The Stars in their Courses

The Stars in their Courses by Martha ShelleyReviews for:

Richly sensuous feminist historical
fiction by author and activist Martha Shelley.

The Stars in their Courses

Review by Judith Laura of Medusa Coils

This is the second novel in a trilogy by spiritual feminist Martha Shelley. It continues the story begun in the first of the three novels, The Throne in the Heart of the Sea, and like that novel is set in the ninth century BCE in the area often known as the Levant, where most of the Bible takes place. Like the first novel, it’s written in today’s sometimes colloquial American English while keeping some of the terms used in the Ancient Near East (ANE). Also like the first novel of the trilogy, it presents alternative views of biblical characters such as Jezebel and Elijah and creates additional characters such as Tamar and her mutarajjul, Bez. (As Shelley explains in the book’s glossary, a mutarajjul refers to a “woman dressed in male clothing, usually employed as a soldier or harem guard.”)

As the second novel opens, Tamar has arrived in Egypt, with her guard Bez, to continue her study of medicine with the blessings of her former lover, Jezebel, who has married Ahab and become Queen of Israel. Jezebel feels she must produce an heir for Ahab in order to keep her status. Jezebel achieves motherhood, yet enjoys flirting with the women of Ahab’s harem. Elijah has become, among other things, a murderer. Both Tamar and Bez find new women to love in Egypt, and Bez begins to develop her artistic talent. Shelley weaves into this story the worship of various ANE goddesses including Asherah, Neith, Anat, and the pre-Islamic Arabic goddesses Allat, Al-Uzza, and Manat.

Shelley’s excellent descriptions of details bring this time period and its people to life; for example, her description of the flooding of the “Great River,” including its devastation and harm to humans, and Tamar’s learning, in the clinic where she is receiving training, how to treat accompanying medical conditions. This includes Tamar’s amputation of a leg.

In addition to the glossary, the back matter includes the art and information about the Seal of Jezebel that Max Dashu created from a small photo that Shelley took of the original in Israel. The front matter includes the seal, as well as maps of “the ancient world,” including Jerusalem and the Great River, and the Levant including Israel. In addition, a map of Assyria is placed at the beginning of chapter 29.

Shelley’s background includes Goddess religion and Jewish feminism. She also is a poet and one of the founders of the Gay Liberation Front in New York City.

In a novel series such as this the reader may wonder if it’s necessary to read the whole series, or the previous book, to understand each book. In my opinion Shelley has incorporated enough material in the second book so that you don’t have to read the first book to understand the second. (But of course you may want to for enjoyment.) In addition, because of the subtlety with which Shelley includes the material from the first book, this material will not interfere with the enjoyment of the second book for people who have already read the first one.

Yes, the second book in this trilogy is as good as the first. I look forward to the publication of the third.


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