Tag Archives: historical fiction

Book Review: Peter’s Angel

Peter's Angel - Final FrontIt’s been over a year since Aubrey Hansen published her first novel. Now she’s back, just like Ah-nuld. And she’s stepping up her game.

Peter’s Angel is historical fiction with a twist. It takes place in the aftermath of a lost War for Independence, following young Lord Peter Jameson as he struggles to protect the small patriot state of Rhode Island from the greedy hands of New Britain.

This is alternate history at its most intriguing, and for the most part, Aubrey pulls it off beautifully. Against this backdrop, she sets in motion an invasion, a kidnapping, a rescue, and a love story. And that’s only the beginning.

W. Somerset Maugham once said that “only a mediocre writer is always at his best,” and I think it’s safe to say that Aubrey’s style have improved since her debut. Make no mistake: I think Red Rain is a great read. But I also think Peter’s Angel blows it right out of the water.

For one thing, it’s more ambitious. You could say the stakes have been raised. There’s a boldness to the characters, a thematic and dramatic depth to the story, which clearly marks Aubrey’s growth as a storyteller. There are a couple of places where the story drags, but the plotting is generally tight, and the large cast is well-managed. The main characters – particularly Peter, Nathan, and Mark – are more complex than you might initially think. If book one is any indication, I’m willing to bet on some fascinating character development as the rest of the series runs its course.

That’s right, I said “series.” Peter’s Angel is the first book in a proposed trilogy. As such, I think it will be even stronger when considered alongside its sequels. There’s room for growth here, because the story isn’t over. Aubrey has started something big, and I’m eager to see where she goes with it.

There were some things about the writing which bugged me – nothing major, just little quirks that stood out to me. For instance, I didn’t care for the repeated use of “what if” paragraphs (silly name, I know, but I’m not sure what else to call them). Example:

Were the soldiers prepared for battle? What if the British outnumbered them? What if Peter didn’t get the message to pull back? What if the they wouldn’t accept Stephen’s plea for a ceasefire?

That kind of internal monologuing is fine in moderation, but it appears more frequently in the story than I would’ve liked.

Thankfully, the good far outweighs the bad here. Peter’s Angel gets an enthusiastic recommendation from me. It’s a promising start to a potentially epic series, and I’m keeping my fingers crossed for part two.

Book Review: Cloud Atlas

A word of advice from Stephen King: “Read sometimes for the story: don’t be like the book-snobs who won’t do that. Read sometimes for the words – the language. Don’t be like the play-it-safers who won’t do that. But when you find a book that has both a good story and good words, treasure that book.”

Cloud Atlas is a book to be treasured.

Combining old-fashioned adventure, an eye for puzzles, and a taste for the bizarre, author David Mitchell has written a delightfully original piece of fiction. I can honestly say I’ve never read anything like it before. It is a novel of novellas, one big story comprised of several smaller ones (six, to be exact). Each of these stories is set in a different time and place. Each is written in a different style of prose. And each is broken off midway and concluded in the second half of the book.

The Pacific Journel of Adam Ewing takes place circa 1850, and chronicles the adventures of a shipwrecked American notary from San Francisco. You may want to keep a dictionary close by as you read this one, as Mitchell draws on a formidable vocabulary. I, for one, had fun with it, but if you’re allergic to words like “scrimshandered” and “tatterdemalion”, you may find yourself giving up before you’ve even started. Don’t. The reward is well-worth the effort.

Letters From Zedelghem follows the young Robert Frobisher, a scoundrelly English musician who finds work as an amanuensis to a famous composer in Belgium, 1931. The story takes several dark and sordid turns, dealing with themes of adultery, betrayal, greed, and arrogance. A tragedy, in many ways, but Mitchell’s knack for textured characters is nowhere more evident.

Half-Lives: The First Luisa Rey Mystery jumps to Buenas Yerbas, CA in 1975. Miss Rey is an investigative journalist determined to uncover the shady events surrounding a new nuclear power plant. I’d love to see Mitchell do more noir – if this story is any indication, he’d be darn good at it.

The Ghastly Ordeal of Timothy Cavendish is far and away my favorite part of the book, recounting the misadventures of a vanity press publisher in the early 21st century UK. It’s clever and frequently hilarious, and the flavor is distinctly Wodehousian at times. Dashed good stuff, what?

An Orison of Sonmi~451 is dystopian science fiction set in Korea. The story takes place in flashback, during the interrogation of a genetically-engineered fabricant, or clone. It’s a bizarre and thought-provoking story, and reminded me of something Asimov (or possibly P.K. Dick) might have come up with. Part of me wishes some of the science had been explained further; the other part can understand why it wasn’t.

Sloosha’s Crossin’ an’ Ev’rythin’ After takes place in post-apocalyptic Hawaii, where the tribesman Zachry is visited by “Meronym”, one of the last surviving members of technologically-advanced civilization. Inventive though it is, this story is my least favorite, primarily because of its strange and slangy prose. Appropriate within the context, no doubt, but a chore to decipher.

I won’t tell you how all these tales come together – that would spoil one of the chief joys of reading this book – but they do come together. Every piece has a place in the grand, kaleidoscopic tapestry of Mitchell’s world. Watching him dance from genre to genre, and then tie everything up in the end, makes for one of the most entertaining head-trips I’ve had in awhile.

While I’m sure expounding all the symbolism and thematic material would be a fascinating task, I’ve decided not to bother with that here. I would, however, like to point out that the overarching theme is, in many ways, a Christian one: we all have a part to play in a story bigger than we could ever imagine. No one lives in a vacuum. The choices we make, the lives we touch, are not without meaning or consequence. We may not be able to understand the part we play in the God’s cosmic epic, but rest assured, we do play a part.

As N.D. Wilson says,

Do not resent your place in the story. Do not imagine yourself elsewhere. Do not close your eyes and picture a world without thorns, without shadows, without hawks. Change this world. Use your body like a tool meant to be used up, discarded, and replaced. Better every life you touch. We will reach the final chapter. When we have eyes that can stare into the sun, eyes that only squint for the Shenikah, then we will see laughing children pulling cobras by their tails, and hawks and rabbits playing tag. 

This isn’t meant to imply that Mitchell, or his novel, embrace a distinctly Christian worldview, but we can value this reminder all the same. It is an important one.

At the end of Ewing’s journal, he resolves to work at shaping his world for the better. He also imagines his father-in-law’s scorn upon hearing such a resolution:

He who would do battle with the multi-headed hydra of human nature must pay a world of pain & and his family must pay it along with him! & only as you gasp your dying breath shall you understand, your life amounted to no more than one drop in a limitless ocean!

Ewing’s response: “Yet what is any ocean but a multitude of drops?”

Book Review: Blood Meridian

Based on historical events that transpired on the Texas-Mexico border in the 1850s, Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian traces the fortunes of the Kid, a fourteen-year-old Tennesseean who falls in with a band of bounty hunters in pursuit of Indian scalps. Eschewing the conventions of the Western genre, McCarthy paints a raw and unforgettable picture of the oft glamorized “wild west” and weaves a bleak but thought-provoking tale of human depravity and violence.

Having read and appreciated two other McCarthy titles (The Road, No Country For Old Men), I suppose it was inevitable that I should pick up Blood Meridian, hailed by prestigious literary critic Harold Bloom as “the major esthetic achievement of any living American writer”. Having read it, I can almost agree with that assessment: I still consider The Road to be McCarthy’s finest work, but Blood Meridian is formidable in its own right.

I’ve praised McCarthy’s writing before, and I do so now again. His prose is positively breathtaking: elegant yet plain, simple yet complex, fantastical yet earthy. This alone places Blood Meridian head-and-shoulders above the vast majority of contemporary fiction – combined with an authentic narrative and vivid characters, it simply soars.

The major theme of the story is human depravity and the horrors of which we are capable when left to ourselves. It is as clear a picture of man in need of redemption as I have seen in fiction. At the beginning of the book is a quote by Jocob Boehme which reads,

It is not to be thought that the life of darkness is sunk in misery and lost as if in sorrowing. There is no sorrowing. For sorrow is a thing that is swallowed up in death, and death and dying are the very life of darkness.

McCarthy’s characters – like all unregenerate men – are hell-bent on pursuing their own wicked path. They are not sorrowed by their actions; they feel no misery over the evil they have done. They are so blind and deadened that they cannot see the darkness of their own hearts. And if they cannot see the darkness of their own hearts, they cannot see the need for Light.

As title and the premise suggest, Blood Meridian is a very violent book – probably the most violent book I’ve ever read. Killings are frequent, hard-hitting, and bloody, and generally calculated to make your stomach turn. That said, it’s important to add that the violence is never sensationalized: McCarthy does not revel in it nor exploit it for entertainment value. He simply presents it to the reader in a very real, matter-of-fact way. And the story is all the more effective for it.

Graphic imagery, some crude language, and one brief instance of implied sexuality go hand-in-hand with the violence. Quite obviously, this book is suitable only for the most mature readers. Emphasis on the word “mature”.

It’s hard to say one loves Blood Meridian. For those who can handle its harshness, however, I do believe it’s worth reading. Beneath the grit and McCarthy’s exceptional prose, it’s a haunting, thought-provoking tale that reaches out and hits you in a way you’ll never forget.

Book Review: The White Company

The attention of the insurgents had been drawn away from murder to plunder, and all over the castle might be heard their cries and whoops of delight as they dragged forth the rich tapestries, the silver flagons, and the carved furniture. Down in the courtyard half-clad wretches, their bare limbs all mottled with blood stains, strutted about… Yet all order had not been lost amongst them, for some hundreds of the better armed stood together in a silent group, leaning upon their rude weapons and looking up at the fire, which had spread so rapidly as to involve one whole side of the castle. Already Alleyne could hear the crackling and roaring of the flames, while the air was heavy with heat and full of the pungent whiff of burning wood.

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle: the name usually calls to mind 221B Baker Street and it’s resident, arguably one of the most famous characters to ever grace the hallowed pages of classic literature. Yet despite the popularity of the Sherlock Holmes stories, Doyle’s favorite among all his creations was a book of quite a different nature – an epic historical narrative of the Hundred Years’ War entitled The White Company.

The year is 1366, and England is at war with Spain. At age twenty, Alleyne Edricson leaves the abbey where he has been raised and sets out on his own, in accordance with the terms of his father’s will. In due time, he falls in with rough but likeable Samkin Aylward, lately returned from France to recruit for the White Company, a motley band of mercenary archers. Alleyne also makes the acquaintance of Sir Nigel Loring of Christchurch, and becomes his squire. Loring soon after accepts leadership of the White Company, and departs with his followers for France to aid Edward, the Black Prince.

Needless to say, adventures abound throughout the remainder of the book. There are skirmishes with pirates, a bloody siege, jousting tournaments, and countless acts of courage, honor, and fortitude, as well as a brilliantly rendered account of the Battle of Najera.

I have a great degree of respect for the genre of historical fiction in general; but every now and then, I encounter a book like The White Company, which not only earns my respect, but leaves me completely awestruck. Doyle managed to combine meticulously researched history with a marvelously entertaining tale of chivalry in a way that perfectly balances both aspects. The book never reads like a history textbook, and yet it never reads like a fable, either. The blend is perfect.

As far as objectionable content is concerned, there’s very little to worry about, and this book is an excellent choice for readers aged 13 and up, especially boys. However, let the sensitive beware: battle violence and carnage abound, complete with beheadings, lynchings, thoat-slittings, impalings, stabbings, and the like. It’s certainly realistic, and never goes over-the-top, but some may have more trouble stomaching it than others.

In conclusion, The White Company, though relatively unheard of today, is one of the best, most vibrant historical novels I have read – and I’ve read quite a few. With assiduous attention to detail and a robust style, Doyle paints a fantastic picture of the 14th century, occasionally adding a flourish of humor along the way.

So go pick up a copy at the library (if you can find it). Better yet, just buy it. You won’t be disappointed.