Tag: historical fiction

Review – One Corpse Too Many

Posted February 19, 2020 by Nikki in Reviews / 0 Comments

Cover of One Corpse Too Many by Ellis PetersOne Corpse Too Many, Ellis Peters

The second Brother Cadfael book is more deeply rooted in the historical period it’s set in, with everything in it being touched by the civil war between Stephen and Matilda. We see quite a bit of Stephen in this book, in fact, since he is actually in command of the forces that enter the town and kill the garrison. Cadfael gets himself involved first by sheltering a daughter of the local nobility (dressed as a boy and acting as a novice) and then by investigating the murder of the mysterious extra corpse hidden among the bodies of the garrison.

It’s an interesting and nuanced vision of the time; Cadfael is pretty non-partisan (which I believe was actually very difficult to maintain at the time, but he’s a fictional monk, so he can do as he likes) and ends up aiding both sides of the fight through his interest in individual people. I shouldn’t say too much about the characters, because it deliberately takes quite a while to figure out where everyone stands: I ended up feeling very affectionate toward one particular character, in a way that’s very cleverly done.

The idea of a monk solving mysteries sounds kind of gimmicky, perhaps, but the strong roots in the time help make it feel realistic and serious. Both mysteries so far have been uncontrived — a crime of passion in the first book, and this one in a historical framework where the death makes sense and the only wonder is that someone cares — and Cadfael getting involved feels natural. There are so many books in the series that of course it could get a bit Daisy Dalrymple-ish, but it helps that in Cadfael’s times everyone was closer to the fact of death.

(I don’t mean to pick on Daisy too much, because I genuinely enjoy Carola Dunn’s books, but by this point my only explanation for how many independent murders she manages to involve herself with is that some mastermind is tugging the strings to involve her “accidentally” in dozens of otherwise unconnected murders. I somehow doubt that Daisy has a Moriarty, though.)

Definitely enjoyable, and I do rather hope to see some of these characters again.

Rating: 4/5

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Review – That Could Be Enough

Posted February 15, 2020 by Nikki in Reviews / 0 Comments

Cover of That Could Be Enough by Alyssa ColeThat Could Be Enough, Alyssa Cole

That Could Be Enough is a novella set in the post-Civil War US, following the story of Mercy Alston, maid to Elizabeth Hamilton and aiding her in putting together the stories of the men of her late husband’s battalion as a legacy for him. Despite all her writing in that cause, Mercy’s own writing is stilted and all but out of reach, as a legacy of a disastrous love affair. Into Mercy’s life comes Andromeda Stiel, a seamstress who goes her own way, loving as she wishes, without censure from the people she lives amongst. Sparks fly, despite Mercy’s intentions, and Andromeda quickly draws her into a relationship and out of her shell.

It doesn’t go smoothly, and that’s partly due to Mercy’s character and past, and partly because of bloody lack of communication, my least favourite trope ever. Just. Communicate! “I accidentally read this piece of paper and it says you’re going to be married, can you explain?” There! It’s that simple.

I did see another review that talked about not being sure what Mercy brings to the relationship, and despite the character’s individual qualities — her writing, her charitable work, etc — I have to agree. Andromeda is sufficient unto herself, even if she wants Mercy, and nothing Mercy has is something Andromeda lacks… while at the same time, Andromeda is picking apart Mercy’s trauma, encouraging and supporting her, pushing her to do better. Mercy’s affection is grudging, and her trust non-existant. It’s hard to believe the two can get along happily for long with that kind of imbalance.

Cole’s end note with sources helps somewhat with my feeling that they can’t be this blatant as a couple in this time period, but I’m still not convinced. Speaking from experience, even now, people will tolerate you as long as you don’t “rub it in their face”. Say the words “my wife” in casual conversation while being female and you can watch someone’s attitude change in an instant, even if you know this person must have realised before. Andromeda and Mercy aren’t just quietly getting on with it — Andromeda is blatant. I question it, knowing it’s hard enough now sometimes.

Overall, I didn’t love this as much as I might have; Andromeda’s great, but Mercy just doesn’t come alive for me. She sounds great on paper, but… I can’t see what she brings to Andromeda, or really believe there’s a beating heart behind the words on the page. Because it’s so short, it’s still entertaining, but I don’t know if I could have stuck with a longer story.

Rating: 3/5

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Review – A Morbid Taste for Bones

Posted February 7, 2020 by Nikki in Reviews / 4 Comments

Cover of A Morbid Taste for Bones by Ellis PetersA Morbid Taste for Bones, Ellis Peters

It’s been ages since I first read this book, but the series has always stuck in my mind — not least because it is the only series that both my parents have ever recommended to me. So after someone mentioned reading them on Pillowfort, I ended up grabbing the ebooks via the library (though none of the libraries I’m a member of has the full series, ugh) and settling down to a reread of the first one. I think I’ve read the second one too, but that might be where I stopped.

In any case, the Brother Cadfael books are mysterious whose main character is a Benedictine monk with a rather colourful past. Content now in the cloister, Cadfael nonetheless manages to get himself taken along to Wales on a small matter of stealing a local saint for the greater glory of the monastery. He’s Welsh, so he’s useful as an interpreter — and he understands the people and the passions stirred up by the Benedictine delegation. He has faith, but a cynical eye, and he doesn’t for a moment accept that gentle Saint Winifred is behind the dastardly murder of a local landowner.

It’s a fun little mystery; the characters are mostly more types than fully drawn people, but with a touch of Cadfael’s cynical view of them to enliven things. The genuinely pious but deeply ambitious Prior is well-done; we don’t see into his heart directly, but his actions and words lay him bare. Likewise, there’s something rather touching about Peredur and his thwarted passion for Sioned.

I do enjoy the setting in Wales, and the us-vs-them mentality that’s so quickly sketched out. It’s carefully dealt with, despite the temptation to put them at each others’ throats; there’s respect and a will to work together, alongside the misunderstandings and stiff-necked pride.

It all wraps up nicely — very nicely and conveniently, but in a way that’s enjoyable because it’s poetic justice — and Cadfael settles back into the status quo, napping through meetings and tending to his garden. Until the next mystery, that is.

Rating: 4/5

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Review – Captain Ingram’s Inheritance

Posted January 20, 2020 by Nikki in Reviews / 2 Comments

Cover of Captain Ingram's Inheritance by Carola DunnCaptain Ingram’s Inheritance, Carola Dunn

In Captain Ingram’s Inheritance, it’s Frank’s turn to find love. It begins with the move to Felix’s home, and part of it happens concurrently with the end of Lord Roworth’s Reward, as Felix and Fanny figure out their feelings and sort out their misunderstandings. Constantia, Felix’s sister, decides to nurse Frank and help him through his recovery from his injuries, and is overjoyed to be invited to help him set up home when he discovers that he is in fact heir to a substantial property. She’s reluctant to have a Season and go looking for a husband, and finds herself daydreaming about the (admittedly lower-class) soldier while nursing him.

Now, the main barrier for her and Frank is no longer class (as it was for Felix and Fanny) but a secret both are hiding… Constantia has a raised scar across her chest from a childhood accident, while Frank’s injuries have left him heavily scarred. Both feel they’re not desirable as a result, have nothing to offer a partner, might shock/frighten a partner, etc, etc. Now, I can understand having those feelings, but it makes it very much not a story I — scarred literally from head to food by my long history with skin excoriation disorder — thought I could really get into. But I enjoyed the previous two books, so I gave it time.

For the most part, it does not focus on the scarring. The two have fears about it and try to hide it, but the reveal doesn’t do anything too awful like “I’m damaged too” or such lines/ideas. They eventually each find out about the other’s scars, and are supportive of each other without focusing on it. I still don’t love this as a plotline, but I do enjoy Constantia and Frank, and the ending scene is very sweet.

There is also a non-romance plot involving Fanny and Frank’s inheritance; it’s almost something out of Dunn’s Daisy Dalrymple novels, with a rather wicked uncle doing his best to cause havoc. I found it fairly obvious, and also surprisingly slapstick in terms of the humour. Not my favourite bit of the novel. Also, sadly, Miriam is only mentioned, so no cameo from her.

Overall, I did still enjoy it, but maybe a bit less than I enjoyed Miss Jacobson’s Journey or Lord Roworth’s Reward. I think I will be trying to get myself a copy of all three of these, though!

Rating: 4/5

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Review – The Pursuit of…

Posted December 26, 2019 by Nikki in Reviews / 0 Comments

Cover of The Pursuit of by Courtney MilanThe Pursuit of…, Courtney Milan

The Pursuit of… is the story of two men from opposite sides of the American Civil War. John Hunter spares Henry Latham at a key engagement, and Henry goes to find him to repay the debt afterwards. John expects him to duck out at every turn, but he doesn’t, and they head across country to John’s home — with Henry talking nineteen-to-the-dozen the whole way. It took me a while to warm up to John — though I liked Henry right away — but as he warmed up to Henry, so I warmed up to him. The cheese thing is silly and cute.

In fact, the whole thing is oftentimes silly and cute, though there are also serious parts: the discussion of what truly constitutes equality, Henry’s learning process, Henry figuring out that he has to go home and figure things out with his family… There’s also a scene with non-sexual intimacy that is just lovely.

There is a sex scene, of course; it’s pretty explicit, but skippable if that’s not your thing. It isn’t all about sex, by far, and it has a lovely happy ending — though it doesn’t go with the easiest happy ending. I enjoyed it a lot.

Rating: 4/5

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Review – Miss Jacobson’s Journey

Posted December 18, 2019 by Nikki in Reviews / 0 Comments

Cover of Miss Jacobson's Journey by Carola DunnMiss Jacobson’s Journey, Carola Dunn

Miss Jacobson’s Journey is the first book in the trilogy with a book I already read, Lord Roworth’s Reward. It features Felix during his earlier adventures, alluded to frequently in the second book, though the main character of the first book is undoubtedly Miriam. It opens when she rejects a suitor chosen by her parents to travel around Europe with her uncle, a doctor, and swiftly moves onto her attempts to get home after her uncle’s death. She ends up on a mission to deliver gold to Lord Wellington, accompanied by her longterm companion, Hannah, and two men: a somewhat familiar Jewish man (the very same man she turned down years before), and a young English lord (Felix) — two men who don’t get along at all.

I enjoyed reading about Miriam trying to unite the two, and the struggles and missteps as both of them become attracted to her. I’m not Jewish, or well-versed in Jewish traditions, so it’s hard to evaluate whether the portrayal of Miriam and Isaac, and the other Jewish people they meet, is a good one — but it felt like it to me, as an outsider. Miriam is great, capable and kind, though not always endowed with the best of judgement when it comes to a pretty face. It was good to get to know Isaac a bit as well, after his brief appearances in the second book. Felix is hardly shown to best effect here: we do see him grow over the course of the book, but he starts out as a snobbish antisemite, and that’s a rough thing to shake off. (And perhaps it was easier for me to shake off because I know him from the second book, as a man who has got over a lot of his prejudice, if not all of his stupider ideas.)

The happy ever after is lovely, and I do appreciate the way this trilogy is completely embedded in the history of the time. It doesn’t go too far — Felix isn’t an invented war hero, Isaac’s no international superspy; they’re just cogs in the great machine of war — but it gives you a solid feel for the time they’re living in. All in all, I think I want to acquire copies of this trilogy for my shelves to reread some other time. Onto the third book, Captain Ingram’s Inheritance!

Rating: 4/5

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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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