Historical Fiction 2013 Challenge Wrap-up

The 2013 Historical Fiction Challenge at Historical Tapestry isn’t officially over until December 31, but since I know I won’t be reading any more historical fiction this year, I’m doing my wrap-up post a little early.

2013 historical fiction

I chose to complete the Ancient History level of this challenge, which required me to read 25 or more books of historical fiction. Any subgenre of HF was welcome, including YA, fantasy, mystery, and romance. Here’s what I read:

  1. Erin Morgenstern, The Night Circus
  2. Larry McMurtry, Lonesome Dove
  3. Phillip Rock, The Passing Bells
  4. Anne Fortier, Juliet
  5. Gail Carriger, Etiquette & Espionage
  6. Kathryn Miller Haines, The Winter of Her Discontent
  7. Hilary Reyl, Lessons in French
  8. Rainbow Rowell, Eleanor & Park
  9. J.J. Murphy, Murder Your Darlings
  10. Patrick deWitt, The Sisters Brothers
  11. Peter Ho Davies, The Welsh Girl
  12. Jude Morgan, A Little Folly
  13. Mary Stewart, The Crystal Cave
  14. Robin LaFevers, Grave Mercy
  15. Sharon Kay Penman, Time and Chance
  16. Marie Brennan, A Natural History of Dragons
  17. Patricia Wynn, The Birth of Blue Satan
  18. Lauren Willig, The Ashford Affair
  19. Dorothy Dunnett, Niccolò Rising
  20. Robin LaFevers, Dark Triumph
  21. Samuel Park, This Burns My Heart
  22. Charles Finch, A Death in the Small Hours
  23. Alexandre Dumas, The Three Musketeers
  24. Stefanie Pintoff, In the Shadow of Gotham
  25. Charles Portis, True Grit
  26. Poul Anderson, A Midsummer Tempest
  27. Lauren Willig, The Passion of the Purple Plumeria
  28. Sharon Kay Penman, Devil’s Brood
  29. Rhys Bowen, Royal Blood
  30. Mary Stewart, The Hollow Hills
  31. Amy Patricia Meade, Million Dollar Baby
  32. Dai Sijie, Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress
  33. Mary Doria Russell, Doc
  34. Mary Stewart, The Last Enchantment
  35. Gail Carriger, Curtsies & Conspiracies
  36. Mary Doria Russell, Dreamers of the Day
  37. Ellis Peters, An Excellent Mystery
  38. Charles Finch, An Old Betrayal
  39. Kate Ross, Whom the Gods Love

Since historical fiction is one of my favorite genres, it was easy for me to complete this challenge. I read books whose settings ranged from the 12th century to the 1980s, and I really enjoyed most of them! Perhaps next year I’ll aim for 40 works of historical fiction. 🙂

Review: Whom the Gods Love

Whom the Gods LoveKate Ross, Whom the Gods Love

Alexander Falkland, one of the darlings of English society, has just been murdered — bashed over the head with a poker in the middle of a party at his own house. The Bow Street Runners are at a loss to discover the killer; after all, who would want to murder a man who was universally liked? When the official investigation goes nowhere, Alexander’s father enlists the help of Regency dandy/sleuth Julian Kestrel. As a man of Alexander’s own social class, Julian has unique access to his friends and associates that the Bow Street Runners could never obtain. Julian agrees to take the case, but he warns Alexander’s father that unpleasant truths might emerge. And indeed, the further Julian digs into Alexander’s life, the more shocking secrets he uncovers, including several motives for murder.

I absolutely loved the first two books in the Julian Kestrel series, and I’m thrilled to be able to say that I loved this one as well! The strength of most mystery series depends on the protagonist, and Julian Kestrel is a wonderful sleuth: intelligent, intuitive, willing to cooperate with the police (a rare trait!), and always impeccably dressed. I also think this book is very well-plotted. Obviously there is more to Alexander Falkland than meets the eye, but the various twists and turns of the plot kept me in suspense until almost the very end of the book. My only problem with the book is that I really liked one particular character who ended up doing a horrible thing in the course of the plot. Because of this, the resolution of the mystery wasn’t completely satisfying for me; but I suppose that’s a testament to the author for making me care so much about that character! In short, I’d definitely recommend this book (and the entire series) to anyone who enjoys mysteries or historical fiction!

Review: An Old Betrayal

An Old BetrayalCharles Finch, An Old Betrayal

***Warning: SPOILERS for previous books in the series!***

Charles Lenox, Victorian gentleman and Member of Parliament, thinks he has left his former life as a detective behind. But when his aristocratic protégé, John Dallington, asks him for help with a prospective client, Charles is eager to lend a hand, leaving his work in the House of Commons behind. Since Dallington is laid up with a bad cold, Charles agrees to meet the prospective client in his place; but before Charles can make contact with the client, a young woman named Grace Ammons, she is scared away by a mysterious man. Eventually Charles learns that Grace has connections to Buckingham Palace, and he suspects a possible plot to steal the priceless items within it. But when the man who frightened Grace Ammons is later found murdered, Charles realizes that the plot against the palace is more shocking and deadly than he ever imagined.

This is the seventh Lenox mystery, and in my opinion, the series is still going strong. One of my biggest complaints about the last couple installments has been the neglect of the secondary characters, but this book gives them a lot more attention. There is a significant subplot involving Charles’ medical friend, Thomas McConnell, and Dallington (my favorite character!) is also prominently featured. I also largely enjoyed how the mystery plot unfolded in this book; unsurprisingly, the murder and the threat to Buckingham Palace turn out to be connected, and there are many clever twists and turns along the way. But I think my favorite aspect of this novel is how it ends: there are a lot of big changes for Lenox and his friends in this book, and in my opinon, they’re changes for the better. I’m really looking forward to seeing where the series goes from here!

Review: An Excellent Mystery

An Excellent MysteryEllis Peters, An Excellent Mystery

In the summer of A.D. 1141, two Benedictine brothers seek refuge at the Abbey of Saints Peter and Paul in Shrewsbury. They have fled the city of Winchester, where their former abbey has gone up in flames, a casualty of the civil war between King Stephen and Empress Maud that still rages on. The older of the two refugees, Brother Humilis, is obviously a nobleman — and just as obviously dying from a mortal wound sustained many years ago in the Crusades. The younger man, Brother Fidelis, is mute, but he tends his fellow traveler with astonishing devotion. Brother Cadfael, due to his knowledge of herbs and their healing properties, spends a lot of time with these two brothers and eventually discovers that there is more to their story than meets the eye. Meanwhile, Cadfael also investigates the disappearance of a beautiful young woman who intended to become a nun but never arrived at her convent.

This book is the eleventh installment of the Cadfael series, but I think it can largely function as a stand-alone; newcomers to the series wouldn’t get lost if they jumped in here, though I still recommend starting with A Morbid Taste for Bones. These books are always comfort reads for me. I love the historical setting of a medieval monastery, and I enjoy seeing how Cadfael’s small world is affected by larger historical events. I also like the fact that these mysteries are firmly on the “cozy” end of the spectrum; there is often murder, but it’s never grisly, and there’s also romance and humor and a lot of lovely descriptions of monastic life. As for this book in particular, I definitely enjoyed it, but I’m pretty sure I read something about the solution to the mystery ahead of time, because it definitely didn’t surprise me. In fact, I think the resolution is fairly predictable even if you haven’t been spoiled. However, I still liked this book a lot and look forward to the next installment of the Cadfael series!

Review: Dreamers of the Day

Dreamers of the DayMary Doria Russell, Dreamers of the Day

This novel, set in the early 20th century, is narrated by Agnes Shanklin, a schoolteacher who has spent her entire life caring for her domineering mother. But when the influenza pandemic of 1918 carries off most of her family, including Mumma, Agnes finds herself unexpectedly inheriting a substantial sum of money. Though she is grieved by the multiple deaths in her family, she is also finally free from Mumma’s influence. Impulsively, she decides to see the world and books a trip to Egypt. There she meets several prominent British officers and diplomats, who are in Cairo to come to an agreement on Middle Eastern policy. Agnes is drawn into their social circle and mingles with the likes of Winston Churchill and Thomas Edward Lawrence, now famously known as “Lawrence of Arabia.” She also meets a German called Karl Weilbacher, who is handsome, kind, and attentive, but may not be all that he seems. Ultimately, the people Agnes meets and events she witnesses in Egypt will have a profound effect on the rest of her life.

After finally reading and loving Doc, I was eager to try another book by Mary Doria Russell. This one was very readable, and the insights into the Cairo Conference of 1921 were fascinating. It’s a historical event that still has obvious ramifications for our world today, covering issues such as a Jewish homeland in Palestine, the territorial boundaries of new nations like Iraq, and the amount of influence Western countries should continue to have in the Middle East. I enjoyed Russell’s depictions of real historical figures in this book, particularly Churchill, wo made me laugh even at his most exasperating. I didn’t like this novel nearly as much as Doc, however, mostly because I found it too preachy. Agnes is an extremely opinionated character, and due to a strange framing device in the novel, she narrates from a quasi-omniscient perspective. Because of this, she judges the events of her time from a 21st-century point of view, which I find very irritating in historical novels. And since Western involvement in the Middle East is still a very complex and controversial issue, I didn’t appreciate Agnes’ more simplistic perspective. But even though this aspect of the book rubbed me the wrong way, I think it’s still worth a read for people interested in the time period or in the creation of the modern Middle East.

Review: Curtsies & Conspiracies

Curtsies and ConspiraciesGail Carriger, Curtsies & Conspiracies

After the events of Etiquette & Espionage, Miss Sophronia Temminick is back at Mademoiselle Geraldine’s finishing school, where young ladies learn to finish…anyone or anything. Sophronia learns that she has received top marks in her espionage classes, which causes resentment among the other students, even her close friends. Meanwhile, she discovers more information about the crystalline valve prototype that caused so much trouble in the previous book. While she tries to learn more about the valve’s purpose, it quickly becomes evident that she’s not the only interested party — and that her best friend Dimity might be in danger because of it. While Sophronia attempts to put her clandestine skills to good use, she must also cope with the arrival of boys from a rival academy — including one who flirts with her most scandalously! Will Sophronia be able to protect her friend and solve the mystery, all while trying to listen to her confused heart?

This second book in Carriger’s Finishing School series is another fun Victorian romp with steampunk trappings. The world of these books is fascinating and very entertaining, with its steam-powered “mechanimals” and rules of supernatural etiquette. This book even furnishes a few specific alternate-universe facts, such as that the telegraph was introduced a few years ago but failed dismally. These tidbits help to anchor the novel’s plot a bit more in reality, which is important because most of it is so entirely silly! If you’re not familiar with Carriger’s schtick, be prepared for a lot of riduculous names and pseudo-British witticisms. I personally enjoy the silliness, but your mileage may vary. I also quite like Sophronia, a delightfully practical, self-assured heroine who doesn’t let little things like rules or restrictions prevent her from satisfying her curiosity. My only complaint is that I’m still very confused about the valve and the various parties involved. No one’s motives are clear yet, which makes it hard to know whether Sophronia is doing a good job or not. But I’m still definitely planning to continue with the series to find out!

Review: The Last Enchantment

The Last EnchantmentMary Stewart, The Last Enchantment

This third book in Stewart’s Merlin saga picks up right where The Hollow Hills left off: Arthur has just been crowned High King of Britain, and now he must confront the various threats to his kingdom. He immediately engages in battle with the Saxons and attains victory after victory, but the more serious dangers to Arthur’s kingship come from within. First, Morgause has managed to hide away Mordred, the son she conceived during her incestuous liaison with Arthur, who will ultimately be Arthur’s doom. There’s also the necessity of ensuring the succession, which means Arthur must find a bride. And finally, some of the northern kings are chafing under Arthur’s rule, so he faces internal rebellions as well as external threats. Through all of this, Merlin remains by Arthur’s side to give him advice, friendship, and the occasional prophecy.

My biggest feeling on finishing this book is one of relief — I’m finally done with this trilogy! (Yes, there is a fourth book, The Wicked Day, but I don’t own that one and have no intention of reading it.) It’s not badly written at all, but it moves so slowly that I couldn’t wait to be done! I think the pitfall of telling Arthur’s story from Merlin’s point of view is that (at least in this version of events) Merlin likes to go off by himself to read or tend his garden or visit foreign lands, so he’s not by Arthur’s side during all the interesting parts. There’s almost nothing in this book about Arthur’s knights, or his relationship with Guinevere, or most of the famous legends of Camelot. In short, I found this book — and the series as a whole — pretty boring, although maybe Arthur enthusiasts would enjoy it more. Personally, it’s not something I ever need to read again.

Review: Doc

DocMary Doria Russell, Doc

This is a novel about the legendary Doc Holliday, known to history for his involvement in the infamous Gunfight at the O.K. Corral in Tombstone, Arizona. But this book isn’t about that particular historical event; rather, it’s about who Doc Holliday really was, or at least who he might have been. It starts with John Henry Holliday’s childhood in Georgia: how he survived the aftermath of the Civil War and Sherman’s march; how he loved music and the finer things in life; and how he was profoundly affected by his mother’s death. It describes how he became ill with the disease that eventually killed him, and how his health forced him to seek a more arid climate out West. Finally, it depicts his life in Dodge City, Kansas, and the friendships and relationships he formed there, particularly with Kate Harony — an educated, passionate, and temperamental whore — and with a taciturn lawman named Wyatt Earp.

Historical fiction is one of my favorite genres, and this book is a perfect example of why. It brings the Wild West to life in an extremely vivid way, particularly the struggles of a frontier town in an era where the law offered very little protection to its citizens. I was fascinated by the political machinations at work in Dodge, where social issues like prostitution and Prohibition were intimately entangled with the local economy, and where political elections were often decided over a hand of cards. The characters in this book are as well-depicted as the setting: I felt like I truly got to know Doc and Wyatt, what made them tick, and how they managed to rise above their time while also being defined by it. They are both admirable characters, but Russell doesn’t shy away from describing their very real flaws. Overall, this book transported me to another time, and I absolutely loved it. Definitely one of my top reads of the year!

Review: Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress

Balzac and the Little Chinese SeamstressDai Sijie, Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress (trans. Ina Rilke)

This slight novel tells the story of two young Chinese men who are sent to a remote mountain village to be “re-educated” during the cultural revolution of the 1970s. Both youths are talented individuals; the unnamed narrator plays the violin, and his best friend Luo is a master storyteller. Despite these gifts, however, they soon feel oppressed by the overwhelming boredom of their new lives, where they are forced to perform manual labor from dawn to dusk. But two unexpected events soon occur, changing the course of their lives forever: they discover a hidden cache of Western classics translated into Chinese, and they meet a beautiful young seamstress who steals both their hearts.

This is a very short book, and it honestly felt more like a tableau than a novel to me. The setting is described vividly with meticulous prose, but nothing much happens. I think I was expecting the book to be more overtly political, since the author was himself “re-educated” during this time period and ended up leaving China for France. But while the cultural revolution certainly isn’t praised, the boys’ lives aren’t portrayed in a particularly negative light either. Also, their exposure to Western culture isn’t always a good thing; in fact, their relationship with the seamstress is irrevocably altered by her exposure to European literature. So I was very interested by the ambiguities in the novel, but the plot and characters didn’t particularly grip me. I’d like to read another novel (or nonfiction work) about this time period, which seems like it would be rich in dramatic material.

Review: Million Dollar Baby

Million Dollar BabyAmy Patricia Meade, Million Dollar Baby

Marjorie McClelland is a mildly successful mystery novelist trying to make ends meet during the Great Depression. Creighton Ashcroft is a wealthy Englishman who has recently purchased the grandest estate in Marjorie’s town. Though they come from two different worlds, Creighton is immediately attracted to the author and offers to help her with her latest book. Marjorie accepts his help, and they soon settle into a daily routine, which is shockingly interrupted by the discovery of a skeleton on Creighton’s property. Creighton and Marjorie call the police immediately, but Creighton regrets this action when the extremely handsome lead detective appears on the scene and competes for Marjorie’s attention. Can this trio of detectives discover what happened to the dead person? And will Creighton be able to win Marjorie’s heart away from his attractive rival?

Being a fan of the classic country house mystery, I was excited to read this book, which is first in a series set in 1930s New England. Unfortunately, I just wasn’t impressed by the writing style. The dialogue was awkward and clumsy, and there was too much “showing” rather than “telling.” I was also annoyed by the rapid shift in Creighton and Marjorie’s relationship; at first, he seems to be merely attracted to her, but about halfway through the book he suddenly feels deep and lasting love. I found the change very abrupt, and I couldn’t figure out why he was so interested in her after a few superficial conversations. I do think the setup of the series is interesting and unique — it’s not every day you have three sleuths embroiled in a love triangle while they attempt to solve crimes! However, the execution just wasn’t good enough for me to continue with the series.