Goddess-worshippy fantasy novel where priestess loves chambermaid, saves nation

Prayer of the Handmaiden by Merry Shannon is actually the second book in a fantasy series, but since it’s about a completely different pair of women than the first one, just set in the same universe, you can start there like I did and not be the slightest bit confused. As someone who doesn’t like the pressure of having to read a dozen books at a time just to get a full story, and who writes her own series such that each book can be read independently of the others and out of order, I was grateful for that. I also found the world-building really easy to follow and approachable, which is not always a given in an epic high fantasy novel, and I appreciate that, too.

The plot can be summed up as “goddess-worshipping nation defending itself against Bad Guys.” A priestess is called into service to lead the fight in a miraculous way, and she and the woman she loved before she took orders are thrown together again in the process. What I loved the most about this book was the repeated, detailed descriptions of the pleasures of divine communion; I often try to feminize all the “God” words in temple and my favorite part of Shabbat services is Lecha dodi or the welcoming of Shabbat as if She were divine, and so this book plugged right into my extremely “prayer as a positive”, goddess-worshippy theology.

I consider the recitation of reassurance “no dead lesbians, no lesbians sleeping with men, yes happy ending” to not be a spoiler but instead a stamp of approval beyond which many of us won’t venture further, but in a fantasy novel with a couple of violent battle scenes like this one I hope that stamp doesn’t give too much away.

Also, an added note that anyone who read my books and wished Shulamit and Rivka were the f/f couple instead of being platonic friends will probably enjoy a side couple in this book, who I understand were the main couple in the original work in the series (Sword of the Guardian.)

Shannon has also created a very memorable villain in a warrior woman literally visibly pregnant with, well, basically the anti-Christ, but this is not a Christian universe. I’m not going to be able to get that image out of my head all day :)

I don’t entirely know if “pagan inspie lit” or “goddess worship inspie” is a genre, but this would be a good candidate for it. Love is a divine gift, and theology that actively contradicts that, insults that divinity. If you believe the same, or you’ve been yearning to find a philosophy that feels that way instead of trying to guilt you for love or harmless physical desires, this book may be like a nice warm bubble bath. (Except for the bloody battle scenes!)

Commendation to the author for the unique twists and revelations at the plot’s climax (love the holiday of “the fifth day of the fifth month” and the way it started!)

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It’s still not letting me delete those blank posts…

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Review: Regency hetero romance with Jewish hero

True Pretenses by Rose Lerner first got on my radar this summer, as a much-needed anecdote to my anger upon discovering a trope in mainstream romance of Jewish women being paired with Nazi officers. After spending an appropriate amount of time feeling angry over the violence inherent in such a plot, I realized I was angry for a second reason: that trope exists because our men are seen, by outsiders, as nebbishy, as unmasculine, as wimpy, and generally unsexy. This is such utter bullshit, because our men are among some of the most conventionally attractive celebrities (Jason Isaacs, Daniel Radcliffe, Harrison Ford) — William Shatner and Leonard Nimoy, for example, were so hot in their youth that adoring women created a whole new genre of fiction just to have a release valve for it.

So, I don’t have much of a history reading cis hetero romance, but this was enough of a reason to start. I wanted to read something that celebrated the sexiness of a Jewish man. Rose Lerner came across my radar, and thanks to my local library I was just able to explore her world.

This book is about Ash Cohen, who grew up on the streets in utter poverty but has managed to keep himself and his kid brother alive by moving around the country conning people, and Lydia Reeve, the principled woman he makes a deal with to try to finally buy his brother the legitimacy and honest life he’s started to crave. Lydia is a terrific character for a modern feminist reader like me–whose romance reading mostly revolves around lesbians–because she believes deeply in supporting those in poverty with charity work, acknowledges her own sex drive and knows how to please herself solo, and makes overtures of her own while reading like a real person instead of a stereotype of a “forward woman.” After her first (non-PiV) sexual encounter with Ash, for example, she feels “as if she’d been given something precious”, which I think is a fantastic counter-narrative to the giving-up language so often used in connection with virginity or virtue.

I also enjoyed how much of the book was from Ash’s perspective, since he is the book’s primary Jewish character. I loved all the details, of the Yiddish proverb at the end of the book, of the handkerchief with his deceased mother’s initial ל embroidered on it, of his alienation from the antisemitic world he moves through in a perpetual closet of false names and hair cut too short to see the poofyness. (I have to admit: there’s a too short? I had my hair boy-short this summer and I still had fantastic volume. I guess we’re all different!)

I appreciated the inclusion of side characters with same-sex love interests (although now I want to read a whole book about the lesbian lady’s maid in love with the second undercook! That is SO my jam. As long as nobody dies or gets raped.) The most important of these, Lydia’s brother Jamie, might be heading off toward a post-book future loose-end-wrap-up that reminds me of the Heyer that Lerner says she’s adored since childhood, Heyer with her talent for making you want the things she’s giving you before you get them.

Ash makes a passionate, embittered, and very necessary defense of the closet–in his case, a Jewish closet, but since I’m queer I found more dimensions of relevance:

“If I told everyone I was Jewish, it would be the same life, with the same people, except that everything would be more difficult, and I’d have to hear them do and say things that would make it hard to like them. Why should I? Do I owe it to them?”

I can’t live like that for personal reasons, but I totally respect that decision. Exactly: do we owe it to them?

Some poetic lines that made me smile:

From what he’d seen, that first flush of bliss lasted about as long as an apple blossom and rarely developed into anything as sweet and nourishing as an apple, but that was all the more reason to savor it.

and, poor Ash who hasn’t been with a woman in years because his Jewish Ween would out him:
He felt like a virgin, a fumbling boy overwhelmed by the very idea that women had bodies.

Lydia has also just lost her father, and I’ve been through enough loss — my father, my grandparents, etc. — to see myself in her grief and have my own reactions validated. The book also recognized the phenomenon of giving into hedonism when wrecked by grief, which is a huge part of how I grieve, so that was validating as well.

Honestly, one of the things I liked most about this book was the honesty between the two lead characters, which sounds weird because one of them is a professional liar and the other is pulling some shenanigans of her own. But they spend most of the book being on the same page instead of the misunderstandings and secrets that bug me in romance (although it’s not a misunderstanding-free title.) They have a certain depth of emotional intimacy and familiarity with each other even before the first PiV scenes, which also felt good because sex isn’t the only thing that creates being on the same page.

The book doesn’t shy away from recognizing the antisemitism of the time, but the microaggressions are scattered sparsely and don’t figure in the main “oh shit” part. Considering Ash is a swindler and fits a couple of stereotypes in other ways, it was kind of neat to see a Jewish writer take those tropes and show that even someone fitting them could be a complex, lovable character full of love and good intentions. And to point out that it’s very easy for someone who always had enough food growing up to accuse a marginalized person of stealing when the marginalized person literally grew up on the streets and had to steal to eat.

Ash isn’t religiously practicing — although his brother is, to some degree — but if you’re looking for something where a Jewish male character is presented as undeniably sexy, I’d say this is a pretty good place to start.

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