This month we have a great breadth of new historical fiction, ranging in location from Korea to the American West to Siena, Italy, to England, and ranging in time from the 14th century through the 1950’s, so whatever your taste in history, we’ve probably got you covered.
There probably are purists who turn up their noses at the device in which a person from the present travels through time to a point in the past, though there’s no reason for snobbery. Many excellent historical novels (Anya Seton’s Green Darkness, Jack Finney’s Time and Again, Diana Gabaldon’s entire Outlander series, to name a few) have used that device to fine effect. The Scribe of Siena by Melodie Winawer, starts in the present but then brings its main character back to 14th century Siena, where most of the story is set. Beatrice Trovato is a brilliant neurosurgeon who’s starting to crack under the pressure of her own empathy when her brother dies unexpectedly, and she travels to Siena, Italy, to resolve his estate and deal with her grief. She discovers evidence of a 700 year old puzzle, a possible conspiracy to destroy the city of Siena. One of the central figures in the plot is Gabriel Accorsi, an artist, and as Beatrice sees her own face in one of his paintings, she’s transported back in time to Siena in 1347, just before the Plague hits and devastates the city. When she actually meets Accorsi, she falls in love with him and with the world in which he lives. Now it becomes even more essential for her to find out who’s behind the plot to destroy the city, in the shadow of the oncoming Black Death.
Alison Weir is an expert in the ins and outs of medieval England, so when she writes about the Tudors, you know you’re in good hands. Her newest book, Anne Boleyn: A King’s Obsession, part of her Six Tudor Queens series, takes us into the world of a famous (or infamous) woman who changed the course of history. Anne’s family was noble and ambitious; she knew from a very young age that she would be a pawn in their schemes for power. However, she saw how Henry VIII used and discarded Mary, her older sister, after he’d taken Mary as his mistress, and when Henry turned his attentions to her, she had no desire to follow in her sister’s footsteps. She refused to be Henry’s mistress and insisted on his divorcing his queen, Katherine, and marrying her instead. Was she a heartless monster who didn’t care about anything other than the fulfillment of her ambitions, or was she instead an intelligent woman, ahead of her time, doing her best to survive in dangerous circumstances? There have been many portraits of Anne (check out Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies, by Hilary Mantel, for a start), but if you’re at all interested in the Tudor era, you owe it to yourself to check out Alison Weir’s version in Anne Boleyn: A King’s Obsession.
The late Michael Crichton and a previously undiscovered book concerning dinosaurs? Sounds like a recipe for a wild read, and Dragon Teeth promises to be a wild read. Unlike Jurassic Park and its sequels, this one is based on real history, and covers an amazing period in scientific history, the late 1870’s in the Western United States, known as the Bone Wars, when two of the major paleontologists of the 19th century crisscrossed the West in search of dinosaur fossils, each one trying to outdo the other. The Wild West was still pretty wild during this time, the Indian Wars still underway and frequent gold rushes adding to the lawlessness of the frontier. Not, you would think, the sort of place for an effete and arrogant Yale college student to be looking for work, but William Johnson lands a job with Othniel Charles Marsh to fulfill a bet and then finds himself in more trouble than he expected. Marsh is paranoid about his rival, Edwin Drinker Cope, and when he decides that William is secretly working for Cope, he abandons William out in the middle of Cheyenne, Wyoming, a scary place. William finds Cope for real and joins his expedition, making a major discovery of historic proportions. Naturally (this is a Crichton book, after all) this puts William in great danger from some of the most notorious characters of the Old West. Crichton clearly did a lot of research into a historical period that’s full of fascinating characters and situations, and he applied his brand of bestseller page-turner writing to produce a historical novel that’s sure to be a hit.
Anyone can name famous novels from most of America’s wars, with the exception of the Korean War, which doesn’t seem to have found its version of Michael Shaara’s The Killer Angels or Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried or Joseph Heller’s Catch-22. Now Jeff Shaara, son of Michael, is trying to remedy that lack with his new book, The Frozen Hours, which focuses on one particularly terrible battle in the Korean War, the battle of Chosin Peninsula in November, 1950. The American forces were caught completely off guard by both the brutal winter weather and the Chinese forces that surrounded them on the Chosin Peninsula, outnumbered by 6 to 1 and in danger of annihilation. Shaara takes us inside the people caught in the middle of this nightmarish situation: the commanding general of the American forces, a Marine veteran of WWII facing the battle of his life, and the Chinese commander, always aware that his actions are being watched (and judged) by Chairman Mao Tse-Tung, who does not tolerate failure. If you want to know more about the Korean War than you learned from watching seasons of M*A*S*H*, The Frozen Hours is a great place to start.