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.

Sat., Dec. 6: The Best Historical Novels I Read in 2014

Some wonderful historical novels were published this year, and a couple are on my list of the ten best historical novels I read this year. I wasn't able to get around to everything (who can?), so some of this year's best novels may appear on next year's list - just as a couple of novels from 2013 and 2012 appear on my list this year. I also ranged back in time to read some outstanding twentieth-century novels.

See this year's list

Fri., Dec. 5: Review of Hild by Nicola Griffith

In time for Christmas, a paperback edition of Nicola Griffith's Hild, published in hardcover last year, is out. This is a novel for historical fiction fans who love a good, long, in-depth exploration of what a remarkable woman's life might have been like in the early medieval period. Saint Hilda, who founded Whitby Abbey in 657, did not begin life as a Christian, and this novel explores how an unusually intelligent woman might have gained a reputation as a seer and why she might have accepted baptism as a Christian. For more about this novel, see the review of Hild.

Coming soon: A list of the best historical novels I read in 2014.

Tues., Nov. 18: Review of The Angel and the Sword

Cecelia Holland's historical novels are consistently superb in evoking the times and places about which she writes. Her 2000 novel The Angel and the Sword is no exception. At the same time, it's a departure from her previous novels, because of the way it incorporates supernatural elements. Readers who have enjoyed her "Soul Thief" series (written after The Angel and the Sword), which also employs the supernatural, may find it especially interesting for the similarities and differences in style and setting. For more about this novel, see the review of The Angel and the Sword.

Thurs., Oct. 30: Review of Falling Angels

Tracy Chevalier's 2001 novel Falling Angels could not be more different in tone than the last novel I reviewed, The Sharp Hook of Love by Sherry Jones. Falling Angels is written in spare, clean prose about early twentieth-century characters whose passions are rigidly controlled. Chevalier is a fine writer, and her story about two families who meet in a graveyard on the day of Queen Victoria's death is insightful and absorbing. For more about this novel, see the review of Falling Angels.

Tues., Oct. 28: Review of The Sharp Hook of Love

The story of Heloise and Abelard still has the power to shock: a thirty-year-old tutor seduces the young woman he has been hired to teach, right in the home of her guardian, who sends thugs to castrate him in revenge. Sherry Jone's new novel about these twelfth-century lovers, The Sharp Hook of Love, just published this month, tells their story with romantic gusto and a feminist angle. For more about it, see the review of The Sharp Hook of Love.

Mon., Oct. 20: Review of The Whistling Season

If you've enjoyed stories about one-room schoolhouses, you will most likely find Ivan Doig's 2006 novel The Whistling Season an enthralling read. It's a coming-of-age story about a boy in 1909 Montana, with the insight, subtlety and humor to captivate adult readers. For more about this novel, see the review of The Whistling Season.

Sat., Oct. 18: Review of Shadows on the Rock

Willa Cather's historical novels have become classics, but her novel about French Canada in the seventeenth century, Shadows on the Rock, is less well known than her others. Reviewer David Maclaine offers an introduction to this worthwhile novel. For more about it, see David's review of Shadows on the Rock.

Coming: a review of Ivan Doig's The Whistling Season

Fri., Oct. 3: Review of Dubh-Linn

Reviewer David Maclaine finds James L. Nelson's self-published novel Dubh-Linn about Vikings in Ireland worth reading despite some rough edges. To learn why, see his review of Dubh-Linn.

Weds., Sept. 24: Review of Juliet's Nurse

As a teen, Franco Zeffirelli's sumptuous film of Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet impressed me so much that I used to dream of getting married someday in a gold-embroidered red dress just like Juliet's in the film. I was almost as impressed by the bawdy banter between Mercutio and Juliet's nurse. So it was a treat to read a whole novel imagining a rich, full life for that bawdy, good-natured nurse. For more about Lois Leveen's novel Juliet's Nurse, just published yesterday, see the review of Juliet's Nurse.

Coming soon: back to the Viking age with a review of James L. Nelson's Dubh-Linn

Tues., Sept. 23: Review of Gutenberg's Apprentice

Every avid reader owes a debt of gratitude to Johann Gutenberg, but when he first developed the printing press, not everyone was a fan. Alix Christie's novel Gutenberg's Apprentice, hot off the press today, is about someone who had good reason not to be a Gutenberg fan - Peter Schoeffer worked for the short-tempered inventor. For more about this well-researched, well-written novel, see the review of Gutenberg's Apprentice.

Coming tomorrow: a review of another excellent novel just published today, Lois Leveen's Juliet's Nurse

Mon., Sept. 22: Review of Bernard Cornwell's 1356

Bernard Cornwell is known for his vivid fictional recreations of historical battles. His 2012 novel 1356, about the Battle of Poitiers, a decisive English victory in the Hundred Years' War is a standalone novel that can also be read as part of the "Grail Quest" series featuring English longbowman Thomas of Hookton. For David Maclaine's take on this novel, see his review of 1356.

Coming tomorrow: a review of Gutenberg's Apprentice

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.