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.

Fri., Feb. 5: Review of Rebel Queen

If you're a fan of novels about women who find themselves in royal courts and have to grow up fast, but you're looking for a fresher setting than the Tudor and Elizabethan eras, try Michelle Moran's The Rebel Queen. The heroine is a nineteenth-century Indian village girl who gets the chance to become one of the female bodyguards for Queen Lakshmi of Jhansi. The setting is fascinating, the suspense in strong from beginning to end, and when you've finished the novel, you'll understand more about the history of Colonial India. For more about this novel, see the review of Rebel Queen.

Tues., Feb. 2: Review of Timbuktu

Although Arthur Conan Doyle wrote four novels and 56 short stories about his creation Sherlock Holmes, fans still can't get enough of the renowned detective, and novelists keep writing tales to please them. Vasudev Murthy's Sherlock Holmes, The Missing Years: Timbuktu imagines his travels through northern Africa in the company, of course, of the faithful Dr. Watson, and trailed by his nemesis Professor Moriarty. For more about this witty novel, see the review of Timbuktu.

Mon., Feb. 1: Review of The Lord of Vik-Ló

Third in James L. Nelson's Norsemen Saga about Norse Vikings in Ireland, The Lord of Vik-Ló finds its Viking crew, on its way home, driven back to the Irish coast by a storm. Reviewer David Maclaine found it a worthy addition to the series, full of "hard-hewing" battle scenes and interesting details about Viking ships and sailing. For more about this novel, see David's review of The Lord of Vik-Ló.

Fri., Jan. 29: Review of In the Company of Sherlock Holmes

In the Company of Sherlock Holmes, the latest volume of Holmes-inspired short stories edited by Laurie R. King and Leslie S. Klinger, is full of clever mysteries by some very popular mystery writers like Michael Connelly, Sara Paretsky and Harlan Ellison. Don't expect classic Holmes pastiches, though. In fact, a little over half the stories in this collection do not feature historical settings. The rest do, and contain twists as surprising as the contemporary settings of the other stories. For more about this collection, see the review of In the Company of Sherlock Holmes.

Sat., Jan. 23: Review of The Secret Chord

Geraldine Brooks is a skilled and graceful novelist who well deserves the critical acclaim that has come to her. Her latest novel, The Secret Chord, may be one of her best. It gets part of its power from its powerful subject: the Biblical King David of Israel, one of the most fascinating characters in the Old Testament. The rest of its power comes from Brooks' formidable skill as a novelist. The title refers to David's skill as a harpist, one of the many specific details in his story that show him as a very individual human being. For more about this moving novel, see the review of The Secret Chord.

Weds., Dec. 30: Review of The Constable's Tale

The Constable's Tale, by Donald Smith, is the only mystery I know of that is set in Colonial North Carolina during the French and Indian Wars. Only a few are set anywhere in Colonial North America, so this is rare territory for lovers of historical mysteries. The setting is well researched, vividly portrayed, and especially engaging because it is such a different world than frequent historical fiction readers are used to. In an earlier time and place, volunteer constable Harry Woodyard could not aspire to rise above his station; in a later time and place, it would be far easier for him to do so. For more about this mystery novel, the first in a planned series, see the review of The Constable's Tale.

Fri., Dec. 4: "Best of" List for 2015

There are some tremendously good historical novels out there. In 2015, I had less time for reading than I've had in the past, so I learned to be more selective about what I read, catching up on some 2014 novels I missed, some brand-new 2015 novels, new or used editions of novels I had not previously read, and a variety of others. The ones I most thoroughly enjoyed are collected in my list of The Eight Best Historical Novels I Read in 2015. You'll also find, below that list, collections of my favorites from previous years. Happy reading!!!

Thurs., Dec. 3: Review of Middle Passage

The "Best of 2015" list will go up in a day or two. Meanwhile, here's a review of a novel that will be on the list. Middle Passage was first published twenty-five years ago and remains fresh and exciting today. (People who read a lot of historical novels know that they can and do become dated, if written less than brilliantly.) This novel about an ex-slave who stows away on a ship only to discover it is a slaver will keep readers awake after bedtime. For more about this novel, see the review of Middle Passage.

Weds., Sept. 22: Review of The Pagan Lord

Bernard Cornwell's Saxon Tales series now includes eight novels about Uhtred, the Northumbrian lord's son raised by Danish Vikings after they attacked his father's fortress of Bebbanburgh, who returned to England and joined the army of the man who would become King Alfred the Great.

The Pagan Lord is the seventh in the series, and by now Alfred is dead and Uhtred is serving his son and daughter, Edward and Aethelfled. Reviewer David Maclaine finds clues in this novel that the series is far from over. Rather, it hints that it is part of a vast design showing "how an England shattered by invasion emerged at last as a nation." The battles are not over, with Cornwell "is at his best when he zooms in to describe the gritty details." For more about this novel, see David's review of The Pagan Lord.

Weds., August 19: Review of Evergreen Falls

Kimberley Freeman's latest novel, Evergreen Falls, spans two time periods: the present day and 1926, and during the historical story features a massive snowstorm at in the "Christmas in June" season at a resort hotel in Australia's Blue Mountains. It's an unusual setting and a sweet story with enough suspense to keep readers turning the pages. For more about this novel, see the review of Evergreen Falls.

Tues., August 11: Review of The Anchoress

Robyn Cadwallader's novel about a woman immured in a tiny, doorless room attached to a church is surprisingly full of human interactions and challenges. The fictional Sarah - the anchoress of the title - grows over the course of the story in some interesting, not always expected ways. She's a very different person than the anchoress in Mary Sharratt's 2012 novel Illuminations, based on the historical anchoress Hildegard of Bingen. Sarah makes her own decision to seek enclosure, acting on what she considers to be very good reasons. Both novels make fascinating reading and shed light on the strange world of medieval Europe - a world less distant from our own than we might wish to think. For more about them, see the review of The Anchoress, and our earlier review of Illuminations.

Mon., August 10: Review of The Poisoning Angel

The Poisoning Angel by French author Jean Teulé is definitely off the beaten path. If the historical novels you've been reading are starting to feel like carbon copies of one another, and if you enjoy a bit of dark humor, this novel should perk you up. It's based on the true story of Hélène Jégado, a Breton cook who, from time to time, added poison to her recipes. For more about this novel, see the review of The Poisoning Angel.

Sun., August 2: Cats on Books

Many of us who love historical novels have cats who also love historical novels in their own special way. Sarah Johnson of Reading the Past, a fabulous historical fiction blog, caught her Tortie living dangerously on a pile of them. Thanks, Sarah, for sharing your photo! See more bookish cats at the Cats on Books page.

Cat on Books

Fri., July 31: Review of The Flying Circus

Not too many novels have been written about the daredevil stunt pilots and barnstormers of the 1920s, so Susan Crandall's new novel The Flying Circus offers an unusual tale. Each of the three main characters is hiding a trauma in his or her past from the other two, so the humorous tone as the novel begins eventually takes a serious turn. For more about this novel, see the review of The Flying Circus, which includes a link to historic film footage of some similar daredevils.

Tues., June 16: Review of Servants of the Map

Really good historical short stories are difficult to write. They need to evoke the time and place of their setting without overburdening the story with the lengthy passages of description and explanation that readers will tolerate or even enjoy in the longer form of a novel. Andrea Barrett's historical short stories are graceful, insightful and evoke the many time periods about which she writes with wonderful economy and vividness. Her 2002 collection Servants of the Map is a treat for anyone who loves historical fiction of high literary quality. To learn more about it, see the review of Servants of the Map.

Mon., June 15: Review of The Fair Fight

Anna Freeman's The Fair Fight is a novel about an unusual subject: female prizefighters in eighteenth-century England. Women did engage in this sport in the 1700s, when the sport was far more physically brutal than today. Freeman makes her characters tremendously believable and memorable in a similarly well-drawn setting. For more about this novel, see the review of The Fair Fight.

Thurs., June 11: Review of Tin Sky

Tin Sky by Ben Pastor is one of those rare mystery novels that works on the mystery level but that also works as a thoughtful and serious novel well worth the attention of readers looking for something more than a light beach read. The fourth in the Martin Bora series about a German military officer during World War II, it's a complex and believable character study of a man caught between his sense of responsibility and his conscience. It's a unique novel that takes a completely fresh angle on the moral dilemmas of German life in the Nazi era. For more about this novel, see the review of Tin Sky.

Fri., May 29: Review of The Anatomy Lesson

The first painting Rembrandt signed his name to (instead of just his initials) showed a guild of Dutch surgeons at a lecture on the dissection of a human arm. "The Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Tulp," in Rembrandt's hands, became a masterwork. What made it such a fine painting? Not just brushstrokes. Nina Siegal's novel "The Anatomy Lesson" tells the painting's story through the men and women whose lives are interwoven with its creation. For more about this well-researched and thoughtfully written novel, see the review of The Anatomy Lesson.

Coming soon: reviews of Tin Sky, The Fair Fight and more

Tues., April 7: Review of The Forest Lover

Writers and artists have a lot in common, which may be one reason why so many novels have been written about artists. Susan Vreeland's 2004 novel The Forest Lover is about the early twentieth-century Canadian artist Emily Carr, whose work was inspired by the Native American culture and the natural landscape of British Columbia. Art critics either ignored or panned her work so persistently that she finally gave up painting. Today, she is considered to be one of the most important Canadian artists of the twentieth century. How that happened is the story Vreeland tells. For more about this interesting and moving novel, see the review of The Forest Lover. More novels about artists are discussed in a special section on this website, Historical Novels about Artists.

Mon., April 6: Review of Enemies at Home

Arthur Conan Doyle famously attempted and failed to kill off his popular detective Sherlock Holmes. Mystery writers know better now. After writing 20 mysteries featuring the fictional Roman informer Marcus Didius Falco, Lindsey Davis freshened the series by focusing instead on Falco's adopted daughter Flavia Albia. As witty as her father, Flavia Albia will no doubt make her father's fans happy. Enemies at Home is the second Flavia Albia mystery, and is a baffling mystery as full of insights about ancient Rome as any reader could desire. For more about this historical mystery, see the review of Enemies at Home.

Weds., March 18: Review of An Appetite for Violets

Martine Bailey's An Appetite for Violets is one of those novels that borrows a historical setting to make a confection out of it rather than to illuminate a real past that led to our present. That's not to say Bailey's research isn't thorough and full of fascinating details - just that the whole point of this novel is to entertain. And as entertainment, it succeeds lavishly. For more about the story, see the review of An Appetite for Violets.

Tues., March 17: Review of Conspirata

If you're interested in politics, you'll find plenty of it in ancient Rome, which makes a fascinating - perhaps disturbing - comparative study with politics today. Over a relatively short period of time, the Roman Republic became a dictatorship. At the center of this transition, struggling against it, was the Roman orator Cicero. Conspirata (titled Lustrum in the U.K.) is the second of three novels in a trilogy (Imperium is the first) that tells Cicero's story from the perspective of his slave and confidential secretary, Tiro. Though ancient Roman politics could be complex, Harris writes about it with great clarity. It was also extremely personal, making the drama especially stark. Annis's review of Imperium was posted a few years ago, shortly after the novel appeared. I've just posted my review of Conspirata, which I found thoroughly absorbing. Now I'm eager to read the third novel in the trilogy, Dictator, which is due out this fall.

Thurs., March 5: Review of Girl on the Golden Coin

Many novels have been written about women who were the mistresses of kings. Girl on the Golden Coin is about a woman who refused to become the mistress of a king. No, not Anne Boleyn. Marci Jefferson's 2014 novel, newly published in a paperback edition, is about Frances Stuart, who was known as a great beauty in her time and for resisting the advances of King Charles II. For more about this novel, see the review of Girl on the Golden Coin.

"The Texas Wife" complete online

The online magazine Fabula Argentea has published my short story "The Texas Wife," about a young German who immigrates to Texas in the mid-nineteenth century. He 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