The body lay motionless. ~ Opening of Sworn Virgin
Sworn Virgin by Kristopher Dukes
William Morrow, 2017
Fiction (Historical); 352 pgs
Source: Review copy provided by the publisher.
Source: Review copy provided by the publisher.
Eleanora is 18 years old and her father’s world. He raises his daughter in the spirit of her mother, free of convention and gender roles, taking pride in her intelligence and valuing her opinions. She has learned the ways of her father, a doctor/healer, always at his side. As a result, Eleanora stands out in early twentieth century Albania. She dreams of attending a prestigious art school in Italy someday, which her father assures he will help her do. That dream shatters, however, when her father is shot dead in the street as an act of vengeance.
Eleanora, devastated and distraught, returns home to their remote mountain village and her stepmother, Meria. Meria has never quite understood the bond between father and daughter, nor her husband allowing his daughter to live more like a man than a woman. Eleanora is really rather helpless when it comes to doing any of the household duties relegated to the women, and this creates quite a bit of tension between the two women. Having run out of money and food, the two are close to starvation. In an act of desperation, Meria agrees to marry Eleanora off to a wealthy friend’s son. Eleanora had previously spurned Edi, the man she is to marry, due to his cruelness to women, and when she learns of her stepmother’s deal, she feels both betrayed and angry.
Following an ancient tradition, Eleanora declares herself a Sworn Virgin, giving her the freedom to live as a man and as head of the household on the condition that she remain a virgin for the rest of her life. As a Sworn Virgin, she is allowed to participate in blood feuds like the one that resulted in her father’s death, but she herself cannot be killed. Unless, of course, she breaks her vow.
Eleanora is determined to avenge her father’s death and uncover the reason why someone would want him dead. She cannot imagine why anyone would want her father dead. He was a kind and well-respected man. Eleanora knew he had loved her mother immensely. Her mother had died in childbirth, and she had not known much about her at all or where she came from.
I was drawn to Eleanora’s courage and spunk, but at times found her to be extremely naïve and spoiled. She has a mean streak which comes out when she acts without thinking. I put a lot of that off as her being only eighteen and not really understanding the ways of the world she lives in. Her father kept her rather sheltered. Even so, she has tenacity, and her sense of survival is strong. She takes up hunting and learns the skills she needs to care for herself as time goes by.
I felt for Meria. Her heart seemed in the right place, and I think Eleanora was unnecessarily mean to her even though I did understand Eleanora's anger and where it was coming from. Meria is tied deeply in tradition and turns to that for survival’s sake. I think she made bad choices, but I do not think her intentions were to be cruel.
Eleanora is a free spirit and young, never knowing what love really was. I admit I wondered at the relationship she developed with the injured stranger who appeared at her door, him being so much older, and both she and Meria being in such a needy state at that particular time in their lives. I saw less of a romantic love between them, despite Eleanora’s own ideas, and more of a young woman searching out a father figure. It was interesting to see how that all played out in the novel, given my suspicions.
Kristopher Dukes brings the Albanian mountain clans and their traditions to life in The Sworn Virgin. It is not a setting I am all too familiar with, and I found the very idea of the Sworn Virgin fascinating. I had never heard of the tradition before, and ended up digging a little deeper online as I read the book to find out more about the practice.
Overall, I enjoyed The Sworn Virgin. Eleanora grows over the course of the novel, becoming more self-sufficient, and as she learns about her mother and father’s relationship and exactly why her father had been killed. I liked Kristopher Dukes’ writing and will definitely look for more by her in the future.
You can learn more about Kristopher Dukes and her books on the author's website. She can also be found on Facebook.
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