Tag: historical fiction


Review – Cleopatra’s Heir

Posted 7 December, 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

Buy this book: Amazon UK | Amazon US | The Book Depository
The above affiliate links, at no extra cost to you, provide a small commission for me if you purchase something.

Tags: , , ,

Divider

Review – The Essex Serpent

Posted 3 December, 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

Buy this book: Amazon UK | Amazon US | The Book Depository
The above affiliate links, at no extra cost to you, provide a small commission for me if you purchase something.

Tags: , ,

Divider

Review – The Five Daughters of the Moon

Posted 16 November, 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

Buy this book: Amazon UK | Amazon US | The Book Depository
The above affiliate links, at no extra cost to you, provide a small commission for me if you purchase something.

Tags: , , ,

Divider

Review – The Warrior Princess

Posted 23 September, 2017 by Nikki in Reviews / 2 Comments

Cover of The Warrior Princess by K.M. AshmanThe Warrior Princess, K.M. Ashman

Received to review via Netgalley; publication date 22nd August 2017

I really appreciate that someone’s taken a bit of Welsh history and made a novel from it — there’s plenty of Welsh history to choose from, but apart from books based on the lives of some of the Tudors, I can’t think of many other books that really touch on it. While I knew about Nest ferch Rhys (Nesta, here; I believe that’s a popular version of her name which maybe sounds better to the English-speaking ear), I didn’t know anything about Gwenllian ferch Gruffydd, for whatever reason, so if nothing else I’m grateful to this book for drawing her to my attention!

The style is a little disappointing, though; I found it rather wooden at times, even with the author’s attempts to vary the vocabulary by varying the inquits (asked, sighed, etc). The pacing was quite slow, too, and I felt at times like I was having the information dumped on me, rather than introduced organically. If you enjoy the author’s writing style, it’s likely you’ll enjoy this as well; it’s probably a personal taste thing as much as anything.

I did appreciate the historical note at the end — always good to get a bit of the background, so you know where to research if you’re interested.

Rating: 2/5

Tags: , ,

Divider

Review – Whose Body?

Posted 17 July, 2017 by Nikki in Reviews / 0 Comments

Cover of Whose Body by Dorothy L. SayersWhose Body?, Dorothy L. Sayers

A beloved reread, as you might expect, this time occasioned by having watched the Edward Petherbridge adaptations with my wife (who has, at least in BBC adaptation form, been converted to the love of Lord Peter). Whose Body? is a neat little mystery, and it’s given some depth by the fact that it already deals with Peter’s difficulties about whether he can do detecting as a hobby, or if there’s something wrong with that, etc, etc — and also with his shell shock, which retreats into the background in later books but is a key feature for how he reacts in this book.

He’s a little too perfect, of course, but I knew that going in. I don’t think Sayers had quite settled into what she was doing when she wrote this book, but it’s entertaining and, if you’re not interested in romance, long before Harriet Vane arrives on the scene.

Rating: 4/5

Tags: , , , , ,

Divider

Review – Dark North

Posted 29 June, 2017 by Nikki in Reviews / 0 Comments

Cover of Dark North by Gillian BradshawDark North, Gillian Bradshaw

Like all of Bradshaw’s work, this is a solid historical fiction, with a touch of romance. I found the romance aspect less compelling than in Alchemy of Fire, but I love the fact that Bradshaw based the story on a report of an Ethiopian soldier greeting the emperor during a visit to Britain, and the tiny piece of evidence that there were a company of Aurelian Moors in Britain at the right time. I really enjoy it when authors build a story around facts like that — like Rosemary Sutcliff and the mysterious Roman eagle that sparked The Eagle of the Ninth.

Bradshaw’s a great writer, though the main character was a little… annoying, I guess. He’s a good time guy; he does not want to take on responsibilities, and he doesn’t think through some of his actions. Also, he has a dark side. He’s not quite the unique character that some of Bradshaw’s other leads have been.

Still, it’s an enjoyable enough story, even if it’s not a favourite. If you enjoy historical fiction a la Rosemary Sutcliff, Gillian Bradshaw’s work will probably be just the ticket. I recommend Island of Ghosts to start with, though.

Rating: 3/5

Tags: , , ,

Divider

Review – Alchemy of Fire

Posted 8 June, 2017 by Nikki in Reviews / 0 Comments

Cover of Alchemy of Fire by Gillian BradshawAlchemy of Fire, Gillian Bradshaw

If you’re looking for thoughtful, well-researched historical fiction, Gillian Bradshaw is a good bet — and she doesn’t always stick to the beaten path, producing stories about Caesars and Cleopatras. Island of Ghosts, for example, surprised me by having a Samartian hero, serving the Roman army in Britain. Not an Italian, not a Brit, but a whole different view I don’t think I’ve seen anyone do before. Her writing reminds me of Rosemary Sutcliff, at times — it scratches the same sort of itch — though her books are more adult.

Alchemy of Fire is set in Constantinople, and follows the fortunes of the owner of a perfume shop. There’s intrigue and politicking, and there’s romance as well, and the story is set against the backdrop of the Arab attacks on Constantinople. It’s the invention of ‘Greek fire’, but it also deals with motherhood and the experience of seeing a child you love grow up, with grief, with falling in love against all sense and without realising, but not in some instantaneous magical way. The emotional journey felt real, and I was rooting for it from the beginning because it didn’t feel as though Anna was somehow destined to marry. It felt like it could have remained friendship, or ended badly, or… anything.

I found it touching and absorbing, even though I wouldn’t call it “unputdownable”. It takes its time, for all that it only comprises 250 pages or so. It didn’t strike me with brilliance like a couple of Bradshaw’s other books, but I enjoyed it.

Rating: 4/5

Tags: , , , ,

Divider

Review – Maisie Dobbs

Posted 28 March, 2017 by Nikki in Reviews / 0 Comments

Cover of Maisie Dobbs by Jacqueline WinspearMaisie Dobbs, Jacqueline Winspear

I had high hopes for Maisie Dobbs as the series that would take over from Phryne as my current new comfort reading. I don’t think Maisie is the detective for me, though; for a lot of this, it felt more like the focus was historical fiction that detective fiction. There’s a big digression in the middle which eventually leads up to Maisie’s interest in being a detective, but it’s mostly about her character and the issues of class she’s faced. There’s something very cold about it — for example, the fact that she never went to see the man she’d intended to marry after his operation. She feels more like Sherlock Holmes than Peter Wimsey. Which is fine, but not what I’m interested in.

In terms of the mystery, well, any sense of urgency gets taken away first by the fact that there’s a massive flashback section, and secondly by the fact that Maisie doesn’t face any of the dangers personally. She doesn’t even meet many of the characters involved in the mystery more than once or twice. And she relies heavily on a “shiver down her spine” to tell her what’s going on. Sure, instinct, okay, but… it’s just too perfect, too precise, even alongside the many notes she takes. It’s more like precognition than detection, and I don’t think it’s intended to be supernatural.

I might give the second book a try, because there are aspects of the character and the context that I quite enjoy. I was curious/interested enough to finish this book, after all. But I’m not really feeling it at this point.

Rating: 2/5

Tags: , , , ,

Divider

Review – Scarlet

Posted 24 February, 2017 by Nikki in Reviews / 6 Comments

Cover of Scarlet by A.C. GaughenScarlet, A.C. Gaughen

I wanted to love this. It’s Robin Hood, and it puts a female character at the heart of the band, working directly with Robin as capably as any of the guys. In fact, she is one of the guys — she’s Will Scarlet. The idea of a woman becoming part of the band in disguise isn’t a new one — Marian has joined the band in the disguise of a page, there’s Djaq in the BBC’s Robin Hood series, etc. I’m not sure if it’s ever been Will Scarlet before, but it’s a known and loved trope.

Honestly, I’m not sure how well it works here. Everyone and their mother seems to know that Scarlet’s a girl, and it isn’t hard at all to guess about her past and her real identity — even for people within the story. I know this is YA, but I’d still hoped for a bit more subtlety, if not mystery. I was pretty uncertain about the Robin-John-Scarlet love triangle, though it does have its interesting moments.

(And horrifying ones. There’s a scene where Robin calls Scarlet a whore for basically no reason. I couldn’t believe in the fascination of him from that point on. I’m also really over the abusive relationship between Scarlet and a character from her past.)

There’s also interesting stuff about Scarlet’s character: her difficulty with eating when people around her are starving, her coarse ways contrasted with her care for the people around her, her prickliness at the same time as she badly wants to belong.

What really killed it for me, though, was the narration. Given her actual identity, there’s no reason for her to talk like a commoner… and she doesn’t even talk like a commoner. Some of it doesn’t make grammatical sense in any dialect I know. Instead, it’s just faux-vernacular that might fool someone with no experience of dialect, but doesn’t fool me. And the other characters, for all that they have lower born backgrounds, don’t talk like her at all. It sticks out like a sore thumb.

Overall, I just couldn’t settle in and enjoy it, even if I tried to keep in mind that it’s YA, I’m rather over-versed in Robin Hood lore, etc, etc. I’m not going to continue the series. I’d probably give this one star, but I was curious enough to finish it.

Rating: 2/5

Tags: , ,

Divider

Review – Augustus

Posted 8 December, 2016 by Nikki in Reviews / 3 Comments

Cover of Augustus by John WilliamsAugustus, John Williams

It’s amazing the range of opinions you can find on Augustus Caesar. Some think he was the saving of Rome, a morally upright man who revitalised his country. Others think of him as a traitor, and a hypocritical one at that. I don’t know exactly what I think; I guess I probably think that he was a complex person who ultimately did what he thought best, like most of us. This book goes with the latter view, with a fairly sympathetic eye. It took me a while to decide whether I really enjoyed it: it’s slow-paced, and sometimes the timeline is difficult to follow, as people are writing from one point in time about an earlier point in time, but then the next letter might be from the earlier point in time, but portraying the next set of events. Did that make sense? It sort of does in context, but it can make it a bit more difficult to follow.

I did enjoy Williams’ decision to examine a central issue of Augustus’ life: his moral reforms, and then the fact that his own beloved daughter fell afoul of them. He had her banished from Rome, for all that he spent a great deal of her life watching over her and guiding her in a way many men didn’t bother with for daughters. And Williams does some interesting things with unreliable narrators: we get several different perspectives on the same people and events. Was Julia kidding herself, or was Augustus right — did she plot against her father?

It is rather slow, as I said, and the epistolary format combined with the complex timeline doesn’t help. I enjoyed it as a sort of thought experiment, but I’m not sure how much I enjoyed it as a story, if that makes sense.

Rating: 4/5

Tags: , ,

Divider