- Author: S.J. Schwaidelson
- Genre: Historical Fiction
- Publication Date: October 17, 2021
Thank you to the author for providing me with a copy of this book. I am offering my honest opinion voluntarily.
CONTENT WARNING: rape, slavery, murder, blood, mention of death of a child, violence, mention of miscarriage, prejudice, misogyny, antisemitism
“I do not talk to dirty boys.”
The girl was defiant, her dress dirty, her scarf askew; tendrils of burnished copper hair escaping onto her face. She would not stand by as her brother defended her honor. She would defend herself.
So begins the story of Batsheva Hagiz, the spirited daughter of a Jewish merchant dynasty in the city of Málaga. Her life is set by tradition, with schooling in languages, merchandise, and trade. But it’s her love of swordplay and the ability to throw a dagger with deadly aim that will serve her best.
On the caravan journey across the desert to her wedding, Batsheva is abducted by men who are certain their sheik will prize her body. In the early days of captivity, chained to his tent, she makes the decision to do more than merely survive. She will live.
Her resolve will push the boundaries of convention and take Batsheva from the sands of the Maghreb to the Holy Land where a crusade rages, to the court of Plantagenet England.
In her third novel, S.J. Schwaidelson weaves another cinematic story, immersing readers into exotic lands and cultures yet with timeless, universal conflicts and human passions.
After reading and reviewing a bunch of Jewish-themed books around Hanukkah, the author had contacted me and offered me a copy of her book, and I’m incredibly grateful to her for that. Because I absolutely fell in love with this book, and it’s the kind of book that deserves to be highlighted. And it just felt right to start off 2022 with this as my first review of the year.
The story starts out a bit slow, but the pace picks up quickly, and hooked me early on. And while the subject matter is difficult to read at times, it’s dealt with in a sensitive, respectful manner that felt historically accurate.
Batsheva is the daughter of a powerful merchant in the 12th century, connected to a dynasty with branches throughout Europe and the Middle East. As a young Jewish girl, she’s highly educated in a variety of disciplines — not just languages, but finances, trade, and self-defense. When she sets off across the desert to attend her wedding, she winds up getting kidnapped and the entire trajectory of her life changes. She goes from a woman with her entire life ahead of her to having no say over what happens to her. But instead of giving up or submitting to her circumstances, her fiery spirit forces her to live to the best of her abilities. This decision is the first she makes, and it changes her entire life.
Her captor, who actually had no hand in her kidnapping, is morally gray. He’s a rapist and holds her against her will, but he genuinely cares for her at the same time. It’s difficult to not hate him at first, but he actually wound up growing on me. Because while yes, he is doing horrific things to her in today’s standards, these were acceptable and common things in that time and culture. But he showed capacity for change and growth, and that is what ultimately won me over. Instead of viewing her as simply a piece of property, he wanted to get to know her. He continually asks questions to learn more about her, although Batsheva is understandably resistant to tell him about her life before:
“How could she tell him of her hopes and dreams when all of them died on the day she was taken? To talk about it was to remember; to remember was to mourn the loss. To share the details of her past would seal it forever as gone; yet, in some ways she knew it would free her.”
Just as she’s settling into her new life, one that she’s become resigned to, a different option is presented to her. And her captor gives her the freedom to make that choice on her own. It winds up having far-reaching effects on the rest of her life, but it sets her conscience at ease and she feels that she’s made the right decision. And it winds up opening new doors to her. She winds up traveling to the Holy Land, also known as Zion. And it’s an incredibly touching moment when I realize that no matter how many centuries pass or how different our journeys are, there’s an incredible connection to the land that so many of us feel. It’s captured perfectly in this interaction between Batsheva and her companion:
“‘It will be good to have a friend, for I am a stranger here.’ ‘No, gracious lady,’ replied Devora, lifting her chin, ‘no Jew can ever be a stranger in Zion.’”
It’s incredibly difficult not to fall in love with the characters. Batsheva is a strong, smart, and endearing character, and I found myself empathizing with the situations that kept ensnaring her. All I wanted was for the poor girl to catch a break. She suffered so much, and I was hoping that she’d finally find a happy ending. And considering that she continues to wind up in the most unfortunate situations, she still manages to find herself surrounded by generally great people. However, there are some negative people who don’t want the best for her, and considering that this took place in the 12th century, there’s more than enough prejudice, hatred, misogyny, and antisemitism flowing around society. This is even more pronounced when she finds herself in England, when educated women weren’t common, and non-Christians were actively discriminated against.
“This was how hated was bred, in stories to children who knew nothing more than what they were told by their elders.”
This book is epic and immersive, and I fell in love with Batsheva and her story. Even though it was difficult and my heart broke for her so many times, I couldn’t stop reading. I cried for her so many times, but I also found myself crying with happiness for her as well. This is the kind of book that has a bit of everything — battle, romance, political intrigue, friendship, family drama, history, and social scheming. I loved every minute of the story, and it was a great start to my reading year. It’s definitely going to become one of my recommendations to any and everyone, and if you want to check this one out, click here. I may earn a small commission if you make a purchase through my link.
Categories: Book Review