Thursday, 17 July 2014

Book Review and Author Interview: The Miracle Thief by Iris Anthony

Something Different for Historical Fiction Lovers

My Review

The Miracle Thief is a historical novel following three women as they seek God’s will in France in the early 900’s:

Sister Juliana escaped to Rochemont Abbey many years ago, seeking to atone for her biggest sin. She serves in the shrine of St Catherine, helping the many pilgrims who come to pray for healing by the saint’s relics.

Anne is the newly-orphaned daughter of an impoverished noblewoman. With no home, she has little option but to obey her mother’s dying request and undertake a pilgrimage to St Catherine’s shrine to seek healing.

Giselle is the illegitimate daughter of a king, raised as a princess and about to be forced into a political marriage against her will. She asks to take a pilgrimage to the shrine of St Catherine to seek God’s will.

The Miracle Thief is an unexpected gem. The characters are real (really. It’s historical fiction based on real people and real events), and were brought to life with all their flaws and foibles. The plot moved steadily, and although (as with real life), the ending wasn’t necessarily what I’d have chosen, it was historically accurate, and it was from a time and place in history that hasn’t been done to death by other authors (*ahem* Tudor England).

Anthony has done an excellent job of melding historical fact with the creativity of fiction. I never felt I was being ‘dumped’ with historical facts or that the story was being manipulated to stay true to history, yet the note at the end shows the degree to which the story has been researched and is true to the historical record (which, admittedly, has a lot of holes).

Although The Miracle Thief is a general market book, there was still a strong underpinning of Christian faith (albeit featuring some very un-Christlike “Christians”), and it meets CBA standards in that there is no inappropriate language. It left me feeling grateful to live in a time and place where I have freedoms and choices women like Juliana, Anne and Giselle never had. Recommended for historical fiction fans looking for something a little different.

Thanks to Sourcebooks and NetGalley for providing a free ebook for review. You can find out more about Iris Anthony at her website ... or read on.

Author Interview

Iris was kind enough to answer some questions for me, looking at her writing and the writing of her alter ego, award winning Christian author, Siri Mitchell. 

First, please tell us a little about yourself. Where are you from?

I’m from just about everywhere! Before I graduated from high school, I had lived on both the East and West American coasts and in two Canadian provinces. After college, I married an Air Force officer and moved around some more to places including Paris and Tokyo.

You write under two pen names, Iris Anthony and Siri Mitchell. Why do you use two names? What kind of books do you write under each name?

I use two names because I’m writing two different styles of historicals. My Iris books are set in Europe (France) and stylistically, they’re more experimental and complicated. They also have more POV characters. So far, they involve stories of separate lives slowly becoming intertwined within a larger story. My Siri books are generally set in America as close to the 19th century as I can manage and they feature young women as their heroines.

I often find historical fiction difficult to read because of the way women are often considered little more than possessions, subject to the will of the men who rule them (and they rarely get their happy-ever-after endings). The Miracle Thief is no exception, but I was intrigued by Andulf’s comment that men had little freedom of choice either. What inspired this?

One of the things which kept appearing in my research was an explanation of the feudal system. It wasn’t quite fully developed back then, but at its most basic, it involved an interlocking series of relationships and debts from the lowliest serf to the loftiest of kings. In concept, it was like a pyramid. The serfs were its base and at its pinnacle was God. The higher levels looked after the levels beneath them and you owed the levels above you something in return for their protection (crops, or soldiers, or entire armies).

Because kings were thought to reign by divine favour, they owed their thrones to God, for which they tried to conquer pagans and took upon themselves the role of Defender of the Faith. In theory, everyone’s life and work was owed to someone else; there was no free agency in anything. But then everyone was looked after as well. In practice, it resulted in all the worst abuses and excesses of the Middle Ages. And eventually in the Magna Carta of 1215.

The Miracle Thief illustrates many of the differences between contemporary Christian faith and how Christianity was seen and lived in the middle ages. What do you think of these differences? Are they for better or worse?

People in the Dark Ages and the Middle Ages actively looked for God in just about everything. They expected to find his hand (Providence) at work in their everyday lives. I think we’ve lost that concept of Providence and the idea that God is constantly at work for our good and his glory. I don’t think that’s for the better.

If we look for God, we find Him. If we don't ... 

The other thing that always strikes me in historical fiction is the hypocrisy around faith and politics. The Miracle Thief has a Christian cleric prepared to force Giselle into a relationship that’s clearly outside God’s plan for marriage, all for the sake of politics. What do you think the motivation was?

Power and fame. We think of the ministry as a calling. Back then, people thought of the church as a position. It’s an entirely different perspective. As I researched this book, I often wonder how history would have been altered if the church had not involved itself in politics. At the beginnings of the Carolingian empire, King Pepin declared himself the defender of Rome, pledging to fight on behalf of the church in the rough-and-tumble politics of the day.

What might have happened if the pope had called on the name of God instead of the name of the king? Imagine how different the spiritual climate of Europe might be today. As it was, politics and the church became intimately intertwined to the point that kings appointed bishops and archbishops and even popes and the church was forced to endorse all kinds of sovereigns that it might not have otherwise condoned. A career in the church became one of the best ways in medieval Europe to amass personal wealth and political power.

What do you see as the main differences between fiction written for the Christian market compared with the general market?

The Christian market is nicely defined. If I can write a book set in America of the 1800s, with a heroine who is young and single (not yet married or widowed), and if I can stay within the bounds of the genre’s expectations and the publisher’s guidance, I have a decent chance of a good reception for my titles. Third-person sells better than first. A lighter mood sells better than a more serious one. It’s a market that has defined expectations and a well-developed readership that is looking for books with answers to life’s questions.

In terms of the general market, I feel like I can be more experimental with the style of my writing. My first Iris Anthony historical, The Ruins of Lace, had 7 POV characters. One of them was a dog. I can indulge my love for France in the general market and I suspect I have a broader range of time periods I can choose from. With my general market books, I can also feed my fascination for tough questions. I can write about Europe when it was wholly Catholic. I can even write a book about miracles which I could never hope to sell into the Christian market. (Sounds, paradoxical, but it’s true.)

Though the markets are different, I find my books are still quite similar. My Iris books may be more complicated and set in Europe, but under both my names, I write about the concept of worth. I write novels which are heavily researched and feature women in conflict with their culture.

A dog as a POV character? And your editor let you do that?

It's a sad indictment on the Christian market that we are less likely to accept miracles in our fiction, but I can see it's true. 

Is writing for the Christian market harder or easier than writing for the general market? Why?

In some respects it’s easier because I know what’s expected. In some instances it’s more difficult because ideas outside norm and stories outside the expected time periods and settings are a harder sell.

You are a Christian but write books aimed at the general market under the pen name Iris Anthony. What is the appeal of the general market for you?

I can investigate all of my ‘why’ questions and wallow around in them for a while. I can portray different time periods exactly as they were, without apology or fear of offending readers’ sensibilities. I feel like I can look for corruption where it’s least expected. I can empathize with villains even when they’re completely and morally wrong. I can find out not only why good people do bad things but also why bad people do good things.

How does your faith influence your general market writing?

I’m still the same me. Back several years ago, I read a general market contemporary that was beautifully written, but completely nihilistic and hopeless. I decided then that whatever I wrote and whomever I wrote it for, my words would always evidence my belief in redemption and grace. Even if my characters don’t reach for it, I always want to hold it out to them.

As you know, I also reviewed Love Comes Calling, your recent Christian historical romance. The Miracle Thief is quite different in setting and style, but has a strong faith thread—perhaps even stronger than that in Love Comes Calling. Why do you think that is? Why is The Miracle Thief targeting the general market, not the Christian market? 

On the spectrum from ‘complicated and brooding’ to ‘light and zany’, The Miracle Thief and Love Comes Calling are at extreme opposite ends of the spectrum. The funny thing is that I wrote them one right after the other! I’ve always been very susceptible to the time periods I’m researching. One of the benefits is that it allows me to write novels that feel true to their setting. But one of the consequences is that I’m constrained by my characters’ culture. I feel like the verbalizations of faith in my stories is that of my characters’, not my own. My own faith comes out in the ideas behind the story and the theme of worth which undergirds them.
The practice of the Christian faith hasn’t come down to us from the apostles without alteration.

The idea of Assurance of Salvation, for example, was blasphemous to America’s Puritan forefathers. We take it for granted, but they worked their fingers and souls to the bone because they were never quite certain they could count on God’s grace to save them. The development of concepts like ‘quiet time’ and ‘daily devotions’ are quite recent. Because of this, the way my characters’ portray their faith doesn’t always resonate with my modern readers. In ages past when preachers were appointed due to their political connections, what kind of sermons were people hearing in church? Probably not ones they’d remember. Perhaps not even sermons that had much to do with the Bible.

Often the political was more important than the spiritual. In Tudor and Elizabethan times, practicing your faith in the ‘wrong’ way could get you killed. To be an outspoken proponent of either the Catholic or the Protestant Church would just make you a target when the next regime came to power. For much of the last millennia, church wasn’t safe. And it wasn’t necessarily Christian.

I also often write about characters in the upper classes of society. As with most people at those levels, they aren’t really in dire need of anything and they aren’t usually in obviously desperate straits. There isn’t, then, the fervent faith that people like immigrants or pioneers or those in tougher physical situations would have had. In the 1920s in the Northeastern United States, where I set Love Comes Calling, the most popular churches in high society were Universalist. It was a very humanistic creed that emphasized doing and giving instead of believing. Where spiritual conversations weren’t common, I find I just can’t write them.

In the Dark Ages, in contrast, God was everywhere and in everything. Everything you did, everything you saw, everything that happened. Faith is so prevalent in The Miracle Thief simply because it was such a part of the world in which my characters lived. The Dark Ages weren’t dark because of the loss of faith. They were dark because of the loss of learning and education and because of the attacks against the former Roman Empire by outside groups.

The Miracle Thief is targeting the general market because of its setting. The era itself hasn’t been used much in novels. The spiritual setting would probably also be an uncomfortable one for some in the Christian market: the Catholic church, the belief in relics, the idea of miracles, and the medieval practices of faith. That said, I do think many of my Siri readers would like it. Its natural fit, however, is really the general market.


  1. Very interesting interview. Thanks Iris and Iola.

  2. Thanks for a thought-provoking interview Iris and Iola. The Miracle Thief sounds really interesting and I appreciate that it's set in an era that hasn't been "done to death". I've added it to my "to read" list. I was fascinated by your comment that miracle books don't sell in the Christian market. Why do you think that is?

    1. I think it's because some Christians believe miracles were for Bible times, not for today, and the publishers don't want to alienate those readers.

    2. Iola, have you read David Bunn's Book of Dreams? I really loved it, but while I was reading it, I thought it might be a bit "out there" for some readers. A shame more of those types of Christian books aren't getting through. It was really thought-provoking.

    3. No, I haven't read that one, Nola. I'll have to look for it.

    4. Hi Iola - I've got a review of it on Goodreads if you're interested.

  3. An absorbing interview--thanks Iola and Iris. Really interesting insights on writing for both the general and Christian market. Well done, Iris, for finding that place of balance in your writing where you can enjoy writing for both markets.

    1. Interesting, wasn't it? I was fascinated by the way the faith elements were weaker in the "Christian" novel.

  4. Thanks, Iola. I've borrowed The Miracle Thief and The Ruins of Lace from the library and am really looking forward to reading them.

    1. I haven't read The Ruins of Lace, but I'll be interested in hearing your opinion - especially on the dog.

  5. Very interesting! Lots to think on that's for sure. I've ordered both books from my library too. Thanks, Iola.

  6. Great interview and discussion about the differences between the Christian market and the general market. I think I'll be adding the Miracle Thief to my to-read list. Thanks Iola and Iris.

    1. Interesting, isn't it?

      Do you find as a fantasy author that you are able to be more overtly Christian in your writing than, say, if you were writing contemporary romance? After all, you get to make up the rules of your world, and those rules can include miracles. As Iris says, regular Christian fiction has to be careful in the way it deals with miracles and acts of God.

  7. Thanks for hosting me today, Iola!

  8. I'm a big Siri Mitchell fan, Iola and look forward to reading Iris Anthony now too.
    Great interview. Thanks Iola and Iris.

  9. Iola and Iris, thanks for your insightful interview. The Miracle Thief sounds like a fascinating read.

  10. I think I'll say say ditto to all that's been said, Iola. VERY interesting from many viewpoints!

  11. Great interview, Iola! Iris's comments about the difference between christian and general markets were very interesting - particularly in regard to the miraculous. Loved her insights on the Dark Age, too. As a christian writer desiring to write fiction for the general market, I'm greatly encouraged.