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19 August 2020

Review - Divine Heretic by Jaime Lee Moyer

Design by Patrick Knowles
Divine Heretic
Jaime Lee Moyer
Jo Fletcher Books, 20 August 2020
Available as: PB, 390pp, e
Source: Advance PB copy
ISBN: 9781787479265

I'm grateful to Jo Fletcher Books for an advance copy of Divine Heretic to consider for review.

Following from last year's Brightfall, which gave us a fantasy focussed on Maid Marian, Moyer moves into more historical territory with a story inspired by the life of Jeanne d'Arc, Joan of Arc to the English although as they (we) were her enemies I will stick to Jeanne.

When I heard about this book I was really intrigued and keen to see how, exactly, Moyer would treat the subject. It was clear that there would be fantasy elements. It's equally clear, if you think for a moment, that the religious and social atmosphere of the medieval wars between England and France - let alone the specific subject matter of Jeanne's life and terrible death - makes for quite difficult subject matter. It would be easy, on the one hand, to avoid this and completely fantasy this story up - but also easy to write something very, very grim indeed (grimdark doesn't have to be made up!)

Moyer manages, I think, to tread a middle course here. She resists making the book too genre-y. Her Jeanne's world is one with definite magical and fantasy elements. In an early scene we see tree-spirits in a grove, and the rural people make offerings in remote shrines to vaguely described spirits or saints (with one eye out for the baleful local priest, Father Jakob). But Jeanne is no kick-ass fantasy heroine, there's no route for her to learn magic or turn all this to her advantage (other than making those hopeful offerings, alongside her prayers to the Blessed Virgin). And when three spirits turn up, claiming to be Saints Michael, Margaret and Catherine, though Jeanne immediately sees through them and henceforth refers to them as "monsters" she has no special powers or knowledge to resist them.

Nor, though, is the grimness celebrated. It's there - the heart of this book is the extent to which Jeanne is constrained, compelled, abused both by the society around her - most dramatically in an attempted forced marriage and rape - and by the monsters. (They wish to use her for their own strange ends, influencing history and the war but for reasons that are never really explained.) But it doesn't, in the end, predominate.

Jeanne's trials are many. The foretold martial role of Maid of Lorraine which the three spirits want to force her into (almost like an inversion of Macbeth) is not one that suits her nature or upbringing and the deceptions it entails strain her conscience. She is the subject of vicious, misogynistic rumour and of jealousy and she feels guilt over joining in the war and particularly leading men to her death. (I think this latter aspect is something that we could have been shown more of - while the stunning cover art shows Jeanne holding a bloodied sword, and there are scenes of her trying to use it, much of the battle is skipped. I'm not saying I want to see lots of bloodshed but it seems a central aspect of the story and key to creating the wearied, jaded Jeanne we see in the later sections of the book).

Through all this though she struggles to own herself, to be more than the puppet that the three spirits or the Dauphin want. The story is nicely calibrated here, demonstrating just how little agency Jeanne has, her life and future in the hands of men - the priest, the village council, various nobles, ultimately the Dauphin Charles himself - as well as those manipulating spirits. Her achievement  is to endure, to love even when it is forbidden, to remain loyal to those who are loyal to her, above all to retain some sense of herself, some control over herself and her actions. It is a constant fight and one that can never be fully successful involving sacrifice both physical and spiritual - this isn't just a matter of Jeanne and her fate, the wicked spirits bind up others, too, people she cares for, and they are ruthless in leveraging this.

As I grew more and more absorbed in Divine Heretic, I came to love the way it isn't conventional fantasy. There aren't, as I have said, tools and techniques to be sought to achieve a neat solution. Many questions are left unanswered (the three spirits operate to a strangely specific schedule - why?) But that leaves the story space to grow, to breathe, to show us Jeanne's courage and to show her growing and becoming more assured and understanding. It's that portrait that is at the centre of the book, really, and it is a masterpiece of storytelling. Moyer gives us a fully rounded and complex portrayal of a figure who tends to be viewed, in a very one dimensional sense, as merely a tragic victim.

In short Divine Heretic fully lived up to my expectations and I'd strongly recommend it.

For more information about the book, see the publisher's website here.

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