Tag Archives: historical fiction

Emma Donoghue — Slammerkin

It came to Daffy then, how easily the worst in oneself could rise up and strike a blow. How even the most enlightened man had little power over his own darkness.

That quote alone, from the pages of Slammerkin, is a good, succinct summary of the book’s themes: a number of people each affected by their own darknesses. Set in 1763, this book follows the tribulations of Mary Saunders, a young girl whose desire for a red ribbon in a harlot’s hair sends her on a self-destructive path that will wreck her own life and the lives of those around her.

This is the kind of historical novel that I wish I could write. The prose reads both modern and grounded in the past, it flows beautifully, with the smallest observations making sentences so evocative, an unexpected turn of phrase making a reader stop and re-read (“Sometimes words were like glass that broke in her mouth”). And in the book are so many different themes woven in cunningly into the story so that you don’t even notice so much while you’re reading, but only after you have time to consider the book as a whole: freedom of various sorts (Mary’s desire for liberty, while Abi, a slave, considers her not to be a free woman), beauty, ambition… it’s really masterful how Donoghue pulls it off so seamlessly.

It’s obvious that she’s done her historical research though again, the details are woven into the cloth of the story and don’t stand out obnoxiously. Together they give an extremely vivid picture of life in both London and Monmouth: the riotous chaos vs. the more staid but no less treacherous for it. Especially the story of Mary Saunders, based loosely on a real girl’s tragic tale. Mary in the book is a curious character: there’s a selfishness and violence to her, that was there before life turned hard–but one could also argue that even with her mother, life was hard for her. Mary is a girl who longs for beauty, stifled by the drab of her parents’ existence. Even though she has so many unsympathetic qualities, though, Donoghue manages to make her likable and even sympathetic: there but for the grace, etc. And she has a dry wit and an energy that is captivating even on the page. The other characters are, similarly, flawed but with tiny kernels of salvation, that are just ignored.

This is not a happy novel; it’s quite wrenching, but beautiful. I’m seriously envious that she could write a book like this, and also like Room, so totally different in voice and structure but both so beautiful and impressive in their own ways.

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C. J. Sansom — Dissolution

Three weaknesses in one: English history, mystery novels, and the law. It seemed as though C. J. Sansom’s Matthew Shardlake novels were tailor-made for me, featuring the adventures of the titular character, a hunchbacked lawyer in the employ of Thomas Cromwell.

The first book of the series, Dissolution, is set during Henry VIII’s dissolution of the Catholic monasteries from 1536-1540. Shardlake is sent to the monastery at Scarnsea after the commissioner sent to attempt to convince the Abbott to surrender the grounds is murdered most brutally. Once arrived, Shardlake and his assistant, Mark, are plunged into a treacherous atmosphere where the murders continue and anyone in the closed community could be the killer. And Shardlake might be next.

Sansom is another lawyer turned author and of course I’ve got a bit of a soft spot for those guys. I thought generally it was quite a good debut; the historical research was done well and thoroughly, and he certainly had an eye for the small details that make period pieces believable. The mystery, too, was a twisty one, and I’m always pleased when I can’t figure out the killer but after the “reveal,” remember hints that if I’d been paying attention would’ve allowed me to get it. It’s not out of left field but it’s still a satisfying surprise.

It’s obviously a first novel and while the prose was mostly decent there was an obsession with detailing the weather on almost every chapter (sometimes multiple times per chapter) that was a bit of an amusing writing “tic”; similarly, some of the dialogue came across as stilted and somewhat unbelievable. That’s always a fine line to walk with medieval characters, you don’t want to make them sound so ridiculous as to be unbelievable, but using words and phrasing too modern and casual can throw you out of the story. It mostly worked, though there were a few instances where I rolled my eyes just a teeny bit (there were also a few redundancies and awkward descriptions).

What I enjoyed the most about Dissolution (besides the history!) was Shardlake himself. He’s a really interesting hero: flawed both physically and emotionally; introspective but blind to his own faults, and a clever and engaging narrator with a dry sense of humor that the reader can follow alongside. And just as the mystery concluded, Shardlake’s emotional epiphany at the end of the book was equally satisfying.

So while it wasn’t a perfect read I quite enjoyed it, and I’m happy I took out Dark Fire, the next book in the series, at the same time–so I won’t have to wait.

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Georgette Heyer — These Old Shades

I just don’t think I’m cut out for Georgette Heyer. I wanted to like her, I really did, and I thought that this well-beloved novel would be a good place to start after I wasn’t fond of Powder and Patch … but it was more of the same. Perhaps I need to read a book of hers featuring a slightly older and less silly heroine, but this one was not my cup of tea.

Justin Alastair, the Duke of Avon, is a 40 year old gentleman with an awful reputation–so bad that his nickname is Satanas. In France, he comes across what at first appears to be a young boy running away from an older man. Struck by the resemblance to his rival (a very distinctive appearance of red hair, black eyebrows, and violet eyes), Avon impulsively buys the “boy,” Léon, from his erstwhile brother and makes him his page. The boy, of course, is no boy, but instead a girl named Léonie, who has been living as a boy the past seven years. Seeing Avon as her savior, Léonie adores him… however, Avon has deep plans that involve revenge, and Léonie might just be the weapon he uses to achieve it.

What follows is a slapstick mystery of mistaken identity, parentage, and some good old fashioned adventure, including kidnaps, abductions, bullet wounds and other ridiculous goings-on. Avon is never quite as awful as he’s made out to be–in fact, it was rather amusing hearing all of the characters gasping about how horrible and Satanic he is when there is rarely any indication that he is dangerous at all. Léonie is also ridiculous, slightly less so than Cleonie of Powder and Patch, but in a very different way. While she occasionally comes off as a bit of an imbecile in her conversation (I believe it’s meant to convey naivete?) she also enjoys fencing and is quite a bloodthirsty rogue. The May-December romance between the 19 year old Léonie and the 40 year old Duke is also a central focus of the book, which is a little questionable to a modern eye.

Heyer does dialogue so well, it really is “sparkling” and effervescent in the truest sense of the word. The plots are entertaining and imaginative, if a little given to deus-ex-machina at the worst of times, but the characters left me cold (except for Avon’s scapegrace younger brother Rupert, who was awesome). I just don’t think “the dandy” is appealing, and I do think I might enjoy one of her books if the heroine was just a little older and less ridiculous. These Old Shades took me forever to read because of it.

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Georgette Heyer — Powder and Patch

Ever since the wonderful Austenprose has been running a Georgette Heyer appreciation month, I’ve been itching to try reading her finally. I tried once before but I believe that I started with The Black Moth and eventually ended up putting it down and losing interest. I finished Powder and Patch but I’m not so sure if I’m just not a Heyer fan, or if this one was just unappealing to me. I’m definitely going to give her another chance, but this is not a book I will be picking up again.

Powder and Patch stars Philip Jettan, a blunt, honest, manly many farmer boy who’s happiest speaking his mind, getting his nails dirty, and admiring the charming (well, she’s described as charming anyway, but comes off as anything but!) Cleone, his childhood playmate and, after she returns home from convent school with an additional polish and, presumably, boobs, he falls in love with her. Of course, because this is a romance, there is a catch: Cleone is interested in fashion, especially the ridiculously feminine, dandyish fashion so common in the Georgian period, and Philip is having none of it. She could never marry a man so… so… uncouth! Philip, of course, wants her to love him as he is. After much fighting back and forth, especially about the foppish Bancroft, who Cleone flirts with outrageously in order to annoy her one true love, Philip storms off to Paris to become the man that Cleone wants… or thinks she wants. Because of course, Philip is really perfect for her.

The things that I enjoyed about Heyer were numerous; she writes engagingly, even her descriptions have a sort of sparkling verve to them. Her voice is pitch perfect, it has the dryness of Austen and her historical research is top notch. The descriptions of the clothes that her dandies wear are even more ridiculous because they are totally accurate to what was worn, right down to the high heels that forced the men to walk in mincing steps. There were some enjoyable slapstick moments, especially a duel in Paris. Some of the dialogue was witty (even if my not being able to speak French was quite a handicap in a lot of the scenes!)

But perhaps I am just too modern to enjoy her, or at least to enjoy this book. All of the talk about Cleone not knowing herself and really needing a man to just master her made me a little ill. She was so empty headed and ridiculous it was hard to imagine anyone going through so much trouble for her at all, especially when her “charming qualities” were acting like a complete idiot at all times possible. Philip wasn’t much better, either, alternately sulking or simpering. The message was basically that she had no idea what she wanted and needed to be taken care of and told because she had absolutely no sense whatsoever. Again, perhaps I’m just not in the right mindset to enjoy Heyer. Or maybe I just couldn’t connect with this character. I’ll read a few more of her books to give her the benefit of the doubt but this one was just not for me.

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One chapter preview of Shades of Milk and Honey


Thanks to the tip from Aidan at A Dribble of Ink, that Mary Robinette Kowal has the first chapter of her new book, Shades of Milk and Honey up on her website.

I’ve been really looking forward to reading this since I first read about it, because how could I not love a book inspired by Jane Austen but with the addition of magic (called glamour in the book) to the mix of womanly arts a girl is supposed to know? Well, if the first chapter is anything to go by, I’m now REALLY looking forward to its release. Kowal’s regency voice is spot-on but not stuffy, the magic system seems intriguingly realized, and the main character, Jane, is appealing and level-headed.

Shades of Milk and Honey is released August 3rd. Can’t wait!

(Also, how lovely is that cover?)

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Peter Ackroyd — The Casebook of Victor Frankenstein

Mostly the thing by Peter Ackroyd that I love the most is London, his exhaustively descriptive “biography” of the city. You can feel his passion for the city in that book and actually in all of his fiction; much of it is set in mid-1800s London, and the world feels very realized. So too does his tone: it is pitch-perfect 1800s writing, but in The Casebook of Victor Frankenstein I was unsure whether I was reading a parody of the Gothic or an earnest pastiche.

The book is based on a simple premise: what if Victor Frankenstein was a real doctor, a real contemporary of the Shelleys? What if he, under the influence of “Bysshe” (as he calls him) decided to attempt to resurrect the dead? And what if it, of course, went horribly wrong? It was a premise that intrigued me, as I’d been about to just dismiss the book as Frankenstein fanfiction. It’s a conceit that doesn’t quite work… The Shelleys themselves are window dressing; the real matter of concern is Victor, his more than slightly homoerotic obsession with Shelley and his increasing instability, which is hinted at throughout the novel until reaching the end, which I won’t spoil if you’re so inclined to read it, but the end is just slightly ridiculous. I KNOW Ackroyd knows his history so I wasn’t sure whether the misrepresentations and errors were Victor’s unreliable narrating, or whether they had been changed to better suit the plot, or what. This was slightly annoying after a while.

Mostly, though, it is an entertaining book and Ackroyd is a talented writer who creates enjoyable fiction, but at the end I was left wondering: why? In the end it seemed so unnecessary. From the concept itself to some of its more unsavory moments (the Creature’s first act upon being resurrected is to masturbate itself; there is a long account of Frankenstein himself jerking off partially reanimated corpses… yeah). Frankenstein , the original, was so effective in its horror because of its essential moral underpinnings: everyone is capable of good and evil, but are shaped by the society around them. It’s a book that, reading it today, can still chill, shock, and sadden. The Casebook is entertaining, but at the end, seems somewhat superfluous.

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