Historical novels have long been a favorite of mine, allowing as they do for fictive recreations of historical events (or events claimed to be historical by those who won the war). In historical fictions, writers can tinker in small ways with minor historical events in order to advance their particular view of a major historical event or period. Cecelia Holland, Mary Renault, and others have successfully mined this genre for many years.
Alternate history novels are offshoots of historical fiction, joining it with fantasy. An alternate history takes what has been passed to us as historical fact and asks "what if this happened instead?" changing history much more completely than a standard historical novel would.
Judith Tarr has chosen historical fantasy as the genre for her latest novel, Queen of the Amazons, in which she makes some major changes in ancient Greek mythology. She bases her alternate history on a legend that the Queen of the Amazons once paid a visit to the famous Macedonian conqueror Alexander the Great. What brings about this meeting, and what happens as a result of it, is the subject of the story.
Greek mythology describes the Amazons as tribes of women who were ruled by women, who had sex with men only to increase their numbers, and who were said to kill male babies and keep female ones. They were said to have to have warred with Athens and to have aided in the defense of Troy. They were apparently considered by ancient Greek writers to be the very antithesis of their own culture, and descriptions of their customs and behavior reflect this.
According to the ancient text Library and Epitome by Apollodorus (edited and translated by Sir James George Frazer), Hippolyta was queen of the Amazons when Hercules was gallivanting about on his storied labors. His ninth task was to bring back the girdle (a symbol of office, generally described as a corded belt) of the Amazonian queen. Apollodorus writes that Hercules obtained the girdle by merely asking for it. That was far too easy to satisfy the goddess Hera, Zeus' jealous wife, who spent a lot of time making Hercules' life difficult (since he was the son of Zeus by a mortal woman). In this case, she disguised herself as an Amazon and spread the rumor that Hercules had come to kidnap Hippolyta. An armed group of Amazons went to investigate, and when Hercules saw them, he suspected treachery and killed Hippolyta and her defenders, then sailed off with the girdle to his next labor.
Tarr's alternate history recipe takes this myth, reworks it from a feminist viewpoint, and stirs it into the story of Alexander the Great. The resulting dish is a successful historical fantasy tastefully flavored with romance.
Ah, but I hear some feminists shouting, "Garbage! You can't have romance in a feminist novel!"
In a 2003 issue of Bust magazine (elegantly subtitled "For Women With Something To Get Off Their Chests"), there were letters to the editor praising the magazine for its inclusion of the sexual side of feminism. Apparently a lot of women who consider themselves feminists think sex and romance ought to be part of their lives, regardless of the gender of intimate partner they prefer. I concur.
As Judith Tarr ably demonstrates, one can certainly have romance in a feminist historical fantasy novel. Whether one comes away from that novel with the conclusion that the romance is entirely believable is another thing.
In Tarr's version of events, after the former queen dies, the Amazons choose her sister Hippolyta to lead them instead of the late queen's daughter, Phaedra. Hippolyta later gives birth to a baby girl who, according to the tribe's aged seer, has no soul and thus cannot be named. But when Phaedra calls for the child to be destroyed for being a soulless abomination, the seer counsels against it. "A name will come to her," she says. "Wait and be patient."
Phaedra, denied what she considers her birthright, will obviously not stand for this state of affairs for very long. She's not a completely evil person, just extremely selfish and, consequently, deliberately blind to the custom of choosing leaders in her tribe. She has charisma, which she uses every chance she gets to win believers to her banner, and the fact that her aunt's daughter resembles an animal more than a human being lures many of the warrior women to her cause.
But Etta, as the soulless one is nicknamed, has a birthright that few might have foreseen.
The one Amazon who does foresee it would rather not. The old seer claims that the warrior Selene has been chosen by the Goddess as her replacement. But Selene wants nothing to do with the visions and dreams that plague her sleep. She soon discovers that the more time she spends with Etta, the less she's tormented by the visions, and she decides she has to get herself assigned as Etta's bodyguard.
Thus, Selene is present at all the pivotal moments of her charge's life. She is the one through whose eyes the reader participates in Etta's journey to find a soul, which begins one night when Etta reacts as if homing in on a beacon, and leaves the annual clan-gathering camp. Selene, Hippolyta, and a band of warriors follow Etta in her relentless drive towards her goal—one that Selene hasn't foreseen, but senses all the same. After the group arrives in Zadrakarta, where Alexander's army is encamped, Hippolyta has a dream the content of which she doesn't reveal, but uses as the reason why she chooses to stay in the city as Alexander's guest, after besting him in a martial contest. Alexander offers her anything within his power to grant as her prize, and she withholds that request until the moment when she and Etta can most benefit from it.
Even when one reaches the point at which one can guess Etta's purpose in being near Alexander, Tarr's ability to spin a story and people it with well-rounded characters keeps the pages turning. Selene's conflict with her seer destiny is the emotional engine of the novel, as well as her growing attachment to a certain Persian prince. But this is a sticking point as well. Tarr shows the Amazons as a matriarchal culture in which men are for babies and "women are for love," then has her viewpoint character get romantically involved with a man while living in a foreign city. Granted, her stay in Zadrakarta is a lengthy one, and her rebellion against her seeress destiny might be feeding an unconscious willingness to rebel against other elements of her birth culture, but I can't buy the whole package. The Persian prince is just too much of a prince.
Despite that quibble, I think Tarr has delivered an absorbing story with characters one can care about, and opened a window into the past as well. The Amazons as she shows them make a lot more sense than the ones the ancient writers described. Tarr presents them, not as the Other (the stranger, the scapegoat, the enemy), but as a people with different customs and an alternate philosophy from the Greeks with whom they are traditionally associated. In that light, they're more like us than not, and that makes this a novel that deserves reading.
An SF reader for over 30 years, J.G. Stinson still can't keep her nose out of a book for very long. With 12 other writers, she is a contributor to The Cherryh Odyssey (Edward Carmien, editor), an author study of C. J. Cherryh now available from Wildside Press.