historical fiction


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.

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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.

An alternate history story set in Ancient Egypt.

Publication year: 1998
Format: ebook
Publisher: Tor
Page count: 401

Senenmut was born to a lowly merchant but his mother made sure that he got into the scribe school, so that he could build a better life for himself. At the lofty age of fifteen, Senenmut knows that he’s the best of the students. He knows that he’s meant for a better life than the one he has with his common-born family of parents and two younger brothers. When his master Seti-Nakht sends him to the royal palace, Senenmut dreams of working for the king and impressing him. But when he’s instead directed to the queen’s palace, his wounded pride makes him refuse her offer to become her scribe and tutor. Because Senenmut knows that he’s meant for better things than to serve a proud and arrogant child-queen Hatshepsut.

But on his way back to his crowded home, his hot temper cools and he starts to fear that the queen will fling him to the crocodiles for his proud answers. Instead, she calls him back and gives him the job of tutor. This time, he accepts and soon the young queen charms him, too.

This is not an adventure story. It’s the life story of Senenmut who was born a commoner but rose to a high office and through his eyes also the story of Hatshepsut, a queen who rose to become a pharaoh. The story is told mostly through Senenmut’s eyes but another POV character is Nehsi, the chief of the queen’s bodyguards. All of the characters are proud, even arrogant, and prickly in their pride. They’re also driven and buck the conventions of their time and to do that, they can’t be very likable.

Hatshepsut is shown here to be arrogant and imperious which she no doubt was, because she was raised as a pharaoh’s daughter. But she’s also very aware of her place as the leader of her people and a conduit (or symbol) between the gods and the people. She wants to rule well and learns how to do it, despite the limits to what she’s allowed to do as a woman. On the other hand, she also seems to despise her brother-husband the pharaoh Thutmose II and extends that feeling to his son (whose mother is a concubine).

While this is an interesting take on her story, it takes quite a few liberties with what we know today about Hatshepsut. Of course, it was written 1998. I do find Hatshepsut fascinating and I’m probably going to get Pauline Gedge’s Child of the Morning.

A new Phryne Fisher mystery.

Publication year: 2013
Format: Audio
Running time: 11 hours and 22 minutes
Narrator: Stephanie Daniel

Orchestral director Hugh Tregennis has been murdered, with a stack of musical notes stuffed down his throat. Inspector Jack Robinson is looking for Phryne’s help because the policeman knows nothing about singers. Phryne agrees to help. Unfortunately, it turns out that the Tregennis was universally hated and nearly anyone in the choir could have killed him. Phryne promptly joins the choir and goes undercover.

Phryne has also some more personal troubles. Mathematician Rupert Sheffield is giving a lecture about the art of deduction and out of sheer curiosity Phryne attends. Rupert turns out to be very handsome but very rude and downright insufferably arrogant. But Phryne’s dear friend John Wilson is Rupert’s aide and head over heels in love with him. Rupert doesn’t seem to even notice poor John’s devotion and Phryne decides to educate Rupert.

This one somewhat rewrites Phyrne’s experiences as an ambulance driver in WWI. In a previous book (Murder in Montparnasse), we’re told about Phryne’s first love, after WWI. But apparently, Phryne had a fling with John Wilson just before her first love who was a famous Parisian painter. John was a young doctor who did his best to keep his patients alive. While he’s mostly gay, during the war both he and Phryne hook up, just to feel alive in the middle of death. They parted on good terms and quickly fall into bed together.

This was another somewhat unlikely story, but very entertaining. The familiar cast is back and the new characters are good, too. Most of Phryne’s time is spent in the choir, practicing along with the others. Some of the choir members are large personalities and very entertaining.

The sixth book in the historical mystery Smokey Dalton series set in Chicago 1969.


Publication year: 2006
Format: Audio
Running time: 12 hours and 20 minutes
Narrator: Mirron Willis

It’s autumn in Chicago in 1969 and Smokey is investigating houses which are owned by his girlfriend Laura Hathaway. One of the houses became empty recently because the manager died inside the building and Smokey is investigating the house’s condition. He’s somewhat prepared for the smell of death which seems to be everyone in the house but then he finds a secret door in the basement and behind it skeletons. Human skeletons. He talks is over with Laura and they decide to keep quiet about them because the building previous owner was Laura’s father so the discovery could be used against her. As a woman who leads a large company, her position is precarious.

So, they decide to document everything in case they can bring the matter to police. Smokey interviews and chooses to men to help him: a nationally known forensics specialist and a local mortician. However, they don’t know Smokey or his fugitive past, so he must be careful around. Also, they must be care while working in the building so that the neighbors don’t suspect anything.

Meanwhile, the trial of so-called Chicago 8 (later 7) has started. They’ve been charged with conspiracy and starting a riot. Seven of them are white men and one black. Racial tensions are heating up, again. There are more police and FBI agents in the city and Smokey must be more careful than ever.

Smokey and his team find more bodies so he has to investigate the past and finds a horrifying history of police brutality against black people.

The story tries to handle both 1969 and 1916. For me, both histories were fascinating, if horrifying at the same time because much of it is true. 1916 was at the beginning of prohibition and the various crimes surrounding it. However, they don’t have much relevance to Smokey’s case so some people might dislike that portion of the story.

The book has several grisly scenes and the tone is very grim. Smokey’s adopted son Jimmy feels almost like a distraction from his work and relationship with Laura. We don’t have much time to revisit other old friends.

Personally, I liked the book a lot but it’s not the best of the series.

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