So little historical fiction, whether straight historical novels or 'historical fantasy' these days does it right, does it to satisfaction. The first two titles in my current reading are two straight out historical novels that do do right and do it to the readers' great satisfaction.
Engelmann, Karen. (2012) The Stockholm Octavo. Ecco-HarperCollins, New York.
The location is the Venice of the North, Stockholm. The time is that of 1791, the European prelude to the Revolutionary virus that has spread from the Americas ( ten years ago, 1781, was the Battle - Siege of Yorktown) to France. An historical novel, this might be called a fantasy as well. This is because the characters, from Sweden's King Gustav III, his brother Duke Karl, and Gustav's son (whose family-political intrigues play a large role on the historical stage of Europe's Age of Revolution and Napoleon's empire) to Mr. Larsson, the non-noble Swedish narrator, are caught up in a caught up in a cartomancy system run by Mrs. Sophia Sparrow, a frenchwoman in exile. Mrs. Sparrow is both the proprietor of the exclusive Stockholem gaming house and a fortune teller. Like all those who come to her, to win or lose money, or find their futures, she too has an agenda, to which her Octavo divination system is central. There is the scheming Lady Uzanne, a brilliant noble woman who perhaps wields magic via her fans and their languages, acquired from wherever in the world fans are known. Or -- perhaps both the cartomancy and the fans are merely historical elements of the era, historical in the way that alchemy, the caballa and other divination systems were anxiously employed by ambitious, curious, Englightenment figures, such as Casanova, whether in good faith or as a money-hungry adventurer-charleton? Wondering which is which is part of the pleasure of this lovely novel, which does its period -- and characters who live in it -- right.
Ennis, Michael. (2012) The Malice of Fortune. Doubleday, New York.
Was there ever a time for Europe like 1502, as the knowledge that an entire world new to them exists, and takes root? For the newly self-selected Pope Alexander VI, Rodrigo Borgia, despite his partition of South America between Spain Portugal, the New World is barely a blip on his concerns of restoration and expansion of the Papal States and the corporeal power of the Papal throne. Equal in drive, ambition and strategic intrigue to Alexander and his illegitimate son, Duke Valentino, Cesare Borgia, are Leonardo di Vinci and Niccolò Michiavelli. This diplomat and this military engineer get caught like flies in the very dangerous webs of Alexander, along with the most innocent one of all, Dimiata, mother of the Pope's grandchild, by his murdered son, the less gifted than Cesare, Juan. The Pope demands Dimiata find his son's killer, or she will never see her son again, and will die via prolonged torture (they were not afraid to waterboard in the 16th century -- a not very nice time, really, despite the art....). This splendid historical novel includes no characters who did not exist, and no events that did not happen. See also the author's excellent 1992 historical novel of the same era, The Duchess of Milan.
Locke, Attica. (2012) The Cutting Season. Dennis Lehane - HarperCollins, New York.
Contemporary southern Louisiana. A restored sugar plantation reaching back to the days of slavery, now a museum and event venue. The manager a single mother who grew up there, and whose own mother the was cook, their family ties to the place reaching back as far as white family who owned them and the land, and still owns the land. A murder of an immigrant -- illegal? woman hired on for the sugar harvest, commited upon the vast grounds of Belle Vie. It's an interesting novel in many ways, but does not quite live up to the praise that has been lavished on it.
Brown, Nancy Marie. (2012) Song of the Vikings: Snorri and the Making of Norse Myths. palgrave-MacMillan, New York.
A small, unpretentious, charming book, whose jumping off point is the myths and characters of the Icelandic sagas of Snorri Sturluson, which so inspired Tolkien and his making of the world and characters of Lord of the Rings. It is a biography of Snorri Sturluson, which there seems never to have been one before -- which we agree with the author seems a strange literary lack. By the way, the first novel of Michael Ennis, author of The Malice of Fortune above, is titled Byzantium (1989) it features the dispossed Viking prince Harldr Sigurdarson, so make full circle here.