Book review: The Passion of Dolssa by Julie Berry

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Some might say that Dolssa de Stigata was blessed.  Others might call her cursed. Dolssa doesn’t just believe in Jesus: she sees his face, hears his voice, and feels his embrace. He is her Beloved, and she can’t help but preach his word in her community. And in Dolssa’s time, that was enough to get you branded a heretic and sentenced to death.

The story begins as Dolssa narrowly escapes execution and begins her life as a runaway. Despite having no street smarts, no knowledge of how to feed herself or take care of herself, Dolssa perseveres.  She evades the friars that search for her.  She manages to find just enough food and shelter to stay alive. A few chapters later, she is found malnourished and injured, hiding from the inquisitors. Her savior is Botille, a young woman who takes Dolssa under her wing and, with the help of her two sisters, nurses Dolssa back to health and provides her a safe place to hide from the Church.

So, to start things off, I should probably mention that although I knew this book was going to have religious undertones, I did not think it was going to be so overtly religious.  Not that I have a problem with that, of course. I mean, I did attend thirteen years of Catholic school. I’m used to religion. I was just a little surprised.

I was also surprised by the heaviness of this book.  It’s advertised as Young Adult. It’s a Printz Honor book. But this is not a book that I can imagine myself having read as a teen. It’s not a book that I can imagine most teens reading. Not only is it long (it’s close to 500 pages), but it’s also dense.  Not only that, but I can’t imagine having been interested in 13th-century religious persecution when I was an actual Young Adult.

This is not a happy book.  If you’re looking for a book about teenage girls who overcome all odds to live happily ever after, please look elsewhere.  This is a story of girls taking care of each other, fighting for their lives, doing whatever they must to avoid execution.  A worthy topic, for sure, but not what I expected given the summary.

So, while this is a very worthwhile book, it took me a very, very long time to get interested in the story. While I thought I was going to be reading about a friendship between “the matchmaker” and “the mystic” and their attempts to evade “an obsessed friar,” I actually read a book about a town of peasants in 13th century France who attempt to hide a known heretic with mysterious healing powers.  I should probably also mention that Dolssa is more of a side character than anything.  There are probably more POVs than necessary in this book, but our protagonist is clearly Botille.

I don’t want it to seem like this is a bad book.  It is just not the book I expected to read.  It is absolutely well-written.  The characters are well-developed.  There are motives for all of the actions. Nothing happens without reason.  But still, it is not what I expected, and I can’t help but feel that my rating would have been different had I gone in with different expectations.

So, I’ve touched on a few things that I didn’t particularly enjoy about this book.  Now I’d like to talk about the things that I did like.

First, I actually learned things while reading this book. My knowledge of the Inquisition is admittedly pretty limited. I do remember learning about it in my college Spanish classes, but that was focused mainly on the key elements: who, what, where, and when. It was also focused primarily on the Spanish Inquisition. Of course, the first thing that comes to mind when someone mentions an Inquisition is Monty Python’s famous sketch, which is both hilarious and obviously historically inaccurate.

I cannot even begin to explain how happy I am that I did not live through this era.  Because not only could you be executed for not believing in God, but you could also be executed for believing too much. Because seeing God’s face, hearing his voice, and believing you knew him were signs of the devil, and needed to be burned out of you.  I can’t imagine the fear people must have had as they tried to believe just the right amount.  In our modern society, it’s almost unthinkable.

Another thing I really appreciated about this book was its setting. I have read an awful lot of young adult novels over the years, but this is the first one I’ve read that was set in medieval France. It’s certainly the first non-fantasy YA book with a medieval setting. It’s also fairly uncommon for a young adult book to have an overtly religious message, so that was a nice change as well.

And although I didn’t get the protagonist I expected, I did adore Botille.  She was a strong, clever, resourceful young woman and Dolssa would quite literally be dead if not for her help.  Although this book takes place in the 13th century at a time when feminism was most certainly not A Thing, it’s clear that Botille and her sisters challenged the patriarchy at every turn. Not only do they own and run their own business, but they do it without the help of any men. And not only that, but they also support Jobau, their (mostly) useless father figure. In addition to their saloon, Botille earns money as a matchmaker and her little sister Sazia reads fortunes. They have the full support of their town and are considered important members of the community. Whether this is realistic or not, I appreciated that these girls were able to take care of themselves.

To be honest, I think I was just too excited for this book. I had seen so many glowing five star reviews that there was no way the actual book could match up to my expectations. While I might not have loved this book, I’m glad that I read it.

Final rating: ★★★☆☆

#mmdreading: a book nominated for an award in 2017