historical fantasy


A mystery book which has two intertwined timelines. One starts at 1972 and the other 1790.

Translator: Seppo Loponen
Publication year: 1988
Publication year of the Finnish translation: 2010
Format: print
Publisher of the Finnish translation: Bazar
Page count: 667

This book has multiple POV characters and two distinct timelines. While it’s advertised as a thriller, I think it’s too slow to really call it that. The two timelines especially slow it down.

It has one first person POV who is Catherine Velis, a young computer expert who is working for a very influential company. But when she’s ordered to do something against her ethics and she refuses, she’s put into the company’s shit list. She isn’t fired but instead is sent to Alger which isn’t a welcoming place to a working woman in 1970s. But she has no choice. The book starts in the New Year and her friends want her to hear a prophecy from an old seeress. But the prophecy turns out to be strange and disturbing, a warning of danger. Some months later, Cat is getting ready to move to Alger for a year, but first she goes to a chess game between international masters. Strange things start to happen.

In 1790, two girls are novices in a nunnery where they’ve lived almost their whole lives. Valentine is an impulsive, passionate girl who finds it hard to stay in the confined life. Her cousin Mireille is a more calm and thoughtful girl. But the French revolution is sweeping across the country, even to the remote nunnery of Mountglane and the abbess is sending her nuns away before the state can confiscate the nunnery’s possessions. The nunnery holds a great secret: for hundreds of years the abbesses’ have guarded the pieces and board of a magical chess game. Now, the abbess knows that her enemies want the pieces and the only way to safeguard them is to give some of the nuns a piece and send them away.

The abbess chooses Valentine and Mireille as lynchpins who can help the others when needed. So, the cousins are sent to Paris for a distant relative Jacques-Louis David, a famous painter. The girls are introduced to various people and the Parisian lifestyle. However, they don’t know whom they should trust. The abbess herself goes to Russia, to see her childhood friend who is now known as Catharine the Great.

The book has a lot of parallel storylines and in the historical section we’re introduced to a lot of famous people from the times of the French revolution. I liked that most of all.

Cat is a confident woman and it takes quite a while for her to even start believing in the magical chess board and its powers. The person who tags along to her journey is a rich chess master who is eager to solve the puzzles. She also has a small dog whom Cat doesn’t like. Both Cat and her friend are quite impulsive and do a couple of things which could have easily killed them. Mireille is a more thoughtful character but she, too, must make quick decisions because of events. She and Valentine are caught up in people and events in the French revolution and its aftermath.

Unfortunately, I felt that the book was too long. While the historical sections were actually more interesting to me than the present-day parts, I’m not sure if they really added much to the book. The story has some puzzles but not many.

Perhaps I had too high expectations. A blogger said that it was “the book DaVinci Code wants to be”. Yet, the only similarity is that there’s a historical mystery at the root of both books. It did have elements I quite enjoyed, like the evolving relationship between Cat and her friend, and pretty much all of the historical stuff.

Advertisements

Written by an anonymous Chinese author and translated by Gulick.

Publication year: 1976
Format: print
Publisher: Dover Publications
Page count: 223 + translator’s prescript and postscript

Apparently, this is a translation of the first part of an 18th century Chinese manuscript. It’s a detective story but more in line with Western detective fiction than in the usual Chinese tradition. It’s loosely based on a historical regional magistrate and set during the Tang dynasty. Gulick’s prescript describes how different usual Chinese mysteries were at least at the time. While it was fascinating to read about their features, they sound very different. However, I don’t know if I would actually enjoy reading one. In the postscript he gives out his reason not to translate the latter half (it’s apparently Judge Dee’s exploits at Court and not a detective novel at all) and what alterations he made to the translation.

In the story, Judge Dee, who is a regional magistrate known for his honesty, tackles three unrelated murder cases at the same time. He usually sends his trusted minions to do the legwork of questioning or snooping around. However, occasionally he must do some questioning himself, too, undercover, of course. But mostly he deducts and questions people.

The first case is a double murder: two traveling merchants are found dead on the street. The local warden accuses a local hostel owner, Koong, of the murders because the merchants had stayed in his hostel. However, after talking with Koong, Judge Dee realizes that Koong isn’t a murderer and starts to look for another suspect. The second case the judge finds on his own: while he’s undercover looking for clues to the first case, he stumbles upon a household of two widows: one is the widowed mother to a son who died a year ago under circumstances that the judge thinks are suspicious. The son’s widow is a recluse who refuses to meet anyone and this apparently further proof of a misdeed. In the third case, a bride has seemly been poisoned during her wedding night.

Most of the time, Judge Dee calls people to his court and questions them there, under torture, if necessary. The Chinese legal system was quite different from Western ones. There are no lawyers. The judge can call witnesses if he wants. However, if the judge puts an innocent man (a woman) to death, he can be beheaded, as well. He’s also under scrutiny from the people around him. All courtly matters are public so there’s usually a large crowd of people watching everything he does, such as the questioning or examining bodies. Also, without actual forensics, Judge Dee has to rely on his wits and judge of character when questioning people.

This was a very interesting read and a fascinating glimpse into the (probably at least somewhat fictionalized) workings of ancient China and its legal system. The characters come from many different social classes, from high officials to humble workers and even outlaws. Judge Dee is feared by most of the people he questions but he’s also respected. He can, and does, torture people but thinks that he has good cause to do so.

Unlike in Western books usually, the three mysteries aren’t related to each other, except that they’re brought to Judge Dee’s attention before he can solve the first one. They’re pretty hard to crack. Some of the cases have supernatural elements, such as the ghosts of dead people and dreams which the judge can use as actual evidence. The book has also some illustrations. Three of them have been made by von Gulick and the rest are apparently ancient woodcuts.

The writing style is pretty straight-forward and easy to read. The chapters are short and point-of-view is omniscient.

Van Gulick wrote more than a few Judge Dee mysteries himself, too. I haven’t read them but now I’m wondering if they’re any good.

A stand-alone historical fantasy book which follows Achilles from the perspective of Patroclus.

Publication year: 2011
Format: print
Publisher: Bloomsbury Publishing
Publication year of the Finnish translation: 2013
Translator: Laura Lahdensuu
Publisher of the translation: Basam books
Page count: 454

This is a love story from the point-of-view of Patroclus. His childhood is unhappy because he’s an ugly and clumsy boy who is a constant disappointment to his father. When he accidentally kills another boy, he’s sent into exile and to the court of King Peleus. There Patroclus meets Peleus’ beautiful, shining son, Achilles.

This is an excellent retelling, focusing on the love story of Patroclus and Achilles which was officially forbidden during the times but clearly tolerated. It’s not focused on fighting, except when the Trojan war gets really going, but even then Patroclus isn’t a soldier and we don’t really get to see much of the war at all, except the most famous and climatic scenes. Instead, it’s focused on people and humanizing the characters from legends. The gods are very much alive, real, and active. Achilles’ mother Thetis is a nereid and she hates all humans, including Patroclus. She has definite plans for her son. For most of the book, a doom is hovering over Achilles as is quite appropriate for Greek epic. As soon as Achilles and Patroclus hear about the Trojan war, they also hear about a prophesy that Achilles will die there.

Achilles seems quite a different person than in Homer’s epic. He’s not really interested in fighting until he gets to Troy. He’s calm and gentle man before it and it seems that the violence in the war really changes him. Patroclus is more a healer than a soldier in this tale. They both seem rather different from the majority of men in their time who tend to be warriors grasping for fame and fortune. And, of course, the women of the time aren’t treated as human; they’re property to be kept or given away, spoils of war in the war camp. Except for immortal women who have their own agendas and favorites.

“He is a weapon, a killer. Do not forget it. You can use a spear as a walking stick, but that will not change its nature.”

First in a fantasy series set in a pseudo-Victorian world.

Publication year: 2013
Format: print
Publisher: Tor
Page count: 333
Illustrated by Todd Lockwood

“Be warned, then: the collected volumes of this series will contain frozen mountains, foetid swamps, hostile foreigners, hostile fellow countrymen, the occasional hostile family member, bad decisions, misadventures in orienteering, diseases of an unromantic sort, and a plentitude of mind. You continue at your own risk. It is not for the faint of heart–no more so than the study of dragons itself.”
Isabella is a child who is cursed with curiosity for the natural world. Cursed because she’s a girl and studying anatomy, of any creature, just isn’t proper for a young lady to do. However, Isabella is the only girl child in her family, with five brothers and they live in the countryside so there aren’t too many restrictions on her. At the tender age of seven, she becomes obsessed with dragons. And once she confesses to her father that she’s very interested in the natural sciences, he decides to help her. He allows her to borrow books from his library from time to time, provided that her mother doesn’t know about it.
But when she’s 12, the locals go out to hunt a wolf-drake, Isabella is determined to go with them. She knows how to ride but not how to shoot. She disguises herself as a boy and blackmails her way into the hunting party. Unfortunately, things don’t go well and she has to abandon her studies for years and become a proper lady instead. Then, she has to lure a husband.

This book is written as a memoir so we know that Isabella is able to do very impressive things and survive to a ripe old age to write the books. Often enough, she puts in small interjections, such as how foolish she was when she was young or how she didn’t know something that she knows now. If you don’t like that style, don’t pick up this book!

This also not an action book, either. It focuses on the relationships between the characters and on adventure and discovery. The dragons are very dangerous animals which eat humans and cattle, so it’s hard to observe them. Also, they’re more talked about than seen. But when we do seem them, it’s always special. As a wealthy gentlewoman at a time when she’s supposed to just stay at home and have kids, Isabella encounters and overcomes many obstacles. However, thanks to a supporting husband those obstacles aren’t too much (of course, if they were, there wouldn’t be a book or it would a very different kind of book). To be fair, she also observes how the society restricts men as well.

Isabella is a smart woman but, like her older self admits, she’s also very young and inexperienced at this point. Her obsession with dragons takes over her life, leaving little time for anything else. She can be stand-offish to people around her. But she’s not deliberately cruel, just thoughtless and very, very imperialistic. She doesn’t bother to learn the names of some of her servants and describes them rather uncharitably. She’s also the only woman (or man for that matter) in this book who rises above society’s expectations.

There are several kinds of dragons in this world. Some we only see once and don’t know much more about them. Sparklings are the smallest, the size of insects. Indeed, they are classified as insects before Isabella starts to study them in earnest. Rock-wyrms are far larger and more dangerous to humans and other creatures. All the dragons seem to share a peculiar feature: their hollow bones disintegrate in sunlight, leaving nothing behind to study after they die. However, sparklings can be preserved in vinegar.

This is an alternate world fiction so things like religion are somewhat different than in our world but their inspirations are quite recognizable. I enjoyed the book and the writing style, which rather reminded me of Amelia Peabody.

I was expecting an excruciatingly long courtship with lots of unsuitable suitors but thankfully that didn’t happen. I’ve read a few reviews and knew beforehand that this first book at least wouldn’t have many dragons in it, despite the name. And I’m also fascinated by treating the dragons as wild, untamable animals. I can’t help but hope that in a later book they might turn out to be intelligent, after all. But I don’t really think that’s likely.

The first book in a French historical fantasy series. Original title: Les lames du Cardinal. Finnish title: Kardinaalin miekat.

Publication year: 2007
Publication year in Finnish: 2010
Publisher in Finland: Gummer kustannus oy
Finnish translator: Taina Helkama
Page count: 383

The book is set in Paris in 1633 with Louis XIII and Cardinal Richelieu ruling the country, in their own ways. Paval has done meticulous research. Indeed, he sometimes interrupts the story to tell us details about Paris and the historical characters at the time. A couple of Dumas characters make cameos.

As a powerful man with many enemies, both personal and France’s enemies, Richelieu employs swordsmen. Some of the best were known as the Cardinal’s Blades but some five years ago the Cardinal had to disband them because of political reasons after a disaster at La Rochelle. Now, he has summoned them to serve him again.

Captain Étienne-Louis de la Fargue isn’t happy to serve and Richelieu has to resort to some blackmail to get the elderly captain back, and soon la Fargue is gathering his group together again. The womanizing, hard-drinking Nicolas Marciac who is also a doctor. The elderly Spanish master swordsman Anibal Antonio Almadès de Carlio. Young Baroness Agnés de Vaudreuil who is headstrong and independent. And a couple of others. All of them respect and love the captain and follow him willingly, even though most have reservations about the Cardinal.

On the other side are the forces of the Black Claw, a secretive Spanish group of people descendent from dragons. They use magic and small pet dragons as well as manipulation and assassinations to infiltrate France. And perhaps the Cardinal who is ruthless when it comes to keeping France safe.

In this world, dragons are real and there are different kinds of dragons. The smallest ones some people keep them as pets and a few can be trained as couriers. Some dragons are larger than horses and willing to carry people. A few people have dragons as ancestors so they are “half bloods”. They have lizardlike eyes and many people shun them. A few were described as lizard men. Apparently, the ancient, huge dragons were very intelligent and malevolent. Also, close contact with dragons can infect people with incurable disease.

And yet, all these dragons don’t seem to have affected the flow of history much. Also, dragon couriers are apparently not trustworthy because important messages are still sent in horseback. Indeed, one of our heroes is carrying such a message and is followed and attacked. I would have thought that following a flying courier would have been much harder.

Pevel has lots of action with daring escapes, duels, and swordfights. He also describes the Paris of the time wonderfully: it has both mansions were the rich and powerful live, the secret courts where the beggars and criminals meet, and filth-ridden streets. The Finnish translation includes a map of Paris in 1633.

The pace of the story is quick with short chapters that sometimes end in cliffhangers. There are a lot of POV characters: in addition to all the blades, there’s the Cardinal, two or three antagonists, and a surprising number of only once-seen characters. This made it sometimes a bit hard to remember who the characters were.

The characters are painted with broad strokes and are epic swordsmen who can handle a dozen enemies at once. In contrast, the plot has lots of twists and turns, keeping this reader guessing. There are also a couple of surprise revelations, one which I guessed beforehand and one which I didn’t see coming at all.

I didn’t like this as much as I wanted to but I might read the next in the series. Hopefully that one doesn’t end in a cliffhanger because the rest haven’t been translated to Finnish.

A stand-alone secret history book.

Publication year: 1991
Format: Audio
Running time: 16 hours and 57 minutes
Narrator: Simon Vance

The book starts on that famous day in Switzerland in 1816 when Mary Shelly, Lord Byron, Percy Shelly, and John Polidori decide to write ghost stories. But this time, a strange creature attacks them.

But to the main character Michael Crawford the story starts on his way to his second wedding. He’s heavily drunk and puts his bride’s wedding ring on a statue, for safekeeping. However, in the morning he can’t find the statue anymore and has to buy another ring. The wedding proceeds but in the morning, Crawford wakes next to his bride who has been brutally murdered. He has some strange memories about the night, too. However, he realizes that things look very bad for him not only because he didn’t wake up when Julia was butchered but because his first wife eloped with a sailor and died in a fire. People whisper that Crawford started that fire, even though that’s not true. So, Crawford runs away with the help of one of his friends.

Crawford is a former navy doctor but since then has specialized in obstetrics. He takes another name and poses as a medical student. He also gets work as a doctor’s assistant and meets John Keats. However, Julia’s mentally disturbed twin sister, Josephine, is on his trail and tries to murder him. But a strange apparition saves him, and then Keats tells about the nephillim, creatures who are attracted to writers. However, in Crawford’s case he apparently married himself to one of the nephillim by putting a ring into the statue’s ring finger. Now, the creature guards him jealously. Keats knows a possible way to get rid of the creature and Crawford has no choice but to try it.

Powers has created here a fascinating type of vampire. The nephillim act as more than muses to writers: without them, the men apparently can’t create much. The nephillim also drink blood from the men’s family members and manipulate political events. They pretend to care for the writers and other people they bite but don’t, really.

Lord Byron, Mary Shelly, and Percy Shelly are important characters in the book. I rather enjoyed reading about them.

However, I think this book was way too long. There are long passages where nothing really happens.

A stand-alone historical fantasy book set in Vienna 1529.

Publication year: 1979 (1999 reprint)
Format: print
Page count: 323
Publisher: Del Rey

Brian Duffy is a mercenary who has ended up in Venice after traveling around the world for years. After an unfortunate encounter with the Doge’s grandsons, he meets a strange old man Aurelianus who offers him a job in Vienna as a bouncer for Aurelianus’ tavern. Duffy has been in Vienna before and agrees, even though he finds it a bit strange that Aurelianus wants him.

Duffy buys a horse and starts the lengthy journey. But on the way, he sees and experiences strange things. Unknown people attack him and then in the Julian Alps he rides among weird creatures which, nevertheless, don’t harm him. Also, other strange, flying things attack his former traveling companions.

Finally in Vienna, he has to confront his past because after many years he again sees the woman whom he loved but who married another man. But more trouble comes when when Suleiman the Magnificent leads his army against the Christendom. His army marches to Vienna.

The setting is the siege of Vienna which turns out the be somewhat different than history books tell us. Quite a few mythological people and critters make an appearance in the book.

Brian Duffy has been traveling and fighting almost his whole life. He is also something of a drunk. He has a healthy suspicion of people and he’s afraid of anything supernatural. So, when he starts to see strange things, his first instinct is sheer terror and then denial. In fact, he’s so deep in denial that at first it was funny but then frustrating when I had already figured out most of what was going on.

Aurelianus is a strange old man. He smokes lizards, not pipe. He doesn’t bother to explain anything unless Duffy asks him directly and even then he tends to talk around the question. Both of these characters were fun at first but when the end approached, I was somewhat frustrated with both of them.

The plot is somewhat meandering; sometimes several months go by between chapters. But this is an enjoyable read for anyone wanting “secret history”; the happenings that history books don’t tell us. This isn’t the best Powers book I’ve read (that would be Anubis gates, still) but I’m left wanting to read more Powers.

Next Page »