Blood Water Paint by Joy McCullough
A debut novel based on the true story of the iconic painter, Artemisia Gentileschi.
Her mother died when she was twelve, and suddenly Artemisia Gentileschi had a stark choice: a life as a nun in a convent or a life grinding pigment for her father’s paint.
She chose paint.
By the time she was seventeen, Artemisia did more than grind pigment. She was one of Rome’s most talented painters, even if no one knew her name. But Rome in 1610 was a city where men took what they wanted from women, and in the aftermath of rape Artemisia faced another terrible choice: a life of silence or a life of truth, no matter the cost.
He will not consume
my every thought.
I am a painter.
I will paint.
I will show you
what a woman can do
Blood Water Paint is the story of a young woman fighting for her right to be heard. Artemisia Gentileschi—an Italian painter who lived from 1593 to c. 1656—has been working for her father since her mother died, making paints and also secretly doing the bulk of the artistic work for which her father takes credit. When Artemisia is raped in her own home by a respected male painter, she finds her family, community members, and judicial system unsupportive. Yet she chooses to endure a brutal and unjust trial in order to shed light on the crime.
Blood Water Paint is, on an emotional level, hard to read. Yet it compels the reader forward with its heartbreaking honesty. The novel is a bleak portrayal of the harsh realities of life for a woman in 17th century Italy–and, by extension, of life for oppressed women throughout history. Artemisia’s strength, however, lends it a sense of hope.
McCullough’s words paint a picture worthy of the Baroque art that dominates Artemisia’s world. Though this is a novel in verse, the language is so lush that the pages feel full. Interspersed throughout are brief prose segments of Old Testament stories told to Artemisia by her deceased mother, which shed light on Artemisia’s artistic inspiration and her feminist spirit. As the injustices done to Artemisia multiply, the story careens toward an ending that the reader will be eager to meet even though it is far from guaranteed to be a happy one.
I only had one reservation about this book, and that is finding its audience. It’s gritty realistic historical fiction in 17th century Rome, written in ornate verse. There is no action, humor, or romance—common elements that draw teen readers. Most notably, the book forces its reader to confront the realities of rape, violence, and the systematic oppression of women. This is extremely important reading, but it is not “fun” reading. That limits its audience among high schoolers managing to squeeze in some free reading time between school assignments. Teens who read this will find this book engaging and eviscerating, and will come out of it better people. The trick will be incentivizing them to start reading it in the first place. It would be perfect for a book discussion, book report, or literature circle.
Library staff should hand-sell this to readers they feel are ready for complex texts that will challenge them to think about big and uncomfortable issues. It’s a great choice for “smart young feminists” (to lift a line from my mentor Becca Boland.) Due to the content, it is appropriate to give potential readers a trigger warning. The book may reach more readers if it’s promoted to teachers and to students working on school reading assignments. Once they decide to read it, it is likely to enthrall most readers with the reading and comprehension level to appreciate its depth and beauty.
The Minister’s Daughter by Julie Hearn
Da Vinci’s Tiger by Laura Elliott
The Smile by Donna Jo Napoli
An Assassin’s Guide to Love and Treason by Virginia Boecker
When Lady Katherine’s father is killed for being an illegally practicing Catholic, she discovers treason wasn’t the only secret he’s been hiding: he was also involved in a murder plot against the reigning Queen Elizabeth I. With nothing left to lose, Katherine disguises herself as a boy and travels to London to fulfill her father’s mission, and to take it one step further–kill the queen herself.
Katherine’s opportunity comes in the form of William Shakespeare’s newest play, which is to be performed in front of Her Majesty. But what she doesn’t know is that the play is not just a play–it’s a plot to root out insurrectionists and destroy the rebellion once and for all.
The mastermind behind this ruse is Toby Ellis, a young spy for the queen with secrets of his own. When Toby and Katherine are cast opposite each other as the play’s leads, they find themselves inexplicably drawn to one another. But the closer they grow, the more precarious their positions become. And soon they learn that star-crossed love, mistaken identity, and betrayal are far more dangerous off the stage than on
In the year 1601, Lady Katherine Arundell’s father is killed by order of Queen Elizabeth for illegally practicing Catholicism. As retribution, Katherine travels to London and takes her father’s place in a planned assassination of the queen. Meanwhile, Toby Ellis makes his living as a spy for the Queen, although what he’d really like to do is be a writer. Toby concocts a plan to draw unknowing Catholic assassins to participate in a performance of the Shakespeare play Twelfth Night in front of the queen, in order to catch them in the act. Katherine and her cohorts fall for it. She dresses as a boy called Kit and snags the role of Viola in the play. (The character of Viola, coincidently, is also a woman who dresses as a man.) While Kit secretly plots the assassination and Toby secretly plots to foil the assassination, the two of them, not knowing one another is involved, fall in love.
A highlight of this book is its treatment of Toby’s bisexuality. The trope of a woman dressing as a man and then falling for a man usually involves homosexual erasure: the man likes the disguised woman only as a friend until it is revealed that she is female, then—poof!—it becomes a romantic relationship. An Assassin’s Guide is more honest: Toby likes both men and women, and is sexually attracted to Kit when he thinks she’s male. When he finds out she’s female, he has to rearrange his perception of her and decide if he is still interested in her. Add in the fact that homosexual activity is punishable by death in his society, and the drama escalates. It’s intriguing, and addressing it affirms the bisexual identity.
The relationship between Kit and Toby is what keeps the plot moving forward. The pacing is a bit uneven at times, and it is surprisingly light on action for a novel about spies and assassins. The story particularly loses steam near the end, with a too-long climax and a too-short denouement. Throughout the story Katherine gains a great deal of agency, but the ending doesn’t do justice to her character growth up to that point. The story takes place almost entirely in a London that feels rough-and-tumble, but also a little magical. It’s historical fiction that doesn’t take itself too seriously, and the result is a modern flair. Though the plot has its weaknesses, it’s made up for by strong world-building and woven-in social commentary on gender, sexuality, and religion.
Fans of romance, especially LGBT romance, will find plenty to swoon over in An Assassin’s Guide. Fans of Shakespeare and Elizabethan England will undoubtedly enjoy Boecker’s take on this era, and on the characters of Shakespeare and Queen Elizabeth themselves. A few f-words and some sexual situations may turn off those sensitive to mature content. Overall, the book is fun and different, and should please avid readers looking for something fresh. At the same time, it resembles our modern reality enough that casual readers should be able to easily jump in.
The Gentleman’s Guide to Vice and Virtue by Mackenzi Lee
My Lady Jane by Cynthia Hand, Brodi Ashton, & Jodi Meadows
The Winner: Blood Water Paint by Joy McCullough
Reading an emotionally challenging title like Blood Water Paint is an exercise in compassion and understanding. Books like this draw attention to issues—in this case, rape and oppression of women—that a reader may feel uncomfortable thinking about, but that deserve deep reflection. But despite causing discomfort, the book draws the reader in. It manages to be painful and enthralling and elucidating toward important societal and humanitarian issues all at the same time, and that is nothing short of a marvel.
An Assassin’s Guide to Love and Treason is fresh and fun. It has its flaws, but overall, it’s a blast to read. I can think of many teens who would like it. Figuring out who to recommend Blood Water Paint to is a more complex and difficult question. Yet Blood Water Paint is sure to affect the reader on a deeper and more powerful level than An Assassin’s Guide. In this case, I felt compelled to place quality over mass appeal. An Assassin’s Guide is fun, but it is one of many fun YA books. Blood Water Paint is gripping, horrifying, and inspiring. It pushes its reader to see the darkest side of humanity, and makes us feel the devastating results along with Artemisia. You close the book breathless, enlightened, and ready to stand up to injustice. Blood Water Paint is a book that, once read, will remain with the reader forever.
Kylie Peters is the Middle School Services Librarian at Geneva Public Library. She is passionate about building relationships and community, social justice, comics, middle school literature, gaming, technology, and reader’s advisory. She writes about middle school literature at http://www.flashlightchronicles.com.