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.
A number of novelists have written about Jane Shore, the best-loved mistress of King Edward IV of England. Anne Easter Smith's latest novel, Royal Mistress, has the advantage of being based on more recent scholarly research than was available for earlier tales like Jean Plaidy's 1950 The Goldsmith's Wife (we now know Jane's first husband was a mercer, not a goldsmith). Unchanged is the fascination of Jane, whom Sir Thomas More called the "merriest" of Edward's mistresses. For more about Smith's novel, see the review of Royal Mistress.
Annis has previously reviewed and recommended Viking Warrior, the first in Judson Roberts' trilogy for teen readers about a young Viking raider in the ninth century. (See review.) Now, as part of a series of reviews of Viking-themed novels, David Maclaine reviews the two following novels in the Strongbow Saga trilogy: Dragons from the Sea and The Road to Vengeance, and recommends them for both teen and adult readers. For more about these two novels, see his reviews of Dragons from the Sea and The Road to Vengeance.
Helen Hollick's The Forever Queen (originally published in 2004 as The Hollow Crown) is about Emma of Normandy, who in the eleventh century became first the second wife of King Aethelred and then the second wife of King Cnut. David Maclaine calls the novel "a masterful retelling of a life and age that deserves to be much better known." For more about it, see the full review of The Forever Queen.
Burial Rites, a just-published novel by Hannah Kent is set in nineteenth-century Iceland, quite a change from the Iceland of the Vikings, though recognizably descended from that world. Reviewer Annis thoroughly appreciated its mysterious and insightful portrayal of the last person executed in Iceland, a rural maidservant named Agnes Magnúsdóttir. Available now in the U.K., Burial Rites is due out in the U.S. in September. For more about this interesting novel, see Annis's review of Burial Rites.
Series novels about life aboard warships during the Napoleonic era are legion, so it's great to have some help sorting out which series are the best. Both David Maclaine and Annis have enjoyed Julian Stockwin's "Kydd" series. David's latest review is of #4 in the series, Mutiny. For more about this novel (David calls the series "brilliant"), see his review of Mutiny.
Chrysalis by Richard Romanus is the only novel I have read set in Greece during the period when World War II, for the Greeks, morphed into the Greek Civil War. Many novels have been written about civilians in the paths of armies, including a host of novels set in ancient Greece (for some of the best, see The 36 Best Historical Novels for a Survey of Ancient Greek History). Chrysalis is the only novel I'm aware of that is set in twentieth-century Greece - although Eleni, Nicholas Gage's nonfiction account of his mother's life and death during the Greek Civil War, was researched and written with such expressive detail that it reads like a novel. Chrysalis is about a very different but similarly courageous woman from an unusual village in the mountains of Greece. For more about this novel, see the review of Chrysalis.
Among the best novels I've read so far this year is a YA ("young adult") novel for teens. Pirates! by Celia Rees is a page-turner about a teenage girl in the eighteenth century who turns pirate in order to escape marriage with a man she fears and despises. For more about this exciting novel, see the review of Pirates!.
It's a pleasure to have author Ania Szado visit the blog today to talk about her novel Studio Saint-Ex. Welcome, Ania!
What gave you the idea to write about fashion design and the author of The Little Prince in the same novel?
I became completely enamored of Antoine de Saint-Exupéry through reading Stacy Schiff's biography of him. He was incredibly gifted, complex and contradictory, and as frustrating as he was charismatic. I began writing a novel in which a modern-day painter is obsessed with him, then abandoned that draft when I realized that my subject should be Saint-Ex himself, not the longing he engendered. But I still wanted to write about the struggle to make art in various genres. When I sharpened the focus of my research to early 1940s New York, where Saint-Ex was writing The Little Prince, I discovered that the timeframe corresponded with the earliest days of American haute couture. The contrast and connection of the two creative pursuits intrigued me, as did the fact that today's designers continue to present collections inspired by The Little Prince.
Did the real Consuelo de Saint Exupéry wear Valentina creations?
Consuelo loved fashion: in preparation for fleeing France ahead of the Nazi invasion, she filled her car with expensive dresses instead of containers of gas (until her husband flung the clothes into the mud), and one room in her Central Park South apartment was filled with evening gowns and other expensive, elegant clothing. We don't know whether she wore Valentina, but it's plausible. Valentina's designs were sensual, theatrical and unorthodox, as was Consuelo herself. Consuelo was very likely aware of Valentina, who was dressing the likes of Katharine Hepburn and was intimate with Greta Garbo. She certainly knew the latter - there's a sultry photo of Consuelo reclining in Garbo's bed.
Before reading Studio Saint-Ex, I had not realized the U.S. government restricted clothing styles during World War II. What restrictions did fashion designers find hardest to work around?
The War Production Board introduced its L-85 regulations in the spring of 1942 to restrict the amount and colors of fabric used in garment design. (The color rules had to do with conserving certain chemicals used in dyes.) Since the fabric limitations were based on pre-regulations usage, silhouettes essentially became frozen. Though American design made some strides at this time, the look didn't change substantially. Originality wasn't encouraged, and the practical considerations necessitated by the fabric restrictions could be frustrating. As couturier Mainbocher noted in November 1942, many women's thighs "cannot stand to be silhouetted and overcaressed by the too straight skirt."
Thanks, Ania! Readers may want to check out our review or the listings for Studio Saint-Ex at Powell's Books or Amazon.com
Ania Szado spins a tale of the fashion world and its passions around author Antoine de Saint-Exupéry's exile in New York during the Nazi occupation of France. Studio Saint-Ex revolves around an aspiring fashion designer in love with Saint-Exupéry but forced to cope with his difficult wife as a prospective client. For more about this surprising and unusual love story, see the review of Studio Saint-Ex.
I'm eagerly awaiting David Maclaine's completed list of the best novels to read for an overview of Viking history, which he expects to be ready by the end of June. Meanwhile, I've just posted his review of E.R. Eddison's 1926 novel Styrbiorn the Strong, which he recommends as "elegant in style and full of tragic grandeur." For more about this novel based on traditional Icelandic sagas, see David's review of Styrbiorn the Strong.
Marisa Silver's new novel, Mary Coin, published in March, is loosely based on the lives of the noted Depression-era photographer Dorothea Lange and the migrant mother who was the subject of her most famous photograph. Because Silver's portrayal of the women is fictionalized, the characters have been given different names. Nevertheless, they are so recognizably based on Lange and her subject that one layer of the experience of reading this very vivid novel is the puzzle of working out where the author has followed the facts of each woman's life and where she has diverged from them. For more about the novel, see the review of Mary Coin.
In the latter decades of the 20th century, when historical novels in general were commonly (and needless to say inaccurately) lumped into a single category and looked down on as "genre" fiction with no redeeming literary qualities, some excellent historical fiction was published exclusively in mass-market paperback form. Poul Anderson's 1980 The Last Viking trilogy was among these. David Maclaine's thoughtful assessments of The Golden Horn (see review), The Road of the Sea Horse (see review) and The Sign of the Raven (see review) show that these novels deserve to be more widely read and appreciated. If the characterization does not reach the depth and complexity readers generally expect of serious literary works, the thematic content remains relevant, and the novels shed light on a historical figure whose life is well worth reflecting on.
Some very good historical novels revolve around the theme of a modern person researching his or her ancestry. Wallace Stegner's novel Angle of Repose, which fits this pattern, won the 1972 Pulitzer Prize for fiction. Lauren Groff's 2008 novel The Monsters of Templeton is quirkier, funnier, and more horrible than Stegner's novel, but is similarly well-written and insightful. Inspired by the author's hometown of Cooperstown, New York - the birthplace of historical novelist William Fenimore Cooper - it veers into pure fiction, but has a lot to say about our connections with the past. For more about this superb novel, see the review of The Monsters of Templeton.
The time of Macbeth was one of war and disorder in Scotland, with Viking raiders attacking from outside and violent conflicts among the Scottish high king and his subject thanes within. High Kings and Vikings by Nigel Tranter is about a young man who was Thane of Glamis before Macbeth began his rise to power. For more about this novel, see David Maclaine's review of High Kings and Vikings.
Donna Thorland's debut novel, The Turncoat, is a wild ride set during the American Revolution. It's about a young Quaker woman's introduction to the ruthless world of wartime espionage. Judged by the standards we've become used to in today's movies and television, it's not an overly violent novel - but its anti-pacifist message made it, for me, a disturbing one, part of a trend in our entertainment toward celebrating violent women. For more about this novel, see the review of The Turncoat. For a more thoughtful and realistic novel about Quakers during wartime, try Jessamyn West's The Friendly Persuasion, about an Indiana family during the Civil War.
David Maclaine's series of reviews of novels set in the Viking era continues with Poul Anderson's 1997 novel War of the Gods, based on the medieval saga of Hadding. Anderson, a celebrated writer of science fiction who won seven Hugo and three Nebula awards, shifted toward historical fiction later in his life. War of the Gods is a hybrid which incorporates both supernatural elements borrowed from Norse sagas and a realistic historical setting. For more about this novel, see David's review of War of the Gods.
Nobel prizewinner William Golding, best known for his novel Lord of the Flies, wrote several historical novels. The Double Tongue is set in ancient Greece. It's about a woman who becomes one of the last of the Delphic Oracles. Golding had completed a second draft at the time of his death in 1993, and it's this second-draft version that has been published. It's well worth reading, though it would certainly have been polished further had Golding lived longer. For more about this novel, see the review of The Double Tongue.
It's a great pleasure to acknowledge a donation from website visitor Cláudio Frederico da Silva Ramos. His generosity is much appreciated and provides support for the hours necessary to research and add listings for newly published historical novels to the website. Visitors who wish to support HistoricalNovels.info can donate through PayPal by using the button on the home page. Because the website is not a nonprofit organization, donations are not tax-deductible; they are, however, greatly appreciated!
One of Cecelia Holland's early novels, The Kings in Winter is set in medieval Ireland and revolves around the Battle of Clontarf, when Brian Boru, High King of Ireland, clashed with Norsemen allied with rebellious Irish clans. Reviewer David Maclaine says it already displays Holland's "great gift for making a distant time come to life." For more about this novel, see his review of The Kings in Winter.
Coming this week: a review of William Golding's last novel, The Double Tongue
About a Scottish woman sent into slavery among the Norse, The Winter Serpent is, like The Typewriter Girl (see below), a historical novel about a woman's life that doesn't fit the "romance" category. Author Maggie Davis originally published it in 1958 under the name "M.H. Davis," presumably to avoid having the novel dismissed as women's genre fiction. Reviewer David Maclaine calls it "finely crafted." For more about this novel, see his review of The Winter Serpent.
Alison Atlee's wonderfully assured debut novel, The Typewriter Girl, set in Victorian England, is a love story about a typist who has almost nothing going for her. Even her intelligence and pluck are disadvantages for a woman of her time and place, until an equally intelligent and unconventional builder of the pleasure railway for a resort discovers her and impulsively offers her a job for which she has no formal qualifications. This delightfully original novel will be a candidate for my "Best of 2013" list. For more about it, see the review of The Typewriter Girl.
Coming: reviews of two wintry novels as we say goodbye to the shivery season, Maggie Davis's The Winter Serpent and Cecelia Holland's The Kings in Winter.
Kathy Hepinstall's beautifully written novel Blue Asylum offers an unusual angle on the Civil War period, taking us far from the battlefield to Florida's Sanibel Island and a fictional insane asylum where the war and its issues remain all too fresh in the minds of several inmates. This novel was loaned to me by a friend who insisted I would love it. She was right. For more about Blue Asylum, see the review.
Gunnhild, the wife of Eirik Blood-Ax and mother of several Viking kings, was one of the powerful women of the Viking Age. David Maclaine highly recommends Poul Anderson's novel Mother of Kings, which recasts Gunnhild's legendary exploits from the Norse sagas into a believably realistic narrative. For more information about this novel, see David's review of Mother of Kings.
Second in the Summerset Abbey trilogy, T.J. Brown's A Bloom in Winter, set in 1914, continues the stories of sisters Victoria, Rowena and Prudence, who in the previous novel had to adjust to life in their aunt and uncle's aristocratic household after the sudden death of their father in 1913. It's an easy-to-read tale, best enjoyed after reading the first in the series. The final novel in the trilogy, Spring Awakening, is due this summer, so readers who enjoyed the first two novels will not have to wait too long to finish the story of these young women on the brink of maturity. For more about these novels, see the review of A Bloom in Winter.
First published in 1978, The Far Pavilions is a sweeping epic of India during the Raj which became an instant bestseller - perhaps largely because of the story of forbidden love at its heart - and still has avid fans. It's a 955-page doorstopper by an author who knew what she was writing about. Born in India, M.M. Kaye was the daughter and granddaughter of British soldiers who served in India, and became the wife of another. The Sepoy Rebellion occurs near the beginning of the novel. At its climax is a disastrous episode in the Second Anglo-Afghan war, making it newly relevant in a time when the U.S. is still trying to extricate itself from a war in Afghanistan. For more about this novel, see the review of The Far Pavilions.
Updating of the website continues with more new listings of historical novels published in January and February. Today, the new listings are on the Seventeenth Century, Eighteenth Century, Napoleonic and Old West pages. Some new novels of special interest include:
Mysteries set in the 17th century:
Susanna Gregory's Death in St James’s Park, #8 in the Thomas Chaloner mystery series.
Anne Rutherford's The Opening Night Murder, first in a new mystery series about a woman who opens her own theater after King Charles II decrees that women are allowed to act on the stage - she becomes a murder suspect when someone is killed during the first performance.
Sam Thomas's The Midwife’s Tale, about a sleuthing midwife during the English Civil War, another first entry in a new mystery series.
Literary novels set in eighteenth-century England:
Michael Dean's I, Hogarth, about the London artist William Hogarth.
Jack Wolf's The Tale of Raw Head and Bloody Bones, about a promising but psychotic young medical student in 1751.
And then there's the latest, #19, in Dewey Lambdin's series of Napoleonic naval adventures, Hostile Shores (2013), about a British naval captain in 1805, the year of Admiral Nelson's death.
And a continuation of the late Robert B. Parker's "Cole and Hitch" Western series by Robert Knott, titled Robert B. Parker’s Ironhorse, which pits Parker's two U.S. marshals against a gang of train robbers.
After falling badly behind in getting newly published historical novels added to the listings on the website, I'm beginning to catch up. The new January and February novels are being added, starting with the Ancient, Medieval and Renaissance pages. Some of the recent additions that look especially interesting include:
Tosca Lee's Iscariot, a sympathetic portrayal of Judas.
Patricia Bracewell's Shadow on the Crown, about Emma of Normandy, who at age fifteen married the much-older King Aethelred of England.
Kate Forsyth's Bitter Greens, a novel set in Venice and the French court of Louis XIV about the seventeenth-century novelist Charlotte-Rose de Caumont de La Force, who wrote an early version of the Rapunzel story.
If you like the idea of a novel written in verse form and are intrigued by the theory that Christopher Marlowe may have written Shakespeare's plays after faking his own murder, Ros Barber's The Marlowe Papers may be for you.
And some new mysteries include:
Ruth Downie's Semper Fidelis, #5 in the Gaius Petreius Ruso mystery series.
Victor Canning's 1983 novel Raven's Wind may be a bit old-fashioned in style, but reviewer David Maclaine finds this adventure story about Viking raiders and Anglo-Saxon defenders worth reading. For more about this novel, see David's review of Raven's Wind.
Coming soon: a review of M.M. Kaye's classic The Far Pavilions
Scottish author Nigel Tranter wrote over 130 books in his long career, most of them historical novels covering a vast sweep of Scottish history, and many covering personalities and periods neglected by other novelists. Kenneth is about Kenneth MacAlpin, a ninth-century king of the Picts who, according to romantic legend, became the first King of Scotland (then known as "Alba"). In fact, the transition from the land of the Picts to the Kingdom of Scotland probably happened gradually, but Kenneth remains an important symbolic figure who was a significant part of the transition process. Tranter's 1990 novel about him is, as far as I know, the only novel about him. For more, see David Maclaine's newly posted review of Kenneth.
Reviewer David Maclaine continues to enjoy Dorothy Dunnett's "House of Niccolo" series. His review of novels #5 and #6, The Unicorn Hunt and To Lie with Lions are now posted, and reflect novels in which the hero of the series travels to Cairo, Scotland, France and Iceland, among other places, dogged by ruthless enemies everywhere he goes. For more about these novels about an upwardly mobile Flemish merchant with extraordinary intelligence and a penchant for making impulsive and risky decisions, see David's reviews of The Unicorn Hunt and To Lie with Lions.
May Dugas grew up in small town America (specifically Menominee, Michigan), aspired to wealth and good times, and moved to Chicago to pursue these in the form of men - and sometimes women - of more means than good sense. Her swindling career took her from East Coast to West and Europe to Asia. Maryka Biaggio's novel may tell a few tall tales in regard to May's swindling career - it's based on a source she readily describes as "not always accurate" - but it portrays the manner in which more women than May made their livings in Gilded Age America. For more about this novel, see the review of Parlor Games.
Susan Vreeland's Girl in Hyacinth Blue, tracing a fictional Vermeer painting back through time, could be an unconventional Valentine. So many of the characters in these linked short stories are trying to find love, and so often, the love falls short - sometimes by a little, sometimes by a lot. For more about this beautiful novel, see the review of Girl in Hyacinth Blue.
Coming soon: a new t-shirt joins our Mrs. Dalloway t-shirt.
Reviews for all six novels in Bernard Cornwell's "Saxon Tales" series are now onsite, along with David Maclaine's review of the series as a whole, which concisely outlines the history of the period the novels cover: the struggle of Alfred the Great to become king of England and beat back the Viking invaders. These novels will likely appear on the list David is currently compiling of the best novels to read for an overview of Viking history. Check out the new reviews of the "Saxon Tales" series and the sixth novel in the series, Death of Kings. Cornwell is a master of battle scenes in, apparently, every time period he tackles, and these novels are no exception.
Coming tomorrow: a review of Susan Vreeland's Girl in Hyacinth Blue - a Valentine of a novel for lovers of literary fiction
New reviews by David Maclaine now appear on the website of novels #3, #4 and #5 in Bernard Cornwell's "Saxon Tales" series about a dispossessed Saxon lord raised by Vikings who joins King Alfred's army in an attempt to regain his lands. These are superbly crafted novels that, as David says, will please "fans of blood-drenched hand-to-hand action." For more about these novels, see his reviews of The Lords of the North, Sword Song and The Burning Land. These join the reviews already on the website of #1 in the series, The Last Kingdom, and #2, The Pale Horseman.
Coming soon: David's review of the "Saxon Tales" as a series and of #5 in the series, The Death of Kings; and reviews of Maryka Biaggio's Parlor Games and Susan Vreeland's Girl in Hyacinth Blue
Considered a scandalous woman of the Gilded Age, May Dugas had many adventures - and run-ins with the famed Pinkerton Detective Agency. I couldn't possibly fit all of her escapades into my novel, Parlor Games, but I do have a particular favorite among the untold stories. Here May puts her unique skills to good use and keeps a mother and her children together.
When a good friend of May, a Mrs. Hanna, decided to take her three children abroad for an educational tour, her ex-husband secured two court orders forbidding this travel. Defying his wishes, Mrs. Hanna stole away from Cleveland with the children. Mr. Hannauncovered her plot to spirit the children to New York City and sail from there. He hired the Pinkertons to help him intercept her.
"And I looked, and behold a pale horse: and his name that sat on him was Death, and Hell followed with him." The title of Bernard Cornwell's novel The Pale Horseman comes from this Biblical verse from Revelations. It's an apt title, as David Maclaine's review eloquently suggests. The novel is the second in Cornwell's "Saxon Tales" series about a warrior with mixed loyalties fighting in Alfred the Great's army. For more about this novel, see David's review of The Pale Horseman.
There will be no more Sister Frevisse or Joliffe Players medieval mysteries. Author Margaret Frazer died February 4, 2013. For moving tributes to this much-loved author, see Sharon Kay Penman's blog and the obituary by Frazer's son Justin Alexander.
Hemingway is famed for his taut, well-crafted prose and notorious for the way he treated his wives. Paula McLain's The Paris Wife is a bittersweet novel about Hadley Richardson, Hemingway's first wife, who lived in Paris with him during most of their marriage. Though filled with foreshadowing about his impending betrayal of her with another woman, it offers a moving and affectionate portrayal of not just Hadley but of Hemingway as well. For more about this novel, see the review of The Paris Wife.
Christian Cameron's novels are notable for the vividness and authentic precision with which they portray the experiences of fighting men in the ancient world. Poseidon's Spear is the latest in his "Long War" series, set during the struggle for dominance between Greece and Persia. This one deals with a quest for revenge, and reviewer David Maclaine found it a fascinating contribution to the series. For more about this novel, see his review of Poseidon's Spear.
Some fantastic historical novels were published in 2012. In addition to enjoying many of these, I also made time for a couple of classics and several novels from recent years that I hadn't yet read. If your taste in novels dovetails with mine, I can heartily recommend every book on my list of the ten best historical novels I read in 2012. Scroll down for lists of the best novels I read in 2008-2011.