Here are some brief reviews of historical novels I read over the holiday break.
Tony Pollard's The Minutes of the Lazarus Club - George Phillips, an up-and-coming surgeon, gets drawn into 1850s London's most exclusive secret society, a club made up of the most prominent scientific minds of the age, and becomes embroiled in the race to catch a serial killer. Wonderful atmosphere, and I especially liked "meeting" technological genius Isambard Kingdom Brunel and crusading nurse Florence Nightingale, but parts of it dragged, and Phillips's bland personality couldn't compete with that of his newfound compatriots. This wasn't an issue in my subsequent read, however:
Louis Bayard's The Black Tower - I'd been meaning to get a copy ever since I read Susan's review from the Historical Novels Review. Hector Carpentier, a medical student in Paris of 1818, discovers his family's unexpected connection to the lost dauphin after Eugène François Vidocq, France's premier police detective, turns up on his doorstep. Although Vidocq remains in a class by himself, Hector is a quick study and more than holds his own in Vidocq's world. The novel serves as proof that authors don't need infodumps to convey historical atmosphere, and Bayard's astute turns of phrase made me sit up and take notice.
Vanora Bennett's Figures in Silk - The two daughters of noted silkweaver John Lambert pave their own paths to fortune and define success on their own terms. Beautiful Jane annuls her unconsummated marriage to her drab husband and pursues a liaison with dashing King Edward IV, while Isabel binds herself into apprenticeship to her ambitious mother-in-law and determines to break Italy's monopoly on the silk trade. Thoroughly enjoyable, though not quite as much as her Portrait of an Unknown Woman was for me -- mostly because Isabel's longtime liaison with another English royal (the author's invention) felt contrived. On the other hand, I liked Bennett's original depictions of several Wars of the Roses notables, and the descriptions of late medieval silkweaving techniques were a highlight.
Diana Gaines's Nantucket Woman - I dived eagerly into what promised to be a biographical novel of Kezia Coffin, a scandalously successful businesswoman in 18th-century Nantucket (a historical character about whom I'd known nothing). The author's use of language felt absolutely real, as did the historical detail, so I settled in for an engrossing period read... but then things got weird, in a way that just didn't fit the characters. If you enjoy reading unique and very explicit sex scenes written in authentic Quaker plain speech, this is the novel for you. I gave it points for originality but put it down after p.50. Publishers Weekly gave it a rave review after its original 1976 publication, so what do I know.