Category Archives: historical fiction

The Serpent’s Tale by Ariana Franklin

I rarely cheat and use Goodreads for my book summaries, but I just couldn’t figure out a way to summarize this one without giving too much away, so…

serpent's tale cover

Rosamund Clifford, the mistress of King Henry II, has died an agonizing death by poison—and the king’s estranged queen, Eleanor of Aquitaine, is the prime suspect. Henry suspects that Rosamund’s murder is probably the first move in Eleanor’s long-simmering plot to overthrow him. If Eleanor is guilty, the result could be civil war. The king must once again summon Adelia Aguilar, mistress of the art of death, to uncover the truth.

Adelia is not happy to be called out of retirement. She has been living contentedly in the countryside, caring for her infant daughter, Allie. But Henry’s summons cannot be ignored, and Adelia must again join forces with the king’s trusted fixer, Rowley Picot, the Bishop of St. Albans, who is also her baby’s father.

Adelia and Rowley travel to the murdered courtesan’s home, in a tower within a walled labyrinth—a strange and sinister place from the outside, but far more so on the inside, where a bizarre and gruesome discovery awaits them. But Adelia’s investigation is cut short by the appearance of Rosamund’s rival: Queen Eleanor. Adelia, Rowley, and the other members of her small party are taken captive by Eleanor’s henchmen and held in the nunnery of Godstow, where Eleanor is holed up for the winter with her band of mercenaries, awaiting the right moment to launch their rebellion.

Isolated and trapped inside the nunnery by the snow and cold, Adelia and Rowley watch as dead bodies begin piling up. Adelia knows that there may be more than one killer at work, and she must unveil their true identities before England is once again plunged into civil war . . .

Basically, our favorite 12th-century forensic pathologist is back in action, only this time her action is complicated because 1) its winter, and in 1147(?) travel wasn’t easy in perfect weather, so imagine how much tougher it is in 4 feet of snow; 2) her friend, confidant, and all-around helper Rowley is now a bishop, an Important Person in court and in the Church so on top of everything else their relationship is changing; and 3) she has a BABY and running around solving murders when you need to take breaks for breastfeeding is tough for anyone, 12th-century or otherwise.

Much like the first book in this series, Mistress of the Art of Death (reviewed here!) Adelia is called on by King Henry to help solve a murder, only this time the murder is connected to the royal court and the identity of the murderer could lead to war. I like these books, not just because I like historical fiction, but because I like Adelia. She wants to be strong and independent and most of the time she is successful, impressive for a time period when any woman with an ounce of brains was accused of witchcraft and executed. Yet she also struggles with things like balancing her work and motherhood, her faith – whether she has any at all, and if she does, what exactly does she believe in? She’s imperfect, and despite her sometimes abrasive manners and foolish decisions, she’s likable and as a reader you are on her side.

I missed Rowley a bit in this novel. He wasn’t as involved as he was in the first book, and when he was, his character began to change and grow due to his new position as bishop. I wouldn’t say he is a favorite character by any means, but his interplay with Adelia was fun and I wanted more. We did see more of Adelia’s relationship with her friend Glytha (I think that’s the correct spelling of her name – I made a dumb move and returned the book to the library before writing my review to avoid fines, haha). Anyway, Glytha is matronly and well-grounded in common sense, and she’s a good balance to Adelia’s impulsive and sometimes pig-headed nature. I like her, and enjoy reading about her.

There was definitely more court intrigue in this novel, including a long, detailed scene with Adelia interacting with King Henry. He’s a smart, progressive ruler who could be much more of a jerk than he chooses to be. His queen and children are in the novel as well, so if historical fiction with Royal Drama is your thing, you will like this novel.

Finally, I wasn’t able to figure out who the murderer was before the characters in the novel, which was great. I was surprised and pleased with the twist ending. While I didn’t love this book quite as much as the first, I still give it 3.5 stars out of 5, and recommend it to fans of historical fiction and mystery novels.

Advertisements

Mistress of the Art of Death by Ariana Franklin

mistress of the art of death coverAdelia is a forensic pathologist, a doctor who studies corpses to discover the cause of death. Alone, this isn’t a shocking or particularly special characteristic. When you add “in 12th-century England” it becomes much, much more interesting. Adelia trained to become a doctor in Salerno, Italy, a quite progressive town for the mid-1100’s, not only because the people who live there know so much about medicine, but because they trained a female doctor. Adelia is even more of an oddity because her particular field of study – that of death. While she is respected by those in the medical profession in Salerno, she is still so unique that her foster father must take credit for her work. Thus it becomes a shock for absolutely everyone when Adelia is the “death doctor” chosen to fulfill the King of England’s request for a doctor to help the determine the cause of death of the several children in Cambridge.

I was intrigued by this novel before reading it. The idea of a “death doctor” in the 12th Century was enough to make me want to pick up this book – the fact that the lead character was a woman made me even more interested, and I was not disappointed. Adelia is a strong, independent, and brilliant young woman. She is faced with an exceptionally difficult task, taking a long journey to England, a country that is much more conservative, and practically even backwards by the standards of Salerno that she is accustomed to. Her servant and dear friend dies on the journey. She must pretend her other servant is really the doctor, as female doctors in England are unheard of, and she would be accused of witchcraft and executed. Not to mention she’s living in a time period where women are considered property of their man, and without a man are regularly taken advantage of. Adelia faces her challenges with her head held high and never backs down from those who consider themselves her betters. She makes mistakes as she learns her way, but she learns from them, and this only makes her more human and relate-able.

Some other reviewers complained about Adelia’s indecision about her belief system. At times she rejected religion, and at other times prayed and called upon God, Allah, or whoever came to mind at the time. I found this understandable rather than obnoxious. Adelia comes from a place where science and medicine are appreciated and practically worshiped, which does not often lend itself to belief in a higher power. Traveling to England, she finds herself in a location where God is the ultimate power, believed to be the only thing that can take pain away, and any sort of science or medicine is not just disbelieved, but frowned upon and reviled. Being surrounded by these varying ideologies, it only makes sense that Adelia would question and at times change her views.

There was some romance in the novel, but it was not essential to the plot and did not distract from the story in any way. Most of the supporting characters were well-written and had their own depth and backstory. I enjoyed the history in the novel as well. I recently read Pillars of the Earth by Ken Follett, and noticed Kind Henry II and some other events in this novel were similar to those in Follett’s novel, which took place about 100 years later. Had I not read Pillars so recently, I would not have noticed, and while this might bother the more historical minded, it didn’t effect my enjoyment of the story. I am looking forward to A Serpent’s Tale, the next book in the series.

I give the novel 4 out of 5 stars, and recommend it to fans of mystery and historical fiction.

The Pillars of the Earth by Ken Follett

pillars of the earth cover

There are tons of covers for this book. This one is my favorite. 

You wouldn’t think a book about building a cathedral would pull you in and refuse to let you go. The Pillars of the Earth by Ken Follett did exactly that. The novel follows a large cast of characters though 12th-century England as they struggle with war, famine, corrupt rulers, rape. accusations of witchcraft, death, poverty, and ultimately the decades-long task of of building a stunning cathedral.

This is a very difficult book to sum up because it is extremely long – over 900 pages – and spans the lifetime of several characters, whose difficulties and growth I would hate to give away. I will say all the characters are beautifully written and exquisitely human, each with talents and flaws, and who make decisions that make the reader love and hate them equally. There is a character for everyone – the feminist who overcomes severe adversity to make a name for herself without the help of a man, the strong independent woman accused of witchcraft who lives in the forest, the religious monk who constantly finds himself between what his religion teaches and what society demands, the corrupt bishop who manipulates all those around him for his own gain, the father who struggles to raise his children on his own, the child who must choose whether to follow his parent’s footsteps or strike out on his own. Finally, there is a spectacular villain, you spend the entire novel gleefully hating and waiting for karma to catch up to him.

In addition to a fabulous cast of characters, the novel presents a detailed account of life in 12th-century England, in which travelers would die on the road if they came across bandits, families starved if they couldn’t find work, earls were free to do as they pleased to those in their power with no oversight, religion and royalty fought to determine who was really in charge. And the idea of these uneducated (even then, and certainly by our current standards) peasants building a magnificent cathedral without any of the machinery we are familiar with today was particularly impressive.

On his website ken-follett.com, author Ken Follett notes that the cathedral in his novel is fiction, but he drew inspiration from two real-like cathedrals in his writing, the Wells Cathedral and the Salisbury Cathedral, pictured here to give an idea of what these amazing people were capable of before electricity.

My only, albeit very small, gripe with this novel was that as fascinating as it was learning the minutiae of building a cathedral, I just wasn’t that interested in it, and I occasionally skimmed through some details about building plans. The novel did feel a bit long at points, but on the other hand was so enthralling that when it was over I wanted more, so ultimately no complaints about the length.

I give this book a rare 5 out 5 stars, and recommend it to anyone interested in historical fiction. Truthfully, I recommend it to everyone. There is something in this novel for every reader to enjoy, and I like Follett’s writing style enough that I now plan to seek out some of his other works.

PS – There’s a sequel! It’s called World Without End and apparently occurs in the same location two centuries later, during the Black Death. I will be reading it ASAP.

Timeless by Alexandra Monir

timeless coverMichele’s life is turned upside down when tragedy forces her to leave her southern California home and move in with her blue-blooded grandparents she has never met in New York City. While struggling to fit in to her radically different new life, she explores her new bedroom–the bedroom of all the Windsor girls before her. There she finds the journal of her ancestor Clara, and reading the journal sends her back in time to the Windsor Manor in 1910. There, Michele meets Philip Walker, the handsome young man she has been dreaming about her entire life. They fall desperately in love, and Michele must figure out how to adjust to her new life in 2010 and new love in 1910, all while not understanding or being able to control her time traveling.

This type of book–Young Adult Romance with star-crossed lovers separated by Time (note the capital T) is not my usual choice, but I was picking some books that had been on my Goodreads list for a long time, and this one was randomly selected. And honestly, it didn’t sound so bad. A time-traveling teenager who suffered tragedy and is rescued by falling in love with a boy who lived almost an entire century before she did. Seemed like a good concept–until you find out that when Michele travels to the past, she shows up as a some sort of “ghost” that only her ancestor and the mysterious Philip can see. That was just weird. Seems like time-traveling would be all sorts of boring if no one can see you. Michele had no control over her time-traveling, discovering random objects that would take her back to equally random days and times. It didn’t quite make sense to me. She had some cool experiences, but no one else could see her except one ancestor at a time. When she reappeared at a later time, like the 1920’s, the Windsor girls who had seen her previously couldn’t see her any more, but Philip still could. That whole concept bothered me. Also, while I liked Michele and was somewhat emotionally invested in her life, none of the other characters in the story were really developed, with the possible exception of Philip. We never learn much about Michele’s grandparents Walter and Dorothy, her 2010-best-friend Cassie, or Ben the boy vying for her attention. I feel like all of them had stories to tell, ESPECIALLY the grandparents, and we don’t learn much about them.

I did like the historical aspects of this book. I could feel Michele’s excitement as she observed the way the city, Central Park, and even Windsor Manor changed every time she visited (no pun intended). I especially appreciated the discussion of Jazz, Ragtime, and Big Band music, being a musician that appreciates where American music came from. In the book, Michele would write song lyrics and her love Philip would set them to music. If you visit the author’s website, alexandramonir.com, you can hear her recordings of the original songs she wrote for the book. I haven’t been able to listen to them yet, but I do love that idea.

And now, for a MAJOR SPOILER type rant. Seriously, BIG SPOILERS ahead. I am going to give away the ending of the novel. I just have to complain about it. So if you don’t want to know, STOP READING NOW.

OK, you were warned. Michele’s final trip (in this book) to the past takes place in 1944 when America is at war. She has cut off ties with Philip, wanting him to be able to move on and have a life since she can find no logical way to be with him, her being a GHOST in his present-day. Michele has been searching Philip Walker, thinking such a wonderful music composer should have a history she can find on Google. When Michele gets to 1944, she attends a war-benefit concert where her relative Lily performs with piano legend Phoenix Warren. To her shock, Michele discovers Phoenix is in fact Philip Walker, who changed his name and started a new life for himself. He speaks with Michele and tells her he never stopped loving her, but true to his word he moved on and married someone else. Michele goes back to 2010 devastated, even though she understands. This was a very moving moment in the story, that almost brought a tear to my eye, despite my issues with Michele’s ghostliness. A tragic ending to a beautiful romance. Or, it would have been. Until Michele goes to school the next day, and who walks in to her U.S. History class but new kid Philip Walker. I believe my reaction was something like “You have GOT to be kidding me!” Way to ruin such a bittersweet, emotional ending. Was I pulling for Michele and Philip to get together? Of course. It was written in such a way that you had to be. But did I want some cheesy pseudo-happy ending where Michele gets a second chance with a “Philip Walker” who probably isn’t anything like the Philip from the past? Lame. I wish Monir would have ended the story about 3 pages sooner.

I don’t know if I’ll bother with the next book or not. It’s pretty easy to guess that Michele is going to go talk to this “new” Philip, he won’t have any idea who she is, she’ll be heartbroken (again), maybe he’ll even end up being an jerk for awhile before they fall for each other and realize their destiny. Maybe I’ll eventually read the next book and be pleasantly surprised, and it will be different and original. Maybe I’ll never know :oP

Happy reading,

-Branwen

Grave Mercy by Robin LaFevers

Grave Mercy coverOn the night of her arranged marriage, Ismae is spirited away from her abusive husband and father by the village priest and hedgewitch. Fearing Ismae for the mark of death she wears almost as much as they fear her father, they do not even tell Ismae where they are taking her until they drop her off at the Abby of St. Mortain, old-god of Death. There Ismae is offered a choice: she, a young woman whose scars prove she is the daughter of Death himself, can be trained as an assassin. Or she can die of the poison she has just ingested. Ismae survives the poison, which the abbess takes as proof of her lineage, and Ismae agrees to be trained as an assassin and learn to understand the will of Mortain. Ismae’s first major assignment takes her to the court of Anne, the young Duchess of Brittany. There, Ismae learns she is woefully under-prepared for the intrigue and political maneuvering at court. Additionally, despite the assurances of the nuns at her convent that she has learned everything she needs to know about seduction and the “ways of the heart,” Ismae finds herself falling desperately in love with a man the convent eventually orders her to kill. How will Ismae choose to deal with her new feelings? Will she be able to continue blindly following the orders from the convent, or will she make her own decisions about the will of Mortain?

This book wasn’t exactly what I expected. It was (theoretically) supposed to be about an assassin, but really it was about court politics. Boring court politics. I mean, there were parts of the story that were exciting. I thought Ismae was an interesting character who did a lot of learning about herself and the world around her. I also really liked Duval, and the way he interacted with Ismae. I would have liked some of the other characters to be more developed though, rather than reading so many minor details about the politics in the court. Like Beast and de Lornay. I felt they both had stories that I really wanted to know. There is a slight possibility Beast will make an appearance in the next novel, we don’t really know what happened to him even though it was implied, but I’m not holding my breath. There was some cute romance in this story too, but not enough in my opinion to really make it an important part of the story, which I think it was intended to be.

Overall, I enjoyed the story. There were sections where I couldn’t put it down. But once all was said and done, I didn’t feel super emotionally invested, and was left with a very “meh” feeling about the whole book. I want to read the next book in the series, I think they will improve, and I hope Ismae and Duval make an appearance in the next book. I think they both still have stories left to tell.

Happy reading,

-Branwen