historical fiction


The 16th book in the Amelia Peabody historical mystery series. However, this time it’s not a murder mystery, rather an adventure story.

Publication year: 2005
Format: print
Publisher: Avon
Page count: 420

This time, we return to the past to the (until now) missing 1907-1908 season when the Emersons didn’t have an excavation. Instead they return to the Lost Oasis or Holy Mountain, as the locals call it. It’s a hidden place where the culture is mixture of Meroitic and Egyptian cultures. That place was introduced in the “Last Camel Died at Noon”, the 6th book in the series.

The Emersons are in England planning the next season of excavation, or rather Emerson wants to work in the Valley of the Kings but because of his temper he lost that chance and it’s likely they can’t work at all. But that changes when Merasen appears. He’s an arrogant young man who claims to be the young brother of king Tarek who is ruling the Holy Mountain these days. But a disease is rampant; it has struck both Tarek and his young son. So, Tarek has sent Merasen to Emersons to get help. The Emersons want to help but they’re skeptical about not only about Merasen and his motive, but if they can help at all because Merasen’s journey to them has taken months and the return trip will also take many months. But in the end, Nefret demands to help and the Emersons’ leave. The journey is dangerous, not only because of the dangers in desert but also because the Emersons’ don’t want to lead any other people there. And also, many of them wonder if they can trust Merasen or is he leading them into a trap?

This time, Ramses is hopelessly in love with Nefret but he thinks he doesn’t have any chance with her, so he hasn’t told her. In fact, he’s planning to go to Germany and study there for a year, hoping to forget his feelings during that time. But of course he joins his parents, Nefret, Merasen, and loyal Daoud and Selim in their journey to the Holy Mountain. He’s strangely tentative and hesitant, rather than his usual confident self. Nefret is also not her usual self.

During the journey, we meet a group of colorful and interesting characters, most of them suspicious in some way such as a boisterous and rude big game hunter who is very interested to know where the Emersons are going and a suave military captain who seems to know a bit too much about the Emersons’ plans.

This time the story isn’t a murder mystery but in the line of old pulp adventures where white men discover “new” places. Except that the Holy Mountain isn’t a new place to the Emersons but instead they’re worshipped almost as godly figures there. That was a lot of fun. However, I don’t think this was one of the best in the series. It was fun to revisit Holy Mountain but not much actually happens there. I also didn’t really care for the way that Ramses was pining after Nefret especially since we know that they’ll get married.

Otherwise, it was great to see the familiar characters a bit younger.

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The 17th book in the Amelia Peabody historical mystery series.

Publication year: 2005
Format: print
Publisher: HarperCollins
Page count: 350

I’ve been reading the Peabody mysteries for a long time. Even though it’s been a few years since I read the previous book (Children of the Storm), reading this book was still like coming back to old friends. The cast is huge and so a new reader might be a bit lost among them. I recommend starting the series with the first book, Crocodile on the Sandbank.

Amelia and her family are archeologists and amateur sleuths. While they work on excavations around Egypt, mysteries abound. “Another year, another dead body”, and “Another pair of trousers ruined” come true in this book as well. 😉 The first books are written in Amelia’s first person point-of-view. However, this book is again written in a style which started a few books ago: divided between Amelia’s very personal first-person memoirs and document H which Ramses has written in third person POV and very impersonal style.

The wonderful thing about following this long series is to see the characters grow and change. For example, Amelia’s son Ramses has grown up and is now dealing with his own precocious twins. But at the same time, Amelia and Emerson are growing old. Reading about Amelia dying the grey out of her hair in secret was a surprisingly moving touch.

It’s 1922 and Amelia, her husband Emerson, their child Ramses, his wife Nefret and the various other people in the Emerson clan are excavating in Deir el Media. However, Emerson isn’t happy about that.

Mrs. Pentheric arrives to their house and claims that an Egyptian object is cursed and is responsible for her husband’s death. The object in question is an exquisite solid gold statuette in a very good condition. Emerson is convinced that it’s a great historical find which has been robbed from a tomb. Mrs. Pentheric wants Emerson to keep it and to get rid of the curse. Emerson agrees, but only so that he can find out where it came from and then return it to its rightful owner.

Mrs. Pentheric turns out to be quite a famous author of lurid romances and she milks the story all it’s worth. Thanks to her, reporters and tourists start to hound the Emerson residence. But then Mrs. Pentheric’s adult stepchildren try to take the statuette by force. Later, Mrs. Pentheric’s body is discovered and detective fever grips Amelia and her family.

In addition to the huge regular cast, the story has some new characters as well. Most of them aren’t really suspicious people, of course. However, Peters cheats by withholding pertinent info from the readers.

A solid entry to the series for us old fans.

The third book in the historical superhero series set in 1961 USA. It can be read as a stand-alone but you get more out of it by starting with the first book, Serpent’s Sacrifice.

Publication year: 2018
Format: ebook
Page count: 276

Chronologically, this book goes between books one and two in the Serpent series because it follows Marco Myers, the close friend of Alice Seymore who is the heroine of the two first books. At the end of Serpent’s Sacrifice, Marco and his best friend Lionel left Jet City and Alice. They were looking for a cure for Lionel, but later they parted ways.

Now, Marco is a private detective in Metro City trying to scrape together a living. His aunt Allegra, who owns a gym, helps him from time to time. He also has an assistant Colleen Knight who is a black woman with secrets of her own.

Marco used to be superhero Shadow Master. He can sense others’ emotions and using shadows which come out of him, he can manipulate others’ memories and emotions. Unfortunately, he can only affect bad and hurtful memories, forcing the other person to relive them. He hasn’t used his powers much during the past year. Now he’s plagued by dreams of a boy he doesn’t know. He has only one person left who could lead him to the cure and when he dies in Marco’s arms, he’s at a loss at what to do.

However, a beautiful woman approaches him, telling him that she’s just escaped from a facility where superpowered people are held and experimented on. She can help Marco find the cure if he helps her and the doctor who escaped together with her. Out of options Marco agrees but that means that her enemies are now his, too.

Colleen is the granddaughter of a mafioso boss. Her mother Tina is also a mafioso, but never been able to protect Colleen from her grandfather. Colleen has fire-based powers, but she’s always tried to suppress them and doesn’t control them well. Her brother Andrew is missing and she hasn’t told Marco that she’s trying to find him. When she finds out that Andrew was working in the place that experiments with superhumans, she realizes that he might be a prisoner there, too. And that Andrew likely has secrets of his own.

Colleen doesn’t want anything to do with her family. She fell in love with a woman while she was in collage and she’s hiding her sexuality in addition to her powers. Her grandfather knows her well and knows just how to blackmail her. The only one she loves in her family is her brother. She’s not comfortable with her powers at all and has to learn to use them.

Marco is a sensitive man. He loves Alice but thinks that she loves his best friend Lionel and he’s desperate to find a cure for Lionel. He has to confront quite terrible things from his past in addition to dealing with the people who hate and fear superpowered people.

The story is again quite grim and intense, with lots of people getting hurt and Marco dealing with betrayals. The pace is quick with lots of twists.

I really enjoyed most of the characters. Marco is a tortured hero trying his best to do good. Colleen’s family dynamics were very interesting. Some of the more minor characters had depth, too, such as Tina and Marco’s aunt Allegra. I hope we get to see more of Colleen in the future.

The second book in the historical superhero series.

Publication year: 2017
Format: ebook
Page count: 308

The book starts two years after the climatic ending of the first book, Serpent’s Sacrifice. It’s 1962 and Alice lost a lot at the end of the previous book. Her two best friends, and fellow superheroes, have left, her mentor is dying, and Alice herself was crippled. During the two years she’s managed to whip her body back into full mobility but emotionally she’s in a bad place. She’s wracked by guilt because she couldn’t stop her nemesis Phantasm’ horrible scheme, and a lot of innocent people died. She’s also deeply hurt by the way her friends abandoned her and already mourning her mentor. She did inherit a large business and the wealth from her mentor, but she has to pretend to be a clueless heiress during the day. Her friend Rose is part of the civil right movement, but Alice is too obsessed with catching Phantasm to notice it. Alice’s new trainer and secretary Miss Jones is very capable; she even goes undercover to spy on Phantasm and trains Alice mercilessly.

Powered children are being born every day and Phantasm and the cabal she works with have nefarious plans for them. They’re kidnapping some of the kids. When a couple of kids disappear from an orphanage Alice is funding, Alice feels responsible and tries to find out what happened to them. At the same time, she’s working to undermine Phantasm’s plans.

Serpent’s Bite is a more violent and darker book than the previous one. Emotionally Alice is in a dark place and some people die despite her best efforts. Also, her friend Lionel seems to be in league with Alice’s nemesis. Rose and Alice’s relationship is also strained.

The characters are well-developed. Alice herself doesn’t have any powers but she has a Kevlar suit and her batons and martial artist’s skills. Rose also make a couple of other gadgets to her. Rose has her own passions, too, she isn’t just a gadget inventor. Uncle Logan and the healer Gerard are also well-drawn.

The story was fast-paced and had some surprises. I really liked most of the book except for the romance elements. However, there were far less romance elements than in the previous book. While the story is mostly told from Alice’s third person point-of-view, there are a couple of short chapters from her nemesis’ POV which told us nicely what the opposition was doing.

I had fun figuring out the references to comics. The mansion where Alice now lives is, of course, a nod to Avengers’ and Xavier’s mansions. Some very familiar names also popped up: Mrs. Frost, Mr. Marsden, Mr. Parker, and of course Uncle Logan. Of course, the whole mentor/student thing is an older troupe than comics and so is going undercover in high society (shades of Zorro here).

I thoroughly enjoyed this second book and recommend the series to any superhero fan.

A classic which has languished on my shelves for far too long.

Publication year: 1894
Format: print
Publisher: Penguin Books
Page count: 140

This is an old swashbuckling romance story which has been filmed several times and also referred to in many books. It’s quite short and plot-driven.

Rudolf Rassendyll is a British gentleman of leisure who loves his leisure. His sister-in-law cajoles him into going abroad and he decides to visit Ruritania from because his great-grandmother is from there. The new king of Ruritania is about to be crowned and Rudolf thinks it would be fun to go to the coronation. He sets off.

But when he stops at a small inn in Zenda, strange things start to happen. He hears about the conflict between the new king, Rudolf, and his half-brother Michael, called Black Michael. They both want the throne also their beautiful cousin princess Flavia. When Rudolf strolls in the forest, he stumbles upon the king and his two loyal men. The king marvels because Rudolf looks almost exactly like the king. The king invites him to dinner. In the morning, when the king should continue to the coronation, Rudolf and the two guards find him drugged. Quickly, they decide that Rudolf should take the king’s place which he does. Unfortunately, when they return to get the king, after the coronation, they find out that the king has been kidnapped – no doubt by Black Michael. Rudolf has no choice but to continue the charade and also woo the beautiful princess.

This was short and quick read. It moves along quickly. While it’s mostly a fun adventure story, it also a love story. It’s sent in a time where duty and loyalty are regarded more than love so it’s not a happy romance.

The characters are very basic: Fritz and Sapt are loyal armsmen to the king and they keep Rudolf (mostly) out of trouble in the court. Michael is a jealous and scheming villain and he has the Six, a group of nefarious minions to do his bidding. Kind Rudolf is a drunk who cares more about his own pleasures than his kingdom. Flavia is at times a wilting flower or a head-strong princess, whichever serves the plot better. The plot is also quite simple and straight-forward. Still, this was an entertaining read.

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 collection of ten British crime stories set during Christmas.

Publication year: 2016
Format: print
Publisher: Profile Books
Page count: 278

These are all cozy crime stories and four of them actually don’t have a murder which was a nice change. They’re almost all historical short stories.

‘The Necklace of Pearls’ by Dorothy L. Sayers: Lord Peter Wimsey is one of the guests invited to spend Christmas with a very rich, and not very nice, man and a collection of other guests. When the host’s daughter’s pearl necklace goes missing, Lord Peter is asked to look for it.

‘The Name on the Window’ by Edmund Crispin: this is a clocked room mystery or rather a pavilion which is surrounded by newly fallen snow and no footprints. Yet, a man was murdered in it.

‘A Traditional Christmas’ by Val McDermid: The narrator goes to her wife’s family for Christmas. Everyone is accepting of them even though they have a very traditional English upper-class Christmas. At least, until someone ends up dead.

‘The Adventure of the Blue Carbuncle’ by Arthur Conan Doyle: a stolen jewel is unexpectedly found in a Christmas goose. Holmes and Watson go on a goose chase. (yes, I had to write that in honor of the silliness of the story 😊)

‘The Invisible Man’ by G.K. Chesterton: A Father Brown mystery where a ghost seems to be haunting a couple of people.

‘Cinders’ by Ian Rankin: In a Cinderella play, the Fairy Godmother’s actress has been murdered and Rebus and the other detectives have their hands full questioning the theatre troupe.

‘Death on the Air’ by Ngaio Marsh: A very nasty man is found dead. At first it seems like he was electrocuted through a radio but that might not be the case.

‘Persons or Things Unknown’ by Carter Dickson: A group of people has gathered to celebrate Christmas and their host tells them a mysterious tale from the house’s history.

‘The Case is Altered’ by Margery Allingham’: yet another tale where a rich couple has gathered a group of people in their house for Christmas when mysterious things start to happen.

‘The Price of Light’ by Ellis Peters: An older rich, and nasty, man is feeling his mortality and tries to find a way to pave his soul’s way to heaven. As long as it doesn’t cost too much and makes sure that he is remembered. He’s giving exquisite candlesticks to the abbey. But then, the candlesticks are stolen and Brother Cadfael makes his own investigation.

I enjoyed most of these stories. I haven’t read Rankin before and I ended up enjoying his story so much that I might read his other works this year.

Despite their shortness, most of the stories have a twist or two and kept this reader, at least, guessing.

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