Tag Archives: historical fiction

Review: Murder in the Queen’s Wardrobe by Kathy Lynn Emerson

22772550Title: Murder in the Queen’s Wardrobe

Author: Kathy Lynn Emerson

Rating: 3 stars

I received this book from Netgalley in exchange for a fair review. 

I love arrogant, know-it-all characters. The Sherlock Holmeses of the world may be annoying in reality, but can be a joy to read. One thing you don’t see very often in fiction, however, is arrogant women characters.

Rosamond Jaffrey, the heroine of Murder in the Queen’s Wardrobe, is one such of these. She is smart, egotistical, brash, and the best part of a fairly mediocre mystery. I really enjoyed her, though the plot didn’t always match up to her vivacity and promise.

It’s 1582. Rosamond Jaffrey, the bastard daughter of a nobleman, enjoys an independent life, having wrested control of a fortune through a marriage of convenience. But then an old family friend comes to recruit her to spy for him in the household of Lady Mary, a cousin of Queen Elizabeth. Lady Mary is being pushed for a marriage with Ivan the Terrible, and Rosamond has an affinity for languages, including Russian. Still, she’s not interested, until she learns that her estranged husband is currently in Muscovy, and that he and all the other Englishmen with him live only at the whim of an unhinged emperor.

There’s a lot of good elements at play here. In most mystery and romance historicals of this type, the antagonists are usually either domestic or French. I can’t ever recall seeing a story hinge on conflict between England and Russia (aka, Muscovy), and I was totally on board for that (all the history I’ve read over the years, and I didn’t even know Queen Elizabeth and Ivan the Terrible were contemporaries!). Also, when I read Elizabethan stuff it tends to be early. 1582 is 25 years  into Elizabeth’s reign, when she is 50, and though she doesn’t make an onscreen appearance, I liked that. Then of course there is Rosamond herself. She sneaks out in disguise to go to plays. She has a mostly unexplored mysterious background that serves as fodder for future sequels. She is smart–she knows about poisons and medicines, languages and the science of the day–rational, atheist, and egotistical.

The mystery and suspense, however, was where the book faltered. Early in the book the titular murder occurs, then Lady Mary is threatened and almost killed. The suspects and red herrings are dutifully presented, but I just didn’t find myself caring about them. I didn’t feel any imminent danger, even when Lady Mary was attacked with chemicals, or when Rosamond’s husband was quite literally chained to a prison wall. I still don’t know why these things didn’t bring me into the story, only that I felt a curious distance towards the whole thing.

Towards the end, things take a sharp turn towards the ridiculous and melodramatic, and the end felt incredibly rushed. I honestly do not know how much of this novel is based on historical fact, so I don’t know how much it was hampered by it, but I would have liked the pacing to be a little more on point.

Still, Rosamond is such a breath of fresh air for a female character that I’d gladly pick up another book about her. I just hope all the plot kinks work out better next time.


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Review: Hild by Nicola Griffith

17332243Title: Hild

Author: Nicola Griffith

Rating: 4.5 stars

I read this book from the library. 

Well, it’s barely February, and I’ve already read a strong contender for my favorite book of the year. Hild was an incredible novel, the kind that will be very hard to top.

Hild is born in seventh-century Britain in a world full of danger and change. Before she is born, her formidable mother declares that her child is “the light of the world,” and she teaches Hild to be curious, canny, and cautious. Because of her mother’s tutelage, she is able to catch the notice of the king Edwin, and become his seer and adviser. But it is a precarious position, living at the whim of a king, for if she ever gives the wrong advice, it could mean not only her life but the lives of everyone she loves. When Christianity starts taking hold over the kingdoms of Britain, the situation becomes ever more complicated.

Hild is incredibly rich, fascinating character. She is constantly straddling two worlds, and navigating her own path between them. As king’s seer, she cannot fulfill traditional women’s roles, but she also cannot take on wholly male ones. She must reconcile the god of her youth, Woden, with this strange new god called the Christ, who is unfathomable to her but whose priests are gaining more and more power over her king. She must keep a dangerous secret from a man she loves in order to keep him alive. And she must always present herself as the light of the world, because the minute she fails to do so she becomes nothing but a useless–and potentially dangerous–woman to her king.

Hild is historical fiction at its best. The language is so rich–rarely do you come across a novel where each word seems so carefully chosen, so potent. And it doesn’t impose twenty first century values on ancient peoples, as historical works often do. This is a foreign world, with different codes and values, and Griffith captures that very well. It’s a long novel, weighty, and took me much longer to read than novels even of similar size usually do, but it was well worth it. Hild stands as centerpiece to a huge cast of fascinating characters and an ever-changing world, and she will stick with me for a long time.

One small note to consider. The back of the book has a small glossary and pronunciation guide. I wish I had read these first. I have a passing knowledge of Old English pronunciation, and got most of those names more or less right, but the pronunciation guide to Old British would have helped me immensely, and though I eventually got most of the glossary terms through context, those, too, would have been great to have in my mind up front. I can understand why readers wouldn’t want to go into a novel with “homework” like that, but know that it’s there if, like me, you need the help!

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Review: Burial Rites by Hannah Kent

cover29436-mediumTitle: Burial Rites

Author: Hannah Kent

Rating: 3 stars.

I received this book through NetGalley in exchange for a fair review. 

Burial Rites is a novel based on the story of the last person executed in Iceland, Agnes Magnusdotter. Convicted of the murder of her lover and another man, Agnes is sent to live with a family in the country in the months leading up to her execution. She struggles to come to terms with her fate while slowly revealing the details of her life to the family and a young priest.

The language of this novel is beautifully atmospheric. The harsh landscape comes vividly to life, and there are beautiful and unusual metaphors. “Invigorated by a sudden curl of anger…” (p. 42) “It was only later that our tongues produced landslides…” (p. 164)  “Those who are not being dragged to their deaths cannot understand how the heart grows hard and sharp, until it is a nest of rocks with only an empty egg in it.” It’s absolutely gorgeous, and definitely compelling.

But, perhaps because it’s hampered by adherence to historical events, the structure of Burial Rites is unsatisfying. Reverend Toti is set up as a major viewpoint character, but then gets sick with an unspecified illness and drops out of the book for a long time, with only scattered references to Agnes wondering where he is. The daughters of the family, Lauga and Steina, have different reactions to Agnes’s presence in their lives, and Lauga wonders if they will ever be able to marry after what she perceives as the stigma thrust upon them, but while these issues are raised they are never sufficiently dealt with. In fact, most of the characters’ plotlines felt insufficiently resolved.

And Agnes is a difficult protagonist, to say the least. Because her sections are told in first person, unlike anyone else’s, the reader is constantly forced into her head. One can certainly empathize with a woman facing execution, but after awhile it starts to feel like relentless whining and my patience as a reader wore thin. Her first person narrative contained the best writing in the book, but I couldn’t help feeling it would be better served in a short story, where I would have less chance to become annoyed with the voice.

Burial Rites is a first novel, and while it isn’t perfect, it is solid literary fiction that promises good things to come from this young writer. I found it hard to be passionate about it, but those who read lots of historical fiction will almost certainly enjoy it.


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Review: The Painted Girls by Cathy Marie Buchanan


The Painted Girls


Title: The Painted Girls

Author: Cathy Marie Buchanan

Rating: 2 stars

I would like to propose a moratorium on the first person present tense narrative. It’s vastly overused these days, to the point where it no longer conveys the sense of desperation and urgency it’s supposed to. It’s becoming a useless literary conceit.

The use of first person present awkwardly interspersed with past-tense recollections is just one of the structural problems of Cathy Marie Buchanan’s The Painted Girls. Buchanan is a bestselling author and The Painted Girls is getting rave reviews, but it’s difficult for me to see why. To me it read like an MFA student’s first draft, unpolished and occasionally nearly unreadable. I have to wonder if I read the same book as everyone else seems to be.

The Painted Girls follows sisters Antoinette and Marie as they grow up in 1880s Paris, struggling with crippling poverty, sexual coercion and threats, and the demanding standards of the world of the Opera. Antoinette, the stereotypical “bad” sister, is a liar and petty thief who is soon swept off her feet by a charismatic lover who brings out the worst in her, and eventually leads her to a life of prostitution and crime. Marie, the “good” girl, is a passive, insecure character obsessed with physiognomy and the idea that, because she is ugly, she is destined to become a criminal. Despite working hard and succeeding as a dancer, an artist’s model, and the de-facto savior of her family, she too eventually degenerates into a life of debasement. It is only seeing Marie laid low that breaks Antoinette out of her cycle of bad decisions, and eventually the two sisters reconcile, there is a drippingly sentimental postscript, and all is right with Antoinette and Marie, although the systematic problems of their era remain unaddressed.

The bare-bones plot of The Painted Girls offers many points of interest. Antoinette and Marie are ballet dancers of the Paris Opera, they exist on the edges of the world of great artists like Degas and Zola, their poverty-stricken neighborhood is full of criminals and violence. The sheer drama of two very different sisters trying to lead their own lives but coming into conflict with each other should create a compelling narrative in itself. But the writing does not hold up. There are a few engaging and memorable scenes (specifically, the first scene of Emile’s seduction of Antoinette, and some of the scenes in Degas’ studio). The rest of the book is a muddle of too many styles, bad pacing, and unsympathetic characters.

The two sisters swap off first person present tense narratives, interspersed at random with newspaper accounts and Degas sonnets. Marie’s sections are the better of the two, even though she sometimes weighs the narrative down with her many anxieties. Antoinette’s sections are in large part difficult to read. The dialogue is laughable, the narrating language stilted and full of errors. This is apparently supposed to convey that Antoinette is the less educated of the pair, but instead of creating an authentic dialect, Buchanan just layers on tortured, awkward turns of phrase.

Most distracting for me, for some reason, Buchanan seems not to believe in possessive nouns. Instead of “Marie’s hand,” “LeBlanc’s stare,” “Charlotte’s mouth,” the reader must stumble around “the hands of Marie,” “the stare of LeBlanc,” “the pouting mouth of Charlotte.” Used sparingly, this structure can add a delicate beauty to scenes, but it was used so overwhelmingly that I came to dread seeing it.

The pacing is also a mess. The early chapters wander, as the sisters delve into long tangents and timelines overlap, while the end is rushed. The use of two narrators means that chapters towards the end of the book often span no more than three paragraphs long, roughly jolting the reader between viewpoints when one or the other would do. The sentimental ending completely negates all the work of the rest of the novel; instead of seeing the characters grow and change into what they are fifteen years later, the reader is presented with an expository infodump about how sisterly love trumps all adversity.

Ultimately, The Painted Girls fails to come to any real resolutions. It’s a bunch of set pieces on a stage, with little depth and nothing memorable except its errors.

(This book was read as an uncorrected proof. I can’t speak to how any changes to the text may have affected my reading experience.)

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