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.

Tues., Sept. 5: Review of The Gospel of Mary

A second novel in the Sister Dierdre mystery series by Philip Freeman is just out. The Gospel of Mary continues the story of Sister Dierdre, nun and Druidic bard, who solved a murder in the first novel in the series. This time, the mystery revolves around an ancient manuscript that church authorities want to destroy. For more about this novel, see the review of The Gospel of Mary.

Mon., Aug. 14. This website can no longer support Amazon

I am horrified by the outbreak of racism and murder in Charlottesville, Virginia (if you don't know what happened, see this article in the New York Times). In light of that, I feel it is indefensible to purchase from Amazon, which continues to advertise on the Breitbart so-called "news" website. Breitbart has published false and misleading stories that inflame right-wing extremists, including the "birther" falsehood about President Barack Obama and the vicious falsehood about Hillary Clinton that led to a shooting in a pizza restaurant. (See more about Breitbart at Wikipedia.)

In March, I contacted Amazon to express my strong opposition to their advertising policy and did not receive a response. As a result, I am no longer adding new links to Amazon on this website, and have been gradually replacing old Amazon links with links to other online booksellers. I recommend Powell's Books or The Book Depository.

Tues., Aug. 1: Review of Muse

Mary Novik takes her time writing a novel, and that's a good thing. Her second novel, Muse, is as richly drawn and its heroine as engaging as in her first novel, Conceit. Except that both novels include women close to major poets, the settings could not be more different. Where Conceit brought to live the youngest daughter of seventeenth-century English poet John Donne, Muse takes readers to fourteenth-century France - specifically, to Avignon, a city where desperate poverty coexisted with the extraordinary wealth of the French popes who followed Clement VI, who spurned Rome for the comfort of his home city. Muse's resilient central character, scribe and lover of Petrarch, takes readers on a rags-to-riches journey that remains precarious throughout. Muse appeared in 2013, six years after Conceit was published. I hope we can expect another novel from Novik in a year or two. For more about these novels, see the review of Conceit and the review of Muse.

Mon., April 17: Historical Novel Wins Pulitzer

The 2017 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction has just been announced, and the winner is a historical novel: Colson Whitehead's powerful and fascinating work The Underground Railroad. See our review or the Pulitzer Prize website for more information.

Mon., April 3: Review of Homegoing

If you're looking for an intense story about people struggling for physical and emotional survival against huge odds, it would be hard to beat a historical novel about characters caught up in the tragedy of the slave trade. Yaa Gyasi's novel Homegoing looks at this from two different angles: the struggles of slaves and those of Africans who knowingly or unknowingly ally themselves with the enslavers. If the suffering of people taken captive and transported across the Atlantic seems greater, the people who remain behind in Ghana hardly escape lightly. Homegoing is a family saga, and as is typical for the genre, innocent descendants of people who set the wrongs in motion must wrestle with both external conditions and psychological hardships that flow from their ancestors' decisions. Read more about this moving novel in the review of Homegoing.

Sun., March 5: Review of Stone's Fall

Since I found Iain Pears' earlier mystery novel, An Instance of the Fingerpost to be thoroughly engaging, I've had another of his historical mysteries, Stone's Fall, on my "want to read" list for some time. It, too, proved gripping and fascinating. It's not quite fair to call either novel a mystery - although technically both of them are - because they so transcend that genre. These are literary novels with deep themes, exceptionally well researched historical settings, and fully realized, complex characters. Stone's Fall is set in a more recent time, just a century or so ago, than Instance, which explores the emerging scientific world of seventeenth-century Oxford. It's about a quite different emerging world, that of the industrialists and bankers of the Gilded Age who profited from the machinery of war in a time of rising tensions in Europe. For more about these novels, see the reviews of Stone's Fall and An Instance of the Fingerpost.

Tues., Dec. 20: Review of The Undergound Railroad

Colson Whitehead's new novel The Underground Railroad has been getting a lot of attention. It deserves it. This is an intense, highly creative novel that condenses history by imagining the Underground Railroad as a real railroad that travels underground, with stops that suggest race relations in different periods of history. If that sounds contrived, be assured that it doesn't read that way. For more about this extraordinary novel see the review of The Underground Railroad.

Sat., Dec. 17: Review of A Want of Kindness

If you're looking for a novel about an English queen who isn't Anne Boleyn or Elizabeth I, Joanne Limburg's A Want of Kindness is a striking change of pace. It's about Queen Anne, who ruled from 1702-1707, but covers her life as a princess, when she played a significant - and rather surprising - role in deposing her father, James II, in favor of her sister and brother-in-law. For more about this interesting novel, see the review of A Want of Kindness.

Some All-Too-Relevant Historical Novels

Research shows that readers of fiction gain more empathy for others. Historical fiction wasn't a subject of this research, but I do think it gives us a special opportunity to imagine ourselves in the skins of people who grew up in radically different worlds from our own, with radically different views, but who were as human as we are. It also offers windows into past events that played out well or badly.

So, in the wake of the election, I am guessing that most avid readers of historical fiction are as horrified as I am by the rise in hate crimes, by proposals to reactivate a registry targeting loyal American Muslims for persecution, by the numerous conflicts of interest posed by the President-Elect's far-flung business empire, by tweets with the potential to inflame world tensions or destroy the reputations of loyal Americans or American businesses, and so on.

Here are some historical novels worth reading for greater understanding of some of the challenges we now face:

Conspirata (titled Lustrum in the U.K.), by Robert Harris, shows how Rome was transformed from a republic into a dictatorship. Its companion novels, Imperium (#1 in the series) and Dictator (#3) are also compelling reads.

Mistress of the Art of Death by Ariana Franklin (a pen name of Diana Norman) is a murder mystery that plunges readers into the virulent and ignorant anti-Semitic prejudice of Norman England and its horrific injustices.

Wolf Hall and its sequel Bring Up the Bodies by Hilary Mantel show in engrossing detail how a man of good conscience can become a tool in the hands of a narcissist with power.

The Daylight Gate by Jeanette Winterson is a short, well-researched, and powerful novel about a witch hunt that took place in Lancashire County, England, in 1612.

The Whiskey Rebels by David Liss is a thriller about the greed and recklessness that led to the 1792 Financial Panic that almost toppled the fledgling Bank of the United States.

The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead is a page-turner that explores the horrific legacy of slavery and helps us better understand the micro- and macro-aggressions that those of us with paler skin are not always aware of. (Review coming soon.)

On a lighter - but still enlightening - note, The Edge of Ruin is a very funny mystery featuring as its amateur detective a woman married to a flaming narcissist who insists they go to New Jersey in 1909 to become movie producers, in competition with the ruthless and better capitalized entrepreneur Thomas Edison.

I hope your reading this season will inspire you to take an active role in defending the integrity of American democracy - or whatever democracy you belong to - and helping to pull it back from the edge of ruin.

Thank you!

Mon., Oct. 31: Review of The Wages of Desire

Stephen Kelly's Inspector Lamb mystery series is set in Hampshire, England, during World War II. The second in the series, The Wages of Desire, appeared this summer, and will likely be of interest to readers keen on twentieth-century historical mysteries with a British wartime home front setting. Publisher's Weekly suggests this mystery for fans of the British TV series Foyle's War, and I'm guessing they're right - though it's not one of the TV shows I follow. For more about this mystery novel, see the review of The Wages of Desire.

Thursday, Oct. 6: Review of Beloved Poison

An engaging mystery set in the creepy world of a mid-nineteenth century London hospital, Beloved Poison by Elaine Thomson, just appeared this September in its first U.S. edition. For more about this novel, see the review. It's the first in a series of new reviews I'll be posting over the next few days. My computer was damaged in a move from the U.S. East Coast to the West, and between the loss of my computer and the complications of the move itself, the website has been rather neglected. However, I now have a spiffy new computer, and will be making regular updates to the website again.

Coming soon: reviews of Joanne Limburg's A Want of Kindness about Princess Anne, the daughter of England's King James II, and The Wages of Desire by Stephen Kelly, a WWII-era mystery set in England.

Sunday, May 29: New Listings

I'm catching up on adding new listings of historical novels published in 2016. Here's one, just added to the Burma and Ceylon section of the India and South Asia page, that's worth a look - a good reminder not to skip over some of the more obscure times and places authors have written about:

Paul M.M. Cooper, River of Ink, about a court poet in thirteenth-century Sri Lanka who uses his role to encourage a revolution after a cruel mainland prince usurps the throne.

Saturday, May 28: Review of Checkmate

Sixth and last in Dorothy Dunnett's complex and masterful Lymond Chronicles series, Checkmate kept me turning its pages until the wee hours of the morning. When I woke up after a less-than-complete night's sleep, I dived right back in, and read until I finished it. And it's not a short book. For more about this gripping novel, see the review of Checkmate.

Sunday, May 22: Review of The Ringed Castle

The Ringed Castle is fifth in Dorothy Dunnett's six-novel Lymond Chronicles series, and the story gets more gripping with each book as the plot twists continue to mount and secrets are revealed that imply other secrets, still-hidden and each more dangerous than the last. While this is not my favorite novel in the Lymond Chronicles, it's essential reading (as are all the others) in order to fully appreciate the final novel, Checkmate, which is my favorite. Readers who have come this far in the series will want to keep going. For more about this novel, see the review of The Ringed Castle.

Friday, May 20: Review of Count Belisarius

Robert Graves' novels about the Roman Emperor Claudius became well known after the superb BBC television series I, Claudius, based on these novels, aired. (Was that really forty years ago???) Among Graves' other novels is one set in the later Roman Empire after Rome fell and Byzantium became the empire's administrative center. Count Belisarius is set during the reign of Emperor Justinian II in the sixth century, when the loss of Rome's Western Empire was still fresh and might, it seemed, be won back. Belisarius, who has been called one of the greatest generals in history, made a good try. For more about Graves' novel, see David Maclaine's review of Count Belisarius.

Thursday, May 12: Review of Pawn in Frankincense

Pawn in Frankincense is #4 in Dorothy Dunnett's masterly Lymond Chronicles series, and readers who made it through the first three novels without getting thoroughly hooked will be hooked by the time they finish this one. I would not call it my favorite novel in the series - Lymond's antagonist in Pawn in Frankincense is so thoroughly evil that I don't find him as interesting as the other major characters. Readers who relish despicable villains will likely disagree with me. In any case, the group of characters surrounding Lymond and his enemy are so fascinating (as is Lymond himself), the plot so gripping, and the moral dilemmas encountered by the characters so knotty, I still found this a page-turner that - despite its satisfying ending - made me rush to the library for #5 in the series. For more about this superb novel, see the review of Pawn in Frankincense. For those who have not yet read any of the Lymond novels, I have made a special point of avoiding spoilers.

Coming soon: Reviews of Robert Graves' Count Belisarius and of the two final novels in the Lymond series.

Tuesday, May 3: Review of The Strings of Murder

Now available for readers in the U.S., British author Oscar de Muriel's first novel, the mystery The Strings of Murder, is set in nineteenth-century Edinburgh and features a pair of detectives who team up despite their different backgrounds, temperaments and prejudices to solve a series of murders connected with a violin once owned by Paganini. For more about this briskly paced novel, see the review of The Strings of Murder.

Tuesday, April 26: Review of The Disorderly Knights

People have been recommending I read Dorothy Dunnett's Lymond Chronicles series for years. I finally got around to it, and I'm hooked. My review of the third novel in the series, The Disorderly Knights, is now on the website. In this novel, the fascinating Francis Crawford of Lymond goes to Malta, where he finds the Knights Hospitallers, the religious brotherhood in charge of defending the island from the Turks, in a state of disarray. For more about this superb novel, see the review of The Disorderly Knights.

Monday, April 25: Review of Dictator

Readers of Robert Harris's novels Imperium and Conspirata (Lustrum in the U.K.) will want to read Dictator, the third novel in his trilogy about the conflicted Roman statesman Cicero. Principled and highly intelligent, Cicero lived through what may have been the most politically interesting, turbulent and tragic years of Roman history: the period when the Roman Republic gave way to the manipulative intelligence and charm of Julius Caesar to become a dictatorship. For more about this final novel in the trilogy, see the review of Dictator.

Sun., April 24: Review of Warriors of the Storm

David Cornwell's Saxon Tales series reaches nine volumes with his latest, Warriors of the Storm. In this novel, Uhtred's allegiance is tested during an age when the bond between rulers and subjects was a highly personal one. For more about this interesting novel, see David Maclaine's review of Warriors of the Storm.

Weds., April 20: Review of The Dig

Now out in a new U.S. edition, John Preston's 2007 novel The Dig is about the people involved in the momentous 1939 archaeological excavation at Sutton Hoo. The novel is suspenseful, funny, sad, exciting - all of the things the actual dig must have been in an age when archaeology was still in its toddlerhood as a science, if not its infancy, and taking place in a hurry before the looming outbreak of World War II made a dig impossible. For more about this superb novel, see the review of The Dig.

Sat., April 16: Review of The Long Sword

Christian Cameron is known for his series novels set in ancient history. With The Ill-Made Knight, he began a new series about a fourteenth-century English knight. The Long Sword, second in the series, finds his hero on a mission involving the Alexandrian Crusade. For more about this novel, see David Maclaine's review of The Long Sword.

Thurs., April 14: Review of The Passion

Jeanette Winterson's novel The Passion is not your average historical novel. Though she has clearly done loads of research about the setting, Europe during the time of Napoleon, she also roams freely in her imagination, adding touches of magical realism that bring jewel-like strangenesses into the setting.

Of her settings, Winterson has said: "I can see no reason to be bound by chronological time. As far as we know, the universe is not bound by it; as far as we know, it is yet another construct of ours, this worship of the clock and the idea that there is a past and a present and a future which trot along obediently in line and never swap places. In our own lives we know that that’s not true because human beings seem capable of moving imaginatively, backwards and forwards, of pushing out of the body. I think of it really as an out-of-the-body experience — that’s not something that only shamans and New Age hippies have. It’s something that we all have quite often in our lives. And I wanted to bring that into fiction because it seems to me to be a more honest reality than the rather dull reality of the clock." (interview with Eleanor Wachtel, quoted on the Brain Pickings website)

For more about this novel that rises out of the usual category of historical fiction, see the review of The Passion.

Weds., April 13: Review of The Game of Kings

Connoisseurs of historical novels will sooner or later find they must dive into Dorothy Dunnett's Lymond Chronicles series. The Game of Kings introduces her memorable characters, especially the charismatic Francis Crawford of Lymond, and her complex plotting, a delight in itself to many readers, even if it's the rare reader who can keep track of the many interwoven plot threads. For more about this first Lymond novel, see the review of The Game of Kings.

Sun., April 3: Review of Margaret the First

Margaret Cavendish, Duchess of Newcastle, lived in the seventeenth century and was one of the first women to publish under her own name. She had a quirky, original spirit, which Danielle Dutton's novel about her, Margaret the First, reflects. For more about this charming novel, see the review of Margaret the First.

Mon., March 21: Review of Blood and Steel

This past weekend, we added David Maclaine's review of Iron and Rust, the first novel in Harry Sidebottom's new Throne of the Caesars series set in the third-century Roman Empire. Today, we're adding David's review of the second novel in the series, Blood and Steel. He praises the authenticity of Sidebottom's portrayal of this unusual setting, as well as his literary craftsmanship. For more about this novel of warfare, politics and the challenge of survival during a time of crisis, see David's review of Blood and Steel.

Sat., March 19: Review of Iron and Rust

Historian Harry Sidebottom is known for the historical authenticity and rousing stories in his Warrior of Rome series about a third-century Roman soldier. His new Throne of the Caesars series continues to show the same high standards, says reviewer David Maclaine in his review of the first volume in this new series, Iron and Rust. For more about this exciting novel, see the review of Iron and Rust.

Weds., March 16: Review of Salamis

The Battle of Salamis, when the naval forces of ancient Greece defended an attack by Xerxes of Persia, was one of the most important battles in history. David Maclaine reviews Christian Cameron's novel Salamis, #5 in the Long War series about the war between Greece and Persia, and finds it a faithful portrayal of this crucial naval battle. For more about this novel, see David's review of Salamis.

Thurs., March 10: Review of The Great King

Fourth in Christian Cameron's Long War series about the wars between Greece and Persia, The Great King sends its hero to the palace of King Xerxes. This is a novel about war, and reviewer David Maclaine praises Cameron's "mastery of the arms and equipment of the classical age" as well as his "sharp-eyed depiction of the conventions of Greek society." For more about this novel, see David's review of The Great King.

Coming soon: David's review of Salamis, #5 in the Long War series.

Mon., March 7: Review of The Amber Road

David Maclaine reviews The Amber Road, the sixth and last volume in Harry Sidebottom's Warrior of Rome series, set in the third-century backwaters of the Roman Empire. Sidebottom's hero is not Roman, but a man from a Germanic tribe who has allied himself with Rome, which gives Sidebottom the opportunity to explore this period of Roman history from an outsider's viewpoint. "Compelling as ever," David says of the author's ability to bring history alive. For more about this novel, see David's review of The Amber Road.

Weds., March 2: Review of Bohemian Gospel

As a genre, horror stories are not a personal favorite of mine. From its title, I expected something different from Bohemian Gospel, and by the time I realized what I was reading, its gripping opening scene and relentless pacing had pulled me in. It's a tale about a girl who grows up in a Bohemian abbey, learning to hide her supernatural powers as she explores her healing abilities through conventional medieval medicine. When her path crosses that of the young King Ottakar, grievously wounded by an assassin's arrow, the adventure - and the nightmare - begins. For more about this page-turner, see the review of Bohemian Gospel.

Tues., March 1: Review of Twain's End

Twain's End is a fascinating novel about a woman who was almost lost to history after being fired and denounced by her employer within two years of his death. The woman was Isabel Lyon, who served as private secretary for Samuel Clemens, the man the world knew by his pen name, Mark Twain. For years, historians uncritically accepted Clemens' over-the-top accusations against her, when they mentioned her at all. She was his trusted, close confidante, though, for most of the last eight years of his life. More recent scholarship has reconsidered their relationship, and Cullen's novel movingly portrays it in all the complexity of that reconsideration. For more about this novel, see the review of Twain's End.