Daughters of Shadow and Blood: A Historical Reading List

Black Lamb and Grey Falcon by Rebecca WestThe Daughters of Shadow and Blood trilogy is crammed full of real history. Yasamin spans almost two years, from 1599 to 1601. Elena covers several months in the fall of 1689. Elizabeth takes place over a few weeks in the summer of 1878. Also, sprinkled throughout are vignettes from many other time periods. I did tons of research to get everything right. If you find yourself interested at all in the history I talk about, here are some books to get you started:

Black Lamb and Grey Falcon by Rebecca West. Rebecca West was a celebrated British journalist. She wrote this travelogue of Yugoslavia in 1941 when Europe was on the verge of World War II. It’s more than just a travel book, though. West’s masterful prose weaves the history and culture of the former nation into a compelling narriative. Fair warning, though. She does bring her biases. Don’t make this the only book you read on the Balkans.

Lords of the Horizons by Jason Goodwin. This book corrects many of the biases Rebecca West has. It is a short history of the Ottoman Empire with a strong emphasis on the culture of the Ottomans and how it drove them to persist. Goodwin is also the author of a series of detective novels set in Istanbul in the nineteenth century, beginning with The Janissary Tree. His sleuth, Yashim, is unique in that he’s a eunuch.

Osman’s Dream by Caroline Finkel. This is a very detailed, comprehensive history of the Ottoman Empire, from it’s beginnings as a Turkish tribe in central Anatolia through the height of its power, to its downfall shortly after World War I.

The Balkans by Misha Glenny. This book covers more recent history, from 1804 to the present, but it sets up perfectly how the violence and warfare of the late twentieth century came about by showing its roots in earlier conflicts.

Balkan Ghosts by Robert Kaplan. This is another travelogue by a journalist. Kaplan also delves into the roots of the recent strife in the Balkans. Unlike the other writers on this list, he focuses heavily on Romania and the toll of the Communist regime there.

Kosovo: A Short History by Noel Malcolm. The Serbs claim they were in Kosovo first. The Albanians claim they were there first. As Malcolm points out, the truth is somewhat more complicated.

Bosnia: A Short History by Noel Malcolm. Bosnia has always been a crossroads of culture. In this book, Malcolm explores how a place renown for its tolerance and the peaceful coexistence of religions was torn apart by war.

The Raven King by Marcus Tanner. Matthias Corvinus, King of Hungary, amassed the largest library in the Christian world. He also held Vlad the Impaler captive for ten years.

A (Very Brief) Guide to Serbian/Croatian/Bosnian Pronunciation

Serbian Newspaper Politika, 11 April 1913
Serbian Newspaper Politika, 11 April 1913

Daughters of Shadow and Blood – Book I: Yasamin takes place in Eastern Europe, a crossroads of cultures and languages. Much of the present-day action of the novel is set in Bosnia and Herzegovina and Croatia, and there are several characters with Bosnian or Croatian names, including Ibrahim Zorić, Josip Basiljević, his ancestor Sebastijan, and Dom Marin Pavlović. In addition, many of the place names are in Bosnian, Croatian, or Serbian, including Novi Sad, Banja Luka, Lastovo, Dubrovnik, and Medveđa.

Serbian, Bosnian, and Croatian all belong to the South Slavic group of languages. They used to be considered one language, Serbo-Croatian, before the Yugoslav Civil War. Since then, they are considered three separate languages for political reasons, and the speakers of each have taken steps to differentiate their language from the other two, though they are all still mutually intelligible for the most part. Serbian is written with the Serbian Cyrillic alphabet while Croatian and Bosnian are written with the Latin alphabet, but because they all used to be one language, there is a direct one-to-one correspondence between the letters in each.

The letters are pronounced pretty much the same as in English with the exception of the following:

  • c as in the ts in cats
  • č as in the ch in church
  • ć similar to the ch in choose but softer
  • dž as in the j in joke
  • đ similar to the j in juice but softer
  • h as in the ch in Bach
  • j as in the y in yellow
  • lj similar to the lli in million
  • nj similar to the ni in onion
  • š as in the sh in ship
  • ž as in the z in azure

Another fun fact is that r and l can be “vowels” in that they can occur in a syllable by themselves, leading to words like trg (“square”) and vrh (“peak”).


Booking Through Thursday

What’s your favorite book that nobody else has heard of? You know, not Little Women or Huckleberry Finn, not the latest best-seller . . . whether they’ve read them or not, everybody “knows” those books. I’m talking about the best book that, when you tell people that you love it, they go, “Huh? Never heard of it?”

I know I’ve mentioned this book on this blog before, but I have to answer Black Lamb and Grey Falcon by Rebecca West. West, a British novelist and literary critic, traveled through Yugoslavia with her husband in 1938. At bottom, the book is a journal of her experiences, but it is so much more than that. Wherever she goes, she digs into the history of the region to the point where the line between the past and the present begins to blur. She’s also able to relate that history to the history of Yugoslavia as a whole, going back on occasion to the Roman Empire. She weaves everything together so seamlessly that not until the end of the book do you realize that she’s surveyed the entire history of the country.

Her writing is also extremely lyrical, and she paints such vivid pictures of everywhere she goes that it makes me sad that I can’t see a lot of the places (Sarajevo, Kosovo) the way she describes them.

She even manages to work in a little spy mystery as the clock ticks down to World War II, and they encounter sinister agents of Germany and Italy as well as British operatives.

At over 1,100 pages, it’s not a book for the faint of heart. Also, the one criticism I have is that West has some pretty strong biases. She hates Germans and Turks. She loves Serbs. Getting a well-rounded knowledge of the former Yugoslavia has required further reading, but no other book has made me fall in love with a place I’ve never been.