A young woman struggles against the strict social roles of 1910 Albania in Dukes’ debut historical novel.
In the mountain village where Diana Aganis lives with her father, Frenk, and stepmother, Mirlinda, society is governed by an ancient code known as “the Laws of Lekë Dukagjini.” Under the laws, a man’s honor is everything, revenge killings and blood feuds are commonplace, and women are little more than property, like “a sack, made to endure.” Diana has dreamed of escape since she was 5 years old, when a visiting foreign woman’s sketches sparked her interest in art and let her know that feminine existence could be more than drudgery. Luckily, her father encourages her creative endeavors, and they travel to the nearby city of Shkodra to meet a priest who can help her attend art school in Venice. Then Frenk is shot dead in the street, the apparent victim of an honor killing. Diana makes the only choice she can to protect herself and Mirlinda: she becomes a “sworn virgin,” taking a vow of chastity “in order to gain the right to live like a man…inherit property, earn a living, carry a gun, and kill for vengeance”—which she does, after tracking down her father’s killer. Then she falls in love, putting her vow and her life in danger. Overall, Dukes has chosen an engaging setting for this novel, with its mix of medieval and modern elements, and fleshes it out with vivid details, such as the simple meals of goat cheese, cornbread, and yogurt and the elaborate costumes that show clan affiliation and social status with different patterns (“Diana did not recognize the pattern of the braiding, so she was unsure what tribe they came from”). Diana herself is portrayed as plausibly independent-minded without feeling like a feminist anachronism; for example, at one point, she concludes that “Sheep had more freedom [than women], and were less likely to be hit by their owner.”
A compelling story of a woman’s trauma and strength.