Here are some historical fiction reviews I did for the February 2008 issue of the Historical Novels Review. There's quite a variety here!
Susan Fraser King, Crown Publishers, 2008
As the descendant of Scottish kings, young Gruadh is a valuable prize, as a man who marries her can claim the throne of Scotland. Married, pregnant, and widowed within a matter of months, Gruadh after her husband’s death is immediately claimed in marriage by another man—the warrior Macbeth, killer of her first husband.
King paints a vivid picture of the often brutal world of eleventh-century Scotland, where allegiances constantly shift and where peace is always elusive. Gruadh, who bears little resemblance to her Shakespearian counterpart, is a compelling heroine, fiercely protective of her lineage, proud of her Celtic heritage, and determined to fight for what she holds dear. Macbeth is not only a man of intense ambition, but a man of honor, a quality that Gruadh shares with him and that she gradually comes to recognize in her husband. Their evolving relationship, one between two strong-willed, intelligent people, is rendered skillfully. Gruadh tells her own story in a narrative voice that evokes the atmosphere of her time and place without feeling contrived or stilted.
As King points out in a detailed author’s note, little is known of the historical Lady Macbeth. Working with the information available, King has created a memorable portrait of a courageous woman.
More Letters From Pemberley
Jane Dawkins, Sourcebooks, 2007
When we left Elizabeth Darcy in Letters From Pemberley, she and her husband had been married for a year or so and were expecting their first child. More Letters From Pemberley picks up shortly thereafter and follows the Darcys and their family through 1819, shortly before the end of the Regency period.
Though Letters From Pemberly was an agreeable read, More Letters From Pemberley is a much better novel. The allusions to Austen’s other works, while still present here, are far less abundant than they were in Letters From Pemberley; the result is a novel that feels less like fan fiction and more like a novel that can stand entirely on its own. There’s considerably more focus and dramatic tension here as well, due in large part to the author’s determination to show a maturing Elizabeth and to “include the sometimes unpleasant realities of everyday life,” as Dawkins states in her preface. The result is not grim realism but a touching portrait of how one of fiction’s most beloved couples might have dealt with life’s inevitable reversals of fortune. Even more to her credit, Dawkins accomplishes this task without sacrificing charm and humor and while remaining true to the characters as they were conceived by Austen.
Cathy Marie Hake, Bethany House, 2007
Newly arrived in the United States in 1890, Lady Sydney Hathwell cannot bring herself to enter into a loveless marriage with the man her deceased father had chosen for her. Instead, she determines to stay with her uncle at Forsaken Ranch in Texas until she comes of age and receives her inheritance. Unfortunately, Uncle Fuller, deceived by Sydney’s masculine-sounding name, is expecting a nephew, not a niece. Sydney, therefore, dons men’s clothes and heads for Texas, where her uncle’s partner, Tim Creighton, determines to make a man out of Fuller’s foppish English relation.
Though there’s very little doubt about the resolution of this novel, Hake makes getting there an enjoyable journey, complete with Sydney’s first visit to a bordello (where Sydney’s new acquaintances allow her to take bubble baths undetected). With lively dialogue and engaging characters, Fancy Pants is tailor-made for fun.
Whispers Along the Rails
Judith Miller, Bethany House, 2007
In this, Miller’s second novel set in the 1890’s “company town” of Pullman, Illinois, Olivia Mott is not only working as an assistant chef at the Hotel Florence but riding the rails incognito, checking to see how Pullman’s services can be improved—or does her enigmatic boss, Mr. Howard, have another goal in mind? Meanwhile, Olivia’s former suitor, Fred, finds himself becoming involved in the labor movement, while lack of money causes Charlotte, daughter of an earl and mother to an out-of-wedlock child, to move into a settlement house in Chicago and take a job at the Marshall Field department store.
Whispers Along the Rails is well researched, well plotted, and peopled with sympathetic, three-dimensional characters who must make increasingly complicated—and risky—decisions as their situations become firmly intertwined. As was the case with its predecessor, In the Company of Secrets, Miller leaves the reader hanging and eagerly awaiting the next installment. (Fortunately, the recipes that Miller includes in the back matter can be enjoyed straightaway—allowing, of course, time for cooking.)
On Wings of the Morning
Marie Bostwick, Kensington Books, 2007, $14.00/C$17.50, pb, 384 pp, 9780758222565
Georgia Carter and Morgan Glennon have something in common: both grew up as out-of-wedlock children. They have another thing in common as well: both have a passion for flying airplanes. World War II gives both the opportunity to serve their country by doing so, Georgia as a member of the now-little-known Women’s Air Service Pilots.
Morgan (whose mother is the heroine of Bostwick’s first novel, Fields of Gold) and Georgia recount their own experiences, which eventually intersect to form a love story. Just as important as the romance between Morgan and Georgia, however, is the manner in which both characters come to terms with their backgrounds and with the harsh realities of war and sexism.
The characters here, major and minor alike, are rendered vividly and sympathetically, and Bostwick makes 1940’s America come alive. The dialogue is natural, with a nice period flavor to it, as are Georgia and Morgan’s narrative voices. Spending time in these people’s company was a pleasure.
For those wishing to learn more about the history behind the novel, Bostwick has included an informative author’s note in which she discusses the Women’s Air Service Pilots and Charles Lindbergh (an important character in this novel).
Veronica Bennett, Candlewick Press, 2007
Cassandra’s Sister opens in revolutionary Paris as a young man is guillotined. In due time, his English widow, Eliza, makes her way to an English rectory, where her glamorous, tragic marriage and pragmatic outlook on life make a deep impression on one of her country cousins—the young Jane Austen, called Jenny by her family.
This quiet, often gently humorous, and elegantly written biographical novel tells the story of Jane Austen’s coming of age, both as a woman and as a writer. As Jane and her sister Cassandra go about their daily lives of social calls and occasional visits, suitors come and go for the sisters. Jane’s novels are started, completed, rejected, put away, and revised. Like a Jane Austen novel, a great deal happens without much seeming to happen at all. Jane Austen’s life influences her art—and, at a crucial moment, Jane Austen’s art will influence her life.
Intended for young adults, this novel doesn’t require a familiarity with Jane Austen’s own novels, but those who know at least some of them will probably find Cassandra’s Sister more enjoyable than those who are strangers to Austen. Older readers, Janeites and non-Janeites alike, are likely to find this novel to be a pleasant tea or cocoa companion as well.
Vicki Grove, Putnam, 2007
In 12th-century England, fourteen-year-old Rhiannon is fascinated by the fate of King Henry's White Ship, wrecked just months before. After all, many of the passengers who perished were not much older than Rhia herself. Soon, however, Rhia's thoughts turn in another direction when a man is found murdered in nearby Woethersly. When Jim, one of the kindly locals, is accused of the crime, Rhia determines to clear his name by searching for the real murderer. Her quest will not only put her and her friends in danger, but lead to another question: Did the king's son survive the wreck of the White Ship?
Rhia is resourceful and endearing, as are the friends, old and new, she enlists in her mission. There's a large, varied cast of characters, from Rhia's healer mother to a handsome young oblate to some loutish young aristocrats to Rhia's aged, noisy, and protective groshawke, Gramp.
Grove's prose style is highly readable, with turns of phrase that give her narrative a medieval feel. With its blend of mystery, adventure, and romance, and even a dash of the supernatural, this is a novel that young readers should thoroughly enjoy.