Shelley, Martha. “The Stars in their Courses”, Ebisu, 2015.
Rereading the Bible (With Extras)
In Book II of her Jezebel trilogy, Martha Shelley we get a large story of sexual politics and religious wars as well as the clash of empires. Tamar is studying medicine but soon learns that she is needed on the battlefield. It seems that Elijah, by accident, has begun a massacre and is now the on the hit list as the most wanted and dangerous man in Israel. Jezebel’s husband is now the king of Tyre but is away at war and she takes over the reigns of government. The characters come together in various ways and eventually they will have to deal with Assyria that has become the mightiest and strongest empire in the world. We see how the characters came to their places in history as well as how they lived their daily lives. We also learn a bit about how they were psychologically— their loves and their hates, what they thought and how they became part of history.
Once again we go back to the ninth century; this time to the Levant and once again we see the characters that we read about here much differently than we see in the Bible. Our main characters are Jezebel, Elijah, Tamar and her guard Bez. Bez is a mutarajjul that we learn is a woman dressed in male clothing who usually works as a soldier or harem guard.
At the beginning of the book, Tamar is in Egypt with Bez. She has come to further pursue her studies in medicine. Jezebel who had been her lover is now married to Ahab and is the queen of Israel. She knows that if she wants to keep her position, she must give birth to an heir and she does. She also flirts with the women in her husband’s harem. Elijah has become, among other things, a murderer. Tamar and Bez have new relationships in Egypt, Elijah is marked as a murderer. We also become a bit acquainted with the various gods that were being worshipped at the time.
This is a sequel but it is not necessary to have read the first book as this stands on its own. In that first book we had already met the characters and were introduced to Tamar’s medical study, Bez who is Tamer’s friend and protector, Jezebel and Elijah and it is their adventures that propelled the book forward and are picked up in the second volume. Their paths change a bit in this volume. I do not want to give anything away but things drastically change. There is a lot of drama and a lot of adventure here. There is also a great deal of tension that the reader feels before the characters as we move toward the war that has been brewing but to which the characters seem oblivious at times.
I just want to make a remark here about Jezebel. The name has come to be associated with evil and double-crossing and while Jezebel was not exactly the most upmost of people her name has virtually disappeared from usage because of the connotations that go with it. I personally have always been fascinated by Ataliah, the daughter of Ahab and Jezebel. We rarely, if ever, hear the name “Ataliah” although when I lived in Israel and taught there, I had a beautiful student who bore that name. Ataliah was responsible for the deaths of many and the establishment of the worship of Baal in Judah. For such a beautiful name (that means “The Lord is exalted”, the biblical Ataliah turned out to be everything but a good woman.
We must remember that this is fiction and that the Tamar in Shelley’s book is not the same Tamar that we read of in the bible. Shelly brings history and fiction together and makes it a bit difficult (and a bit fun) to decide which is which. Her research is impressive and she uses it beautifully to weave the stories of these characters. I have one problem with this book is that I have to wait for the third volume and knowing that is a trilogy that will be the end.
Now I have a bit of confession. I have always considered myself something of a gay activist and I know many others who were far more active and vocal than me. However, I ashamedly admit, that I had not heard of Martha Shelley before and after reading about who she is, I am a bit embarrassed to not have known. But now I know that she has been of the leaders in our liberation and freedom movement and an excellent writer to boot.
Her 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. She is a marvel of a person and I am so proud to have met her through her writing.