Historical fiction reviews by Sarah L. Nesbeitt - originally published in the Historical Novels Review (Issue 13).  
All reviews on this page ©2000 Sarah L. Nesbeitt.  All rights reserved.

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Sarah Blake, Picador USA, 2000, $24, 376pp, hb  ISBN 0-312-24544-0
Grange House is an elegant, charming recreation of a late Victorian gothic novel, complete with ghostly appearances, long-lost family secrets, and a narrative style that calls to mind the works of Henry James or Wilkie Collins.  Our seventeen-year-old heroine, Maisie Thomas, is the picture of innocence as the novel begins, and though she yearns for adventure and romance, even she cannot imagine where her curiosity will lead her.
Daughter of a well-to-do New York family, Maisie and her devoted Mama and Papa spend each summer at Grange House, a mansion set along the Maine coast.  Aside from the household staff, their chosen lodging has one permanent resident, the ailing, elderly Miss Grange.  A local authoress of repute, Miss Grange is assumed by the family to be a poor relation of the mansion’s former owners.  Taking Maisie under her wing, she recounts fantastic stories to the young girl of the Granges’ early history.  However, neither Miss Grange nor her stories are quite what they seem to be.  It’s up to Maisie to sort through the real and the fictional, and to sift through details hidden within twenty years’ worth of stories, letters, and diaries - before the tragedies of Grange House begin to repeat themselves once more.  Maisie finds the romance she’s been seeking as well, but must ultimately decide between two men: will it be her father’s young business partner, Jonathan Lanman, or charming Bart Hunnowell? 
Sarah Blake’s wonderfully chosen language brings us back in time to the ever subtle, precise, yet melodramatic world of high society at the turn of the last century, in which women who seem almost to faint at the slightest disturbance of equilibrium can still be strong enough to keep secrets which could hold a family together.  At times the ornate description tends to interfere with the heightening suspense.  Those who can stand fast against the urge to race through to the very end, however, have an exciting reading experience in store.

Thomas Mallon, Pantheon, 2000, $24 (£13.73 from Amazon.co.uk), 307pp, hb, ISBN 0-375-40025-7
By 1877 the Civil War has been over for twelve years, but its legacy remains.  Cynthia May, the new human “computer” for the US Naval Observatory in Washington, DC, has spent nearly half her life in its shadow, mostly with devastating consequences.  After her husband’s death in battle and those of her mother and only child not long afterward, Cynthia at thirty-five is weary of her unfulfilled life and finally ready to make some changes.
            Her route to re-joining the civilized world takes two paths.  The first is through Hugh Allison, an astronomer eight years her junior whom Cynthia sees as both her personal and professional savior.  Because Hugh was too young to have been a soldier, he and Cynthia are too far apart for perfect understanding to spring up between them.  Still, they are kindred spirits, both loners who choose their own paths and silently nurture their own ambitions.  While Cynthia will settle for a mere home and family, Hugh has larger plans: he wishes to immortalize himself by broadcasting his image to the heavens.
            Add to this mix Madame Costello, a kindly but nosy astrologer who serves as Cynthia’s guide.  Through her, Cynthia encounters Senator Roscoe Conkling, who has his own plans for a political future as well as for the beautiful widow.  While the title “Two Moons” easily refers to the newly-discovered satellites of Mars, it applies equally to Hugh Allison and Roscoe Conkling, two men who revolve around Cynthia, affecting her decisions and actions.
            If the romance between Hugh and Cynthia is less than satisfying, despite the astronomical backdrop, both the setting and the characters of Two Moons are perfectly realized.  Senator Conkling, a historical character, leaps from the page with his larger-than-life personality.  Cynthia and Hugh, likewise, are sympathetic - if not always likable - individuals, whose motivations are understandable in the context in which they live.  The language used throughout is eloquent yet somber, with the “miasmic vapors” of the polluted waters below the Observatory overshadowing all.

Stephen Lewis, Berkley Prime Crime, 2000, $5.99, 265pp, pb  ISBN 0-425-17466-2
Old Man Powell is found murdered in his cabin, the crime disguised as a scalping.  The natural suspect is Massaquoit, an Indian whom midwife Catherine Williams keeps as a servant after his tribe is decimated by the Puritan settlers.  While Catherine is portrayed as the heroine, in reality it’s Massaquoit who takes the lead to clear his name.  Other suspects include Powell’s apprentice Thomas, recently disappeared, and the Worthingtons, somber village leaders with something to hide.
            Reading novels not first in a series can leave one with the feeling of entering a crowded room filled with strangers, and in the case of this book, the newly met company is standoffish and distant.  Catherine is barely given an introduction, and I hardly felt the sense of community that would be expected in a tightly-knit Puritan settlement.  Comparisons with Margaret Lawrence’s mystery series, also set in early New England and featuring a midwife as heroine, are inevitable, and in my opinion this novel doesn’t quite measure up.  The old-fashioned language used by the characters, though, seems perfectly appropriate, and the situations showcasing Catherine’s medical techniques make the novel worth reading.

Alistair MacLeod, Norton, 2000, $23.95 (£12.79 from Amazon.co.uk), 283pp, hb, ISBN 0-393-04970-1
On Cape Breton Island, the Gaelic stronghold of Nova Scotia -- a land of windswept crags and rocky shores -- memories of years long past still reside in the hearts and minds of the people. Over two hundred years after Culloden, families of Scots descent still reminisce about the brave exploits of their handsome Bonnie Prince Charlie, and still lament the fact that the French did not come to his aid. 
        In 1779, Calum MacDonald -- called Calum Ruadh for his red hair -- left the Scottish Highlands with his family, bound for a better life in Nova Scotia.  At the end of the twentieth century, his descendant Alexander MacDonald works as an orthodontist in Ontario, though his heart has never left his homeland of Cape Breton.  While on a visit to his alcoholic eldest brother, living in squalor in a Toronto apartment, his thoughts turn back to his early days growing up with his grandparents and twin sister on the island.  His story is told in flashbacks, including flashbacks nested within each other at multiple levels.  In a lesser writer’s hands, this might cause one to lose perspective, but here the reader’s attention is held throughout.
            Alexander’s tale twines through various happenings of importance: the early deaths of his parents; the unusual friendship of his two grandfathers, one relaxed and jovial, the other careful and contained; and the wild, violent summer spent with his three elder brothers as miners deep within the Canadian Shield.  Wherever he or his siblings venture, they’re identified both to themselves and to outsiders as members of the clann Chalum Ruaidh, the “clan of the red Calum.”  In this large extended family where relationships matter more than names, distant relatives in Scotland greet their Canadian kin with open arms, grandparents use Gaelic to recount tales of the old country, and even the family dogs are loyal unto death.
           Lyrical and moving, No Great Mischief may not be “historical fiction” in its usual definition, but one would be hard-pressed to find a novel with a stronger sense of history.  A Canadian bestseller of local interest yet truly international appeal, this novel is a highly recommended exploration of the pain of exile, the strength of family, and the inescapable nature of the past.

Christin Lore Weber, Scribner, 2000, $23, 251pp, hb  ISBN 0-684-86866-0
Three twentieth-century women experience crises of religious faith in this lyrical first novel, set in rural northern Minnesota between 1917 and 1965.  For Megan and her daughter Kate, the Catholic doctrine as taught to them by the local priest challenges the sexual life of their marriages.  For Kate’s daughter Elise, a budding classical pianist, her musical talent is seen as both a gift from God and a distraction from her chosen life as a nun.  In all three cases, while certain (one may say the most vital) parts of these women’s lives are deliberately repressed, they cannot wholly be denied without consequence.
The book’s overall theme may well be autobiographical, as the author is herself a former nun.  Though she no doubt knows the subject of which she writes, the continual examples of Catholicism’s repression of female sexuality and identity quickly grow wearisome.  The novel’s overall tone is of quiet melancholy, with occasional, too-rare hints of the beauty that lies hidden underneath.  There is much to praise in Altar Music: the author has a poetic touch with language, particularly in scenes describing the natural beauty of the area.  Most characters, though, are rather joyless, and upon finishing this novel I felt as if I’d just come out from under a cloud of gloom.  Both recovering Catholics and those who prefer introspective novels will likely have a greater appreciation for this book than I did.

Beth Gutcheon, Morrow, 2000, $24, 269pp, hb  ISBN 0-688-17403-5
Two stories, both set in the small coastal town of Dundee, Maine, fifty years apart, converge in this enthralling novel.  In the present day, an elderly woman returns to Dundee to tell the story of the Depression-era summer when her life turned upside down. When she is seventeen, Hannah Gray and her family rent a summer cottage in her grandparents’ hometown of Dundee.  Little does she know that the house where they’re staying was once a schoolhouse on now-uninhabited Beal Island, the scene of a Lizzie Borden-style axe murder years before. Only she and Conary Crocker, the town rebel with whom she falls in love, ever see the ghost – a malevolent old woman with burning eyes - who haunts both Hannah’s home and its former location on the island.
            In 1858, in a parallel tale, gentle, quiet Claris Osgood marries taciturn Danial Haskell, a Beal Island resident, despite her parents’ disapproval.  They fear he’ll eventually harden into his family’s deep-rooted strict Baptist beliefs - and too soon, they’re proven right.  As the years pass, the repressed anger in the Haskell household reaches a breaking point with Danial’s murder.  But who among three women is the evil ghost who terrorizes both Hannah and Conary?  Which of them is Danial’s killer?  All have motives: wife Claris, who hates the life she’s now living; daughter Sallie, forbidden by her father from seeing her boyfriend; and their boarder, schoolteacher Mercy Chatto, who has her own reasons for hating Danial.  The fact that she wasn’t able to discover the answer to these questions in time is what haunts Hannah to this day.
Author Gutcheon is adept at making all her characters seem real; she demonstrates her ability to recreate both the joy of true love and the power of evil, at times only moments apart.  Few writers can write with such sustained intensity.  Be prepared to stay up late with this one! 

Arliss Ryan, St. Martin’s, Apr 2000, $25.95, 420pp, hb, ISBN 0-312-24209-3
I’ve always had a soft spot for multi-generational sagas, although The Kingsley House is much more than this simple word can describe.  Using the occupants of a longtime family residence in Livonia, Michigan, as its focal point, it also recounts 150 years in the life of small town midwestern America.
In 1843, Nathan Kingsley, the author’s third great-grandfather, lovingly builds a home from the ground up for his future wife Mary.  More a pioneer settlement than a town, Livonia slowly grows over the years to become first a burgeoning suburb of Detroit, and eventually a small city in its own right.  Though the house focuses the story, however, it’s the characters and their stories which make it memorable.  Nathan and Mary survive their first venture as unsuspecting abolitionists along the Underground Railroad, their granddaughter Gertrude overcomes early tragedy to live on as the family matriarch, and in 1977 her granddaughter Laura saves the house from demolition by having it physically moved to a historic preservation site, where it can be visited today.
The author, Laura’s daughter, has created in The Kingsley House an unforgettable portrait of her own family, complete with genealogical notes (I would have loved to have seen some photos).  All family members are true-to-life individuals, with plenty of flaws and foibles, and as with every family, there’s the occasional black sheep.  It’s remarkable that in a tale of over 400 pages, the story never drags: the action-filled storyline and the personalities of the characters keep it alive.  I enjoyed every minute.

Marie Jakober, Edge Science Fiction & Fantasy (Canada, http://www.edgewebsite.com), 2000, $23.95 ($35.95 Can.) 460 pp, hb  ISBN 1-894063-00-7
Paul von Arduin, now a monk, is compelled by sorcery to write the truth of his adventures with his former master, Karelian Brandeis.  In Paul’s story, Karelian, the youngest son of a German nobleman, has just returned victorious from the Crusades. Karelian insists on passing through the forest of Helmardin en route to his wedding, despite warnings from his comrades that sorcery awaits there.  In fact, an enchanted, pagan castle lies within, and its owner, a beautiful half-human, half-veela female named Raven, has deliberately lured Karelian there.  Karelian, whose sexual attraction to Raven cannot be denied, must decide between Raven and his vows to his feudal lord.  His choice eventually embroils him, Raven, his overlord, and all of Germany into near civil war.
            The novel jumps occasionally between Paul’s recollections and his current monastic life.  Though these transitions are handled well, it jars when the novel leaves the point of view of the supposed narrator to recount events and secret conversations where he was not present.  The author has deliberately chosen an imagined setting within a specific timeframe of medieval Germany, but populated it entirely with fictional characters - from Karelian and Paul to the Holy Roman Emperor himself, here named “Ehrenfried.” This left me with an unsettled feeling.  Paul, also, is a rather weasel-like character, accomplishing mostly trouble, and never sure of his own loyalties.  In my opinion, the novel could have been better grounded in either history or fantasy if either true historical events were more central to the story, or if the novel were set in a medieval-style world similar to, but not quite, our own.  Overall, an entertaining tale with a number of distracting elements.

DAUGHTER OF THE FOREST: Book One of the Sevenwaters Trilogy
Juliet Marillier, Tor, 2000, $25.95, 400pp, hb  ISBN 0-312-84879-X
Children of a wealthy landholder in early medieval Ireland, Sorcha of Sevenwaters and her six elder brothers grow up surrounded by lakes and woods, under the watchful eye of the Lady of the Forest and their late mother’s spirit.  Their father, a cold, distant man, has continued, with the aid of his older sons, his own father’s ancient wars against the Britons who have overrun their country.
            Two things happen to change their way of life.  First, a young Briton is taken prisoner and tortured by their father’s men.  Sorcha’s sympathetic younger siblings, who hate war and what it represents, take considerable risk in rescuing him. Second, their father marries Oonagh, an evil sorceress who wishes to rid herself of all seven so that her own future children can inherit.  She fashions a unique punishment for the six brothers, and it’s up to Sorcha to break the spell - though she may wander far and come close to death many times in the process.
            Lovers of Celtic lore will no doubt know the “Swans” myth on which this novel is based, yet Marillier includes many a unique twist to the tale.  In her story the competing religions of Celtic Paganism and Christianity mingle and intertwine, as well as do the lives of members of the warring Irish and Briton tribes -- who may not really be so different after all.  Having recently finished The Wild Swans by Peg Kerr, a similar retelling of “Swans” set in a later time, I wished the overall story wasn’t so familiar; perhaps future tales will be more wholly original.  In all, though, I eagerly await upcoming novels in this series.

Roxane C. Murph, Greenwood, 2000, $85, 349pp, hb  ISBN 0-313-31425-X
Freelance researcher Murph presents a descriptive list of fictional works all set between the beginning of Charles I’s reign (1625) and the death of Charles II (1685).  In all, annotations are provided for 509 works of verse, 821 novels and short story collections, and 936 plays.  A comprehensive index completes the volume.
          With regard to the novels, my principal interest, this volume is not nearly as comprehensive as Murph’s earlier compilation, The Wars of the Roses in Fiction: An Annotated Bibliography, 1440-1994 (Greenwood, 1995).  Surprisingly lacking are mentions of Sara George’s recent The Journal of Mrs Pepys, Stella Riley’s Civil War saga Garland of Straw, and Catherine Darby’s King’s Falcon, to name just a few.  Author, title, publisher, date, and pages are provided for each work, along with a long abstract. 
           The annotations themselves are well written and suitably lengthy; it’s a pleasant surprise to learn that Murph has herself read each one of the works she lists.  Because the descriptions include complete plot summaries, complete with spoilers, this work is more a scholarly compilation than a readers’ advisory source.  Most descriptions include critical comment, and Murph never shrinks from expressing her own opinion of a work.  Authors and readers of historical romance should be warned of the author’s contempt for this genre: one novel is described as “standard historical romance fare: hackneyed plot, cardboard characters, and uninspired writing.”  As many romances are included in this book, such descriptions quickly grow tiresome, and most readers will find themselves disagreeing with Murph on many occasions.  In all, while the author knows her history and has clearly done her research, she ignores -- and indeed often denigrates -- the appeal that many of these novels have for their readers.
            These faults don’t diminish the fact that this book is perhaps the best single source for information on novels of the early Stuart era.  Books rarely included in library catalogues, such as paperbacks -- and those included without detailed subject classification, such as UK-published novels-- are finally described in full here.  An essential reference for completists and indeed for anyone seeking a novel set during the English Civil War or Restoration, if the annotations are taken with a slight grain of salt.

Catherine Jinks, Pan Macmillan Australia, 2000, AU$22.95 , 393pp, trade pb, ISBN 0-330-36194-5
Brother Bernard Peyre of Prouille, of the city of Lazet in the French Pyrenees, is surprisingly tolerant for a member of his profession.  An inquisitor of heretical depravity in the year 1318, he is one of the few who does not believe that the sins of the fathers -- heretical beliefs in the Cathar faith, in other words -- are necessarily visited upon the sons.  When fifty-year-old registers go missing, and later his superior, Father Augustin Duese (a rather voracious persecutor of potential Cathars and agnostics), is murdered in a rather unusual fashion, under instant suspicion are descendants of heretics accused and convicted years before.  Other potential murderers are a group of seemingly questionable women living in a nearby mountain village.  Brother Bernard attempts to look past superstition in order to ferret out the truth.  In attempting to protect the innocence of others, however, his very actions become a source of contention amongst his fellow members of the Holy Office.  He soon finds that he, once the accuser, is now the accused who must defend himself against heretical charges.
Half historical mystery and half thriller with unexpected elements of romance, The Inquisitor quickly immerses us in a world of mistrust, fear, and suspicion.  Few explanatory details are provided, and readers unused to medieval locales may feel a bit unsettled.  Yet those who wish to imagine the feel of cold stone monastery walls, smell the blood and corruption, or simply visit for a time a unique setting not often seen in historical fiction, there will be much here worth discovering.  The mystery, as well, is wonderfully articulated, and the perpetrator (or is it perpetrators?) of the gruesome deeds described within are well hidden until the very end.  Unfortunately, there are currently no plans to publish The Inquisitor outside of Australia.  Since the publisher does not sell direct to the public, a special order direct to an Australian bookseller may be necessary.  

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Last updated: March 17, 2002