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  • The secret ingredient and other observations

     Penina Mandelcorn updated 6 months ago 7 Members · 15 Posts
  • HappiWriter

    May 21, 2020 at 2:16 am

    I’m not perfectly clear on what’s supposed to be discussed in this place so please forgive me if this doesn’t belong.

    Anyways, to all those historical fiction fans out there, I just finished (re)reading The Outcast and The Dark Secrets by M Kenan and as  any writer worth her salt, I can’t help doing an in depth analysis.

    Observation #1 The secret ingredient.
    This is more of a question than a statement. It’s something that’s literally keeping me up at night.
    Let’s face it, there’s something in these books unlike most others.
    Why is it that for weeks after reading this book it’s still ping ponging in my head? Why is it that whoever reads these books, is so eager to discuss it for hours. (LOL, I had a two hour conversation with my sister about the it one Friday night much to the rest of the family’s comic relief) 🙂
    I have some theories about this, and maybe some of you have more ideas.
    Most of my ideas boil down to one thing: characters
    The story isn’t about kings and princes and nobles. It’s about people. People with pumping hearts and burning desires, people, their triumphs and frailties, people with their own interests and perceptions, trying to understand each other but not always succeeding.
    That’s the thing. The people are so real. You can imagine going back in time and meeting them if that was possible.

    Observation #2 How characters should die
    Okay, since whoever’s reading this, read The Dark Secrets ;), I see you all nodding your head. It really doesn’t make sense that Yekavel died.
    IF characters should die is its own topic. What I want to discuss is my opinion on HOW characters can die without causing the readers to bash their books into the wall.
    To be frank, no one cares what happens to the bad guys. The death of good ones on the other hand have to be worked out skillfully so that the readers understand its purpose and see it coming.
    In other words, foreshadowing.
    That’s the major difference between Yekavel’s death (The Dark Secrets) and Abaye’s (The Outcast).
    Abaye was symbolically dead even before The Outcast begins. For most of the story we get the feeling he has a big chance of dying in the end. By the time he is actually killed, the only person the readers hate is his murderer.
    Yekavel on the other hand…
    For three thick volumes we invested in his childish world waiting for the day he’ll turn around. Then when it’s finally happening, when he’s shedding his childish self pity, manning up, wham slam bang, he dies, just like that. Between you and me, the mountain could’ve collapsed a few moments later and everything would have been perfectly fine…
    That’s the thing, because his death is barely hinted at before, it’s so disheartening when it happens.

    These are some of my thoughts. What’s your opinion?

  • Word Warrior

    May 21, 2020 at 1:34 pm

    Oh my gosh, I love the M. Kenan series! She’s a woman, right?


    I think it’s a combination of characters and plot, as well as the history for all historical fiction fans.

    Her world is so real (was it real?? it makes you wonder) and so full of depth that I got pulled straight there. It made me long to be a part of such a noble kingdom.

    I think her characters are great, but some of the good guys are too “good”, think Minram, and some of the bad guys are too bad. Yosef Diaber is the perfect villain and I love Shalvan’s conflict…nah, the bad guys are all right, just some of the good guys are hard to relate to.

    Yekavel’s death was devastating and completely a surprise, he was one of my favorite characters. It’s also sad that his death lies with Ula alone, who doesn’t believe that he became good again. I hope somehow in a future book someone reveals his goodness.

    The plot though- it’s so riveting. The betrayal was by far my favorite. You knew it was coming, but you didn’t see it coming, and omg I loved that book! It was SO good.


    I wonder if some of the content can be made more concise though.


  • HappiWriter

    May 21, 2020 at 3:18 pm

    Yeah, Shalvan is my favorite character. He’s so full of complex depth. It’s fascinating.

    Also, he can easily turn out to be just like his father but instead, he chooses to take the more difficult path to truth.

    You’re right, the most tragic part of Yekavel’s death is the fact that he’s misunderstood until the end…

    About being more concise, on first glance, it would seem you’re correct, but the truth is, every scene adds to the complexity of the plot. The second time you read it, you realize that a lot of the seemingly extraneous scenes contain a lot of clever foreshadowing. Even though the books are really long, on a scene level it’s quite concise. There’s very little “throat clearing” and extra fluff. Sometimes you feel like you want to know more of the backstory. This happens a lot in The Dark Secrets. (My favorite book in the series, btw. It’s the lightest read. Elroan is awesome!!!)

  • Penina Mandelcorn

    May 21, 2020 at 4:47 pm

    Oooh… M. Kenan’s books! I could discuss them all day…and all night, too 🙂
    I was also really upset when I read Dark Secrets for the first time and saw that Yekavel died.
    But thinking about it again…I think there was a thought process behind it.
    Yekavel embodies the lesson that choices – even childish ones – have permanent effects.
    Once he chose to join the band of robbers, he couldn’t just go back to being the prince he was. For a member of the royal family to join the other side, even wearing their uniform, is a betrayal of the kingdom in every sense of the word.
    There’s a similar concept in The Outcast, where Mahalalel is sentenced to death and released at the last moment. Bastian tells him that he could’ve been sentenced to life in prison, instead of going through the whole gallows ceremony, but then ‘the stain would have followed him the rest of his life.’ Apparently, there are some deeds which only death can atone for.

    But yes, I’m still really upset that he had to die!

  • Word Warrior

    May 21, 2020 at 6:05 pm

    Hmm, I’m tempted to reread them now. thought they’re so long and I’m a slow reader- I like to savor every delicious word and read and re-read it until it’s committed to my memory…

  • BatYa

    May 21, 2020 at 10:57 pm

    Hi everyone!

    This is my first post here… (shocker; I’m shy) but this thread has intrigued me enough to reply.

    I actulay read M. Kenan’s books for the first time over Pesach, here in Israel there was no Ami or Binah due to Covid, so I had to borrow books and thankfully came across these.  I read all 3 in a few days, I LOVED them!

    Yekavel was also rolling in my head for a long time, it bothered me that Ula didn’t believe him.  I was so upset for him, till I wasn’t so sure any more.  None of the other (good) characters in the story (think Istrak, Mehalal, or even Shalvan) would’ve behaved like him, they wouldn’t have joined the bandits especialy knowing that they were under Diaber.  They would’ve stood up for what they knew was true and even died for that truth!

    And here is something really personal, it kind of hit a raw nerve in me.  As I mentioned I’m shy, aka, like to go with the flow.  Yekavel was also too meek to actualy remove himself from the situation he found himself in (not to discuss if whether it was his own doing or not.) He preferred to go with the flow and wait for an opportunity to arrive, by the time it did, it was too late!   His end shows us how significant this was.

    I think it has an extremely important message, I very often find myself in such situations, where your brain tells you it’s wrong but your heart doesn’t allow you to act upon it.  As a very basic example,  you are part of a group when conversation steers to loshon hora, nothing drastic, just something you prefer not be part of.  Do you leave or change the subject straight away?  Or do you wait for an opening not wanting to rock the boat or putting too much attention on yourself?


    I also thought a lot about Mehalal, he was the king of ‘The Outcast’ and suddenly in ‘The Dark Secret’ he becomes so weak.  I didn’t need him to take center stage again but he should have shown some more character strength in the third book.

    Just some thoughts…

    Remind me that it’s a writing group, not some introspective workshops.  Hope I didn’t overdo it… that it’s not too heavy.



  • Fayge Y.

    May 21, 2020 at 11:59 pm

    [quote quote=17758]Remind me that it’s a writing group, not some introspective workshops. Hope I didn’t overdo it… that it’s not too heavy.[/quote]


    Just found the quote button, hope I’m doing this right.

    I’ll let our fearless moderator decide if this is acceptable discussion, but meanwhile, I think it’s quite appropriate. There are so many elements that readers appreciate – characters, use of literary devices like foreshadowing, and the rich environments she creates. We have to take the leap of faith that she’s done her historical research so it is realistic, even if only tenuously connected to actual history. (I doubt it’s that big a  leap.)

    Personally, I enjoy a lot of Judaica  genres but I especially enjoy quality historical  fiction.

  • Passionate Pen

    May 24, 2020 at 5:51 am

    Hi! I’m a huge fan of Historical Novels. Your thread about these two books got me very interested.. gonna have to read em! Thx for mentioning. Keep it coming. I am running out of the “really” good ones and need help restocking my stash 🙂

  • riva pomerantz

    May 24, 2020 at 9:10 am

    HappiWriter, I LOVE your ability to analyze and break down the plotline and dig for the secret sauce. This is so helpful, I’m sure, to many of the women here. Maya Keinan is actually my neighbor :-). Yup, she’s a brilliant Israeli chareidi woman who lives one block away from me. I haven’t actually met her face to face but we have emailed back and forth a bit. I am going to ask her if she can come onto the site, even if just in a translated interview (I do not believe she speaks English), and answer some of your questions. My kids DEVOUR her books in the original Hebrew! Her imagination is just phenomenal and, as you said, she can bring you into a totally new world. It seems that she is the paradigm for frum fantasy genre.

    When I was a teenager I loved to challenge myself with trying to imitate the style of a particular author. I did this a lot with O. Henry, whom I worshipped at the time. I will tell you more about that in another post, be”H. It’s a great exercise in building your writing style muscles! Let’s see some M. Keinan lookalikes posted here!

  • HappiWriter

    May 25, 2020 at 1:41 am

    I can’t believe it. M Kenan is a real person! I’m always wondering who she is!!!
    I’d love to hear her secrets…

    Thanks Riva. As I read The Dark Secrets my biggest question is WHY. Why is this story so compelling? Why do I sometimes pause and reread a line just to savor the feeling?

    I feel like I HAVE to know because analyzing other writers is the best way to inject some of their magic into your own writings.

    So I think I have another answer to observation 1:

    The story harps on a certain majesty every human being bears in their heart. Though some may deny it, Kings and princes have a certain compellingness (just made up that word 😉 It gives people a certain feeling…
    Now, combine that with the fact that it’s a Jewish kingdom. That forms another connection. We feel like, if we were in that time period the story could’ve totally happened to us.
    Because we feel that connection, we see ourselves in the characters, the characters’ good traits and bad traits are mirroring our own. We wonder how we would’ve behaved in such situations.

    This is a big element of fiction. With historical fiction it’s even greater. Because the story is not about us but about others in a distant time and place, we can learn about ourselves in a nonthreatening way. With historical fiction, it’s not about us or our society. It’s about them.
    We see this in The Betrayal very clearly as many of the spiritual challenges they faced are the same exact we face today. (LOL, the author probably took our challenges and translated it into that time period.)
    I actually like the scene where Asher talks about the Kawari musician and the way he took a Kawari military song and made it Jewish – exactly what happens today.


    Anyways, as you see, this thread compelled me to read The Betrayal again. Since I already know the plot, I’m kinda reading it in a convoluted order, but something struck out at me.

    Nothing works out as planned.

    Yeah, every single scene has more problems than solutions. When the going is getting to good, another setback gets thrown into the mix.
    Even if a plan does working out in the end, it doesn’t happen without challenging the characters first.
    This takes place even with small things, for example: towards the end, when Istrak seeks Elranan Shefer’s help, instead of simply going to his uncles house, first he has to circle the city for three hours because one of the guards recognize him. Then when he finally gets to see his uncle, he can’t even reveal his identity because Lord Kafchaver is with him.

    The truth is, I struggle with this a lot. I’m a real softy… I feel so bad for my characters. I don’t want to make things hard for them. But a story where everything is peaches and cream is very boring. The harder you make things for your characters, the more readers are interested in seeing how they’ll get out of their many crisis.

    I actually read this in a writing book: Think of the worst case scenario that can happen to your character and make it worse.


  • HappiWriter

    May 25, 2020 at 4:10 pm

    Passionate Pen, it’s totally worth reading.

    Just letting you know, it’s a trilogy. Make sure you read them all in the right order:

    The Betrayal – The Outcast – The Dark Secrets

  • Penina Mandelcorn

    May 25, 2020 at 5:12 pm

    A large part of what I think fascinates us about M. Kenan’s books is the worldbuilding, which
    very few frum authors have ever done.
    She literally created an entire kingdom (make that two!) from scratch, including the language, hierarchy of nobility, armies, flags, and currency.
    To the best of my knowledge, none of this is based on historical fact, as there is almost no information about the real, legendary kingdom of Khazar. (There is a disclaimer in the front of each book saying as much.)
    In truth, the books are better classified under the category of fantasy, as Riva said, than historical fiction. It’s almost like the way we use meshalim (“There was a king and a prince…”) to explore truths in a non-threatening way. The characters are so relatable, and their challenges so real – because they are meant to mirror our lives. And she does a phenomenal job of it!

  • Word Warrior

    May 25, 2020 at 7:02 pm

    Yeah, it’s like a Jewish Harry Potter or Ranger’s Apprentice in that it’s a thrilling world that you just wish you could be a part of!

    I think the challenge I find in writing Jewish fantasy is like, what, am I supposed to make a world where the good guys fight demons or something? But then my audience (the holy Jewish people) would probably want mamrei chazal to source my ideas and like, how do you go out of Hashem’s world and ughhh it gets so confusing

    I think she hit on a niche becuase it COULD have existed, but there’s not gobs of meforshim on it like if you wanted to write about during the Davidic reign, for example, you’d probably have to spend a year researching the whole Navi or you’d offend pretty much everyone.

    But yeah, ranting aside, the books are phenomenal and she really harnessed both the power of the Torah, character, growth, plot twists, good humor and incredible style, and as you said Penina, a grand world!

  • HappiWriter

    May 25, 2020 at 7:21 pm

    This is the biggest challenge of frum writing.

    You can’t simply dream up a crazy idea about aliens in outer space and write it. You need to have a Jewish theme.

    Just wondering, what’s the exact definition of fantasy? I thought fantasy always includes some magical components. Maybe I’m mistaken… These books are very realistic. They don’t have fantastical elements.

  • Penina Mandelcorn

    May 25, 2020 at 10:34 pm

    According to Wikipedia, the definition of fantasy is “a genre of speculative fiction set in a fictional universe…although another defining characteristic of the fantasy genre is the inclusion of supernatural elements…this does not have to be the case.”
    As an aside, if you think of the elements of the stories, there are a lot of classic fantasy tropes – the good kingdom vs. the evil one, the quest to find a mysterious object which can destroy the world (e.g. the medallions and black powder), the hero who discovers powers he didn’t know he had… (think of The Outcast!)
    The only difference is that there’s nothing supernatural about it, which allows it to align better with hashkafic values.

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