Sunday, February 28, 2010

G is for Grange

Sarah Blake's The Postmistress, out this month, has been making many appearances in the literary blogosphere and on bestseller lists around the country. I thought this would be an excellent time to highlight her first novel, Grange House, published ten years ago.

Grange House
is an elegant recreation of a Victorian gothic novel, complete with ghostly appearances, long-lost family secrets, and a narrative style that calls to mind the works of Henry James and Wilkie Collins. Seventeen-year-old Maisie Thomas is the picture of innocence as the novel begins, and though she yearns for adventure and romance, even she can't imagine where her curiosity will lead her.

Daughter of a well-to-do New York family, Maisie and her devoted Mama and Papa spend each summer at Grange House, a mansion along the Maine coast. Aside from the household staff, their chosen lodging has one permanent resident: the ailing, elderly Miss Grange. A local authoress of repute, Miss Grange is assumed by the family to be a poor relation of the mansion's former owners. Taking Maisie under her wing, she recounts fantastic stories about the Grange family's early history. However, neither Miss Grange nor her tales are quite what they seem to be.

It's up to Maisie to sort through the real and the fictional, and to sift through details hidden within twenty years' worth of stories, letters, and diaries -- before the tragedies of Grange House begin to repeat themselves once more. Maisie finds the romance she's been seeking as well, but she must choose between two men: will it be her father's young business partner, Jonathan Lanman, or charming Bart Hunnowell?

Sarah Blake's wonderfully chosen language will carry you back in time to the ever-subtle, precise, yet melodramatic world of high society at the end of the 19th century, in which women who seem almost to faint at the slightest disturbance of equilibrium can still be strong enough to keep secrets that hold their family together. At times the ornate description tends to interfere with the heightening suspense. If you can hold back from skipping ahead to the end, however, you have an exciting reading experience in store.

I haven't yet read The Postmistress (it's on the ever-growing TBR) but from all I've read, Grange House is written in a very different style. It takes the form of a story-within-a-story, with plenty of deliberate twists and turns in the carefully constructed plot. I'd recommend it to readers who enjoy Victorian-style mysteries like Diane Setterfield's The Thirteenth Tale and John Harwood's The Seance.

Grange House was published by Picador USA in 2000, and the paperback edition is still in print. Parts of this writeup previously appeared, in a slightly different form, in the Historical Novels Review.

Monday, February 22, 2010

Monday links and deals

I'm on my lunch break, rounding up some historical fiction news and deals for a Monday afternoon post.

Last week I set up a profile with Google Reader, subscribing to all of the blogs I read regularly so that I can keep up with them more easily. I'd avoided dealing with feed readers for a while (I know some people read this site through Bloglines, though found it didn't work for me). I have to say that Google Reader has been an incredible help with blog and time management. Plus, I was astonished -- in a very good way -- to see that this blog has 286 subscribers through Google.

While looking through my subs there, I noticed that Mystery*File (my dad's blog) was featuring a review of one of Eilís Dillon's contemporary mysteries, of which there were three. The review links out to a long bio of Ms. Dillon, who wrote in many genres, but she was best known for her historical novels about Ireland. A year ago, I reviewed Wild Geese for this site as part of the "obscure books" series.

On that note, are there any out-of-print novels you'd like to see reviewed at Reading the Past, or neglected authors profiled here? If so, I'd be curious to hear.

The Seattle Times recently asked their readership to send in details on their favorite historical novels, and response was so great that they split the results up into two sections: American and international titles. How many have you read?

A selection of recent young adult historical novels from School Library Journal.

For a nice change, there were a number of historical novel deals featured in the latest Lunch Weekly roundup from Publishers Marketplace. The (NA) designation means North American rights were sold.

NYT bestselling author of Through a Glass Darkly, Now Face to Face, and Dark Angels author Karleen Koen's BEFORE VERSAILLES, a luscious, sweeping story of the young life of Louis XIV before he became known as The Sun King, to Heather Lazare at Crown, by Jean Naggar at Jean V. Naggar Literary Agency (US). [I've read and loved all three, and bet this new one will be hugely popular... it's nice to see more historical fiction set in France, too.]

Amor Towles' RULES OF CIVILITY, the story of a tenacious and beautiful young wit of ignominious beginnings who, in the twilight of the Great Depression, embarks on a journey through the upper echelons of New York City in search of a future far brighter than she's been told she has the right to expect, to Molly Stern at Viking, at auction, in a significant deal, for publication in 2011, by Dorian Karchmar at William Morris Endeavor (NA).

Michael David Lukas's THE ORACLE OF STAMBOUL, about an eight-year old girl, who becomes an adviser to the Sultan in 1885 as the Ottoman Empire is crumbling, to Terry Karten at Harper, in a good deal, for publication in February, 2011, by Nicole Aragi at Aragi Inc.

Musician and songwriter Josh Ritter's first novel BRIGHT'S PASSAGE, set in rural West Virginia in the aftermath of WWI, about a veteran who has lost his wife and is caring for their newborn, and finds himself steered in unlikely ways by an angel who has followed him home from the trenches of France, to Noah Eaker at Dial Press, for publication in summer 2011, by Scott Moyers at The Wylie Agency (NA).

Samantha Sotto-Yambao's EVER AFTER HAPPILY, a delightful debut in which a young widow discovers that her dead husband may in fact be very much alive - which would be wonderful if the bearer of this news wasn't her thirty-two-year old husband's thirty-two-year old grandson, her search for answers takes readers on an adventure from revolutionary Paris to medieval Prussia to ancient Venice, to a place where she discovers whether love is truly everlasting, to Kate Kennedy at Shaye Areheart Books, by Stephanie Kip Rostan at Levine Greenberg Literary Agency (World). [The lengthy description here is intriguing; it sounds like a time-slip novel of sorts, but I could be wrong]

The Witch Doctor's Wife author Tamar Myers's THE HEAD HUNTER'S DAUGHTER, to Tessa Woodward at Avon A, in a very nice deal, by Nancy Yost of the Nancy Yost Literary Agency (NA). [Mothers, daughters, wives... the trend in book titles continues. I reviewed the first book for Historical Novels Review's February issue and plan to read this new one as well.]

Saturday, February 20, 2010

Review, The Fairest Portion of the Globe by Frances Hunter

American settings are unfairly dismissed by many historical fiction readers as dreary and uninteresting. If you’re one of these, Frances Hunter’s The Fairest Portion of the Globe serves as an excellent example to the contrary. Its action scenes brim with energy, and rather than present us with staid portraits, Hunter brings to life a scrappy young nation populated by full-blooded individuals chomping at the bit to explore, settle, defend, and expand the borders of their homeland.

The novel opens in 1793. As France’s revolution rages overseas, diplomat Edmond Genet arrives in Philadelphia with a mission: persuade Thomas Jefferson, Secretary of State, that it’s in America’s best interests to help France wrest control of the lands along the Mississippi from Spain. Botanist André Michaux is a reluctant convert to this secret cause, but not everyone needs that much convincing. Hoping for glory and to restore his tarnished name, former general George Rogers Clark signs on with the French army, persuading many of his fellow Kentuckians to follow him. It’s an easy decision for most, given that Spanish control of New Orleans inhibits trade (and the delivery of fresh supplies) up and down the river.

Most of the scenes play out at Fort Washington near Cincinnati, where an expert marksman from Virginia, Ensign Meriwether Lewis, and his superior officer (and George’s much younger brother), William Clark, become acquainted in surprising circumstances. Their friendship grows as they’re drawn into the conspiracy, and neither is sure where their commanding officers’ true loyalties lie. In this isolated frontier outpost, each man has his own definition of patriotism, and it’s not at all clear which man – and which country – will come out on top.

Other well-rendered portraits include that of “Mad” Anthony Wayne, an aging rascal of a general determined to keep the peace at all costs, and the Clarks’ tormented younger sister, Fanny, married to an abusive man. We also get a firsthand glimpse of Captain William Henry Harrison long before his very short-lived presidency. Here, he’s a priggish officer who spouts quotes from Cicero and Shakespeare and takes pride in being the only man to understand his own jokes. While entertaining, it’s his later actions (as well as his romantic elopement) that save him from becoming a parody of himself.

The action speeds along at a good pace, and the authors don’t shy away from exclamation points when needed. This is a plus, not a criticism! Though it sounds paradoxical to say so, the slangy modern dialogue contributes to its authenticity. If you’re curious what it’s like to be around men wearing powdered wigs (hint: they smell like potato starch), catch toads while wading through a slimy cold swamp, scrub out a cookpot with sand, or traverse the untamed wilderness on foot, this is the novel for you. The descriptions are that realistic, and the natural beauty of the early American landscape shines through. Don’t worry if you’re not familiar with the politics, as everything is laid out clearly, and there’s even a handy map. If you believe that U.S. history lacks drama or fascinating characters, this invigorating novel should do much to convince you otherwise.

The Fairest Portion of the Globe is out this month from Blind Rabbit Press ($22.95, trade pb, 421pp, 978-0-9777636-0-3). Frances Hunter is the pseudonym for sisters Mary and Liz Clare.

Monday, February 15, 2010

F is for Ferney

Two letters, just days apart, and I may be first on the list for a change! Originally I was going to choose a different book for the letter F, but then I spotted this one on the shelf and knew I'd have to write it up. It's that good.

James Long's Ferney is technically a time-slip novel, but it may be better to call it a time-blend, since the transitions are that seamless. The main storyline takes place in contemporary times, with episodes taking the main characters (and the reader) back through 1,300 years of carefully layered history. In Ferney, the past doesn't lie silently. Rather, it catches you unaware, slowly emerging from where it was long hidden until you're forced to acknowledge its presence.

Gally Martin has been experiencing nightmares ever since she was a little girl -- ones that wake her in the middle of the night, sobbing, with a dreadful fear of the mysterious "burnman" and "boilman." To provide her with a place of sanctuary, her husband Mike agrees to their purchase of a decrepit cottage in the ancient Somerset village of Penselwood. They quickly become acquainted with their elderly neighbor, Ferney Miller, who has spent the past 57 years trying to solve the mystery of his wife's disappearance back in 1933. Gally feels drawn to Ferney from the moment they meet. Why does he look at her so strangely? How does he know so much about her?

Ferney reveals that much of what he knows about Penselwood has come down to him and other villagers through folk memories... stories handed down by parents to their children over generations. After all, he says, "History's much shorter than people think." A mere five lifetimes separate Henry VIII's era from his. Mike, a by-the-books history professor, is very skeptical of Ferney's conclusions, but Gally finds herself captivated by the concept. As her friendship with Ferney deepens, she realizes that Penselwood's history has suddenly become more personal, and the knowledge starts causing problems with her marriage. She remembers things she has no rational way of knowing.

Fans of time-slips may think they know where this is heading, but it's more complex than that. Saying more would be giving too much away. Ferney is definitely an atmospheric book -- you can feel the authenticity of the bucolic landscape seeping in as you read -- but also a very clever one. It conveys that history is more than just all around us; it's a very part of who we are. The past leaves footprints and patterns that linger, and the effect can be discomfiting. For the Amazon reviewers who didn't get the ending, which is both perfect and utterly wrenching, all I can say is you missed the point of the book.

It's hard to compare Ferney to other novels, but if you enjoy the works of Barbara Erskine and Susanna Kearsley, you'll want to read this one too. It also reminded me somewhat of Karen Maitland's Company of Liars, since both explore how ordinary people from history interpreted their world.

James Long's Ferney was first published by HarperCollins (UK) in 1998, and Bantam (US) in 1999. This was written up as part of Historical Tapestry's alphabet challenge.

Saturday, February 13, 2010

E is for Eleanor

No, not that Eleanor - you'll be hearing much more about the Duchess of Aquitaine soon enough, with a handful of new biographical novels set to come out this summer. Rather, this post focuses on my favorite among the novels of Eleanor Fairburn, an Irish historical novelist who wrote about strong-willed women from the Middle Ages and Renaissance. Her other subjects include Lady Lucia de Thweng (The Green Popinjays), Anne of Brittany (Crowned Ermine), Cecily, Duchess of York (the Wars of the Roses quartet The Rose in Spring; White Rose, Dark Summer; The Rose at Harvest End; and Winter's Rose), and Grace O'Malley (The White Seahorse). She also wrote mysteries as Catherine Carfax.

The story of Nesta of Deheubarth takes place against a backdrop of war between Norman England and the kingdoms of South Wales. Born the daughter of Rhys ap Tewdwr, King of Deheubarth, Nesta is brought to England after her royal father is killed in battle against William Rufus in 1093. She is made a royal ward and raised at Romsey Abbey alongside the orphaned Scottish princesses, Mary and Maud, who through their mother, Margaret, are the last links to England's old Saxon bloodline. While there, Nesta falls in love with the king's younger brother, Henry of Coutances, though William Rufus has other plans for her: he unites her in marriage to Gerald of Windsor, who is made castellan of the important Norman fortress at Pembroke as a way of cementing England's ties to South Wales.

Nesta and Henry still have unfinished business, though their liaison doesn't take place until after she has borne Gerald several children. In a particularly poignant moment, she agrees to testify that Princess Maud, a silent and religious-minded young woman, never took vows at Romsey. This permits Maud's marriage to Henry, who has recently become King Henry I. And that's just the beginning of Nesta's vibrant, event-filled life. Over the years, she has relationships -- some willing, others not -- with several other men, though her life always circles back to Henry's. Despite their connection to one another, she comes to see him as a hard, uncompromising man who puts his ambition above all else.

This novel qualifies for the royal mistress challenge, although unlike most women in this position, Nesta has royal blood herself. She commands the loyalty and affection of the people of her native land, even though it's her husband who's technically their governor. Fairburn presents her as almost larger than life, though she's too intelligent to be a Mary Sue. (Don't hate her because she's beautiful!) Her life story is an example of truth being stranger than fiction. For instance, her cousin Owain was supposedly so taken with her beauty that he kidnapped her from her husband's castle, beginning a minor civil war.

Fairburn's portrait of Nesta is romanticized and wistful in parts, as if she is recounting an ancient legend. (Nesta's initial meeting with Henry is of the "love at first sight" type, too much so for realism's sake.) At the same time, the tone feels appropriate for the time and place, and for a woman who led such a dramatic, out-of-the-ordinary life. In her introduction, Fairburn writes: "This book is a weaving together of fact, probability, possibility, and fiction," which feels about right. A while back, I reviewed an even more obscure book about her, Anne Bell's Daughter of the Dragon. The Golden Hive is the better novel.

After picking this book for the letter E in the Alphabet Challenge, I realized it could have fit equally well with F and G, as well as D. Copies used to be more plentiful than they are now. Unless you want to pay upwards of $30, interlibrary loan may be your best bet.

The Golden Hive was published in 1966 by Heinemann & Co, London (long out of print).

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Tackiness extraordinaire

More great vintage cover art filled with historical lust, wantonness, and unabashed pagan barbarity. I found some additional examples while poking through bookshelves in my corner office. All are from historical novels published in the 1950s through 1970s.

"Balkis, Queen of Sheba... men spoke of her as a witch, others called her a wanton, but all succumbed to her charm."

"A taut tale of swashbuckling adventure and primitive passion. How he saves a Mayan princess from the sadistic conquerors makes a story thrillingly alive with barbaric splendor."

"Was she a divine goddess or vile serpent? Writers have hotly debated this question."

"A young Renaissance rogue with the face of an angel and the morals of a tomcat." Mrrrroooow.

With a tagline like the one above, I couldn't resist scanning in the back cover of Quintin Chivas. Click to enlarge and read.

"So begins the tempestuous story of a wild affair, set against the lusty, colorful background of 18th-century England - a dramatic tale of dalliance and deviltry, licentiousness and intrigue..."

"A lusty panorama of the splendor and sensuality of ancient Rome... the bestial savagery and brutal blood-lust of the arena..."

Rogue adventurer! "I was mad for the smell of London, for the touch of English women, and even, by God, for English beer."

"Breathtaking excitement unrivaled in history, when the daughter of a king could be carried off and sold as a slave."

"A woman in the world of men. Her half brother... who forced her to share bed and throne with him in return for the fulfillment of her dreams and destiny..." Even classic historical novels like this one sometimes drew the short straw in the cover department.

For previous examples from the tacky cover art gallery, click here.

Tuesday, February 09, 2010

Book review: The Witch Doctor's Wife, by Tamar Myers

I've been doing a lot of reading lately, but most of it has been in preparation for author interviews (to appear here later this spring) or my NoveList column for March. So I thought I'd post a review I wrote for Historical Novels Review's February issue, which is just out.

Tamar Myers, Avon A, 2009, $13.99, pb, 307pp, 9780061727832

Myers, known for her light contemporary mysteries, switches gears for this character-centered historical thriller based on her childhood experiences in the Belgian Congo. It’s 1958, and colonial rulers are extracting as much wealth as possible from the land before turning it over to the native people, who anxiously await independence. The powerful Consortium controls the diamond trade, prompting some workers to conceal their lucrative finds at considerable risk to themselves. In the small tribal village of Belle Vue, sitting atop the Kasai River gorge, the whites and Africans live apart, intercultural disputes occasionally stirring within and between both groups.

When young South Carolina native Amanda Brown arrives in the Congo to run a missionary guesthouse, she is enraptured by the landscape, but her intensive cultural training doesn’t prepare her for its people’s peculiar names and odd customs. Although she already has a housekeeper, she can’t resist offering employment to the clever first wife of Their Death, the local witch doctor. Their Death, already contending with two squabbling spouses and his second job as a yardman – he isn’t an especially successful witch doctor – seizes his opportunity when he discovers an enormous uncut gem in his infant son’s possession. Thus begins an upward-moving chain of greed, misplaced trust, and betrayal, all for a diamond hardly anyone has even seen.

The author’s informative asides on geography, fauna, and Bantu culture begin each chapter. Multiple viewpoints enhance the experience, as does the characters’ melodic, picturesque speech. Their dry wit counterbalances the many dark moments. It would have been easy to make Amanda merely a straitlaced counterpart for the more colorful Congolese, but Myers endows her with warmth, intelligent curiosity, a good sense of humor, and a difficult past. Adventure-seeking readers shouldn’t miss this memorable tale, a vibrant evocation of an enchanting yet dangerous place.

Monday, February 08, 2010

Yet more tips for BEA-goers

I was pleased to be asked to participate in the blog tour for the upcoming Book Blogger Convention. With apologies to my fellow librarians and the ALA, BEA is my favorite conference by far. This will be my 7th time attending, and I'm looking forward to being back at the Javits in NYC. Not only do I love BEA, but who can resist the opportunity to spend a few days in New York? If you haven't attended before, you're going to have a blast. You'll meet countless people who share your bookish interests, and you'll learn a lot about what's going on in publishing. Not to mention you'll be among the first to get your hands on ARCs for the fall.

This will be my first time registering as a blogger rather than as a librarian or book review editor. Last year, I did a "blogger signing" at the NetGalley booth and was amazed at how many people – publicists especially – contacted me after the fact about my blog. Your presence at BEA demonstrates that you want yourself and your blog to be taken seriously. Don't be shy about approaching publishers - everyone's there to network with everyone else and get the word out about books. It is expensive, but you won't regret attending. I'm also eagerly anticipating attending the first Book Blogger Con. The organizers have some wonderful panels lined up, and I'm looking forward to meeting many other bloggers.

The blog tour has already been underway for a week, with some great suggestions from other bloggers on what to expect from BEA. Here are some additional tips that first-time attendees may find helpful. I've also blogged from BEAs in past years, and you can read those older posts here.


Plan ahead. The BEA website is a gold mine of information on what will be happening when. It will have details on panels, autographing sessions, and exhibitors and booth numbers. There'll be additional signings listed in the PW Daily newsletter available at the show, and others will be posted at publishers' booths, so keep your eyes open for them as you walk around. After you check in, you'll be handed a large program book that you'll want to hang onto, even after BEA is over. It's pretty bulky, though, so rather than dragging it out all the time, I make up a quick reference sheet listing publishers I know I want to visit and their booth numbers.

Every April, Publishers Weekly comes out with a pre-BEA preview, including info on "galleys to grab" – ARCs for summer and fall that publishers will be actively promoting and giving away at the show. Library Journal usually does a similar preview, so check both websites for details in late spring. Edited to add (5/16/10): the LJ preview is here, and PW also has a list of kids' galleys to grab up.

Arrive early. The exhibit hall opens at 9am on the Wednesday. Unless you're attending a breakfast or other event, you'll want to be there by then, badge and a large, empty tote bag at the ready. The lines can be long early on, and it's a large, confusing, crowded place. If you haven't already checked in the day before, plan to arrive at the Javits at least 30 minutes in advance.

The "arrive early" suggestion holds true when it comes to finding lunch. The Javits has a large food court with about a dozen fast food places, but it fills up fast. Plan to get there by 11:30 if you want a place to sit down. Well, a place that isn't a corner of the floor, that is. (Been there, done that.)

Pace yourself. This year, the exhibit hall will be open for two days rather than three, and the time will go very quickly. It's a lot of fun, but it's also a very long time to be on your feet. You will get tired. Other bloggers have suggested wearing comfortable shoes plus bringing along a bottle of water and a snack (trail mix is good). I highly recommend this! Breath mints are good, too. If you need to take a break (and you should), a good place to stop for a while is the author stage on the exhibit floor, where authors will be giving readings.

Mix things up. In the excitement of walking through the exhibits, meeting people, and getting autographs, you may forget that many panels will be running concurrently. They'll be held in conference rooms on a separate level. The presenters will be important players in the publishing industry as well as authors with new/upcoming books to promote. You'll learn something new and useful at every panel you attend, even if you don't think the topic interests you. The "buzz" panels are especially worthwhile. Publishers often distribute free books there too!

Be selective. There will be many, many ARCs available, along with finished copies. Take time to read over the blurbs and take home just those that really interest you, because you'll get loaded down otherwise – plus you'll need to find a way to get them home. If you end up with more than you can carry, BEA has a mail room where you can set up boxes and temporarily store your books during the day before shipping them home. It's a great service, though pricey ($45-50 to ship a large box full). However, I'd advise keeping any particularly valuable finds, like autographed copies, with you as you walk around, or checking them with the coat room, because I've had books taken out of boxes that were labeled as mine.

Visit with a variety of publishers. The big New York houses will have the largest, most elaborate booths and will be pretty easy to spot. You'll also find booths run by hundreds of other presses, from large indies to small presses to university presses and more. There'll be many you won’t have heard of before. You'll be able to check them out beforehand on the BEA website (and on their own websites), but serendipity can be a wonderful thing, too. If you're not familiar with a publisher, investigate the display copies at their booth; talk to a representative; read through a catalog; ask to get on their mailing list.

Smaller presses, especially, may not have many or any free copies to give away there. Always ask before taking anything, and have business cards available to share. Also, feel free to ask the representative for the name/email of a publicist or marketing rep you can contact later, if the right person isn’t at the booth when you stop by. Some may have yet to discover the wonderful world of blog publicity; if this is the case, use the opportunity to educate them about your site and blogs in general, if need be.

Be prepared to speak about your blog. What is its focus? How many books do you review or spotlight each year? What types of ARCs are you open to receiving? BEA is a great opportunity to promote your site. Chances are that your blog is more widely read than you realize, so people may already know who you are. Also, if you blog in advance about the ARCs you hope to pick up, or signings you hope to attend, you may find the author stopping by your site to comment – and then they'll remember you when you show up in person.

Get out of Dodge (aka Javits) and experience the city. Take a walk through Central Park, take the subway to the East Village (so many awesome restaurants there), meet up with fellow bloggers for a meal, see a Broadway show, go to a museum… and if you can, try to get to The Strand, an enormous bookstore you can easily spend hours in. It's easy to reach by subway, and they're open late. Bring your wish lists.

Hope to see many of you in NYC in May!

Monday, February 01, 2010

Book review: Clare Clark's Savage Lands

In her third work of historical fiction, Clare Clark takes an unflinching look at the experiences of the earliest European settlers of colonial Louisiana, a time and place left unexplored by other recent novelists. In this harsh, uncompromising land of incessant sun and abundant mosquitoes, the sodden terrain seems determined to uproot all outsiders. Clark, a British writer, takes up the challenge with her informative literary novel about this little-known part of American history.

Elisabeth Savaret is a young Frenchwoman, an orphan from Paris sent to distant Louisiana in 1704 to marry an unknown man and help populate the fledgling settlement. (Though Elisabeth is fictional, Clark based her character on the documented lives of two historical “casket girls” like her.) In contrast to the other 22 would-be brides aboard her ship, she falls deeply in love with her husband, Jean-Claude Babelon, a handsome French-Canadian ensign with greedy ambitions.

In a parallel story, Auguste, a former cabin boy from La Rochelle, is left abandoned with the Ouma Indians. His commandant directs him to form connections with them, learn their language, and report back on their relations with rival tribes and the hated English. Auguste’s growing friendship with Jean-Claude, who arrives to trade with the Oumas, gradually leads to his re-entry into colony life. He and Elisabeth, suspicious of one another at first, get along famously. But when Jean-Claude proves faithless to them both, they’re forced to deal with unpleasant truths about the man they both loved, as well as about themselves.

The beautiful cover art represents the novel’s early stages too well: distant figures moving slowly through a gorgeous but inhospitable landscape. Book-smart Elisabeth, independent and haughty, refuses to associate with the other women settlers. While her nights with Jean-Claude are passionate, there seems little reason for her devotion and little substance to their relationship. Poor Auguste’s plight evokes sympathy, but he’s not a strong enough character to carry the story yet. The characters don’t really know themselves at this point, and the reasons for their actions are sometimes unclear to the reader as well. After the trio’s stories converge, though, the novel really takes off, becoming less a painted tableau and more of an emotional experience.

New France’s early population numbered fewer than 200 European inhabitants, and they found their lives a real struggle. Using rich language filled with clever metaphors, Clark depicts the shifting power games in Louisiana Territory: the desperate, crafty settlers playing the rival Choctaw and Chickasaw tribes against one other to stave off English incursion. She conveys an excellent sense of place, letting readers experience the dreary winters, unceasing rain, and the reckless fecundity of the vegetation in a place where countless children die young. And if the Frenchwomen’s lives are hard, their slaves’ lives are even harder.

In this land of exiles united by circumstance, anything foreign is suspect and barbaric, especially the natives – who are referred to constantly as “savages.” An unfortunately historically accurate sentiment, no doubt, but it’s still tiresome to read the word that many times. More effective is Clark’s depiction of how the land makes savages of all new arrivals, who must immediately adapt to a rougher lifestyle in order to survive. As one would anticipate, the Europeans more than rival the Indians in their brutal treatment of their enemies.

The miserable conditions, so vividly described, make for an enlightening yet discomfiting read. Those who appreciate realistic frontier fiction shouldn’t expect otherwise. However, it provides moments of great beauty, and despite the many hardships, friendships develop in unexpected places. The narrative is full of fascinating details, particularly about women’s and Native American traditions, and the colony’s people grow and learn as the plot builds to a satisfying conclusion. It’s easy to admire the settlers’ resilience while marveling at the images Clark creates with her words: the evening sky streaked with pink like the inside of a shell, the sweet, grassy scent of the first peas of spring. Settling in to the characters and style of Savage Lands can take time, but it rewards those who persevere.


As a sidenote to this review, I'd wanted to read Savage Lands ever since I saw it in the publisher's catalog nine months ago. With its unique setting and beautiful cover (those historical fonts catching my attention yet again), I knew I had to obtain a copy. I've reviewed a number of books on this blog, a mixture of publisher/author contributions and personal copies, but this is the first I requested from the publisher for this purpose. Thanks to Houghton Mifflin Harcourt for sending me an ARC.

Savage Lands is published by HMH on February 2nd in hardcover ($25.00, 416pp, ISBN 9780151014736). It's also available in the UK (pub date 4 March) from Harvill Secker at £12.99. I have to say that the US cover is far more inviting.