politics) and that people of different religions could get along in peace and harmony by exhibiting one some thing–compassion. She showed this through all of Sofia’s relationships with captives and servants in the camps. Her notions of other religions. Sophia is Orthodox Christian, but most people in her home area had been pagans prior to Christianity spreading through her region during the reign of her family and many were still pagan, or held on to some of the old traditions, mixing paganism with Christianity. She learns as she is captive that people of another religion can also have true, honest, compassionate hearts. They can depend and trust each other. There is room in the world for various religions and cultures and Sofia realizes that people should not be treated poorly for believing in different things. She learns that there are good and bad people within all cultures and religions, but this doesn’t equate with entire races or people of a certain faith being the same. Some people have no compassion and others have much, no matter what you believe in. Sofia struggles to know what she believes about her Christian faith, about God, about how to practice religion. She calls upon her teachings of “love your enemy” and tries to grow and survive by understanding her captors and her Master, who essentially she then allows herself to understand and grows to love as he loves her and devotes to her. His actions aren’t always just, but she grows to understand his culture and how much he is dictated by it.
Of course, being a reader myself who also loves Norse myths and legends, I could see from the start Sofia’s underlying struggle to also understand if any of her visions or occurrences were coincidence, from trauma or illness, or actual magic. I don’t think by the end of the book we ever really are given an answer, but that is probably because in actual history there isn’t an answer either. Her ancestors would have been Norse and with that comes the Norse Gods legends (you know the big one, Thor). Possibly her red hair and beauty and tall stature led her Mongol Master, at the time of her capture and then throughout their relationship) to believe she may have had supernatural powers that would bring him luck and fortune and she became his goddess in this way. For instance, in her making him a silk shirt, he felt the shirt saved his life on the battlefield. The ending of the book really brought the sentiment of her being otherworldly to life by Sofia’s act and with the ending we are plunged into Solomon’s parable and left hanging and ready for the second book.
I can’t say that the writing was lyrical or poetic, it didn’t sing to me or have enough dialogue and the dialogue it did have was sometimes childish or stilted for me, BUT Hazell’s historical research, her elaborate details, and her social message far outweighed all this and I’m glad that I continued to finish the book rather than give up on the start. It was well-written, but it read as more of a journal, a personal struggle, rather than being pure fantastical storytelling. Her details of the environment, the dress, the food, even the horrific details were graphic and visual and I delighted in learning about all their customs and culture. I could envision all her description, from the scents to the colors.
I don’t want to give the ending away, but I can tell book two will begin with Sofia on to her next adventure and more interaction with those of varying faiths and cultures. I’m excited to read book two and see where it leads her. I’m thrilled that an author chose to write a book about this time period and also feel very justified in my own thoughts, as I can tell the author’s own beliefs in the struggles that religion brings inside one’s own head and heart are the same as my own. I can see that she believes as I do that all varying religions and cultures could live in harmony if only we’d take the time understand and treat each other with dignity and respect. I applaud her for taking on this issue through her character of Sofia and using the time period in which, in reality, it all really began to come to a head and is still shaping our societal struggles today.
I also was really excited to see a book of fiction that showed historical detail of the Mongol life as they paraded throughout central Asia trying to take over the world. A view into a people, through the narrator Rus Princess Sofia, teaches us more about their culture beyond our normal stereotypes of the war-monger male soldiers. The book also gives us a glimpse of their women, those of their culture or captive, and how they lived among them.
If you like historical novels filled with compassion, culture, and rich details, this book will allow you to read as if you are in the journal of a Princess of captivity. Seeped in legend, religion, and how cultures intersect, The Grip of God is a journey that will have you looking into your own soul.
The Grip of God, Synopsis~
Duncan, BC Canada:
Award Winning Writer Rebecca Hazell Releases First Book in Trilogy of Historical Fiction Novels
Rebecca Hazell’s The Grip of God, the first novel in an epic historical trilogy, is available on amazon.com and its affiliates and by special order through your local bookstore. The saga’s heroine, Sofia, is a young princess of Kievan Rus. Clear eyed and intelligent, she recounts her capture in battle and life of slavery to a young army captain in the Mongol hordes that are flooding Europe. Not only is her life shattered, it is haunted by a prophecy that catalyzes bitter rivalries in her new master’s powerful family. She must learn to survive in a world of total war, always seeking the love she once took for granted.
Sofia’s story is based on actual historical events that determine her destiny. Readers will delight in this very personal and engaging tale from a time that set the stage for many of the conflicts of today’s world.
Praise for the trilogy
“How deftly and compellingly Hazell takes the reader with her into that mysterious and exotic world, and makes it all seem so very close to hand!” – Peter Conradi, Fellow of Britain’s Royal Society of Literature and author of Iris Murdoch: A Life, and of A Very English Hero.
“I enjoyed watching her morph from a spoiled sheltered princess with slaves of her own, into a tough, savvy survivor, with a new awareness of social injustice. The book is action packed. I couldn’t put it down.” — from a review on Amazon.com.
“I got completely caught up in the characters and story and always looked forward to getting back to them. What a fully fleshed and fascinating world you developed and it was wondrous to learn so much about that time and the Mongol culture. Your gifts come out in your lush descriptions of place and objects. All very vivid and colorful.” –author Dede Crane Gaston
The novel is available both in paperback and Kindle versions and through your local bookstore by special order. The subsequent two novels in the trilogy are scheduled for publication later this year.
Author Rebecca Hazell, Biography~
Rebecca Hazell is a an award winning artist, author, and educator. She has written, illustrated, and published four non-fiction children’s books, created best selling educational filmstrips, designed educational craft kits for children and even created award winning needlepoint canvases.
She is a senior teacher in the Shambhala Buddhist lineage, and she holds an honours BA from the University of California at Santa Cruz in Russian and Chinese history.
Rebecca lived for many years in the San Francisco Bay Area. In 1988 she and her family moved to Halifax, Nova Scotia, and in 2006 she and her husband moved to Vancouver Island. They live near their two adult children in the beautiful Cowichan Valley.