Thursday, October 07, 2010

A Canadian historical fiction showcase

After posting about Mary Novik's Conceit last week, I went on a mini shopping spree at Amazon Canada, discovering a number of other historical novels not readily available in the US.  The per-shipment postage charge is expensive, so it pays to buy in quantity.  That's my excuse and I'm sticking to it.  (I didn't buy all of these, but wanted to.)

What's interesting: it's very selective as to which Canadian authors' books are picked up in the States. Some of these novelists will be familiar to US readers, who may not realize that the authors have new books out (or will soon).  As far as I can tell, none are available in the UK or in other English-speaking countries, either.  The historical settings are wide-ranging, from ancient Egypt to Renaissance Venice to 17th-century New France to 19th-century Japan.  Because it's been over a year since I've been to any Canadian bookstores in person, I'm sure I'm missing other relevant titles; to recommend others, just leave a note in the comments.  Enjoy.

The first volume of the Alford Saga, which will chronicle over 200 years of Canadian history beginning with the stories of the country's pioneer settlers in the early 19th century.  The author is one of Canada's major preeminent film and TV directors.  Not quite an epic, though, at 248 pages. McArthur & Co, September 2010.

In 1669, Laure Beausejour and her best friend, Madeleine, are sent from Paris to New France as filles du roi, young women transported overseas to help populate the colony.  In Ville-Marie (Montreal), she faces numerous challenges, from the region's harsh conditions to her marriage to a brutish French soldier.  The plot reminds me somewhat of Clare Clark's Savage Lands, but set in Canada rather than Louisiana.  I'd enjoyed the setting of the latter but didn't warm to any of the characters, and I've read next to nothing set in New France, so am eagerly anticipating this debut novel.  Penguin Canada, January 2011.

Publication of the third volume in Pauline Gedge's King's Man trilogy has been postponed a few times.  This volume begins as Huy, a renowned seer, becomes scribe and counselor to the young pharaoh, Amunhotep III. The first two books are The Twice Born and Seer of Egypt.  Penguin Canada, March 2011.

A literary ghost story about the nature of artistic inspiration and womanhood, set in present-day Washington, DC, and in 19th-century Japan.  Rebecca must discover why O-Ei, daughter of one of Japan's great artists and perhaps his equal in talent, vanished from her own time and from history.  Govier's earlier novels Creation and Three Views of Crystal Water appeared in the US, but no sign yet of this one.  I found an article by Govier at More Magazine that illuminates her travels in pursuit of her character, a historical woman.  HarperCollins Canada, May 2010.

I read about Freda Jackson's For a Modest Fee last week at January Magazine, who wrote that it dealt with gender equality on the Canadian prairies.  Elizabeth Evans, nurse and midwife, travels with her father to Aspen Coulee, Alberta, in 1907.  After he dies of a heart attack, she and other local women are left to transform the fledgling pioneer town into a more civilized place.  TouchWood, September 2010.

In returning to Labrador to investigate a millennia-old mystery, Shannon Carew delves into the region's complex, multi-layered history, from the ancient Inuits through the Vikings and to the tragic history of the Beothuk in more modern times. This is the author's first adult novel.  Cormorant, August 2010.

The publisher describes Roberta Rich's The Midwife of Venice (originally titled The Moneylender's Wife) as a rollicking historical thriller set in 16th-c Venice and Malta.  Hannah Levi, a midwife in the Venetian ghetto, risks her life to render aid to the dying wife and unborn child of a Christian nobleman.  Then she discovers the baby's own life is at risk from greedy relatives, and her real adventure begins.  Sound intriguing?  Read more at the author's website.  Doubleday Canada, February 2011.

Sometimes, completely serendipitously, two or more authors come out with historical novels on very similar subjects.  Joan Thomas's Curiosity tells the story of Mary Anning, a cabinet-maker's daughter turned fossil hunter in 19th-century Lyme Regis, England.  I'm far from the first person to group it together with Tracy Chevalier's Remarkable Creatures, as reviewers from the Vancouver Sun and Toronto Star have done the same. The books interpret the same character very differently, so the reviews say, so why not try both?  McClelland and Stewart, March 2010.

Jack Whyte moves from his trilogy about the mysterious Knights Templar of the medieval Middle East to Scotland in the late 13th and early 14th centuries.  The life of William Wallace ("Ye canna take our freedom!" per a certain Mel Gibson flick) is rendered with a greater eye for authenticity in this first book of the Guardians trilogy.  Books 2 and 3 will cover Robert the Bruce and the Black Douglas, respectively. Viking Canada, September 2010.

I'm a fan of Richard Wright's Clara Callan, a multi-award winning saga of two sisters living in small-town Ontario during the Depression.  Why Mr. Shakespeare's Bastard isn't published in the States is a mystery to me, as it has the elements American historical fiction readers crave: a marquee name, a setting of Elizabethan London, and the promise of secrets to be revealed about a beloved historical character.  I can't resist poking fun at popular reading tastes, but Wright's latest novel did get a very positive review in the Globe & Mail a few weeks ago, which convinced me to buy it.  Kailana of The Written World recently reviewed it as well.  Phyllis Bruce Books (HarperCollins Canada), September 2010.


  1. Hmn. Can't decide which cover I like best. The Forest Laird is really good, but The Deserter has an awesome cover. I think half the fun of these book listings is the pics you share with us.

    Oh, and you piqued my curiousity with The Forest Laird, mentioning a bit more effort at historical accuracy. If this is one that ends up on your TBR pile, I'd love to see a more lengthy review.

    Thanks for the intriguing reviews and posts--and the was a great interview with Susan Holloway, btw.


  2. Argh - wish I hadn't read this post! Too many books and NO time to read! We have quite a few at the library, so at least I know I'll get hold of them at some point :) Good to see so much HF being written by Canadians!!

  3. I have to stop reading this blog...too many amazing-sounding books! Must get my hands on the one about filles du roi--that's a historical facet that has always fascinated me!

  4. These look interesting. You must go to the Chapters on Robson Street in Vancouver. Three stories of book heaven. Robson is the Rodeo Drive of the north with furs, cigars and shoes everywhere and can you guess what I spent all my money on?

  5. There's a lot of good literature (and music!) coming out of Canada.

    I’m intrigued by the current William Wallace/ Robert the Bruce phenomenon. After being ignored for years by authors (the ubiquitous Nigel Tranter aside), they are suddenly the HF subject du jour. This looks like another one of those strange cases where several authors quite independently decide to choose the same neglected subject. Apart from Jack Whyte’s "Forest Laird", both Robert Low and Robyn Young have series in the works set in the same period and with the same characters.

    The promo is out for Robert Low's "The Lion Wakes" here

    Synopsis for Robyn Young's "Insurrection"

    I recently read Robyn Young’s "Insurrection" (not out yet, but a friend scored a copy at a publisher’s do), and enjoyed it very much. Her writing seems to have matured noticeably. The descriptive passages are excellent and she manages to keep a complex epic rattling along without any confusion, despite the fact that there are a large number of characters involved.

    I learnt something, too. I hadn’t realized that the Bruces were related to the Irish clan of the High Kings, the O’Neills, and that RTB’s brother Edward was made High King of Ireland after RTB became King of Scotland. At one stage Robert and Edward between them had a very good chance of successfully staging a Celtic military coup which would have posed a serious threat to England.

  6. Lucy, I agree about the covers - that's why I include them :) The books become more concrete and memorable after I've seen the covers. Jack Whyte has a bit on his blog about The Forest Laird, explaining that little is known about William Wallace (a lot has to be made up, in other words) but that some new info has come to light ever since Braveheart rekindled people's interest. The thought of a 700-page epic is a bit daunting at the moment, so I haven't given in and bought it. Yet :)

    Tess, you may read one of these before I do - if so, let me know what you think!

    Rowenna - it's surprising more hasn't been written about the filles du roi. Or maybe there has, but not in the US. I've read a lot about the English colonies in North America, but comparatively little about the French experience, so have had this one on my wishlist since it showed up on Publishers Marketplace.

    Misfit - one of these years I'll make it to Vancouver and will have to find that street. Forget the fur and cigars already, I'd be there for the books. The Chapters in downtown Toronto had either 2 or 3 floors, and I spent hours there.

    Annis, that's true about Robert Bruce - he's become the popular guy lately. Gemi Sasson also has a book about him. Thanks for posting the links, and that's good to hear your positive report on Insurrection. The cover emphasizes the military angle rather heavily; there aren't many women writing novels of that type, are there? I didn't know about the Bruces' relationship to the O'Neills. Neither the Whyte, Young, or Low appears to be available in the US - maybe it's thought that Wallace/Bruce are still too obscure for US audiences, even despite Braveheart. I may have to do some more overseas shopping.

    I did learn today that the Richard Wright was picked up by Fourth Estate for Australia/NZ, though.

  7. Such a great post! The only author I recognise is Jack Whyte - but I'm looking forward to discovering the others. Go Canada Go!

  8. I'd never heard of any of these authors but ALL these books look intriguing!

  9. Two of my books are available on the net, at Amazon, and at book stores.
    They are fictionals accounts of Canadian history by a Canadian author.


  10. Sarah, as always, I love your posts. The Canadian books sound great, but I'll have to buy most. Out library in San Antonio is great but has limited funds- don't they all!
    The comment on Robert the Bruce is very interesting. I have just started a new project about the early Bruce family that has been composting in my thoughts for the past 10 years. Must be in the air!

  11. I just read your review of Ken Follett's Fall of Giants, which has led me to check out your blog for the first time. I'm glad I did! As a Canadian and lover of historical fiction, I've often lamented the fact that very little historical fiction exists that uses Canada as a setting. Needless to say, I'll be adding the HF books set in Canada to my wish list...okay, I'll be adding the others too since they all sound good.

    Have you read Marie Jakober's The Halifax Connection? It's a combination of historical fiction and thriller, and is set in 1860s Halifax and Montreal. It's very good.

  12. Thanks to everyone for commenting!

    Judith, same issue here - buying's the only real option for me since they won't be high priority for my (academic) library, and international interlibrary loan's so expensive. Not that I mind. When I read a good novel, I tend to want my own copy to keep.

    Avid Reader, I'm glad to have found your blog as well. I bought The Halifax Connection while in Ontario last year but haven't yet read it. I'll have to move it up in the TBR. I read Jakober's The Black Chalice a while back and enjoyed it... historical fantasy set in medieval Europe, if you don't know it. Among other HF with Canadian settings, I reviewed Howard Norman's What Is Left the Daughter here last month... he's American but focuses on Canadian historical settings. It's an excellent novel, set in Nova Scotia during WW2.

  13. I have to echo so many of these comments- so many wonderful books to read, and not enough time! I am going to bed early tonight, just to read!
    Can I recommend another great Canadian writer of historical fiction? Guy Vanderhague- The Englishman's Boy, and The Last Crossing. The Last Crossing comes in my top thirty favourite books of all time! And lets not forget The Tenderness of Wolves by Stef Penney!

  14. Thanks for the tip on both The Black Chalice and What is Left the Daughter, Sarah. I've not read either, and will add them to my wish list.

    I also agree with Connie's comment about Stef Penney's The Tenderness of Wolves. Great book!

  15. Hello Sarah ... great to see all the historical novels by Canadian authors. It's a pet peeve of mine that publishing is so bound by nationality and I hope that the changes being brought about by technology will result in new approaches. As a Canadian (and a writer of historical fiction, not yet published) I think we need fewer barriers in our global world!
    Also, congrats on doing a review of Fall of Giants for the Globe and Mail. I'm just about to start that book having loved his two about medieval cathedral building.
    Mary Tod

  16. I haven't yet read Tenderness of Wolves, but caught a glimpse of it on my shelves the other day...

    Hi Mary, thanks for your note, and for noticing my Follett review! Not living in Canada, I find it difficult to identify upcoming Canadian HF outside of searching individual publishers' catalogs (which gets to be time-consuming). Unfortunately I can only get up to browse bookstores there so often, which makes it hard to know what I might be missing out on. I recently read of a new venture by a publishers' group that will showcase Canadian-only titles - that should help!

  17. Katherine Govier was just her in Vancouver for the writers festival. I covered it on my blog. I ended up getting the ebook version because it's an extended addition that the real book doesn't include. I chatted with her about it and decided to go that route. The only downfall is that I didn't get a signed copy.

  18. Hi Sarah, I'm a Canadian author of historical fiction. Yes, it's true that Canadian historical fiction is hard to find. I'm going to be releasing The Blighted Troth. It takes place in New France (Quebec) in 1702. It's out in ebook format and soon in paperback. So we're out there, but a little quieter...

  19. Anonymous9:40 AM

    I especially appreciate your mention of Richard Wright's 'Clara Callan', which I'd not heard of before and which I now want to read. The novel that takes place in Labrador sounds intriguing, though I wonder what an established writer's first book of 'adult' fiction might be like. Also: Canadian historical fiction actually set in Canada, rather than in Egypt or Elizabethan England or wherever, is what seems especially hard to seek out--for me, anyway.

  20. Hello everyone - so sorry I seem to have missed the last three comments left here, the first two of which were probably some time ago! I was having trouble getting notifications for a while. It's now July 2012...

    Since my post went up, I've reviewed a few of the novels I listed: The King's Man, The Midwife of Venice, and Curiosity, and I've also been sent The Forest Laird and Bride of New France for review. I'm eager to see how they turn out.

    Clara Callan is still a favorite of mine. I also enjoyed Elizabeth Hay's A Student of Weather, literary fiction set on the Canadian prairie in the '30s and also in Ontario and NYC. For Canada Day this year, Melissa of Confessions of an Avid Reader posted a list of Great Canadian Historical Fiction you may be interested in too.