Category Archives: Fiction — historical

Niccolo Rising, by Dorothy Dunnett

niccoloSo I’ve plunged into Dorothy Dunnett’s other historical fiction series, after getting completely absorbed in her Lymond Chronicles last year. This series, The House of Niccolo, is set more than a century earlier than Lymond’s Scottish adventures. It begins in mid-fifteenth-century Bruges, where the titular Niccolo (not yet called Niccolo) is an apprentice in a dye-shop. He seems innocent, happy-go-lucky, perhaps a bit simple-minded. But as the scenes unfold, it becomes clear to the reader that there’s a lot more to young Nicholas than meets the eye. Not only is he brilliant, he may also be a schemer — less the hapless victim of events that he appears to be, and more the mastermind behind them.

Exactly what Nicholas is, and what game he’s playing, is not fully revealed even at the end of the novel. In reading this book my expectations were shaped by the Lymond books. In the first of that series, A Game of Kings, the reader is also, initially, deceived about the main character. Lymond appears to be the villain of the piece, and is seen that way by most of the characters: his heroism is only gradually revealed, and not till the end of the novel is it made clear exactly what he’s been doing and what his motivations are, at which point we see a lot of his earlier actions in a different light.

Knowing that  Dorothy Dunnett was a writer who packed her scenes densely with detail, gave little away, and expected her readers to be smart and follow closely, I wasn’t as lost and confused with Niccolo Rising as I was with the first Lymond book. I trusted that by the end, all would be revealed and my misunderstandings would be cleared up. But Niccolo Rising is a less self-contained novel than A Game of Kings; Dunnett fans tell me that when she wrote this one she was well aware that she was at the beginning of a long series, and left many secrets to be gradually uncovered in the next seven books. 

So if I need to read all eight books to understand what I need to know about Nicholas/Niccolo, so be it. In the company of a writer as skilful as Dunnett, who can make the past come so vividly to life you could swear she was a time-traveller, I plan to settle in and enjoy the ride.

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Teaching Eliza, by Riana Everly

teachingelizaSo I’m more or less of a Jane Austen fan, but I’m not that kind of hardcore Jane Austen fan who doesn’t appreciate other writers playing around with Austen’s material. My favourite riffs on Pride and Prejudice in recent years have been Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, which I thought was genuinely fun and original; the novel Longbourn which I thought was a wonderful behind-the-scenes imagining of the unseen life of servants in the novel, and the YouTube series The Lizzie Bennet Diaries, a modern re-imagining with which I fell passionately in love.

A rabbit-hole I had not fallen into, until first-time author Riana Everly (with whom I am somewhat internet-acquainted) released Teaching Eliza, is the world of Austen fan-fiction in which myriad authors re-imagine Austen’s stories. Some of these re-imaginings include mash-ups with other stories, as in this novel, where Pride and Prejudice meets Pygmalion/My Fair Lady, with surprisingly enjoyable results.

When you think about it, the idea’s not so far-fetched. (Indeed, if you inhabit the subculture of Austen fanfic, it’s not far-fetched at all — it’s apparently such an obvious combination that two books with different approaches to the same basic idea came out this fall). The tension in both stories grows out of the attraction between an arrogant man who considers himself superior, and a strong-willed young woman whose natural intelligence and wit compensate for the shortcomings of her background. In Teaching Eliza, Everly imagines Elizabeth Bennett and Fitzwilliam Darcy much as they are in Pride and Prejudice, but with the added My Fair Lady twist that Darcy is also a professor of linguistics who considers himself an expert on regional accents and gives private elocution lessons to those who wish to rise in society without their accents betraying them. Elizabeth, offered the chance of a London season, wishes to refine her country accent so she will be accepted into London society. She and Darcy strike a bargain that appears mutually agreeable — but will, of course, bring them into close enough proximity to strike sparks!

Teaching Eliza is true both to the spirit of Pride and Prejudice and My Fair Lady, blending both stories well while adding some original elements (including some character pairings that are more satisfying than Austen’s originals, if perhaps not as completely true to the time period). It’s also a witty and enjoyable Regency romance in its own right, and shows off the talents of a debut writer with tremendous potential. If you’re looking for a historical romance that’s sharp, well-written, and pays homage to two great works while still offering something fresh and new, pick up a copy of Teaching Eliza.

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A Gentleman in Moscow, by Amor Towles

gentlemaninmoscowImagine a book set against the backdrop of some of the most dramatic and exciting events in history — from the Russian Revolution, through the era of Stalin’s iron rule, the Second World War, and the power struggles that followed Stalin’s death — told from the perspective of a man who observes it all without ever being able to leave a single building. This is a fascinating point of view from which to explore several tumultuous decades in Russian history.

The titular gentleman in Moscow is Count Alexander Rostov, sentenced in 1922 not to death or exile but rather to house arrest in a grand hotel. As an aristocratic young man who had the world at his feet before the revolution, Alexander suddenly finds his world restricted to the (admittedly luxurious) walls of the hotel. For the next three decades he lives there, moving down the social scale from honoured guest, to prisoner, to hotel staff. Yet as his world becomes narrower, he immerses himself in relationships with those around him and becomes a keen observer of the changing world in which he can no longer move about freely. This book took me awhile to get into, but I found it rich and rewarding once I was drawn into Alexander Rostov’s life and the world of the hotel.

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The Essex Serpent, by Sarah Perry

essexserpentThis book reminded me a bit of The Lie Tree, which I read and liked last year — although this is a novel for adults and The Lie Tree was a YA novel. Both novels are set in Victorian England, in that era that Matthew Arnold describes so well in the poem “Dover Beach,” when

The Sea of Faith 
Was once, too, at the full, and round earth’s shore 
Lay like the folds of a bright girdle furled. 
But now I only hear 
Its melancholy, long, withdrawing roar, 
Retreating, to the breath 
Of the night-wind, down the vast edges drear 
And naked shingles of the world. 
 
With Darwin’s theories of evolution and other scientific discoveries shattering long-held beliefs and certainties, the Victorians lived in a world of uncertainty and doubt that seems more familiar than we might expect, out here on the teetering edge of this new century. Sarah Perry’s main characters are the recently widowed Cora Seaborne, a woman fascinated by scientific discovery and chafing at the restrictions her society places on a woman’s mind, and clergyman Will Ransome, a rational man who believes that his Anglican faith can blend seamlessly with the new science.
 
When word comes that a mysterious sea-serpent has been sighted in the waters near Will’s parish, he is angry at the superstitious response of the villagers. Cora, meanwhile, coming to the village from outside, is fascinated, sure she is about to be  present for the discovery of a new species, that she will finally have a role in advancing human knowledge and a make her own name as a woman scientist. (There’s a nice shout-out here to Newfoundland’s giant squid, which had been believed to be a mythical creature until clergyman Moses Harvey photographed one in 1874. I’ve often visited the preserved remains of a more recent giant squid at our provincial museum; the giant squid’s mention in this novel is a reminder that in the Victorian era, science was peeling back the layers of mystery and mythology — and, for some, removing religious faith as well).
Despite their differences, Will and Cora are drawn to each other – but this is no simple opposites-attract love story. Will is married to his adored Stella and they have a family; Cora is pursued by the doctor who attended her husband in his illness, and adored by her devoted servant Martha. The secondary characters, their passions and obsessions, their web of interrelationships, are as carefully and lovingly drawn as main characters Will and Cora. I found this an absorbing and fascinating novel.

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Lincoln in the Bardo, by George Saunders

lincolnIt’s an interesting reading summer when Lincoln in the Bardo is not the first, but the second, highly experimental, postmodern novel about a famous American president I’ve read (the other one being, of course, Thomas Jefferson Dreams of Sally Hemings). Lincoln in the Bardo landed on my to-read list after numerous recommendations from trusted sources. I found it slow to get into, a novel I resisted being drawn in by at first, but ended up loving it and being deeply moved by it.

Lincoln in the Bardo takes places in the hours and days immediately following the death of Abraham Lincoln’s young son Willie. The “bardo” of the title is a Tibetan Buddhist concept of the afterlife, not entirely unlike some conceptions of Purgatory in Christian imagining — not a place of either torment or reward, but a kind of limbo, a waiting-room on the way to whatever the afterlife holds. Souls who don’t or can’t or won’t move on to another plane of existence are stranded in this state, hanging around the graveyard in denial about the fact that they’re actually dead, clinging to this life with its passions and hopes instead of moving forward. It’s this chorus of the only-mostly-dead who narrate and comment, in a variety of voices, on the newly arrived Lincoln boy and the intense, stormy grief of the father who comes to visit his son’s body.

There’s so much going on here it’s hard to explain it all, even though in some ways the scope of the story is quite narrow. The part that I struggled with was not the scenes of the dead speaking in their various voices from beyond the grave — I had no trouble accepting that as a narrative device. Rather, I had trouble with the expository chapters sprinkled in between, where another plethora of voices narrates and comments upon what’s happening in the “real world.”

These historical accounts — usually only a sentence or two from each — are drawn from eyewitnesses and later chroniclers, describing Willie Lincoln’s death in the White House, President Lincoln’s response to it, the state of the American Civil War at the time, etc. These snippets of historical voices are placed next to one another, sometimes complementing and often directly contradicting each other, echoing the technique of the graveyard voices and reminding us that eyewitness accounts can disagree with each other even over something as basic as the colour of Abraham Lincoln’s eyes or the phase of the moon on the night Willie died. It’s a wonderful, fascinating technique that makes us call history into question, and Saunders handles it as well as he handles everything else in the book.

But. But. BUT.

There’s a big but. And I understand it and I get why he did but I still struggled with it, and it kept me from fully immersing in the book for quite awhile. These “historical sources” that populate the expository, real-world chapters — most of them actually are historical, drawn from historians’ books as well as various contemporary accounts of the events. But a substantial number — less than half, but more than a quarter, I’d estimate — are wholly made up by Saunders, and there’s no distinction made in the way he credits and cites them — the made-up sources look just as real as the real ones, and I was only able to figure out which was which by googling (which of course I did because, have you met me?).

Again, I 100% understand from a literary point of view what Saunders is doing here. He’s playing around with our perceptions of truth, history, story. He’s telling a “historical” story and turning it into “fiction,” but taking away the sheen of verisimilitude that makes “historical fiction” (including the kind I write) feel like a transparent glimpse into history when in fact it’s not. Saunders forces us to question our definitions of both “history” and “fiction” at every turn. Here’s a historical event, narrated by a chorus of fictional characters who aren’t even “real” within the fictional confines of the story — they’re dead and trapped in a mythological afterlife. Then there are these supposedly reliable expository chapters in between, where we should be able to count on objective, dispassionate voices — but not only do these contradict and argue with one another, but some of them are fictional as well, and we can’t tell which ones! It’s a brilliant and at the same time a frustrating technique. Even as I admired it, I struggled with it.

My copy of Lincoln in the Bardo was a library copy (I read mostly e-books, but the structure of this one seemed better fitted to reading on paper) and I’ll be honest: if I’d been reading a copy I owned myself, I would have gotten little sticky-tab circles and colour-coded the historical snippets to indicate to myself which were fictional and which were real. I know that doing that would have undermined the whole point Saunders was making about the unreliability of history, but I would have done it anyway, but I am just that obsessed with “facts” and correctly citing your sources. We are what we are.

Anyway, all this to say that I both admired and struggled with the writer’s technique for the first half of the book, and then I just gave up and accepted it and allowed myself to fall into it. It’s a beautiful meditation on grief, loss, life and death, and once I let the book be what it was, it almost made me cry. The juxtaposition of Lincoln’s grief over his son’s death, with the grief of an entire country over the deaths of its young men in war — a war that Lincoln knows most people hold him responsible for — is powerful. But just as powerful are the personal vignettes of the struggling graveyard characters — people who, for one reason or another, cannot let go of their regrets, their dreams, the hopes for the lives they were supposed to have lived, and the unfinished business they left behind. Letting go of that vision is essential to their ability to move on, and this is why I guess Saunders chose a Buddhist word to describe this afterlife, since letting go — detachment — is so closely associated with Buddhist thought. (Although I would argue it’s there in some sense in all religions, and maybe all sane systems of thought — certainly it’s there in Christianity, whose founder told us we must lose our lives in order to gain them).

As one ghost after another struggles to let go of the old life and move forward into the unknown beyond, the one living man in their midst — Abraham Lincoln — has to let go of the son he dreamed of raising to adulthood, and move back into his own world of the living, in which he holds the the fate of thousands of other men’s sons in his hands.

This is an incredible, powerful, infuriating, challenging and ultimately fulfilling book. I’m so glad I read it.

Still haven’t completely let go of the idea of those little stickers, though. 

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The Songs of Willow Frost, by Jamie Ford

willowfrostI very much enjoyed Jamie Ford’s first novel, Hotel at the Corner of Bitter and Sweet, so I had relatively high expectations for this book. Once again, Asian-American author Ford brings us into a little-known corner of American immigrant history. This time, it’s the Chinese community in 1920s and 30s Seattle, and the involvement of Chinese musicians and actors in the entertainment world — in opera, music halls, and eventually in the nascent film industry, before Hollywood became the centre of the American film world.

Another world we get to glimpse in this novel is that of orphanages in the period. The main character, William, is a 12-year-old Chinese boy grows up in a Roman Catholic orphanage, not knowing for sure whether his parents are dead or have abandoned him. (The fact that most orphans of the time were not in fact orphans, but children whose parents gave them up because they could not afford to raise them, is very well explored here). He comes to believe that the Chinese movie star Willow Frost is actually his mother, and sets out on a quest to find her.

While it’s clear that Ford has done his research and the glimpses of history we get in this novel are fascinating, the book didn’t connect with me emotionally as well as I’d hoped. I certainly found it enjoyable, but something about the way he wrote kept me at an emotional distance from both William and Willow, unable to full feel the terrible experiences that they go through. For this reason I’ll have to mentally file this book under “liked it but didn’t love it,” but I certainly learned things I didn’t know before about the places and time period, which is valuable in and of itself.

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The Murder of Mary Russell, by Laurie R. King

maryrussellOther than having a deliberately misleading title (Mary Russell’s the hero of the series — she obviously isn’t murdered in this book, but is it about an apparent murder of our Fearless Heroine, or is it about Mary Russell murdering someone else? The ambiguity is not accidental), this is another good addition to King’s series about the intrepid Mary Russell and her May/December marriage to an aging Sherlock Holmes. What the novel really is, regardless of whether Mary apparently gets murdered or murders anyone, is “The Backstory of Mrs. Hudson.”

As in the original Conan Doyle novels, Mrs. Hudson is Holmes’s landlady at Baker Street; in the Russell/Holmes series, she has followed Holmes into retirement in Sussex where she serves as his housekeepeer. She is also something of a maternal figure to Russell, who was taken in by the kindly Mrs. Hudson when she was a teenager, so when a mysterious stranger shows up with a possible threat to Mrs. Hudson several years later, it’s not surprising that Mary swings into action to protect the older woman.

Most of the story unfolds through flashbacks into Clara/Clarissa Hudson’s early life, tying together threads from two Conan Doyle short stories and weaving them into the Holmes/Russell canon. The short stories contain characters named Hudson with no suggestion that they are related or connected to Holmes’s Mrs. Hudson. But in King’s retelling, they are all connected, and the backstory adds layers not only to Mrs. Hudson but to her long relationship with the great detective, explaining why she has stood by him so faithfully for so many years.

Sandwiched in between some heavier books I’ve been reading over the summer, this was a great, light diversion, and a worthy addition to the extra-Doyle Holmes cannon, as are all the Laurie King books.

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