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Optimistic Mystic

Julie Berry's gorgeously-written book about a medieval female mystic and the trio of sisters who protect her will break your heart. Plus: you could win a copy!

Optimistic Mystic

BOOK REPORT for The Passion of Dolssa by Julie Berry

Cover Story: Medieval Big Face
BFF Charm: Make It Rain
Swoonworthy Scale: 5
Talky Talk: Old Provencal
Bonus Factors: Medieval Female Mystics, No One Expects The Inquisition, Witchy Women
Relationship Status: All Will Be Well

Cover Story: Medieval Big Face

While I don’t normally go for Big Face covers, this one is rather pretty—the portrait of Dolssa is a nice balance between modern design and medieval style. (13th century European art was more two-dimensional and brightly colored, often gilded to show divinity.) While this is more of a Renaissance-style portrait (this is where I warn you that I am a medieval history nerd, so feel free to nod politely and smile, yes Jennie we realize these details are important to you but perhaps not to us, the casual medieval historical fiction reader), I think it works for appealing to a younger audience. 

The Deal:

Dolssa is a young Provencal woman who is in a relationship with Christ: a mystic who receives visions of Jesus and is exhorted to spread the message of good will and faith. Her message is one of love rather than fear; hope instead of restriction. The problem is: it’s 1267 and the Catholic church doesn’t approve of women preaching, especially women who go against their teachings.

Women like Dolssa are dangerous to the Church and the men who run it. Dolssa’s last living family is eradicated in an effort to smoke her out, and so she finds herself on the run, trying to escape the reach of the Inquisitors, relying on the kindness of a people who still remember the Albigensian Crusade, and nearly starving to death in the process.

Then she meets a trio of peasant sisters: Botille, a matchmaker, Sazia, a fortune-teller, and Plazensa, the beautiful eldest sister who makes beer and runs a tavern. The three of them take pity on the near-dead Dolssa and hide her as best they can, praying that word of the girl who can perform miracles does not reach outside the village.

Framed through a lens of a historian in 1290, the narrative follows Dolssa and her three sisters using their own writings, testimony from witnesses, and writings from the friar who obsessively chases Dolssa. This is a stunningly beautiful book which examines the rewriting of history, the erasure of women’s struggles, and the mystery of true faith.

BFF Charm: Make It Rain

I loved all four of our main female characters (especially Botille), who were all smart and charming, with flaws that only served to make them more interesting and real. If it were me in the 13th century, I would have been more likely to be burned for a different sort of heresy, but I’d trust any of them with my life.

Swoonworthy Scale: 5

There is a sweet love story that you, as the reader, will see coming long before half of the pair does, but it doesn’t dominate the narrative. (How could it? The women in this story fear for their lives.)

Talky Talk: Old Provencal

First thing’s first: there is a glossary in this book, on page 464 of the hardcover edition. You will probably be able to figure out most of the Old Provencal words from context, but some of the terms will undoubtedly be new.

As noted in the description, this book is framed through competing narratives and testimony—but it’s done in a way that’s easy to follow (and in fact, so compelling I couldn’t put it down). Each character has a distinct voice that manages to be period-appropriate and easy to follow, which is no small feat.

The book begins slowly, but gradually picks up the pace so that by the time you reach the end, you feel as though you’ve been barreling toward the conclusion.

Bonus Factor: Medieval Female Mystics

I feel as though this book was written for me, frankly. How did Julie Berry know that I wanted, but never thought I would see, a YA book about a medieval female mystic?

The way in which women experienced medieval Catholicism is an endlessly fascinating topic. Some mystics, such as Julian of Norwich, had intense visions of Christ. (Julian of Norwich is the first woman to write a book in English, by the way.) Some, like Marie of Oignies, starved and otherwise harmed their bodies to be closer to God. Some, like the fictional Dolssa, and the real Teresa of Avila, described their relationship with God as almost a romantic one. (If you are interested in scholarly books on the topic, I recommend Caroline Walker Bynum as a good starting point.)

Bonus Factor: No One Expects The Inquisition

In the post-novel notes, Berry argues that the Cathars, the religious sect that the Albigensian Crusade was meant to eradicate, didn’t even exist: it was a convenient and ill-defined group whose heresy “justified” an extremely bloody crusade. Here, one friar is hellbent (sorry) on silencing Dolssa, and Berry does an incredible job of depicting the way just one man’s righteous fury and fear, backed by the church, can leave a trail of horror in his wake.

Bonus Factor: Witchy Women

I loved the way the three sisters formed a non-religious counterpart to Dolssa: they’re all outsiders, with powers and skills that society at large cannot understand, and could be threatening if the sisters weren't so helpful to them. Also, I’d like Plazensa’s preternatural homebrewing talent.

Casting Call:

This one is tough, you guys. I honestly cannot think of a single actor who would fit my visions of these characters. If you’ve read the book and have suggestions, talk to us in the comments!

Relationship Status: All Will Be Well

Oh, book. You are easily my favorite read of 2016 so far. Our date started out with some common interests, and quickly took over my entire life. I can’t eat, I can’t sleep, you made me cry when we said goodbye: I think this is love. I’m still trying to recover from the story you told me, which at times was quite bleak…but to paraphrase Julian of Norwich, I must assume that all will be well, every manner of thing shall be well.

FTC Full Disclosure: I received a free review copy from Viking. I received neither money nor a pet unicorn for writing this review, despite how hard I wished for one.  The Passion of Dolssa is available now.

GIVEAWAY

Want to win a copy of your very own? Just leave us a comment telling us how well you'd think you'd fare in medieval Europe. US only (sorry, international readers!). Giveaway closes at 11:59pm Wednesday, April 27. Winner will be notified through the email they provided for Disqus. Giveaway is now closed.

Jennie's photo About the Author: Jennie Kendrick lives in San Francisco and has an excessive fondness of historical fiction, spreadsheets, turquoise sparkly things, and bourbon. When she's not reading, writing, or writing about reading, she cooks obsessively, runs an Etsy shop, and thrifts for vintage everything.