News and Random Musings about Historical Novels

Do you prefer lopping off heads from horseback on the Mongolian steppes or delivering subtly devastating rejoinders over tea in a Victorian drawing room? This site features reviews of novels old and new to suit your taste. See below for the latest, or check out the Book Review Directory. Author interviews are featured from time to time. Those that no longer appear below can be found via the Articles page.

Mon., Sept. 8: Review of Lisette's List

Susan Vreeland's latest novel, Lisette's List, is about a young woman who in 1937 very reluctantly gives up the opportunity to apprentice for an art gallery in her beloved Paris in order to move with her husband to a small town in Provence. It's more likely to please fans of popular mainstream novels than readers who enjoyed the elegantly literary stories in Vreeland's Girl in Hyacinth Blue. Lisette's List offers an introduction to post-Impressionist art for readers who enjoy it but don't know much about it. For more about this novel, see the review of Lisette's List.

Coming this month: reviews of novels about Gutenberg, the developer of the printing press, and the nurse in Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet.

Tues., July 8: Review of Stormbird

Conn Iggulden is known for his fast-paced historical novels revolving around warfare and politics. Stormbird, which reaches bookstore shelves in the U.S. today, is the first novel in his new series about the Wars of the Roses, a popular subject for historical novelists because of readers' and writers' fascination with the motives of Richard III, the man Shakespeare portrayed as the murderer of the ill-fated "Princes in the Tower." Iggulden will undoubtedly add his own perspective on this, and has room for a great deal of complexity and scope, since Stormbird is only the first in a series. For more about this novel, see David Maclaine's review of Stormbird.

Mon., July 7: Review of With Fire and Sword

In the U.S., the Nobel-Prize-winning novelist Henryk Sienkiewicz is known best for Quo Vadis, a hugely popular novel around the turn of the twentieth century when first released in English (and numerous other languages), about the struggle of the early Christian movement to survive in Nero's Rome. If you haven't read it, you've probably seen the 1951 movie of the same name starring Robert Taylor, Deborah Kerr and Peter Ustinov.

In his native Poland, though, Sienkiewicz's most popular work is the first volume in a trilogy about a soldier fighting in a seventeenth-century war between Poland and rebel Cossacks: With Fire and Sword. Yes, rebel Cossacks. David Maclaine has more to say about that in his review of With Fire and Sword.

Thurs., June 26: Review of Strange Gods

Having thoroughly enjoyed both Isak Dinesen's memoir Out of Africa and the movie of the same name based on it, I had fun spotting familiar characters scattered through Annamaria Alfieri's new mystery, Strange Gods. It's set in Isak Dinesen country. Though the story is completely original and the central characters fictional, it takes place in 1911 British East Africa, just a few years before Isak Dinesen's arrival as Bror Blixen's wife Karen. For more about this entertaining mystery, see the review of Strange Gods.

Coming soon: a review of Nobel prizewinner Henryk Sienkiewicz's 1884 historical novel With Fire and Sword.

Tues., June 24: Review of God of Vengeance

Fans of Viking novels will want to read Giles Kristian's latest adventure story, God of Vengeance, just published today. Reviewer David Maclaine recommends it as an exciting tale set in the time when warfare pitted Viking against Viking in the fjords of Norway. The novel is being released shortly after the second season of the History Channel's "Vikings" TV series aired, and as its first season reaches DVD. The TV series’ emphasis on intrigue and treachery among competing Scandinavian leaders is mirrored in Kristian’s novel. For more about the novel, see David's review of God of Vengeance.

Mon., June 23: Review of Alice I Have Been

Authors who can write masterful, absorbing novels for adults about children are few and far between. Melanie Benjamin is one. Her 2010 novel Alice I Have Been portrays Alice Liddell, the child-muse who inspired Lewis Carroll's Alice in Wonderland. I was slow getting around to this, although it piqued my interest because so many reviewers loved it. If you, too, have been intrigued by this novel but slow getting around to it, I encourage you to move it higher up your "TBR" list. Benjamin's Alice is an intelligent, complex character, and her story is as surprising and involving as the children's classic she inspired. For more about this novel, see the review of Alice I Have Been.

Tomorrow: a review of Giles Kristian's Viking Age tale God of Vengeance

Thurs., June 19: Review of Knight of Love

Historical romances are not my favorite reading - most seem pretty silly to me, and I get impatient with their implausibility. However, Catherine LaRoche's Knight of Love is set in Germany during the 1848 Revolution, an interesting time and place that has been neglected by most historical novelists. Well, I did get pretty impatient with Knight of Love, but if you're a big fan of historical romance - especially the steamier end of the genre - this might be right up your alley. For more about this historical romance, see the review of Knight of Love.

Tues., June 10: Review of Black Robe

Brian Moore's 1985 novel Black Robe is recommended by reviewer David Maclaine as an exciting read that portrays seventeenth-century French Jesuit missionaries to North America and the Huron and Iroquois nations they found there. For more about this novel, see David's insightful review of Black Robe.

Tues., June 3: Review of Secrecy

Readers who enjoy the slightly creepy weirdness of Fellini films with their oddball characters and menacing atmosphere may enjoy the similar weirdness in Rupert Thomson's Secrecy, a novel about a Sicilian sculptor who specializes in creating wax models of corpses and dying people. It's lively and vigorously written, and not really my cup of tea - but it might be yours. For more about this novel, see the review of Secrecy.

Fri., May 30: Review of Destroyer of Cities

Fifth in Christian Cameron's Tyrant series, Destroyer of Cities takes its young King of the Bosporus to sea on a peaceful mission that turns dangerous when he finds himself in the middle of a battle between kings trying to extend their power over Alexander the great's broken empire. Reviewer David Maclaine thinks highly of Cameron's Tyrant series, and Destroyer of Cities is no exception. For more about this novel, see his review of Destroyer of Cities.

Mon., May 12: Review of Astray, short stories by Emma Donoghue

Many fewer historical short stories are published than historical novels. It often seems that historical fiction demands a longer form than contemporary fiction, to draw readers into the alien world of the past. But the historical short story collections I've read have been of almost uniformly high quality, in contrast to historical novels, which have a similar range in quality as contemporary novels, from not so great to exceptionally good.

Astray is a collection of short stories from the novelist who wrote Slammerkin, one of my all-time favorite historical novels because of the way it pulled me into the world of the characters from the very first page. Historical short stories have to do that to succeed, because they aren't long enough to waste words - and the stories in Astray are notable for both their brevity and the vividness of their settings. For more about this short story collection, see the review of Astray.

Weds., May 6: Review of Jack Finney's Time and Again

If you enjoyed Jack Finney's time-travel novel Time and Again years ago, now is the time to read it again, because Touchstone has just issued a new paperback edition with restored photographs and artwork. And if you're a time-travel fan and have never read it - this classic is a must-read. For more about this novel about a New York man who travels back in time to 1882 as part of a top-secret government project, see the review of Time and Again.

Coming soon: A review of Astray, Emma Donoghue's collection of historical short stories.

Mon., April 28: Review of The Ghost of the Mary Celeste

Valerie Martin's 2003 novel Property was a subtle, deeply insightful novel about a plantation owner's wife and her slave; it won an Orange Prize for good reason. So her latest novel, The Ghost of the Mary Celeste, can be assumed to be more sophisticated than the typical ghost story. It is. Crafted around the real-life mystery of a ship found drifting at sea in 1872 with no one aboard, it confronts questions about life after death, and about the morality of writing fiction based on real people and their tragedies. It's also a wonderfully atmospheric ghost story. For more about this novel, see the review of The Ghost of the Mary Celeste.

Fri., April 11: Interview with author Sandra Gulland

Author Sandra GullandIt's a delight to have Sandra Gulland visit the blog today to talk about her novel The Shadow Queen. Welcome, Sandra!

Of the three playwrights who appear in The Shadow Queen, Corneille, Molière and Racine, which is your favorite?

Well, we can cross Racine right off the list. He was a fine writer, but a rat of a person. More

Thurs., April 10: Review of The Shadow Queen

Sandra Gulland is a favorite author of mine, and her latest novel, The Shadow Queen is another that plunges readers into the past, with its sights, sounds, smells, hopes, dreams and disappointments. As in Mistress of the Sun, a major character in The Shadow Queen is a mistress of King Louis XIV of France. This novel, though, is completely fresh, introducing readers to the rivalry and struggle of the seventeenth-century French theater world. For more about this novel and its rich setting, see the review of The Shadow Queen.

Tomorrow: Author Sandra Gulland's fascinating answers to our interview questions.

Tues., April 8: Review of Things Fall Apart

If you're looking for a novel about Africa on the eve of European colonization, Chinua Achebe's Things Fall Apart should be the first on your list. First published in 1959, it has a direct style that makes it feel as fresh as though it were written yesterday. For more about this tale of a tragically flawed man, see the review of Things Fall Apart.

Fri., April 4: Review of The Promise

Ann Weisgarber's previous novel, The Personal History of Rachel DuPree, was short-listed for the Orange Award for New Writers and long-listed for the Orange Prize. Her most recent novel, just released April 1 in the U.S. by Skyhorse Publishing, is about the disastrous Galveston hurricane of 1900. The Promise focuses on the lives of two women, rivals for the love of the same man, in the months leading up to the hurricane. For more about this skillfully written novel, see the review of The Promise.

Tues., April 1: "The Texas Wife" complete online

The online magazine Fabula Argentea has published my short story "The Texas Wife" in its April issue. The story is about a young German who immigrates to Texas in the mid-nineteenth century and finds it's not what he expected from reading Karl May's Wild-West tales of "Old Shatterhand." You can read the complete short story online at Fabula Argentea

Thurs., March 20: Review of The Chalice

The Chalice is a sequel to Nancy Bilyeau's engaging thriller The Crown about a novice nun displaced during Henry VIII's dissolution of the monasteries and convents of England. In this sequel, heroine Joanna Stafford now lives in the town of Dartford, the priory having been dissolved, and is trying to make a new life for herself amid the suspicion and resentment of many townsfolk. This is a thriller, of course, and a mysterious prophecy leaves her open to the manipulations, sometimes ruthless, of various noblemen and clerics who wish to use her for their own ends. For more about this novel, see the review of The Chalice.

Tues., March 11: Review of The Crown

Two Tudor-era thrillers have now been published in Nancy Bilyeau's series about a novice nun during the Dissolution period when Henry VIII was dismantling monasteries and convents across England. I recently finished reading The Crown, the first, and found it an absorbing page-turner. Though not as literary in style or intent as C.J. Sansome's Dissolution-era mysteries, Bilyeau's novels make interesting companion reading for those, since Sansome's novels feature a character who supports Henry's reforms, while Bilyeau's novels revolve around a character who has every reason to feel heartsick about them and does. I've just posted a review of The Crown. The Chalice is the second and most recent in the series, and I hope to post a review of that novel soon.

Fri., March 7: Review of Wide Sargasso Sea

The novel my book discussion group decided to read for this coming Sunday afternoon is the 1966 novel by Jean Rhys, Wide Sargasso Sea. I'm expecting a fascinating discussion, because this novel so very different from the one that inspired it. Jean Rhys, who grew up in the Caribbean, was fascinated by the crucial but secondary character in Jane Eyre, Mr. Rochester's first wife, the woman he met and married in the Caribbean. Her last and most critically acclaimed novel revolves around this character, sympathetically re-imagined. For more about this intriguing novel, see the review of Wide Sargasso Sea.

Tues., March 4: New Listings

Listings for new historical novels published in February have been posted. A few that look especially interesting include:

Sharon Kay Penman, A King’s Ransom, about Richard the Lionheart's last years; sequel to Lionheart.

Marina Fiorato, The Venetian Bargain, about a young Turkish woman with medical skills who flees to Venice in 1576 on a ship carrying bubonic plague.

Marci Jefferson, Girl on the Golden Coin, about Frances Stuart, a beautiful Royalist exile who, after the Restoration, is sent to England by King Louis XIV orders to become the mistress of King Charles II.

Allison Pataki, The Traitor’s Wife, about Peggy Shippen Arnold, the wife of Benedict Arnold.

Nancy E. Turner, My Name Is Resolute, about a Jamaican woman captured by pirates and sold into slavery in New England in the years before the American Revolution.

Vivien Shotwell, Vienna Nocturne, a novel which imagines that young English soprano Anna Storace had a secret affair with opera star Francesco Benucci while she was working in Italy, and later fell in love with Mozart.

Phillip Margolin, Worthy Brown’s Daughter, about a bereaved frontier lawyer in Oregon who represents a slave whose master has backed out of a promise to free him and his daughter, unleashing a violent moral dilemma.

Eliza Granville, Gretel and the Dark, about a girl who becomes the patient of psychoanalyst Josef Breuer in 1899 Vienna, and a girl in Nazi Germany who escapes her troubles by remembering the fairy tales her nurse has told her.

James MacManus, Black Venus, about the French poet Charles Baudelaire and his lover Jeanne Duval, a Haitian cabaret singer.

Robin Oliveira, I Always Loved You, a novel which imagines the relationship American artist Mary Cassatt and French artist Edgar Degas might have had after meeting in Belle Époque Paris.

Kate Alcott, The Daring Ladies of Lowell, about a young woman who takes a job at a textile mill in Lowell, Massachusetts, in 1832 and after another mill worker is murdered finds herself torn between her allegiance to her fellow workers and her attraction to the mill owner's son.

Timothy Schaffert, The Swan Gondola, about a ventriloquist who falls in love with an enigmatic woman who plays Marie Antoinette in a guillotine scene at the 1898 Omaha World’s Fair.

Colleen McCullough, Bittersweet, about two sets of twin sisters, close friends, who train to become nurses in the 1920s.

Dermot McEvoy, The 13th Apostle, about Michael Collins and the struggle for Irish independence that began with the 1916 Easter Rising.

Thurs., Feb. 27: Review of The Signature of All Things

A rich, juicy read about a nineteenth-century woman who finds her niche in life studying mosses, The Signature of All Things is the latest book by bestselling author Elizabeth Gilbert. I haven't read her blockbuster, Eat, Pray, Love, but for someone who loves historical novels about intelligent women who work around the social strictures of their times in order to live full, satisfying and even adventurous lives, The Signature of All Things has got to be Gilbert's masterpiece. For more about this exciting novel, see the review of The Signature of All Things.

Tues., Feb. 18: Review of The Bridge of San Luis Rey

By sheer coincidence, the last two historical novels I've read and reviewed have both revolved around bridges. Both bridges are wonders of engineering: the one in The Bridge on the Drina is a stone bridge (which really exists) constructed by order of a sixteenth-century Ottoman official. The one in The Bridge of San Luis Rey is a fictional bridge "woven of osier by the Incas more than a century before .... a mere ladder of thin slats swung out over the gorge, with handrails of dried vine." Thornton Wilder won the 1928 Pulitzer Prize in fiction for The Bridge of San Luis Rey. Ivo Andrić won the 1961 Nobel Prize for literature for his body of work including The Bridge on the Drina. The Bridge on the Drina is a long time-sweep novel covering several centuries. The Bridge of San Luis Rey is a short novel, between 110-150 pages in most editions, which focuses tightly on a small group of characters who die on the same day. Read both, and you can easily come up with more similarities and differences. For more about The Bridge of San Luis Rey, see the review. See the post immediately below for more about The Bridge on the Drina.

Weds., Feb. 5: Review of The Bridge on the Drina

The Bridge on the Drina, a time-sweep novel set in Bosnia, has been on my TBR list for a couple of years. Its author, Ivo Andrić, won a Nobel Prize in Literature. How often does a historical novelist win a Nobel? (More often than you might think, actually, but still...) And then, it was recommended to me by a friend who grew up in that part of the world. I finally squeezed it into my schedule, and I'm glad I did.

For anyone who wants to understand the history of Bosnia, it's a must-read. Beyond that, it's a deeply insightful look at the way war disrupts communities in which people of diverse religions and ethnicities were previously managing to get along pretty well. But it's not just an anti-war novel; it takes an ironic view of history itself and the way time tends to soften, if not entirely transform, symbols of brutality into beloved landmarks. If you like Michener's or Rutherfurd's time-sweep novels, this one should please you, but it will also please readers who prefer something a bit more literary than the typical time-sweep. For more about this novel, see the review of The Bridge on the Drina.

Thurs., Jan. 30: New Listings

New novels published in January have been added to the website. Some that look especially interesting include:

Ella March Chase, The Queen’s Dwarf, about a young dwarf trained by the Duke of Buckingham to spy on King Charles I's French queen, Henrietta, in 1629.

Jennifer Chiaverini, Mrs. Lincoln’s Rival, about Kate Chase Sprague, the politically astute Washington society hostess who gained the enmity of Mary Todd Lincoln.

Alex Myers, Revolutionary, about Deborah Samson, an indentured servant who disguised herself as a man and fought in the Continental Army during the Revolutionary War.

Valerie Martin, The Ghost of the Mary Celeste, about the young Arthur Conan Doyle, author of a short story based on the mysterious disappearance of the entire crew of the ship Mary Celeste; a Philadelphia spiritualist; and a journalist who hopes to expose the spiritualist as a fraud.

Sue Monk Kidd, The Invention of Wings, about a slave girl and her owner, Sarah Grimke, a Charleston girl who would become an influential abolitionist.

Nancy Horan, Under the Wide and Starry Sky, about Fanny van de Grift Osbourne, the American woman who met and later married Scottish author Robert Louis Stevenson after leaving her philandering husband.

James Scott, The Kept, about a midwife and her twelve-year-old son in upstate New York in the winter of 1897 who struggle to survive after a violent tragedy and confront the truth about their family.

Helen Dunmore, The Lie, about a young soldier who returns home to his Cornish fishing village after World War I, and is haunted by the consequences of a lie.

April Smith, A Star for Mrs. Blake, about four women who go to France to visit their sons' graves after the U.S. Congress passes a law in 1929 to fund overseas travel for mothers whose sons died in Europe in World War I.

Brian Payton, The Wind Is Not a River, about a Seattle journalist who while covering the war is shot down in the Aleutian Islands, where he struggles to survive, and his wife, who sets out to find him and bring him home.

Randy Boyagoda, Beggar’s Feast, about a boy born into poverty in Ceylon in 1899 who apprentices himself to a hustler and becomes rich, travels, and returns to Ceylon in a quest for respect.

Kader Abdolah, The King, about Shah Naser, who comes to the throne of Persia in 1848 and struggles with pressures to modernize.

Wednesday, Jan. 22: Review of The Fountain of St. James Court

The seventeenth-century French artist Élisabeth Vigée-Le Brun led a remarkable life. She became a highly successful portrait painter in a time when women were not usually respected as artists. Because of how often she painted Marie Antoinette, she was associated with the French court and had to flee France during the Revolution. Sena Jeter Naslund's 2013 novel The Fountain of St. James Court; or, Portrait of the Artist as an Old Woman is a dual-time novel about a present-day writer and Élisabeth Vigée-Le Brun. For more about this novel-within-a-novel, see the review of The Fountain of St. James Court; or, Portrait of the Artist as an Old Woman.

Tuesday, Jan. 21: Review of Tuscan Rose

Belinda Alexandra's novels offer strong historical backgrounds laced with romance. Tuscan Rose, first published in 2010 in Alexandra's home country of Australia, is now available in the U.S. in paperback. It's the story of a convent-raised girl who must leave at fifteen to become governess on a wealthy estate, and finds herself unprepared for the harshness of life in Mussolini's Italy. For more about this novel, see the review of Tuscan Rose.

Monday, Jan. 20: Review of Passing Under Heaven

The best novels about poets should be poetic themselves, and Justin Hill's 2004 novel about the Tang Dynasty poet Yu Xuanji is, as reviewer David Maclaine describes it, "as direct and simple as the best Chinese poetry." It portrays a woman's life filled with obstacles and frustration in "a golden age built on a foundation of misery." For more about this intriguing novel, see David's review of Passing Under Heaven.

Coming soon: Reviews of Belinda Alexandra's Tuscan Rose and Sena Jeter Naslund's The Fountain of St. James Court; or, Portrait of the Artist as an Old Woman

Weds., Jan. 8: Review of The Light Between Oceans

One of the members of my book discussion group chose M.L. Stedman's 2012 novel The Light Between Oceans for our next meeting, and I'm very glad she did. I was riveted by this moving novel about a lighthouse keeper, his wife, and the baby who washes up on the shore of their remote Australian island in the 1920s. This is the first candidate for my "Best Historical Novels I Read in 2014" list. For more about it, see the review of The Light Between Oceans.

Tues., Jan. 7: Review of The Firedrake

"The people at the great turning points in history did not know how things would turn out, and anyone who grapples with the past must have a firm hold on this truth," writes David Maclaine in his review of The Firedrake, Cecelia Holland's 1966 novel about the Norman Conquest. His reflections are especially apt in regard to this novel, since the Battle of Hastings is one of the more famous battles of history, its outcome determining, among other things, the nature of the English language so many of us speak today. But the novel remains suspenseful - for more about why, see David's review of The Firedrake.

Mon., Jan 6: Review of Rustication

Charles Palliser's latest novel, Rustication, is a Gothic mystery set in rural nineteenth-century England. It's an intricately plotted, atmospheric page-turner about a young man "rusticated" (sent home) from Cambridge Unversity to a home that is unwelcoming in almost every possible way. For more about this novel, see the review of Rustication.

Coming: a review of Cecelia Holland's The Firedrake

Thursday, Jan. 2: Review of The Belt of Gold

Happy New Year! May you discover many enthralling new historical novels and rediscover some cherished favorites this year. I would wish you enough shelves to hold and organize your book collection, but don't want to sound ridiculous!

Here's a review of a highly recommended novel by Cecelia Holland, a historical novelist for connoisseurs. David Maclaine thoroughly enjoyed The Belt of Gold, a story revolving around the eighth-century Byzantine Empress Irene, a woman who seems to have relished wielding power. For more about this novel, see his review of The Belt of Gold.

Tues., Dec. 24: Review of The Testament of Mary

Merry Christmas! May your holiday season be just the way you like it.

Colm Tóibín's novel The Testament of Mary is not a traditional Christmas story - perhaps it's more of a Good Friday story for the spiritual doubters among us - but it's well worth reading in a season when people might want to consider the gospel story more deeply. Instead of questioning the factual nature of the miracles Jesus performs in the gospels, Tóibín's somber and thoughtful novel questions the meaning behind them. For more about this novel, see the review of The Testament of Mary.

Tues., Dec. 17: Review of Longbourn

Reviewer Annis enjoyed Jo Baker's novel Longbourn, set in the Bennet household of Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice - but in the "downstairs" world of the Bennet servants. Among the many novels which borrow characters from Austen's classic novels (often to disappointing effect), Longbourn is one that offers a fresh, well-written read. For more about this recommended novel, read Annis's review of Longbourn.

Sun., Dec. 15: New "Best of 2013" Novel Reviewed

When I posted my "Best I Read in 2013" list at the end of November, I had not yet read Kate Atkinson's exceptional novel Life After Life, about a girl who dies at birth in 1910 - but gets the chance to start over and survive, repeatedly. That means two books I had mixed feelings about dropped off the list (Booker-award-winning The Luminaries by Eleanor Catton and Spanish novelist Carlos Ruiz Zafón's hugely popular The Shadow of the Wind - see review), replaced by Life After Life. For more about this absorbing, wonderful novel, see the review of Life After Life, and my "Best of 2013" list.

Weds., Dec. 4: Review of Until the Sun Falls

Cecelia Holland is one of the premier historical novelists, known for the authenticity of her settings. A goal of mine is to have every one of her novels reviewed on the website. It's come one review closer to fulfillment today with David Maclaine's review of her 1969 novel Until the Sun Falls, an exceptional portrayal of life among the Mongols after the death of Genghis Khan. For more about this novel, see David's review of Until the Sun Falls.

Tues., Dec. 3: Review of Clisson and Eugénie

Would you have guessed that in 1795 the twenty-six-year-old Napoleon Bonaparte wrote a love story? He did. More than 200 years later, his novella Clisson et Eugénie finally found a publisher in France. An English edition from Gallic Books has just been published, as well. What kind of a writer was Napoleon? See the review of Clisson and Eugénie for my humble opinion.

Sat., Nov. 30: The best historical novels I read in 2013

This was the year I moved to a new city with my true love, set up an AirBnB guest cottage, got involved in starting a new Arts Center, and began working once again on a novel I've been trying to write for several years. So I didn't have quite as much time for reading as I've had in some years past. I did, however, manage to squeeze in some excellent historical novels.

This year's list, The Best Historical Novels I Read in 2013, is as varied as past years' lists, including everything from literary novels to a mystery, a novel for teens, and a couple of historical romances. It includes novels newly published in 2013 as well as some novels published in the past. They're all well worth reading!

Mon., Nov. 25: Review of The Wolves of the North

Harry Sidebottom's Warrior of Rome series covers a period of Roman history otherwise neglected by historical novelists - the third century, when Rome's eastern Empire came under attack by a variety of other peoples and almost fell. In The Wolves of the North, the threat which the novel's hero must contend with comes from horse warriors from the steppes. For more about this novel, see David Maclaine's review of The Wolves of the North.

Fri., Nov. 22: National Book Award goes to historical novelist

This week, James McBride, author of The Good Lord Bird, won the U.S. National Book Award. The novel, set in the Kansas Territory in 1857, is about Henry, a young slave, who joins abolitionist James Brown after Brown and his master get into an argument that turns violent. Henry is still with Brown in 1859 during the raid on Harper's Ferry, one of the turning points in history that led to the Civil War.

This is not the first historical novel McBride has written. Song Yet Sung is the story of a slave woman who escapes into Maryland's swamps, where she uses a code to communicate with other runaway slaves.

Thurs., Nov. 21: Review of The Daylight Gate

Novels about witches are not always beautifully written, but Jeanette Winterson's The Daylight Gate is a genuinely literary novel that subtly guides readers to share - at least while immersed in the novel - some of the more eerie imaginings of early seventeenth-century England. The characters are based on real people, most of them either the persecutors or the persecuted in the 1612 witchcraft trials in Lancashire County, England. For more about this short, intense novel, see the review of The Daylight Gate.

Weds., Nov. 20: Review of The Earl

A goal of mine is to have reviews of all of Cecelia Holland's historical novels on this website. David Maclaine, another reader who appreciates her work, is helping me move toward that goal. Today's new review is of The Earl, one of Holland's earlier novels, set during the war between Stephen and Matilda for England's throne, and published in 1971. I read it decades ago and can still vividly remember my impressions of certain characters. For more about this novel, see David's review of The Earl.

Coming soon: a review of Jeanette Winterson's The Daylight Gate

Tues., Nov. 19: Review of The Son

It's a sad fact that the best of a year's crop of historical novels are not necessarily sent to me as review books. That was the case with a novel that will appear near the top of the forthcoming "Best Novels I Read in 2013" list. The Son, by Philipp Meyer, dives into Texas history with a ranching family stemming from a man whose natural survival instinct was honed by captivity and adoption by a band of Comanches. The novel dissects the Texas way of life - and by extension the American obsession with rugged individuality - as a product of its decidedly unromantic frontier history. For more about this novel, see the review of The Son.

Mon., Nov. 17: Review of City of God

That notorious family of late fifteenth- and early sixteenth-century Italy, the Borgias, are at either the center or the periphery of numerous historical novels. David Maclaine reviews what must surely be one of the best: Cecelia Holland's City of God. Holland is a novelist for connoisseurs of historical novels who care more about the characters being true to their time and place than sympathetic to modern sensibilities. Ruthless, amoral characters often figure in Holland's novels, and it would be hard to find anyone more ruthless or amoral than Rodrigo Borgia, the man who was Pope Alexander VI. This novel views him through the eyes of an ambassador's secretary who reports home to another celebrated figure of the time, Niccolo Machiavelli. For more about this novel, see David's review of City of God.

Coming soon: More reviews and an annotated list of the best historical novels I read in 2013.