Tag: historical fiction

Review – Dread Nation

Posted August 12, 2019 by Nikki in Reviews / 2 Comments

Dread Nation, Justina Ireland

I can’t remember who I spoke to who thought this might be rather like Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, just a sort of awkward shoehorning of zombies into a historical period in a fairly superficial way. That’s not how this comes across — I’d compare it more closely to Mira Grant’s Feed and sequels in terms of the way it’s built into how society works — and it does seem to me to reflect the era of history fairly well. Set after zombies rose during the American Civil War, this book follows the fortunes of Jane, a black girl who has been sent to a combat school in order to learn to kill zombies (along with all other non-white children of her age). No longer slaves, but definitely second class citizens, black people bear most of the burden of fighting zombies, leaving white people living in luxurious safety.

For the most part, anyway. Maybe things aren’t safe as they seem. But as soon as Jane starts to poke around into that even a little bit, she’s caught and carted off to a new settlement, a place that’s meant to be safe from zombies — safe because it’s guarded by a vast perimeter wall and the endless patrolling of people like Jane. Naturally, there’s all kinds of nastiness — in terms of race, class, and just plain horribleness — and a whole mystery into which Jane must dig.

I enjoyed her character on a superficial sort of level, though I found her somewhat contradictory. One minute she hates Katherine, another girl from the school, and the next she does her a favour with the thinnest of reasoning. (Tit for tat doesn’t work if you don’t like or trust the person covering your back if you cover theirs, especially if the stakes are rather different between the two of you.) Katherine’s the same, one minute despising Jane and the next relying on her. The interpersonal stuff just never quite adds up for me.

The setting works well, and I believe in the way Ireland has tweaked history and changed things up. What she changes makes sense, as far as I understand history, and the social consequences are all too easy to imagine. The story ticks along well, action following action rather than getting stuck — it certainly keeps the pages turning. In the end, though, I just wasn’t in love with it. It wasn’t bad, but nor do I feel any pressing need to read the sequel when it arrives.

Rating: 3/5

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Review – Lent

Posted August 6, 2019 by Nikki in Reviews / 2 Comments

Cover of Lent by Jo WaltonLent, Jo Walton

This review might be a little spoilery, so if you want to go in totally blind, this is more than just a high level overview of the setup. Just as a warning!

Though I didn’t know much about Savonarola, I thought that even for Jo, making me like him might be too much of a task — and here he’s the main character! But it works: with the first section of the book, we’re introduced to Savonarola, his genuine piety and his earnest attempts to rid himself of his sins, to the point where the first return burns. It’s just a horrifying moment, this holy man who loved God finding himself plunging into Hell, and finding that all his life has been a kind of cosmic joke, because there is no forgiveness, and even his “god-given” skills of prophecy and banishing demons are actually due to his demonic powers.

And then it begins again. This was a weaker part of the book for me, because it’s hard to avoid the repetition of all the different lives while also making it clear how much of a grind it is. The different lives are interesting in themselves, and it’s fun getting to see other sides of the same characters, and every return is still awful. But the actual resolution comes both too fast and too slow — it felt half too easy and half like reading it was about to become a drag. It’s an awkward line to walk, and I do think the book does a good job with something that’s difficult to portray well.

The section of this that is historical fantasy is beautifully done, and making me like — or at least be fascinated by — Savonarola when I was predisposed not to was quite a feat. I feel like I’m still chewing this one over, in a good way, even if I ended it not quite sure how I felt exactly. If I rated solely based on the punch in the gut of the first return section, I’d give it five stars.

Rating: 4/5

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Review – A Talent for Murder

Posted June 16, 2019 by Nikki in Reviews / 2 Comments

Cover of A Talent for Murder by Andrew WilsonA Talent for Murder, Andrew Wilson

I was quite interested in this story based on what I know about Golden Age crime fiction, and about the mysterious disappearance of Agatha Christie for several days at one point in her life. As far as I know it’s genuinely still a bit of a mystery what happened during the days she was missing, and this story attempts to fill in the gaps, introducing a mysterious man who wants Christie to kill for him, and thus engineers her disappearance.

There are some aspects of this that are genuinely interesting — Wilson’s description of the helplessness and disgust his version of Christie feels when the man makes her dance to “Yes! We Have No Bananas!” is quite effective. For the most part, though, I felt like the handling was clumsy: details from Christie’s life, no doubt gleaned from her autobiography and other materials, are sort of shoehorned in to convince the reader that yes, this really is Christie, this is really is what happened. It doesn’t work for me — the “verification” is just a little too blatant. (Even if I can’t tell what’s real and what’s invented!)

What’s more, the tone — apart from a couple of scenes — didn’t much work for me. There’s something so bland and generic about it, even while Wilson is working with a rather colourful person. So all in all, I found it rather disappointing and after a hundred pages or so, I found myself putting it down for good without regret. The library can have it back, with pleasure.

Rating: 2/5

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Review – Without a Summer

Posted April 17, 2019 by Nikki in Reviews / 2 Comments

Cover of Without a SummerWithout a Summer, Mary Robinette Kowal

At this point, this might be my favourite novel in this series. It combines the romance and the magic with events in Britain at the time it is set, spinning a new story out of genuine history in a way that explores the implications of the magic system — much like Glamour in Glass, of course, but I love how it winds together the physical conditions in the “year without a summer” and the plight of workers and the magic and just… aah, I really enjoy it.

Which is to skip to the commentary before explaining the book, I know. In this book, Jane takes Melody up to London while she and Vincent are working on a mural together, to give her sister some more time in society to potentially meet someone she might come to love or want to marry (preferably, of course, both!). This happens to be in 1816, the year in which climatic conditions in Britain remained wintery despite the normal turn of the seasons, due to the far-off eruption of Mount Tambora. With famine and general hardship weighing on people’s minds, there’s unrest and a need to blame someone for what’s happening… At the same time, Vincent’s family make overtures to Jane and Vincent, as if they want to bring them into the fold — though Vincent’s sure there’s nothing innocent or forgiving about it.

Naturally, without spoiling the plot too much, I’ll just say that Jane gets herself involved in the unrest, Melody gets herself into trouble, there are misunderstandings and quarrels aplenty… and it’s all pretty darn fascinating. There’s a really great denouement, and — well, I won’t say anymore, for real this time!

Suffice it to reiterate that I love this book. My one point of dislike is the stupid disagreements that arise due to lack of communication. Learn from your mistakes, characters! COMMUNICATE.

(I have joked that if I were the Relationship Advice Dalek, my vocabulary would be restricted to “COMM-UNI-CATE!”)

Rating: 4/5

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Review – The Cobbler’s Boy

Posted February 6, 2019 by Nikki in Reviews / 0 Comments

Cover of The Cobbler's Boy by Elizabeth Bear and Katherine Addison.The Cobbler’s Boy, Katherine Addison, Elizabeth Bear

This novella is basically the story of how Kit Marlowe (think “Come live with me and be my love” if you know poetry!) and how he became a spy, as the rumour about his life and death goes. In this story, he’s a teenage boy, just awakening to his sexuality (with a local lad named Ginger) and forced to be quick-witted to help his mother and keep his lout of a father from being accused of the murder of one of his own friends.

It’s a quick read, and it almost doesn’t matter if you know about Marlowe or not: you quickly orientate yourself with the time period and the circumstances of young Marlowe’s life. The authors chose to go with fairly period-authentic language for the dialogue: thees and thous abound, which I know would turn some people off (but it is, I promise you, all grammatically correct and appropriate, to the best of my knowledge).

It’s not quite a rip-roaring thriller, but it does go along at a fair clip, and it’s a fun adventure whether you know Marlowe or not. If you do, and are aware of some of the facts about him, it has a little extra depth and savour.

Rating: 4/5

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Review – Labyrinth

Posted November 6, 2018 by Nikki in Reviews / 8 Comments

Cover of Labyrinth by Kate MosseLabyrinth, Kate Mosse

I read this ages ago alongside my sister, and while we both had problems with it, we did enjoy it. I always kind of wanted to recapture that reading moment, so I gave it a try.

The book follows Alice, in the present, and Alais, a medieval woman living in Carcassone at the time of the Cathar heresy. Alice gets caught up in what happened to Alais, who turns out to have been her ancestor, as history replays itself in the modern world, everyone focused on obtaining the secrets that Alais found herself guarding. The secret, of course, of the grail.

Now, being a medievalist for the most part as a student, I have strong feelings about grail stories. The way people take them seriously as if there really was a Holy Grail drives me batty: I’ll show you the textual origins of the grail, if you like. They’re no older than Chrétien de Troyes, greatly enlarged upon by the continuations of his unfinished tale, and often taking their cue from Robert de Boron, who wove the whole explicitly religious tapestry around a bare mention of a graal in Chrétien’s unfinished story. Labyrinth… does not irritate me too terribly on this front. The problem is that the writing is not great, explaining things that are obvious and ruining the impact of any similes and metaphors by promptly just stating what they meant afterwards.

(One example, pulled from someone else’s review: “Baillard … felt the years falling away, a sudden absence of age and experience. He felt young again.”)

It’s pretty humdrum in execution: there are no surprises in the links between Alais and Alice, and there’s a whole romance element that just feels cheap. There is a good sense of place and the impression that research has been done in the portrayal of medieval Carcassone, and then that’s undermined by the opening where Alice is working on an archaeological site and just… pulls things out of the ground, without recording context, without any preparation for conservation… nothing.

In this case, looks like you can’t go back: my enjoyment of the book was of its moment, and can’t be recaptured. Ah well.

Rating: 2/5

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Review – The Gallows in the Greenwood

Posted August 1, 2018 by Nikki in Reviews / 0 Comments

The Gallows in the Greenwood, Phyllis Ann Karr

This novel does a surprisingly good job of weaving together a lot of disparate threads of Robin Hood folklore, while putting its own spin on the story, given that it’s so short. It’s a fascinating attempt at exploring what a female Sheriff does to the story, while also including a romantic plot that’s straight out of that kind of ballad without being directly like any of the ones I can think of. I really enjoyed noticing the references to the traditional ballads, but I also really appreciated the way the female Sheriff became part of the story and explained various aspects of it by her presence.

There’s quite a lot going on below a deceptively simple plot: an attempt to reconcile the Robin Hood folklore into a whole story that makes sense. Whatever Karr says in her notes on the text, I find the figure of Robin quite interesting — he’s not a straightforward villain, as the epilogue shows (and as the loyalty of Maid Marian suggests too).

There’s also Denis and Midge, and I just ended up loving Denis — the kind of honourable idiot of a character I can really get involved with. He has principles, but he’s not so honourable he won’t break them in order to do what is actually the right thing. His romance is a little sudden, but it makes a certain amount of sense, especially in the context of the Robin Hood ballads the story uses and echoes.

Nonetheless, it is all comparatively light and the most interesting/valuable thing to me was the inclusion of Karr’s notes on the text, including a letter to her agent in which she categorically (and correctly, in my view) refused to change a lot of key parts of the story. I loved her firm emphasis on things being believable: she’s not just doing lip-service to feminism by completely inventing a role for a woman that doesn’t exist: she found records that supported the position she put her character in.

All in all, enjoyable and interesting, and I’m a little disappointed I never read it in time to work it into an essay for the tutor of mine who really had me digging into the oldest ballads.

Rating: 4/5

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Review – Cleopatra’s Heir

Posted December 7, 2017 by Nikki in Reviews / 0 Comments

Cover of Cleopatra's Heir by Gillian BradshawCleopatra’s Heir, Gillian Bradshaw

Bradshaw always writes strong historical fiction that reminds me a little bit of Rosemary Sutcliff’s work, and Cleopatra’s Heir is no exception. She takes the little that is known about Cleopatra’s son, Caesarion, and plays with it — what if he survives? What if he really is Caesar’s son? And if he is, what if he’s also epileptic, as Julius Caesar was known to be? She writes about genuine medical treatments of epilepsy, and the way people generally saw it. Some of her characters are perhaps a little too good to be true in their understanding of it, and especially in how well they deal with Caesarion’s arrogance… but people like that do exist, and without that family, the story wouldn’t be nearly so satisfying.

It’s an interesting what-if, and it’s also an absorbing story. It explores what it might be like to be Cleopatra’s son, and what it might be like to survive the fall of your dynasty. And it explores what it might be like to go from being Caesar’s son to being nobody, to having to rely on your own wits and knowledge for once. Of course, for the story to be interesting, it’s no surprise that Caesarion has those skills and learns to use them, but it’s still a satisfying arc.

I’m not sure I’m convinced by the Octavian we see here. He was perfectly capable of being ruthless, and I don’t think he’d have let sentiment get in his way. Even if he pitied someone, my impression is that he wouldn’t have taken a risk on them being faithful to a promise made when killing them would be so much safer.

Still. That wouldn’t be as satisfying for an ending, and Bradshaw definitely knows how to balance faithfulness to history and historical personages, and an entertaining story.

Rating: 4/5

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Review – The Essex Serpent

Posted December 3, 2017 by Nikki in Reviews / 2 Comments

Cover of The Essex Serpent by Sarah PerryThe Essex Serpent, Sarah Perry

From all the hype, I expected to love The Essex Serpent. I didn’t really know much about it, going in, but it seems like almost everyone has been talking about how mindblowing they found it. It’s historical fiction, though it might not portray the era as quite as strait-laced and disapproving of everything as you’d imagine. There’s a fair amount of sex and sexuality, and nobody tries to pretend that sex doesn’t exist or that piano legs are salacious or any such stereotype about the Victorians. In that sense, I quite liked what Perry did with the material. I think she also does well in drawing her characters and creating an intense rapport between them, and twining together their lives in such binding, unequal and sometimes ambiguous ways.

What I don’t enjoy is the pacing, and the way large parts of the story are told just as a report. ‘In London, Cora was doing x. In Essex, Will did y. The kids did z.’ Large sections are just one thing after another, a chronicle of events rather than a story. There are some fascinating scenes and conversations, and there are also some such scenes that are deadened by just being reported on in that dull way.

Your mileage may vary, of course, but I found this so frustrating. It has a germ of something fascinating, no doubt about that, but the style hobbles it. I had to finish it, but at the same time… yeah, I was a little bored.

Rating: 3/5

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Review – The Five Daughters of the Moon

Posted November 16, 2017 by Nikki in Reviews / 5 Comments

Cover of The Five Daughters of the Moon by Leena LikitaloThe Five Daughters of the Moon, Leena Likitalo

First off: if you’re like me and don’t pay enough attention, you might miss that this book is the first of a duology. It very much just comes to a stop, and will require the second volume to become a full story. You might want to hold off until you have your hands on both of them to start reading, because they’re the same story.

Anyway, The Five Daughters of the Moon is a historical fantasy based on the story of the Russian revolution. If you know the story of the Romanov sisters, you know there’s not likely to be a happy ending coming — and you know which characters to be suspicious of. Each chapter is told from the point of one of the five girls, from the youngest to the oldest. Likitalo actually does a pretty good job of distinguishing each of the voices — you wouldn’t think Sibilia was Celestia or Alina when reading, for a certainty — but Alina’s narration, at six years old, sounds rather too mature for her age.

Setting that aside, it’s beautifully written, and the worldbuilding that emerges slowly is lovely. The idea of the Empress being married to the moon, the arrangement whereby each of the girls has a different earthly father (or “seed”) but is considered a daughter of the Moon, the soul beads — it isn’t all immediately apparent how it works, but as you need to know, you learn. I think that’s well done.

Overall, a fascinating novella retelling, to my mind, but I do wish the two books had come out together (or that it was just sold as a novel).

Rating: 4/5

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