Thursday, August 22, 2013

Selene of Alexandria by Faith L. Justice

I chose this book because Hypatia the woman philosopher was mentioned and I thought she would have a central presence in the story. She does and she doesn't.

The new patriarch of the Catholic church was Cyril, a young Reader whose uncle, Theophilus, was dying and determined his nephew should take his place as Patriarch. Had Timothy, a much older and more moderate man, become Patriarch the history of that time would likely have been very different. Selene is the daughter of a council member and a very unusual girl of 14. She doesn't want to be a wife and mother; she wants to be a physician. Women of her class did not become physicians. Freedmen -- and women -- had more latitude than a high born lady.

There were women physicians, medicas, that worked in charity wards and hospitals as what would be seen as nurses in the modern world. Selene is much more. She becomes a physician in the truest sense of the world, studying with young men. She apprenticed to Mother Nut who was an Egyptian medica, a herbalist and local wise woman, who tended to the Jews and the poor. In order to study medicine, Selene must approach Hypatia and ask for her assistance, which is how Hypatia is connected to this novel.

Hypatia was important in her time as a counsellor and philosopher of renown hated by the more zealous of the new Christian sect because she was pagan and therefore evil, an agent of Satan. Faith L. Justice describes Hypatia as a petite woman with a powerfully trained voice and a good moral compass. She is respected and adds historical truth to Selene of Alexandria.

Justice uses some of the historical facts of that time in creating a believable background for Selene while Selene is a finely drawn character of flaws and brilliance that is quite memorable. Selene's struggle with following her heart versus the weight of family obligations, the dangerous times in which she lives, and social strictures and expectations illustrates what has been the limitations of patriarchal societies and the often fatal difficulties of being an intelligent woman who wants and reaches for more than she is allowed.

The men in Selene's life are by turns strong and weak, compassionate and emotionally constipated, and as focused on their needs as Selene is focused on her own needs and desires -- to practice medicine and heal those in need. Selene makes no distinctions between the upper and lower classes. Everyone who is ill and needs her help, especially the poor and marginalized, gets her full attention. What Justice does very well is demonstrate how Selene must choose who to help when her resources are limited. Justice sets Selene in an infirmary full of children dying of disease and forces her to choose which ones to help. Although the reasoning is logical, the way in which Selene deals with the wrenching choice is true to her character and adds weight and depth to her character.

Faith L. Justice gives her interpretation of the historical events in the early 5th century Alexandria, especially where the story touches on Cyril, the new Patriarch, Orestes, the governor of Alexandria sent from Constantinople, and Hypatia. Historical accuracy is good even as she chooses how to demonstrate Cyril's actions and thoughts given what is available from the subjective histories. Justice is even handed in her treatment of what was a very volatile period.

Selene of Alexandria is an engrossing story, a fictional novel set in a very authentic 5th century Alexandria. It is an admirable novel.

I would, however, suggest Faith L. Justice take another look at the formatting for Kindle. There are quite a few formatting errors and closer editing for grammar, word choice, spelling, and repetitions would be helpful, hence the 4/5 star rating. None of the errors, however, significantly detract from the story or from Justice's adept blending of fact and fiction.

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