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. For author interviews, see the Articles page.

Tues., Aug. 13: Review of Templar Silks

Elizabeth's Chadwick's series of novels about William Marshal would not be complete without the story of his three-year pilgrimage to Jerusalem, Templar Silks, published in the U.S. this June. Chadwick's forte is historical authenticity, and she portrays Marshal as the pious, infidel-fighting medieval Christian he must have been. This will make him a less sympathetic hero for many readers than the rigorously honorable knight of Chadwick's other William Marshal novels--but is not inconsistent with those portrayals and adds complexity to her portrait of him. Studies have shown that people who read novels gain empathy; perhaps it's especially worthwhile for readers to imagine ourselves into the minds of people who do not think or act as we hope they would.

For more about this novel, as well as links to reviews of Chadwick's other William Marshal novels, see the review of Templar Silks.

Sat., Aug. 10: Review of The Flight Portfolio

Julie Orringer has published three books in 15 years: How to Breathe Underwater, her debut collection of short stories in 2003; her novel The Invisible Bridge in 2010 (see review); and now this year, The Flight Portfolio, another novel. In all three, her graceful, transparent prose transports readers directly into her characters' experiences and emotions. She obviously takes extra time and care researching and writing her books, and the result makes them well worth the wait for readers.

Her two novels are set in Europe during World War II. The Invisible Bridge is about a Hungarian Jew studying architecture in Paris who is forced back to his home country after the Nazis come to power. The Flight Portfolio is based on the life of Varian Fry, an American who went to Vichy France to help talented Jews, mostly artists and writers, escape the Nazis by emigrating to the U.S. Both are deeply absorbing novels whose greatest strength are the characters, who seem to come fully to life from beginning to end; the novels are also page turners with gripping plots which offer deeply researched windows into a past that is, alas, more relevant than it ought to be today. For more about her latest novel, see the review of The Flight Portfolio.

Fri., Aug. 9: Review of A Brightness Long Ago

Guy Gavriel Kay's "fantasy" novels are really historical novels very slightly disguised. That's good news for readers who love historical fiction and aren't crazy about wizardly shapeshifting and magical mists. His latest novel, A Brightness Long Ago, is really set in fifteenth-century Italy, but with place names changed, a few otherworldly touches added, and the feud between the Montefeltro and Malatesta families fictionalized just enough to give the author freedom to tell a breathless page-turner of a story. For more about this novel, see the review of A Brightness Long Ago.

Weds., June 12: Review of Courting Mr. Lincoln

Mary Todd Lincoln was not well liked in her time. Women then were not supposed to have opinions on politics, nor were they supposed to be witty at the expense of men. Louis Bayard's novel Courting Mr. Lincoln gives us a Mary Todd who will please readers today who do like witty, politically opinionated women. Evidently, Abraham Lincoln also did. For more about this delightful novel, see the review of Courting Mr. Lincoln.

Tuesday, June 11: Review of Chariot of the Soul

Readers hungry for more novels integrating graceful writing, a realistic historical approach, and the mysticism of the ancient world will thoroughly enjoy Linda Proud's Chariot of the Soul. Reminiscent of novels like Rosemary Sutcliff's Sword at Sunset and Mary Stewart's Merlin trilogy (The Crystal Cave, The Hollow Hills and The Last Enchantment, Proud's latest novel is about a British prince educated in Rome who returns to Britain in advance of Emperor Claudius's invasion on a mission to persuade the British kings to accept Roman rule. For more about this fine novel, see the review of Chariot of the Soul.

Friday, May 31: Review of The Wolf and the Watchman

If you're a reader who likes hard-boiled historical mysteries and you're looking for a fresh setting, look no further. The kind of wickedness Sam Spade uncovers in Depression-era California is tame compared to the murders and other crimes a pair of investigators in 1793 Sweden track down in The Wolf and the Watchman by Niklas Natt Och Dag. For more about this exceptionally well-plotted and clever novel, see the review of The Wolf and the Watchman.

Thursday, May 30: Review of Cherokee America

Margaret Verble's new novel, Cherokee America, is about a woman and her five sons who run a potato farm in the Cherokee Nation in the 1870s. It feels like it was written about real people. Perhaps that's because it was inspired by the life of a real woman, someone the author's grandmother knew. Nothing in this novel is stereotyped, which makes it especially fresh and engaging. For more about this story of life in the Cherokee Nation, see the review of Cherokee America.

Tuesday, May 28: Review of The Invisible Bridge

Julie Orringer's first novel, The Invisible Bridge followed her acclaimed collection of short stories, How to Breathe Underwater. Published in 2010, The Invisible Bridge is an absorbing story of a young Hungarian who goes to Paris in 1937 to study architecture, but is forced back to Hungary after it forms an alliance with Nazi Germany.

The novel is a love story with numerous complications, as well as a story of how individual Jews navigated the challenges of living in Europe among various styles and degrees of anti-Semitism. I wish it were not newly relevant eight years after it was first published. The story reminds us that prejudice and persecution take many forms, adapting to the specific cultures in which they arise. For more about this beautifully written novel, see the review of The Invisible Bridge.

Monday, May 27: Review of Tombland

C.J. Sansom's Matthew Shardlake mysteries are long novels, thicker with history than the usual historical mystery. His latest, Tombland, is no exception. In this one, Shardlake gets mixed up with Kett's Rebellion, an uprising in the time of Edward VI that seemed, for a time, as though it could reorganize English social structure as thoroughly as Henry VIII's many marriages reorganized English religion. For more about this meaty novel, see the review of Tombland.

Saturday, May 25: Review of Austerlitz

W.G. Sebald has a way of closely observing and describing people and their surroundings in a way that does far more than evoke a sense of their tangible reality. He also suggests a haunting inner life to even the most inanimate of objects that, in the early chapters of his masterful novel Austerlitz serves to pull readers into the story long before he reveals its subject.

Actually, that's not quite right.

The subject of Austerlitz is dislocation, and readers feel this dislocation from the first page, when the narrator speaks of his wanderings in a foreign city, feeling unwell, acutely aware of "the uncertainty of my footsteps." But more is revealed, little by little, to explain the source and nature of the main character's dislocation until, ultimately, the power of the final revelations are all the greater because of the subtly compelling but seemingly meandering way Sebald has drawn readers into his character's mysterious life. For more about this exceptional novel, see the review of Austerlitz.

Weds., May 22: Review of Tell Them of Battles, Kings and Elephants

This lovely, short, stylish novel is also a well-researched historical novel about a little-known episode in Michelangelo's life. You may not realize that after he became famous in Europe for his David sculpture, he accepted a commission from the Turkish Sultan to design a bridge. It's true. And while most of what happens in the novel may not be true--very little is known about Michelangelo's time in Turkey--it's consistent with what we do know about Michelangelo and is an insightful portrayal of the creative process, something that does not always appear straightforward and sensible to the non-artists who commission work. For more about this excellent novel, see the review of Tell Them of Battles, Kings and Elephants.

Fri., March 5: Review of Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet

One of the shameful episodes in American history was the incarceration of loyal Japanese-Americans (many born in the U.S.) after the bombing of Pearl Harbor and the entry of the U.S. into WWII. Jamie Ford's novel Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet, originally published in 2009, has been reissued in a 10-year anniversary edition. It's a timely reminder of the harm we do when we blindly label people of a particular ethnic group as enemies and treat them as dangers to be locked up. This novel looks at the internment camps from the perspective of a Chinese-American boy who becomes friends with a Japanese-American girl when they both work in a school cafeteria, the only two children of Asian descent in their prestigious school. For more about this touching novel, see the review of Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet.

Coming Soon: Reviews of The Invisible Bridge (another WWII story) and Tell Them of Battles, Kings and Elephants (about Michelangelo's trip to Istanbul).

Sat., March 9: Review of Smoke and Ashes

Smoke and Ashes, the third novel in Abir Mukherjee's "Wyndham and Bannerjee" mystery series set in Colonial India is every bit as good as the first two novels in the series.

Not only is it a tense mystery/thriller revolving around a horrifying murder, it richly evokes the India of the early years of Gandhi's movement for Indian independence. Used to quelling violent uprisings, the British did not know how to cope with a nonviolent uprising. British police captain Sam Wyndham, trying a variety of unsuccessful coping mechanisms for his personal guilt, shows why Gandhi's method was so powerful.

For more about this riveting novel, see the review of Smoke and Ashes.

Weds., Feb. 20: Review of The Chef's Secret

The Chef's Secret combines two tantalizing novelistic devices: food and secrets. It's about a young chef in the Vatican and the master-chef who took him under his wing as a boy. Athough it does not include actual recipes, its descriptions of lavish sixteenth-century banquets will send creative cooks to their kitchens and leave the rest of us helplessly dazzled. The plot is full of revelations, some more plausible than others. For more about this novel, see the review of The Chef's Secret.

Review of The Buried Giant

Kazuo Ishiguro is known for his elegant literary novels with surprising twists and turns. The Remains of the Day, still perhaps his best-known novel, is set in England after the First World War, as the foundations of the old class system begin to crumble and a butler finds his way of life becoming obsolete.

Ishiguro's 2015 novel, The Buried Giant, goes back further in time, to the decades after King Arthur's death, and introduces fantasy elements that give the story an eerie quality. On the surface, it could not be more different from The Remains of the Day, but the nature of love and the loss of a way of life are at the heart of both novels. For more, see the review of The Buried Giant.

Thurs., Jan. 24: Review of Circe

Sometimes a novel sweeps me off my feet so utterly that I feel at a loss to write a review that can convey even a vague suggestion of how enraptured I felt while reading it. Madeline Miller's Circe struck me that way. Anyone at all interested in ancient Greek myths and legends will want to read this book, which looks at Homer's Odyssey from a very different, and feminist angle. But even to say that makes the novel sound slighter than it is. For what it's worth, here is my review of Circe. If you're into myths, read it. You won't be sorry.

Mon., Jan. 7: Review of In Winter's Shadow

Over a career spanning 1980 to the present, Gillian Bradshaw has written more than 20 historical novels for adults and young people. Her very first historical novel, published in 1980 when she was 24, won the University of Michigan's Hopwood Prize for fiction: Hawk of May tells the story of Arthur's warrior Gwalchmai (Gawain in late medieval versions of the legend). Hawk of May was the first in Bradshaw's Arthurian trilogy. Last in the trilogy is 1981's In Winter's Shadow, which centers on King Arthur's wife Gwynhwyfar (Guinevere) during the tragic last years of Arthur's reign. It's a very worthy part of the large body of Arthurian novels, exploring the multiplying dilemmas created by Arthur's begetting of Medraut (Mordred) and Gwynhwyfar's adultery with Bedwyr (Lancelot). For more about this fine novel, see the review of In Winter's Shadow.

Fans of Arthurian fiction may also want to take a look at the freshly upgraded Arthurian Britain section on the Ancient History page.

Sat., Jan. 5: Review of Now We Shall be Entirely Free

It's a special pleasure to feature another review by guest reviewer Annis, with her unfailing ability to pick out a great historical novel. Today, she reviews Now We Shall Be Entirely Free, Andrew Miller's new novel about a British soldier traumatized by his experiences in Napoleoon's Peninsular War (today we would call it PTSD). It's one of several historical novels that were long-listed for the 2018 Man Booker Prize. For more about this well-written novel, see Annis's review of Now We Shall Be Entirely Free.

Coming soon: Reviews of Gillian Bradshaw's In Winter's Shadow, Abir Mukherjee's Smoke and Ashes, and more reviews from Annis.

Mon., Dec. 31: Review of The Blood of Heaven

Well, kind of a review. I read almost the first third of Kent Wascom's 2013 novel The Blood of Heaven before I decided to quit torturing myself. It deals with an obscure episode in American history, the Kemper Rebellion in west Florida, and is undeniably brilliant in many ways, even though it is decidedly not for me. I hope my review of The Blood of Heaven will provide enough of an introduction to its style and content for you to decide whether you might want to skip it or dive into it. If you like it, there are two sequels.

Thurs., Dec. 27: Review of The Truth According to Us

Now and then, I start wondering whether my love of historical novels has worn itself out, or if there might, after all, be something inherently less compelling about novels set in a time other than our present reality. Then a novel like Annie Barrows's The Truth According to Us sweeps me off my feet, and I realize there's something about a really well-written historical novel that can actually illuminate more about our own time than many a novel set in the present. One key is writing that tackles timeless subjects, like the yearning for truth and clarity in a world where these are hard to find. Another is writing that makes the characters so alive you can't not believe in their reality. Barrows does this partly by placing her characters in a setting so vividly present around them you can practically feel the heat and humidity, and partly by giving them such distinct and rich personalities they start to feel like people you know personally. For more about this wonderful novel set in a small West Virginia town in 1938, see the review of The Truth According to Us.

Fri., Dec. 21: Review of Bear No Malice

If January sounds like the right time to snuggle into the corner of the couch with a good love story, Clarissa Harwood's Bear No Malice is worth considering. It's about a pair of caring but flawed people who find each other under circumstances that don't lend themselves to romance. He's a clergyman burdened with a guilty conscience and some broken bones. She's hiding away in the country after being hurt and shamed, and is certain she can never marry. For more about this novel, see the review of Bear No Malice. It will be published by Pegasus Books on January 1.

Sat., Dec. 15: Review of Transcription

Having read Kate Atkinson's wonderful 2013 novel Life After Life, I was eager to read her new novel Transcription, which also revolves around the events of WWII. If Transcription is not as breathtakingly unique in structure as Life After Life, it's still a completely fresh take on the period that offers plenty of twists and food for thought. It's about an eighteen-year-old girl who joins an MI5 counter-espionage project in 1940. This superficial synopsis might suggest a genre romance about a plucky girl turning into a woman amid the pressures of wartime, but no one who reads much beyond the first line will continue to hold that impression. Transcription is a clever story devoid of cliché and rich with humor, tragedy and insight. For more about this superb novel, see the review of Transcription.

Weds., Dec. 5: Review of The Blood

The Blood is the second I have read of E.S. Thomson's vividly rendered "Jem Flockhart" mystery series, set in mid-nineteenth-century London. The main character is intelligent and sympathetic, and the author's descriptive flair makes the drippy dockside streets of the Victorian waterfront so present one can almost smell them. These mysteries are not for the squeamish, as corpses are also made present for the reader. But if you're more interested in learning about the masses of less fortunate people peopling nineteenth-century London than in imagining yourself in a frilly ball gown, these are the books for you. For more about the story, see the review of The Blood.

Sun., Nov. 25: Review of A Murdered Peace

Candace Robb is a veteran author of historical mysteries who has published sixteen novels in three different series. Her latest, A Murdered Peace, is the third in her Kate Clifford series about a young widow in York at the turn of the 15th century. This mystery novel, set just after the Epiphany Uprising against the usurping King Henry IV, is full of both historical detail and peril for its characters. Readers who enjoyed the first two Kate Clifford mysteries will not want to miss this one. For more about it, see the review of A Murdered Peace.

Weds., Nov. 14: Review of Unsheltered

Barbara Kingsolver is a wonderful novelist who has turned her hand to both historical and contemporary novels. Unsheltered, her latest, is both. It tells the stories of two families in Vineland, New Jersey, separated by over a century, but with much in common.

For readers struggling, like the families in the novel, to make ends meet against the odds, it's a reminder that they're not alone. There's some comfort in that. And there's comfort in losing oneself in a novel as absorbing and well-written as this one.

Plus, Unsheltered introduces readers to some strikingly interesting historical figures: Charles Landis, the less-than-fully-admirable founder of a community of utopian ideals; and naturalist Mary Treat, who lived and worked in Vineland. For more about this highly recommended novel, see the review of Unsheltered.

Tues., Nov. 13: Review of The Thirty-One Kings

Alfred Hitchcock's classic film "The Thirty-Nine Steps" was based (very loosely) on a 1915 novel of the same name by John Buchan. Like Richard Hannay, the wise-cracking detective of his novel, Buchan was a Scot who had lived in Africa. Published during WWI, The Thirty-Nine Steps was a big hit with British soldiers in the trenches, and Buchan wrote four more Hannay novels before his death in 1940 (in Canada, where he served as Governor General from 1935 until his death).

Published this September, Robert J. Harris's thriller The Thirty-One Kings revives Hannay and locates him in France in the early part of WWII. Harris's Hannay, like Buchan's, is a whiz at surviving narrow escapes. To learn more about this historical thriller, see the review of The Thirty-One Kings.

Mon., Nov. 12: Review of Where the Fire Falls

In Karen Barnett's Where the Fire Falls, two characters struggle their way toward emotional healing and love in a setting of spectacular natural grandeur that gives them a sense of God's presence. For more about this novel, published in June 2018, see the review of Where the Fire Falls. And keep your eyes open for several more new reviews which I'll post in the coming days.

Tues., July 10: Review of Dear Mrs. Bird

London during the Blitz is a great setting for a novel, offering the life-and-death suspense of a city under the constant threat of bombs, along with the everyday courage of the men and women who endured this rain of terror, often with extraordinarily upbeat attitudes. Dear Mrs. Bird offers this and something more, with a plucky heroine who is also humorously naïve and finds herself unexpectedly working as the typist for a grouchy advice columnist. For more about this delightful and genuinely touching novel, see the review of Dear Mrs. Bird.

Sun., July 8: Review of A Necessary Evil

With publication of his first mystery novel in 2017, A Rising Man, Abir Mukherjee became a rising author. His second novel, A Necessary Evil is proof that his excellent first novel was no flash in the pan. Mukherjee writes about British Colonial India with such impressive authority, skill and texture, you'd think he had himself been a police officer in Calcutta in the early decades of the 20th century. The novel succeeds both as a gripping mystery/thriller and as an insightful historical novel. For more about the setting and story, see the review of A Necessary Evil.