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This Crumbling Pageant by Patricia Burroughs

Regency England is divided into two worlds, that of the Ordinary that we are familiar with and the one of the Magi, filled with those who are graced with the gifts of the Gods. Persephone Fury is the youngest of a family graced with the gift of music, descendants of the man who originally pulled the Magi world from the Ordinary, to keep them safe. Apart from music that can twine through the soul, Persephone’s magic shifts and twists with shadows, something dark and unfamiliar, too strong and untamed for fine Magi society.

But in a time of unrest, when the old Magi king steps aside in favor of a regent and both lowborn rebels and court Magi frantically try to use the prophecies of Merlin to support their cause, perhaps something a bit dark, a bit wild, is exactly what is needed.

This Crumbling Pageant is an exhilarating blend of court politics, folklore, romance, and mystery- the threads all woven together into one expertly designed tapestry. Persephone is a balanced, intriguing, and honestly fun female protagonist. She is not the prettiest, she is not the tomboy stereotype, instead she is delightfully difficult to pin down and define. The whole Fury family breathes life into the setting, pulling the plot through its paces.

Burroughs has also given us an antagonist we can hate with abandon and a sense of evil that will have you keeping a light on in the evening.

This Crumbling Pageant has a bit of something for everyone. It is a brush of period fantasy with the trappings of a mystery/thriller, a bit of regency romance rolled in for a splash of color and a refreshing light flavor.  It is a brilliantly unique and enthralling read.  Highly recommended.

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The Hound and the Falcon by Judith Tarr

Alfred is a monk of St. Ruan’s Abbey- devoted to his Brothers and his God, a scholar of rare talent, and very much more than a man. A foundling, he was taken in and raised by the Abbey as one of their own, and while his colleagues have grown to old men, he remains no more than a youth.

The quiet Abbey life that Alfred clings to is pulled away from him as he is sent out to the world, carrying a message of violence to the Richard Coeur de Leon. Once out of the Abbey’s comforting walls, Alfred cannot help but acknowledge something other than human blood runs through his veins. His eerie beauty and otherworldly skills catch the eye of the Hounds of God, who swear to purge him and all others like him from the Church, as well as the world itself.

From the temperate north to the sweltering heat of the Crusades, the Hound and the Falcon trilogy is a magnificent journey. There is a beauty, an acknowledgement of the sublime, that swells through every page. Pausing and closing the book was like coming up for air, almost disorienting, definitely displeasing as I wanted nothing more than to keep reading. Rarely have I been touched so by a book, but there is something bare, brutal and honest to Alfred and his search for identity and meaning that I could not help but be moved.

All else, all grand crusading and conflict aside, it reaches down to the root of identity and poses questions there that inflict an almost sympathetic bout of introspection upon the reader. And it is perfect.

Ms. Tarr has woven a depth of history and cultural detail in her books that make the world breathe. The characters and settings are whole, believable, and obviously lovingly researched.

Highly recommended.

The Alchemist of Souls by Anne Lyle

There is no way to decline a direct assignment from the Throne, so when Mal is ordered to be the bodyguard of the Skrayling Ambassador, the chief representative of a New World race he detests, he will have to work to get his feelings under control and learn to defend what he would rather avoid.

As he spends more time in Skrayling company, and grows oddly fond of the small, gentle Ambassador, Mal will have to work to juggle his duty to the crown, to the Skrayling, and to his own blood- and those interests are not always aligned.

It is no secret that alternate histories are a weakness of mine, and Alchemist of Souls preyed upon that weakness with gleeful aplomb. From seedy neighborhoods and seedier dungeons, to the back-stages and politics of the theater and into the lair of Walshingham himself, Alchemist of Souls slips between fascinating with an era long past, and condemning it.

Mal is a hero despite himself, and will appeal to readers fond of that sort of reluctant crossing from duty to conviction. He is by far the most developed of the book’s characters, some of the others fall a bit flat- more ideas than three dimensional individuals- but it is not hard to lose oneself in the story and gloss over the writing’s rougher edges. It is an enjoyable story and I look forward to reading more from the author.

Of Blood and Honey by Stina Leicht

Liam has a talent for being at the wrong place at the wrong time, and in Ireland during the Troubles this can be a fatal affliction. Having done his time for crimes he did not commit, Liam is finally driven to taking a political stance by being unwilling to take anymore. He volunteers with the IRA to get a job to support his new wife and to gain some measure of control over his life.

But Liam has never met his birth father, and it seems the man left him more than anyone could have imagined. Something dark and violent lurks within Liam, something the IRA is happy to have, but something that no one, least of all Liam, is able to consistently control.

Of Blood and Honey is historical fiction at its finest, taking into account the rich myth of Ireland and weaving in just enough of that magic to turn the book to please fantasy fans. It is a painful, loving tribute to those who struggled through the worst part of the Troubles. It is a book about family, in all of its permutations.

Liam struggles through conflicts with his stepfather, his wife, the priest who has all but raised him, the family he finds in the other Volunteers, and learning the truth of his birth father and the lineage that was kept secret from him. It is often a violent book, set during a violent time, and the wonder is the little joys and loves the characters find along the way.

And in the background of it all, a secret Order of the Church is engaging in a war with the Fallen, which followed them to Ireland. But their world view does not allow for the acceptance of Ireland’s Fey creatures as entities apart from the Fallen of their religion, and Liam has been in  precarious position since the moment he was born, and has never been aware of it.

Auraria by Tim Westover

Holtzclaw is a respectable man, trying to conduct respectable business and purchase properties in the valley of Auraria for his employer Shadburn. He does not know what Shadburn want’s the land for, but he has seen the man’s magic touch when it comes to turning purchases into profit. Unfortunately, Auraria is not a laid back lady ready to give up her land and citizens easily. It is an unruly valley, filled with fish that can be fished out of thick mist instead of water, moon maidens, ghosts, an ethereal princess, and gold. The entire valley is haunted by gold, the potential for the next big strike. Holtzclaw will need every trick in his book to convince landowners to sell, all the while trying to decide whether to hold onto what he knows is real and sane or to fall into the wonder that is Auraria.

Auraria is a bit of historical whimsy, facts folded so neatly into folklore that it is impossible to pry one from the other. I loved the almost off hand manner in which elements of the fantastic were described to the reader- they were presented as a fact of life for Auraria, nothing remarkable. And as a reader, that air became infectious. Even as Holtzclaw became accepting of ghosts and moderately sentient fruit, the reader is drawn along with him into the brilliant madness that is Auraria. It is a wonderful meld of history with folk culture, ghost stories, and tales told grandparent to grandchild on cold nights before a warm fire.

The story itself is a thoughtful move through conflicts of mundane and mystical, of belief and what drives us to do the things we do on a daily basis. It is about loyalty and love and the roots we have to our hometowns. For the historically minded, it is an original look at the tourism industry that drove resorts to pop up across the country like weeds. I spent much of my childhood in the Adirondacks, where my family has it’s roots, so reading Auraria was almost like visiting old neighbors. We didn’t have the drive for gold, but we had some of the same quirky characters and were in an area obsessed with attracting tourists.

Whether your are a fantasy reader, a fan of historical fiction, or just looking for something new and brilliantly unique to read, give Auraria a shot.

Auraria will be out in July from Q & W Publishers. You can sample the first chapter here.

 

The Freedom Maze by Delia Sherman

Sophie is a young girl who can do nothing to fill the shoes her mother has set out for her. Not that the shoes are a particularly good fit, but Sophie bows her head and takes her mother’s sharp comments in silence. When her mother has to move for schooling and work, Sophie spends a summer with her aunt and grandmother on what is left of the familial plantation in Louisiana. There she meets a mysterious, magical entity that sends her back in time. But Sophie quickly learns that adventure isn’t as grand as books generally make it seem, and that family has as much to do with emotion and experience as blood.

The Freedom Maze is an absolutely stunning book. I was honestly unable to pull myself away, needing to know how Sophie would survive her unexpected change in circumstance. Ms. Sherman obviously put an immense amount of time and love into researching for her story- the setting is heavy with life, the characters all effortlessly settle into a seamless whole. Unlike many books that deal with the issue of slavery in the South, The Freedom Maze is less concerned with the slavery itself, focusing instead on the people slavery made- how each side of the equation reacted and acted within the circumstance of their birth and skin color. Sophie is a unique entity, a young girl who when thrown into the past is mistaken for a mixed blood accident of an influential white male and a slave woman, not entirely because of her skin but because of her demeanor. She is so used to deferring to her mother it is impossible for her to pass as a young lady of proper birth in the past she finds herself in.

The book is about watching Sophie grow aware of, and grow out of, her self-imposed slavery. It is a beautiful book, and one everyone would benefit from reading.

The Doomsday Vault by Steven Harper

The clockwork plague hits rich and poor alike, turning some into zombies covered in sores that hide from the sun and others into geniuses called Clockworkers before burning them out in fits of destructive madness. The balance of power between nations rests in the Clockworkers and the improbable and often deadly inventions they create before the plague finally takes them. Alice lost her mother and brother to the clockwork plague. Her father survived, but is an invalid. The daughter of a Baron, her chance at redeeming her family reputation was to marry into a good family- but her fiancee succumbed to the plague as well, thus securing her family’s fall from social grace. The debtors come calling, and still her father tries to establish a future for his daughter.

At a social gathering, her last hope, she catches the eye of a rich, unlanded man, and her title tempts him into courtship. Here, at last is all Alice could hope for.

At least in the mind of her failing father. But Alice is eccentric, having a brilliant mind for mechanics that she is trying to reconcile with the idea of being a traditional wife.

Gavin ruins it all- a young man from Boston with a daunting talent for music. He has survived air pirates and the streets of London only to be taken captive by a mysterious Lady in Red Velvet. Circumstance continues to throw Alice and Gavin together, and throw Alice’s attempt at a well ordered, traditional life into turmoil.

A fast paced mix of Victorian era romance and steampunk high adventure, The Doomsday Vault is a riot of zombies, secret organizations, sketchy politics, and mad scientists. I was utterly fascinated with the Clockwork Plague, even with my usual disdain for zombies. The zombies themselves were just different enough to keep them from being a tired rehash of old ideas, and were genuinely tragic entities. The Clockworkers though were the selling point of the book and the world. Mad scientists by disease, not natural inclination, creating things that were so improbable they were fascinating and enjoyable. They were forces of nature, more than anything else, and so wonderfully essential to the world build.

Alice was a fun take on the plucky urban fantasy heroine, and will appeal to fans of Gail Carriger’s Heartless books. I enjoy strong female characters so much more in the Victorian sort of setting- they come off as less abrasive, they tend to be avoid being written like they have something to prove. It is more of a sense that they are just trying to breathe around that damn corset, or to manage walking amidst all that cloth, and that is trouble enough, thank you.

All in all, a very enjoyable book and I look forward to the continuation of the series!