historical fiction


The first book in the Extraordinary Adventures of the Athena Club historical fantasy series.

Publication year: 2017
Format: Audio
Running time: 13 hours 39 minute
Narrator: Kate Reading

I very much wanted to adore this book. I liked it and will probably continue with the series but it has a writing style which no doubt will make it almost unreadable to some people. You see, the characters critique the book while it’s written. This sounds like a cute or even charming style, and it is, at first. But ultimately, it robs the book of any tension. We know that the characters will not only survive the fight scene, they all become such good friends that they feel free to give snarky comments while reading the (presumably) first draft. I don’t actually think that most readers open a book just to see how high the body count will be (unless that’s part of the genre of the book, of course) but it takes away even the illusion of tension. Similarly, when we meet the characters who are commenting (and we do meet most of them along the story) again we know immediately that they’ll become good friends. These interruptions also constantly remind the reader that she, or he, is reading a story, preventing any sort of immersion in it. They happen all the time. All the time.

So, the book’s major selling point are the characters and their relationships. Luckily, I really liked them. I also adored the idea of the book.

Mary Jekyll’s mother has just died. Her father died years ago and left them almost penniless. First thing after the funeral, Mary must fire her staff. But since the housekeeper Mrs Poole is critiquing the manuscript we know that at least she will stay with Mary. Mary finds out that her mother has an account on another bank, paying to a “Hyde”. Mary knows that her father’s former friend and murderer Mr. Hyde died some years ago but now she realizes that he might be alive, after all. That’s significant because there’s a reward for information about Hyde. Since Victorian London offers poor and very poor choices to a penniless, orphan girl, she wants to get that reward. So, she goes to UK’s greatest detective, Sherlock Holmes to get help. He and Watson agree to help, out of civic duty, if nothing else. Mary and Watson go the Magdalene Society (for fallen women and unwanted girls) where Hyde is supposed to be. But instead of Mr. Hyde, they find 14 year old Diana Hyde. She’s abrasive and scornful of the nuns so the Society doesn’t want to keep her anymore, so they foist her on Mary.

Mary also gets some letters that were addressed to her father and using the clues in them, she finds out that there’s a secret society in London that is doing something horrible. With the help of Holmes and Watson, Mary and her friends start to unravel the mystery. Holmes is also trying to solve horrible murders in Whitechapel. Could Hyde be responsible?

I adored the idea of this book. The daughters (and other creations) of famous male literary figures coming together and having adventures as friends. Some of them view themselves as “monsters” who don’t have really a place in society, especially in the Victorian era.

They’re all very practical women. Most of them must be, to survive. Mary has taken over the household money because her mother had been seriously ill for years. Diana lived practically on the streets for some years. Catherine Moreau had to keep a level head to survive on Moreau’s island and later to simply support herself alone. The other two had similar circumstances. They all express their frustration with the limits that the Victorian culture puts on women. Yet, the book has a lot of humor, too. For once, Sherlock and Watson are clearly both the sidekicks to these colorful women.

I had a lot of fun listening this book and Kate Reading’s narration was as wonderful as ever.

The book has lots of quotable parts.
“No wonder men did not want women to wear bloomers. What could women accomplish if they did not have to continually mind their skirts, keep them from dragging in the mud or getting trampled on the steps of an omnibus? If they had pockets! With pockets, women could conquer the world!”

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A realistic historical fiction which kind of glances at the myth of Cupid and Psyche.

Publication year: 1956
Format: print
Publication year of the Finnish translation: 2013
Finnish translator: Kirsi Nisula
Finnish publisher: Kirjapaja
Page count: 304 including two introductions to the book.

I’m familiar with the original myth but it’s been so long since I read it that it was great that one of the introductions has a brief recounting of it. It’s also fascinating to see the differences in the myth and Lewis’s version.

The story is told through the eyes of Orual, the eldest of Psyche’s sisters. If you’re expecting to see Cupid or much of the other gods, you’ll be disappointed. Also, Cupid is barely seen and Psyche is absent for most of the tale so I can’t really call this a retelling. Rather, a story inspired by the myth.

In this story, the Greek gods are very much out of the picture, rarely seen or heard, and not interacting with the humans. Even their famous tempers and desires are gone, apparently invented by humans. Although, some manner of jealousy might be seen near the end. Indeed, this reads like a historical fiction. The brief scenes where the deities are seen can be interpreted as dreams or visions.

Orual wrote this book when she is an old woman, as a memoir of what happened to her and her sister. She loved her sister very much and is bitter that the gods have twisted their story.

Orual is the eldest daughter of the king of Glome. Much to the king’s disappointment, she’s a girl and worse yet, ugly. Her sister Redival, however, is pretty. But the king’s wife died soon after Redival’s birth and he does his best to get another bride. The king is very temperamental and cruel. His kingdom is poor and he doesn’t have many allies. However, he manages to get another bride who dies giving birth to Psyche who even as a child is so beautiful that everything changes. Because Psyche’s mother is dead, Orual raises.

While Glome isn’t a real, it’s described as a realistic place. The people worship Ungit who requires sacrifices, mostly animals. Orual describes the scent of “holiness” as thick and pungent with blood.

The book has allusions to Christian thought, especially at the end. So, it can be read as a historical fiction, fantasy, or even Christian allegory. But it’s not too heavy handed, except at the end. But it has other themes as well, such as the difference between jealous, selfish love and selfless love which only wants the other’s happiness. Another is a the difference between “pagan” thought and Greek philosophy. Fox, Orual’s Greek tutor, teaches the “barbarians” Greek philosophy and tries to lift Orual and Psyche out of their barbarism.

The Finnish translation is excellent.

The first book in Sherlock Holmes and Lucy James mystery series.

Publication year: 2015
Format: Audio
Running time: 7 hours 28 minute
Narrator: Edward Petherbridge

This was a pretty enjoyable, fast-paced mystery if you can ignore the liberties taken with Holmes and Moriarty and their relationship.

It’s 1895, three years after Holmes supposedly died fighting Moriarty. However, he did survive and lives in secrecy. Some people do know that he survived. Mycroft, Holmes’ brother, has a very high-profile case for Holmes; a man has been murdered and a lot of highly placed men are concerned. The murdered man is in the employ of John D. Rockefeller so his position is more important than himself. It comes clear that a shadowy organization is targeting the men around Rockefeller.

But Holmes’ attention is captured by a young and beautiful American actress, Lucy James, who wants Holmes to find out who are her real parents.

The story has a lot of twists and turns. The writing style is quite faithful to Doyle’s style. Holmes is more emotional than in many other pastiches which didn’t bother me. We also get a lot of historical personages which was fun.

However, Veley adds a different wrinkle to Holmes’ and Moriarty’s backstory which I didn’t quite care for. Also, for a Holmes mystery this was somewhat predictable.

The narrator was great and spot on for this style of story.

The first book in the humorous historical mystery series Her Spyness set in Britain in the 1930s.

Publication year: 2007
Format: Audio
Running time: 8 hours 4 minute
Narrator: Katharine Kellgren

Lady Victoria Georgiana Charlotte Eugenie, or Georgie as she’s known to her friends, is a cousin of King George V of England but she doesn’t have much money. Her brother has cut off her allowance and she doesn’t want to marry a boorish foreign prince. Of course, her brother the Duke is also penniless because their father gambled away almost everything and then killed himself. Georgie’s fed up living as an unwanted house guest with her brother and his wife in the Rannoch castle in Scotland. So, she heads to London. She stays in the family’s London house but she doesn’t have enough money to hire even one maid. She tries to work for a living but knows that the royal family wouldn’t put up with that if they found out so she tries to keep it a secret. Even her own mother doesn’t like it and sabotages her first job right at the start. Fortunately, she meets her old friend from school, Belinda, who is now a famous fashion designer. Or at least she aspires to be famous. Meanwhile, she tries to get paying customers. But she’s happy to help out Georgie. As a good royal girl, Georgie doesn’t have much experience with men but in this story she meets a penniless but charming Darcy and Tristram whom she’s known as a child.

This was a fun book. It’s written in first person from Georgie’s POV and it was fun to follow her when she tries to live on her own. She’s smart and knows that she’s been born to privileges even though she’s currently hard on money. Her family and the other side characters are also fun. Her mother used to be an actress before she managed to snare a Duke. But her mother divorced her father rather soon and is now found with one rich man or another. She doesn’t support Georgie, though. Georgie’s brother Binky is quite hopeless at looking after himself and couldn’t support himself at all. His wife, Whiffy, is very proper. Georgie also meets Queen Mary a couple of times. Georgie’s grandfather is a retired police officer who doesn’t get along at all with Georgie’s father’s family.

The mystery is quite on the light side and doesn’t even start until about halfway through when Georgie finds a man murdered in the London house’s bathtub. Despite the title, there’s not much actual spying in the book.

The first short story in the historical (fantasy) Avon Calling serial.

Publication year: 2017
Format: ebook
Publisher: SpearPoint Press
Page count: 33 (at Amazon)

Avon Calling serial is set in the 1940s New York. At a first glance, Betty Jones has everything a middle-class woman could want: she’s a stay-at-home mom for two kids and has an adoring husband. Sometimes she sells Avon’s cosmetics products. Yet, she has a side that her family doesn’t know about. Betty can hear other people’s thoughts and has formidable combat skills. She also has a troubled past and has changed her name.

This was a great starting story: it introduced Betty and her world and yet left a lot of questions unanswered. We find out that Betty’s mother also had the same ability and that she was cruelly used.

In this story, Betty goes to sell the cosmetics to a woman she knows but finds another woman, who has been battered by her boyfriend. Betty smiles and pretends not to notice, but when the evening comes, she pays a visit to the boyfriend and his small band of drug dealers.

I found the combination of cosmetics and Betty’s secrets surprising but also appropriate. Cosmetics can be used as a mask, to change a woman to appear more appealing to men and also to other women. It can be an armor, to shield a woman from the outside world or a way to fit in. Seeling cosmetics is also a great way for her to meet women who need help. Betty definitely has two sides and she works hard to fit in as mom and wife while going out at night to kick the backsides of cruel men.

Season 1 collection has ten episodes.

A historical murder mystery set in the year 512.

Publication year: 2018
Format: ebook
Page count at GoodReads: 96 including a small glossary and a short explanation about the times.

Argolicus, a former Roman magistrate, has returned home to a villa near a town called Squillace. His uncle Wiliarit, who is a monk, comes to see him and his mother. However, soon Wiliarit and Nikolaos, who is Argolicus’ tutor slave, come across a body at a nearby meadow. The body has a violet head injury and was murdered several days ago. Only a distinctive ring reveals that it is Argolicus’ former friend Lucas. Lucas and Argolicus were friends in childhood but Lucas’ father doesn’t like Argolicus and his family because he considers them heretics. So Bartholomaeus forbade the boys to see each other. However, Lucas’ death is a blow to Argolicus.

Argolicus tells Vibius Horatius Bartholomaeus that his son is dead. During the visit he realizes that Bartholomaeus will not answer any questions that Argolicus has. However, Lucas’ sister gives Argolicus a small note and says cryptically “They are lying.” Later, the sister reveals that when Lucas left, he took with him a jewel encased icon from the local bishop’s vault where it was held for safekeeping. The icon was technically his but Bartholomaeus was furious. Argolicus has a difficult investigation ahead, especially because the culture considers murder a family matter.

Slavery is still in full practice; the Churches and people own and use slaves.

The schism between the two families is about religion: today, Argolicus’ family is called Ostrogoth, Arian Christians. In the whole country Ostrogoth’s culture and religion is the one in power but in this part of the country the Trinitarians are in power. The characters talk a bit about this divide and we also get to see other fascinating cultural differences to modern times. And of course similarities as well.

This was a nice little mystery. This time the pool of suspects is quite small and Argolicus doesn’t have ready access to them, except Lucas’ sister who asks for his help.

Unfortunately, the book has some editing errors. Otherwise, it was quite an enjoyable read.

For about a day, you can join the Kickstarter project to fund a novel length Agrolicus mystery, the Grain Merchant.

A historical murder mystery set in the year 512.

Publication year: 2017
Format: ebook
Page count at GoodReads: 92 which includes the first chapter of the next mystery, the Vellum Scribe

Gaius Vitellus Argolicus is a former Roman praefect, known for his careful study of people and places which lead to fair judgments. However, he’s not good a politics and so he leaves Rome and returns to countryside. His old friend asks him to take a book to a scholarly young man. The man, Philo, lives along Argolicus’ route, so he decides to visit Philo’s family.

However, when Argolicus arrives, he finds that the house is in disarray because Philo’s father has been murdered. Servius Norbanus Pius was a man who didn’t care for the new king Theodrick’s reign and the way the king appointed new men in positions than had been long held by the sons of old Roman families. He had inherited a very profitable shipping business so his murder could affect a lot of people. Argolicus decides to investigate together with his mentor and slave Nikolaos. However, they have only a couple of days to investigate before their ship leaves.

Pius’ family tells that he was a dutiful father and husband but he spent a lot of time away from his family. He tried to mold his scholarly son into his image but Philo isn’t like his father. Pius’ brother runs the shipping business and lives in the nearby harbor town of Portus. Pius was the paterfamilias, the highest-ranking male who decided everything for his family members. Philo’s sister Titiana seemed to have been on the edge even before their father was murdered.

The short book is meticulously researched. This is the time when Rome is ruled by the Ostrogoths and the patricans, of course, resent that. I don’t remember any other books set in this time. Under Roman law, a murder is a family matter and it’s up to the family to find the murderer and then sue them. Agrolicus can’t help them officially, just as a favor.

The writing is a bit awkward at times but otherwise very readable except for some editing errors. Pius is not an agreeable man but someone who has a lot of political connections and so a lot of potential enemies. However, nobody is too obvious so Agrolicus must talk to a lot of people.

I enjoyed the story which brings Rome under Ostrogoth rule to life.

Altair has a Kickstarter project to fund a novel length Agrolicus mystery.

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