Saturday, June 15, 2024

All We Were Promised portrays three Black women's friendship and hopes for freedom in 1830s Philadelphia

Lattimore’s debut exudes originality in its characters, plot situations, and especially in its well-chosen setting of 1830s Philadelphia, “the self-proclaimed cradle of liberty,” a landmark American city whose grand ideals of freedom and brotherly love fall short for its Black residents. The opening scene makes plain this philosophical struggle. As Charlotte Walker and Nell Gardner attend a speech by prominent abolitionist Robert Purvis in Washington Square Park, white men’s resentment agitates a violent mob.

The young women’s worlds rarely intersect; their friendship is an exception. Nell’s family are well-to-do Black elites who have been free for generations, while Charlotte had escaped a Maryland plantation with her father four years earlier, a fact she keeps hidden. Charlotte is forced to serve as housemaid to her ambitious father while he passes for white and establishes an upscale woodworking business.

Charlotte gradually opens Nell’s eyes to the hypocritical limitations of the Philadelphia Female Antislavery Society that Nell belongs to, since it hesitates to take action to help runaway slaves, even as these needs become immediate. Charlotte had left her younger friend Evie behind when she fled Maryland, and when Evie arrives in Philadelphia with her enslaver, the self-absorbed Missus Kate, Charlotte risks having her cover blown.

The viewpoint nimbly switches among the three lead characters, and pre-Civil War Philadelphia arises fully formed on the page with its diverse residential neighborhoods, public spaces, and a moral edifice whose structure is continually tested. The storyline keeps readers guessing on how everyone’s relationships will evolve under the weight of secrets: not just the women’s friendships, but also Nell’s potential romance with a family friend and Charlotte’s strained bond with her father/boss, who refuses to acknowledge their past. A few too-modern word choices stand out (“slow-walked”), but this is an altogether absorbing, thought-provoking story.

Ashton Lattimore's All We Were Promised was published by Ballantine in April; I reviewed it initially for May's Historical Novels Review.

Tuesday, June 11, 2024

These 24 novels showcase the popularity, diversity, and vibrancy of today's Gothic historical fiction

Gothic historical fiction has exploded in popularity, a trend I couldn’t be happier about. I’ve been reading gothic novels since grade school, with favorites including Mary Stewart, Victoria Holt, Katheryn Kimbrough, and Barbara Michaels. In the standard plotline, a sheltered young woman arrives at a mansion in a remote corner of England, often to work as a governess, and finds herself engulfed in secrets and danger, ones revolving around the forbiddingly handsome master of the house. 

In the 1970s and '80s, "gothic” was often synonymous with “romantic suspense,” but while the secretive atmosphere and mystery subplots remain, today’s gothics may or may not have happily-ever-after endings. What you’re more likely to find, along with a strong message of feminine agency, are women who find the strength to save themselves. In terms of characters and settings, the offerings today are considerably more diverse than those of yesteryear. To add unpredictability and additional suspense, their writers switch up the standard gothic tropes in intriguing ways. Key titles in this subgenre include Silvia Moreno-Garcia’s Mexican Gothic, Kate Morton’s sagas, Sarah Waters’ Fingersmith, and Sarah Penner’s feminist gothic mysteries.

Below are two dozen gothic historicals appearing in 2024. I started out with a list of twelve and kept finding more, and I’m sure there are plenty I’ve left out.  Which ones will be added to your wishlist?



Jess Armstrong’s The Secret of the Three Fates (Minotaur, Dec.) introduces American Ruby Vaughn, in her second fiction outing, to seances along the Scottish border after WWI. The Book of Witching by C. J. Cooke (HarperCollins UK, Oct.) offers another original Gothic setting in its tale of two imperiled women in the present day and the 16th-century Orkney Islands. Moving ahead to the 1930s, Polly Crosby’s gothic mystery The House of Fever (HQ, Aug.) is set in a tuberculosis sanitorium. Pandora author Susan Stokes-Chapman’s second novel The Shadow Key (Harper Perennial, Sept; also Harvill Secker, Apr.) features a male protagonist, a physician encountering secrets on a remote estate in rural 18th-century Wales. Lizzie Pook’s Maude Horton’s Glorious Revenge (Picador, Feb.) has a woman investigating her sister’s Arctic disappearance in Victorian London, while religious repression and sexism intermingle in Paulette Kennedy’s The Devil and Mrs. Davenport (Lake Union, Mar.), with a housewife in 1950s Missouri unexpectedly receiving messages from beyond the grave.



The title of Anna Noyes’ The Blue Maiden (Grove, Apr.) refers to an uninhabited Scandinavian island, one reputed to be the site of devil worshippers; a family on a neighboring island in the 19th century, descended from an accused witch, remains haunted by its legacy. Laura Purcell’s name should be familiar to fans of gothics; Moonstone (Magpie, May), her first YA, is a supernatural romance with LGBTQ rep set in the early 19th century. Del Sandeen’s fiction debut This Cursed House (Berkley, Oct), described as Southern gothic horror, has a Black woman from 1960s Chicago relocating to New Orleans to work for a family that’s been cursed. Kuchenga Shenjé’s The Library Thief (Hanover Square, May; also Sphere, Apr.) another debut, follows a Jamaican-born young woman in Victorian England who uncovers secrets in an estate’s private collection of rare books. Heading back to 16th-century Hungary, Sonia Velton’s The Nightingale’s Castle (Harper Perennial, July; also Abacus, May), looks into the notorious legend of “Blood Countess” Erzsébet Báthory. James Wade’s Hollow Out the Dark (Blackstone, Aug.), described as gothic adventure set in Depression-era Texas, has a WWI vet diving into dangerous situations and secrets.



Traditional gothic plots are infused with unique twists in all of these novels. In Kelsey James’ Secrets of Rose Briar Hall (Kensington, June), set in Gilded Age New York, a wealthy young wife awakens to a mystery and amnesia the night after a large society party. Nineteenth-century Sri Lanka (formerly Ceylon) follows Amara, a demon-priest’s daughter, as she tries to clear her father’s name in the dark supernatural tale Island Witch by Amanda Jayatissa (Berkley, Feb.). In 1860s Paris, two estranged sisters stage a haunting to scam a secretive family and pay their bills, but their attempted fraud backfires in Carmella Lowkis’s Spitting Gold (Atria, May). Elizabeth Macneal’s The Burial Plot (Picador UK, June), set in early Victorian England, also focuses on a pair of fraudsters, one of whom flees a risky situation by posing as a lady’s maid in a house full of secrets.  Hester Musson’s The Beholders (Fourth Estate, Jan.), her debut, involves a maid in Victorian England who unearths secrets about the mysterious household residents. In Regency-era Nova Scotia, Emeline, the protagonist in B. R. Myers’ The Third Wife of Faraday House (William Morrow, Aug.), discovers a surprise when she arrives at her prospective husband’s seaside manor: her predecessor is still alive.



Some more terrific settings in this batch! House of Shades by Lianne Dillsworth (Harper, July; also Hutchinson Heinemann, May) has the title character, a Black woman doctor, on a risky mission in 1830s London that threatens to reveal long-held mysteries. Chanel Cleeton takes a gothic turn in her latest, The House on Biscayne Bay (Berkley, Apr.), following two women decades apart who live at a glamorous mansion in south Florida. Donyae Coles’ debut, Midnight Rooms (Amistad, July), sees orphaned mixed-race heroine Orabella marrying a wealthy man she barely knows in 1840 England.  The Silence Factory by Bridget Collins (William Morrow, Aug.; also The Borough Press, May), best known for The Binding, is multi-period suspense about surprising discoveries made on a Greek island in the 1820s. Secrets and spirits from the Russian Revolution percolate into the 1920s in Olesya Salnikova Gilmore’s second novel, The Haunting of Moscow House (Berkley, Sept.), while Barbara Havelocke’s Estella’s Revenge (Canelo Hera, May) retells Great Expectations from the viewpoint of Miss Havisham’s daughter.

Thursday, June 06, 2024

Secrets abound in 1920s London in Marty Wingate's newest cozy mystery

Kudos to Marty Wingate for writing an engaging cozy mystery whose solution is a clever and unpredictable puzzle. A Body at the Dance Hall is third in a series featuring the perky, adventurous Miss Mabel Canning, who takes assignments with the Useful Women agency in 1922 London – private investigation is her specialty – while quietly investigating murders.

When Mabel gets approached about a posh gig as companion to a wealthy young American woman newly arrived in London, she looks forward to livening up her dull January by showing her charge around town. But Roxanne Arkwright, eighteen-year-old daughter of a British industrialist and his Chicago-based first wife, appears to be a high-maintenance handful.

Then, on the pair’s evening out at the Hammersmith Palais de Danse, Mabel garbed in slinky knee-length blue chiffon velvet, our sleuth gets locked in the hall’s larder by a fellow detective hired by the Arkwrights to watch Roxanne. An hour later, after Mabel is freed by an old contact at Scotland Yard, she finds the young man lying dead, and Roxanne frantic with worry about her.

The mystery plot gets deliciously complicated as it changes from having no real suspects at all, since the motive for the crime isn’t clear, to nearly everyone being a suspect. Secrets are afoot! Wingate scatters red herrings hither and thither until the perpetrator comes into surprising focus, and the book’s revelations don’t end there.

This volume stands alone perfectly, with only light allusions to Mabel’s two previous outings. The fashions and hairstyles are fabulous, the historical atmosphere lively, and the characters a fun mix, including Gladys, the friendly terrier owned by Mabel’s beau, Park Winstone. (Better naming consistency would be great; he’s called Park and Winstone equally frequently.) But let’s see more of Mabel and her fellow Useful Women, please.

A Body at the Dance Hall was published by Bookouture in April, and I'd reviewed it from NetGalley for May's Historical Novels Review. The two previous books are A Body on the Doorstep and A Body at the Séance, but you don't need to read them first.  I wish more historical mystery authors would make the effort to have their books stand alone, since it makes it so much easier for new readers. And since there weren't any spoilers, I went back and got copies of the first two.

Thursday, May 30, 2024

The Passionate Tudor by Alison Weir depicts the complicated, ultimately tragic life of Queen Mary I

Mary I, England’s first true queen regnant, isn’t generally recognized for her admirable steadfastness, like her mother Catherine of Aragon, or her canny survival instinct, like her half-sister, Elizabeth I, although she exhibited both these qualities. Instead, due to her zealous persecution of Protestants, the sobriquet "Bloody Mary" clings to her. Her actions make her a challenging fiction subject, but Tudor expert Weir (The King’s Pleasure, 2023) dexterously humanizes this polarizing figure.

Following a cosseted childhood as Henry VIII’s elder daughter, Mary gets sidelined during her father’s pursuit of Anne Boleyn and break with Rome. Mary’s health suffers during many stressful years, and Weir casts a sympathetic light on Mary as she endures demotion and disinheritance, relying on her supporters and Catholic faith. But following her triumphant coronation, her marriage to Philip of Spain and cruel religious intolerance make her extremely unpopular.

Weir aptly demonstrates how politics and personal relationships intermix via Elizabeth’s transformation, in Mary’s eyes, from beloved sister to dangerous rival. Mary’s passionate spirit, which is stubbornly and tragically misdirected, comes alive via Weir’s thorough approach.

The Passionate Tudor was published by Ballantine (US/Canada) this week, and by Hodder Headline in the UK on May 9, under the title Mary I: Queen of Sorrows.  I wrote this review for the April 15th issue of Booklist.

This is the third novel in a loose trilogy following three generations of Tudors: Henry VIII (The King's Pleasure) and his mother (The Last White Rose) and eldest daughter. Other historical novelists have written about Mary I, but none very recently.  Suzannah Dunn's The Queen's Sorrow appeared in 2009, likewise Julianne Lee's Her Mother's Daughter, both at a time when Tudor fiction was in vogue. Having finished this series, I'm curious to see what Alison Weir will write next.

Saturday, May 25, 2024

Historical fiction trendspotting: Sail the world with these recent and upcoming pirate novels

Ahoy there! Has anyone else noticed the number of historical fiction about pirates appearing lately? There are enough of them to warrant some notice. Besides the exciting storylines, another attractive angle to these books is that they're anchored in historical settings you don't often see.  Many of them deal with female pirates: some completely fictional, others based in legend. Below are eight that came out in the past year or so.  Looking ahead to the future, you'll see more, including Ariel Lawhon's next novel The Pirate Queen, about 16th-century Irish chieftain Grace O'Malley; and Rachel Rueckert's The Determined, about Anne Bonny and Mary Read, which is out from Kensington in 2025.

The Ballad of Jacquotte Delahaye by Briony Cameron
Briony Cameron's debut novel is based on the legend of Jacquotte Delahaye, a biracial woman of color from Saint-Domingue who reportedly became a pirate captain in the 17th-century Caribbean.  Atria, June 2024.

The Adventures of Amina Al-Sirafi by Shannon Chakraborty
Immerse yourself in the political and cultural world of the Indian Ocean in the 12th century, full of bustling international trade and dangerous threats, in Chakraborty's historical fantasy novel. First in a series, it sees the title character—a widow, mother, and former pirate—tempted into one more adventure at sea.  Harper Voyager, February 2023.

Deep as the Sky, Red as the Sea by Rita Chang-Eppig
The South China Sea in the 19th century is the setting for this debut about a pirate queen of legend, Shek Yeung, and the risks she takes to solidify power in a patriarchal world. Bloomsbury, May 2023.

Saltblood by Francesca de Tores
De Tores (who also writes as Francesca Haig) dives into the life story of Mary Read, who recounts her adventurous life, from her childhood, when she was raised as a boy, through her later years as a notorious pirate.  Bloomsbury UK, April 2024.

A True Account by Katherine Howe
Howe (The Physick Book of Deliverance Dane) writes an exciting tale about Hannah Masury, an indentured servant who flees 18th-century Boston and dons a disguise as a cabin boy about a pirate ship. In a parallel timeline, a 1930s-era researcher uncovers Hannah's story. Henry Holt, November 2023.

The Ghost Ship by Kate Mosse
Part three in her Joubert Family Chronicles, Mosse's The Ghost Ship tells a story about a vessel of secrets, romance, and piracy that moves from Europe to the Barbary Coast in the 1620s. Minotaur, July 2023.

Seaborne by Nuala O'Connor
The swashbuckling tale of Anne (Coleman) Bonny, a young woman from Ireland's County Cork who  immigrates to America in the early 18th century with her family and turns to a life of the sea on a quest for freedom and adventure. New Island Books, April 2024.

If the Tide Turns by Rachel Rueckert
Based on the legend of pirate Samuel Bellamy, Rueckert's debut is an adventurous star-crossed love story about Sam, an orphaned sailor from Cape Cod, and the woman he loves, Maria Brown, whose affluent family refuses to entertain Sam as a suitor for her. Kensington, March 2024.

Saturday, May 18, 2024

Restoration-era intrigue and sisterhood in Nicola Cornick's multi-period The Other Gwyn Girl

Raise your hand if you realized royal mistress Nell Gwyn had an older sister. If not, you’re not alone. Nicola Cornick has a knack for taking interesting women from history’s sidelines, digging into the limited facts on their lives, and weaving them into compelling dual-narrative plots.

In this highly diverting romantic caper, Rose Gwyn has gotten herself in a muddle. It’s 1671, and she’s been languishing in London’s grimy Marshalsea Prison for six weeks after being arrested as an accessory to her highwayman husband John’s theft of the crown jewels. Pregnant and despondent – and illiterate – Rose asks her jailer to scribe a note to her sister Nell, theatrical darling and Charles II’s beloved, begging to be freed. Nell comes to her rescue but has motives beyond sibling affection. Perpetually worried about money after the sisters’ impoverished childhood, Nell had plans for the stolen jewels herself, but they have mysteriously disappeared.

The parallel narrative, set today, involves librarian Jess Yates, forced to relaunch her life after her fraudster ex-boyfriend’s deceptions. She lands in rural Berkshire, working as housekeeper for her sister Tavy, a celebrity influencer whose latest reality TV series follows the restoration of “Fortune Hall,” a manor where legends about the Gwyn family still circulate.

Compared with Rose’s Restoration-era tale of dangerous conspiracies and betrayals, Jess’s story could have felt lightweight and ignorable, and it’s to Cornick’s credit that it isn’t. With the help of Ethan, a historic building consultant, Jess begins exploring the house’s shadowy centuries-old history; fans of Lauren Belfer’s Ashton Hall will enjoy her research journey. One of the novel’s love stories develops too fast, a small flaw in a well-constructed tale of two independent women and the complexities of sisterhood. This story stands alone, but the author’s fans will note cameos of characters and places from her earlier novels.

The Other Gwyn Girl was published by the UK's Boldwood Books in March; I reviewed it initially for May's Historical Novels Review. For US readers, I just noticed that the book is 99 cents on Kindle (not sure how long this will last!), and Amazon Prime members can read it for free in their Prime library.

Monday, May 13, 2024

The Great Divide by Cristina Henríquez unites a diverse cast of people during the Panama Canal's construction

The Great Divide
is the epic novel of the Panama Canal’s construction you didn’t know you’d been missing. This major engineering feat of the early 20th century linked the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans, making international shipping more efficient, but its excavation caused untold hardships for Panama’s people. With this event as a backdrop, Henríquez brings together a large cast whose lives are transformed by it.

Among them are Ada Bunting, an enterprising young Barbadian woman who stows away aboard a steamer to Panama, hoping to earn enough money there to pay for surgery for her ill sister back home. Omar Aquino, a fisherman’s son, seeks adventure and community in signing on as a laborer for the canal, but his decision provokes his father, who hates seeing his country torn up by outsiders, to give him the silent treatment. A caring woman with botanical expertise, Marian Oswald has accompanied her scientist husband, John, from Tennessee in support of his dream of eradicating malaria but finds herself isolated and lonely.

The viewpoint is deliberately inclusive and moves from familiar perspectives to new ones with ease, introducing characters like Ada’s proudly independent mother in Barbados; the fishmonger Joaquín and wife Valentina, whose childhood home at Gatún is the rumored site of a proposed dam; and the Oswalds’ cook, Antoinette, who sends funds back to her children in Antigua.

Henríquez’s style resembles Ken Follett’s in its smoothness and approachability, though her cast is more culturally diverse, the scope not as sprawling, and she avoids crazy coincidences in gathering the different threads together. The novel is a stellar example of how historical novels can bring lesser-known voices to the surface, emphasizing how every person has a story worth listening to.

The Great Divide appeared from Ecco/HarperCollins in March, and I'd reviewed it from an Edelweiss copy for the Historical Novels Review's May issue.  Fourth Estate is the UK publisher. The novel was a Read with Jenna book club pick. A Spanish-language edition, Entre Dos Aguas, translated by  Martha Celis-Mendoza, will be out in August.

Thursday, May 09, 2024

Bits and pieces of historical fiction news: awards, reviews, and more

A short roundup of recent news about historical novels and their authors.

Jayne Anne Phillips' Night Watch, set in rural West Virginia during and after the US Civil War, was named the winner for the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction on May 6th. I had reviewed it last year, and it's nice to see a historical novel get such a prestigious honor.  The announcement in Publishers Lunch (can't link to it as it's behind a paywall) mentioned that up until now, Night Watch had sold fewer than 4000 hardcover copies, a modest number.  Safe to say that many libraries and individual readers will be adding it to their collections now.  It was also longlisted for the National Book Award. The Washington Post review, by Wendy Smith, which called it "beautiful, mournful," is very positive (with one quibble that I happen to agree with). Dwight Garner's New York Times review is decidedly less so. The literary style won't appeal to everyone, but in reading multiple reviews, you can get a sense of whether a novel will suit your tastes or not. Then, if you want to read more about authors and reviews, I recommend Jennifer Weiner's Substack post on the topic, "Revenge of the Panned."

The 2024 Walter Scott Prize shortlist is out, with six historical novels under contention:

The New Life by Tom Crewe (Chatto & Windus/Scribner)
Hungry Ghosts by Kevin Jared Hosein (Bloomsbury/Ecco)
My Father's House by Joseph O’Connor (Harvill Secker/Europa)
In the Upper Country by Kai Thomas (Viking Canada/Viking US/John Murray)
Absolutely and Forever by Rose Tremain (Chatto & Windus/no US edition)
The House of Doors by Tan Twan Eng (Canongate/Bloomsbury US)

I've added the US publishers if they exist. The only one I've read so far is In the Upper Country, centering on an Underground Railroad hub in what's now Ontario in 1859, and my takeaway was "while [it] isn’t an effortless read, it makes an original and valuable contribution to the historical fiction genre." The winner will be announced on June 13th.

The category shortlists for the Historical Novel Society's First Chapters competition were announced on Monday. This award is for the first three chapters of an unpublished historical fiction work.

Bestselling historical crime writer C. J. Sansom passed away on April 27th after a lengthy illness, and his fans, peers, and publisher have been posting their remembrances. Among the most moving is that written by his friend Rear Admiral John Lippiett, Chief Executive of the Mary Rose Trust, speaking about how he came to meet the author and read his works, and his personal experience with Sansom's thorough research into Tudor politics and life over the course of his novels.

On her Substack, Alina Adams shares details about sales and earnings for her newest historical novelMy Mother's Secret: A Novel of the Jewish Autonomous Region, which came out with the micro-press History Through Fiction. This will be an informative post not just for readers curious about the historical fiction market, but also (and especially) for authors interested in publishing with smaller presses and wanting to know what to expect. Spoiler alert: the total sales numbers have been very good.

Saturday, May 04, 2024

Kelly E. Hill's A Home for Friendless Women is based on original research into Victorian-era Louisville

Kelly E. Hill’s debut reads like a living, breathing scrapbook about the women from the titular Home, a religious organization from late 19th-century Louisville, Kentucky, that took in unwed pregnant women, attempting to instill them with godly virtues while persuading them to discard their “sinful” ways. Of course, what constitutes sin is in the beholder’s eye, and the line between the oppressed and their female oppressors often hinges on an unfortunate quirk of fate.

In 1878, a brilliant former Oberlin College student named Ruth arrives at the Home after an unknown man sexually assaults her in the campus museum – a place where women students were permitted to clean but not use the microscopes. With nowhere else to go, Ruth puts up with the founders’ obnoxious moralizing, but shocking events have her worrying about the other girls and their babies.

Eleven years later, we hear from the witty Belle Queeney, who left the brothel several blocks away after she fell pregnant. Belle’s tireless work ethic threatens to make the other “inmates” look bad, but she knows her worth even if society calls her a fallen woman. Belle dreams of reuniting with her lover, Rose, who has gone missing.

And in 1901, the founders’ daughter Minnie Davidson, now a fortyish wife and mother, uncovers a past scandal at the Home just in time for its 25th anniversary celebration. Their accounts appear chronologically, a technique that allows mysteries to build.

Delighting in research but never weighed down by it, Hill’s novel is based around cryptic mentions from the Home’s actual minute books (“Two women have been sent to City Hospital, one to Insane Asylum, one expelled”), transforming these long-silenced individuals into memorable characters, alongside primary source snippets and informative footnotes. Echoing with themes of human dignity, bodily autonomy, and the rights all women deserve, this wise and compassionate work is completely absorbing.

A Home for Friendless Women was published by Vintage in March, and I reviewed it for May's Historical Novels Review. This novel hasn't gotten the attention it deserves!  If not for a review in Booklist, I wouldn't have realized this book was available; afterward, I found it on NetGalley and requested it. And yes, there are footnotes. They often don't work well within historical novels, but I had no problem with them in this one.

Tuesday, April 30, 2024

Judith Lindbergh's Akmaral evokes the uncommon life of a woman warrior from ancient times

Imagine a time, far distant from living memory, when nomadic clans roamed the vast grasslands of central Asia. They derive strength from the animals they rely upon for nourishment and transport, from their devout religious beliefs, and from the tight unity of their clans, in which their training as warriors in defense of their people is deeply engrained from birth. Then imagine that many of these warriors are women, fighting with their clan alongside the men.

This is the world of Judith Lindbergh’s Akmaral, a saga both lyrical and fierce that evokes the spirit of its heroine, a woman of the Sauromatae in the 5th century BCE, who unspools her story as her own life draws to a close. “I do not like battle,” she says. “Only know that a show of strength is required to keep the peace.” The Sauromatae were documented by Herodotus, and may have given rise to the legends of the Amazons.

By the time of her impending death, Akmaral has united many wandering clans into a large confederacy which claimed her as its leader, although she never sought power for herself. Her narrative, rooted in conflict and betrayal, effectively establishes its theme of the struggle for balance amid opposing forces. These tensions play out at different levels: the wars between the Sauromatae and the Scythians and their allies, who conduct raids against peaceful camps; the encroachment of the patriarchy on matriarchal culture; and individuals’ internal battles on whether to conform or rebel. Yet the story also exudes amazing beauty, as shown through its poetic writing and images of the verdant steppes through the seasons.

Akmaral, orphaned as a child, grows up believing, as an exiled older priestess told her parents, that she is destined for greatness. Like all young women, she learns the techniques of fighting on horseback, attracting the enmity and desire of Erzhan, a male warrior. Her aul (clan) takes three enemy captives following a brutal raid, and Akmaral feels drawn to one of them – a silent, fair-haired prisoner called Timor. Her decision to take him as a lover spurs dramatic changes within their society.

These were ruthless times, and Lindbergh shows how the Sauromatian culture makes the continuity of life dependent on violence. This is poignantly personified through the story of Marjan, Akmaral’s friend, a young woman desperately in love who isn’t allowed to take a lover and bear a child until she kills another man. The descriptive passages and insightful characterizations make this a novel to read slowly rather than rush through. And although Akmaral tells a story of war, it’s not a typical one, since it’s layered with the insights of a influential woman with tender vulnerabilities and self-doubts – qualities that ultimately make her story and life all the more heroic.

Akmaral will be published by Regal House on May 7th; thanks to the author's publicist for providing me with a copy.

Tuesday, April 23, 2024

Megan Campisi's The Widow Spy imagines a female battle of wills in Civil War-era Washington, DC

Beginning on August 23, 1861, a consequential Civil War battle is being fought inside a well-appointed home in Washington, DC. On one side are former mill girl Kate Warne, Secret Service head Allan Pinkerton’s first female detective, and her fellow agents. On the other is socialite Rose Greenhow, a crafty widow credited with siphoning intelligence that won the Battle of Manassas for the Confederacy.

As Rose sits under house arrest with her youngest daughter, Kate must quickly locate her cipher key before the rebels discover Rose has been compromised. Their mental showdown feels increasingly taut as Kate attempts to soften the widow and exploit her weaknesses while concealing her own secrets, such as her Irish origins and forbidden attraction to her Black colleague.

The characters are richly layered and the mid-nineteenth-century atmosphere completely tangible. Campisi (Sin Eater, 2020) makes an exciting return to historical fiction with a new tale of moral quandaries and the hidden talents of women as Kate revisits episodes from her traumatic past and ponders what type of person she wants to become.

The Widow Spy was published by Atria/Simon & Schuster on April 9th; I wrote this review for Booklist's April 15th issue. 



Above: Rose O'Neal Greenhow with her youngest daughter and namesake, "Little" Rose, at the Old Capitol Prison, Washington, D.C., 1862 (public domain).

Kate Warne, also, is a historical figure, with little definitively known about her earlier life before she joined the Pinkertons. She also stars as the central character in Greer Macallister's historical novel Girl in Disguise (2017).  

Unlike Megan Campisi's first novel, The Widow Spy is mainstream historical fiction, not alternate history. Read also my review of Sin Eater and interview with the author about her debut, from 2020.

Wednesday, April 17, 2024

An edgy, unsettling take on vanished women in Erin Kate Ryan's Quantum Girl Theory

“A missing girl rewrites an entire story the moment she disappears.”

A novel that’s been sitting in my NetGalley queue for too long, Erin Kate Ryan’s Quantum Girl Theory is speculative historical fiction with a vital message. “On December 1, 1946,” as the prologue outlines, “Paula Jean Welden put on a bright red parka, left her dorm, and...” vanished, leaving America to speculate on what happened to the pretty, blonde Bennington College sophomore. Did she have a terrible home life she wanted to flee? Did she leave the country and establish a new identity? Did she meet a violently abusive boyfriend? Was she kidnapped by a stranger and violently murdered?  There are multiple possibilities.

But this real-life case remains unsolved.

The main plotline occurs in Elizabethtown, North Carolina, in 1961. Disembarking after a bus trip, Mary Garrett has followed the trail of a poster offering a $7000 reward for information on the whereabouts of another missing girl named Polly Starking. Mary’s motives aren’t altruistic; she’s somewhat of an opportunistic scavenger, going from town to town offering help in finding lost women using her claimed clairvoyant abilities, collecting and living off the payments even when the women aren’t found alive. She has saved some girls, but not nearly enough of them.

The twist here is that Mary had been a missing person herself, the girl once known as Paula Jean. Mary’s unpredictable flashes of second sight began five years earlier and cause her tremendous anguish, since they grant her glimpses of people’s fearful lives and final moments.

Ryan excels at illustrating the unsettling atmosphere of this small town in the Jim Crow South in the early '60s: the Starking household, with its “cheerful yellow Formica table” and vague air of oppressive patriarchy; the pushy town sheriff and his lurking presence; and stories about two Black girls gone missing which Mary learns about, in unorthodox fashion, from Martha, the Black maid at the cheap motel where Mary stays. As Mary insinuates herself into the Starking family, she sees hints about Polly (who shares her own former nickname, “Paul”) and theorizes a connection between her and the other two girls, whose disappearances nobody cares about, aside from their families.

The author’s writing echoes with honesty about society’s lack of attention to troubled women, aside from the lurid fascination at their disappearance, and how race affects these perceptions. That and the North Carolina storyline, with its pervasive sense of dread, are the strongest parts of the book. However, Ryan intersperses these episodes with long chapters exploring alternate continuations of Paula Jean Welden’s story. Some people and motifs recur in these tales and in Mary’s: a bright red parka, a memorable wristwatch, another young woman Mary once knew. While author's purpose in showing these multiple timelines is understandable, the result is confusing and causes the momentum to slow. The ambiguous ending doesn’t help.

The novel’s Goodreads reviews aren’t stellar, with an overall rating of 2.91. I wouldn’t disagree, but for me that number works best as an average: four stars or more for the principal story, two or less for the “alternate history” spinouts. If the idea of this novel intrigues you, you may want to stick to the main plotline and skim or skip the rest.

Quantum Girl Theory was published by Random House in March 2022.

Friday, April 12, 2024

The Titanic Survivors Book Club offers a character-rich meditation on love, loss, and second chances

After you’ve narrowly avoided death in a notoriously tragic shipwreck, how do you approach your remaining days? For the memorable personalities in Schaffert’s (The Perfume Thief, 2021) exquisite novel, their chance survival encourages them to pursue their desires, but what if these yearnings conflict or remain unrequited?

Having opened a Parisian bookshop after his secret library of controversial volumes got him replaced as the Titanic’s librarian, or so he believes, Yorick convenes a book club for fellow eccentrics who also missed boarding the fatal voyage. While Yorick falls for Haze, an impoverished photographer, Haze grows romantically obsessed with part-Japanese candy heiress Zinnia.

Relations among this trio of beloved friends become complicated after Yorick reluctantly begins a Cyrano de Bergerac-style correspondence to Zinnia under Haze’s name. Then the Great War disrupts everyone’s lives.

Schaffert writes stylish, intelligent fiction that casts new light on familiar settings, and his appreciation for lush details feels so very Parisian. This isn’t a standard cozy novel about book clubs but rather an elegantly moody take on love, literature, and the indelible connections they create.

The Titanic Survivors Book Club (what a terrific concept!) was published by Doubleday on April 2. I wrote this review for the March 1st issue of Booklist.  If you've read Schaffert's novels before, you'll know they're focused on language, lush descriptions, and mood, and populated by interesting, offbeat characters. This is the third novel I've read of his, including The Swan Gondola and The Perfume Thief.

Monday, April 08, 2024

A gallery of fifteen intriguing historical novels out in spring 2024

It's been too long since I've done a showcase featuring books for the current season, which will be a terrific one for historical fiction. Here are fifteen (I had trouble cutting down the number!) recent and upcoming novels incorporating a variety of settings; I chose them partly because they feature locales, topics, and/or characters that stood out as original.



Central Asia, 2500 BCE: the narrative of a woman of the Sauromatae who grew into her people's leader, and whose life was defined by the struggle between matriarchal and patriarchal culture. Regal House, May 2024.



Small-town 18th century Massachusetts: the growing romantic bond between two married men, a minister and a physician, and how the controversy affects them and their families. Riverhead, March 2024.

1825 Scandinavia: a gothic novel of coming of age, folklore, family legacy, and witchcraft involving a local pastor’s two daughter on a remote northern island. Grove, May 2024.

Early 20th-century El Paso, Texas: the unlikely marriage between immigrants from Mexico and China who fight for their place in an unwelcoming land. Flowersong Press, May 2024.

19th-century Louisville, Kentucky: a religious home for unmarried mothers centers a tale about women’s desire for agency over their own lives. Vintage, March 2024.

1715 Cape Cod, Massachusetts, and at sea: a star-crossed love story and pirate adventure set in the decades following the Salem Witch Trials, based on historical people. Kensington, April 2024.

1950s Bombay, India: twin sisters, both with different artistic talents, strike out on different paths in a world that doesn’t respect women’s choices for their own lives. University of Nebraska Press, March 2024.

The 17th-century Caribbean: the story of how a Haitian-French woman rose to become an infamous pirate captain, based on a legend. Atria, April 2024.

1720s Paris and Louisiana: a group of young Frenchwomen travel from La Salpêtrière hospital in Paris to help populate the French colony in the New World. Harper, March 2024.

19th-century Europe and America: The story of Jewish-born women’s rights advocate Ernestine Rose, based on the author’s original research. Onslow Press, March 2024.

Late 18th-century Virginia: scandal follows a wealthy young woman rumored to have given birth to her sister’s husband’s child. Lume, May 2024.

WWI-era British Columbia: a young woman of Japanese heritage gets caught up in conflicts between the area’s white and Japanese loggers in the beautiful Queen Charlotte Islands. Caitlin Press, March 2024.

1850s Santa Fe: a nurse who journeys to New Mexico Territory finds adventure, magnificent beauty, and secrets amidst the region’s close-knit residents. Ballantine, April 2024.

1830s Nova Scotia: this Gothic, queer retelling of the “Selkie Wife” folktale involves a country midwife and the mysterious neighbor she’s drawn to. Dell, April 2024.

1940s Port-au-Prince, Haiti, and elsewhere: two childhood friends’ lives diverge and reunite over a period of decades. Tin House, April 2024.

Tuesday, April 02, 2024

After the Massacre, a guest post by Lora Chilton, author of 1666: A Novel

Thanks to author Lora Chilton for the guest post on writing a novel about her ancestral heritage, which focuses on an important yet little-known aspect of American history.

~

After the Massacre
by Lora Chilton

I learned about my Indigenous heritage in my late forties when my father revealed his Patawomeck ancestry to my siblings and me. He had been cautioned since early childhood to never tell anyone he was an “Indian” due to the threat of being kicked out of school and other penalties that had been codified when the Virginia government passed the Racial Integrity Act of 1924. He was born in 1935, a time when the “paper genocide” effectively erased the Indigenous tribes in Virginia.

My father’s pride in finally sharing his heritage opened up a whole new understanding of his life and our family. As I embraced this newfound piece of my identity, I read every article, every book, every document I could find about the Patawomeck, my ancestors who had lived along the Potomac Creek in Virginia since before the 16th century. In 2007 my curiosity was piqued even further when Chief Two Eagles Green spoke at our family reunion and shared the oral tradition stories about the survival of the tribe after the men were massacred and the women sold into slavery in the summer of 1666.

Colonial documents record the chilling words that called for the decimation of the Patawomeck tribe to “prosecute them with war to their utter destruction.... and dispose of the women and goods.” Tribal oral tradition tells that the women were sold into slavery and shipped to Barbados to work on sugar cane plantations. Tradition maintains that two or three women were able to escape and miraculously return to Virginia, thus ensuring the survival of the tribe to this very day.

While their names had been lost to time, I began to feel their story needed to be told, to honor their bravery and that of the tribe.

There are early writings from explorers in the 1600s who first encountered the Patawomeck and other Virginia tribes, noting their observations about food, hunting, dress and some of the language. Very little information about the lives of the Indigenous women was written, but there were mentions here and there about the culture and daily routines. As I imagined what their lives might have looked like, I also felt the lost language and traditional names should be used, in an effort to reclaim what had been erased. When the pandemic struck, the Patawomeck began offering language classes via zoom, providing an opportunity for tribal members to study and learn the words of our ancestors. I embraced the moment and took the children’s classes, along with my granddaughters.

Told in first person, 1666: A Novel tells the story of Ah’SaWei (Golden Fawn) and NePa’WeXo (Shining Moon), as they recall their peaceful life before the massacre, even as the tension from the English invaders they call TasSanTasSas, which means "Strangers," is building. After the massacre and the voyage on the slave ship, their experiences diverge when they arrive in Barbados and are sold to different plantations.

Barbados in the 1660s was a decadent mixing bowl of people from all over the world: those seeking refuge from persecution, others looking for opportunities to create wealth generated by the production of sugar or those folks who were enslaved and forced to labor in the sugar fields. A British colony since 1627, “Little England,” as the island was called, had a thriving Jewish community and a sizable Quaker contingent, in addition to African, North and South American slaves and other European settlers.
author Lora Chilton

When a brief window opened during the COVID pandemic, I went to Barbados to continue researching what the lives of my Patawomeck ancestors might have entailed as slaves on this foreign island. The Barbados of today is an independent nation, with an economy built primarily on tourism. There are several plantations open for tours and remnants of the ubiquitous windmills that powered the sugar production by grinding the cane into juice that was then boiled and refined. The Nidhe Israel Synagogue and Museum was a treasure trove of information about the island in the 1660s. During excavation in 2008, the original mikvah, built between 1650 and 1654, was discovered. As I stepped into the cold water of that ancient sacred bath, as I walked down Quaker Street, now called Tudor Street, where so many of the Friends did business, as I stood in “Amen Alley” behind the Cathedral of Saint Michael where the slaves had to stand outside the building to worship; I imagined how these new sights, sounds and smells impacted the lives of Ah’SaWei and NePa’WeXo. How did they process these unusual religious practices? Did they like the food? Did they have friends? I wanted to find their words, using their voices, to express the wonder and horror of all they were experiencing but also to express the deep longing to escape not just slavery but the island and to return home.

The story of the Patawomeck survival was known within the tribe for generations but mostly unknown to the rest of the world. I felt obligated to write and share the story of these women, to celebrate their bravery and fortitude that in part made the existence of the Patawomeck tribe a reality in 2024.

~

Author Lora Chilton is a member of the Patawomeck Indian Tribe of Virginia. She has worked as a registered nurse, a small business owner, an elected official, a non-profit executive and a writer. 1666: A Novel is her second work of historical fiction and is published April 2, 2024 by Sibylline Press, a publishing house dedicated to publishing the brilliant work of women over 50. The novel is available wherever books are sold. To purchase the book online, visit www.bookshop.org or www.amazon.com.

Thursday, March 28, 2024

What the Mountains Remember whisks readers to the scenic Blue Ridge Mountains with a tale of romance and self-discovery

During a week-long stay amid the mountainous beauty of Asheville, North Carolina, a young woman caught between two worlds must confront her hidden past and decide what she really wants in Joy Callaway's lushly rendered, character-centered historical novel.

It should be a dream excursion. In April 1913, Belle Newbold, stepdaughter of the gas magnate she calls Papa Shipley, accompanies family members on one of the highly publicized road trips Henry Ford makes with his friends and fellow “Vagabonds” to various points of interest across America. In this ultimate form of glamping – these scenes had me agog at the sumptuous luxury of the late Gilded Age – the group stays in tents, tended by servants who oversee their hair and elegant wardrobe and cook gourmet meals.

But for Belle, the trip spells potential danger, since she hasn’t seen mountains since she fled West Virginia. Her late father was an ordinary coal miner, not a manager, a fact her mother forbids her to reveal for fear the disclosure would plunge them into poverty again.

Also, seeing how distraught her mother was at her father’s death in a mine collapse, Belle seeks stability over love in her own marriage, one she hopes to her find in her arranged union with Papa Shipley’s family friend Worth Delafield, who owns the campsite land in Asheville. She puzzles, though, why Worth – a kind, handsome, considerate man – would agree to such a marriage himself.

After an outing to view the Grove Park Inn, an elaborate resort being built of locally sourced stone, Belle gets naturally drawn into the stories of those laboring on the project – and takes the opportunity to chronicle them when the opportunity presents itself.

All of the characters have interesting backstories that add intrigue to the unfolding plot. Belle and Worth’s growing bond follows a complicated path, since both are held back by secrets. Marie Austen Kipp, Belle’s troubled and attention-seeking step-cousin, develops into a credible antagonist without losing all the reader's empathy for her.

Callaway also draws in Asheville’s history as a mecca for tuberculosis patients due to its favorable climate, and entrepreneur Edwin Grove’s ambition to transform it into a major tourist destination. While moving toward a satisfying resolution for this atmospheric, romantic story, she shines light on the talented workmen and artisans who carried out the financiers’ glorious vision for the Grove Park Inn, which I’d love to view in person one day.

Sketch of the exterior of the Grove Park Inn by Fred Seely, 1912
Sketch of the exterior of the Grove Park Inn by Fred Seely, 1912
(via Wikimedia Commons; public domain)

What the Mountains Remember is published by Harper Muse next week (April 2, 2024). My thanks to the publisher for sending me an ARC.

Monday, March 25, 2024

Celebrating my 18th blog anniversary with a historical fiction giveaway

It's a brighter than usual Monday this week, because today my blog is old enough to vote! I began actively blogging at Reading the Past on March 25, 2006, with a post about a presentation I'd given at the Public Library Association conference

Over the past 18 years, I've had 1852 posts, nearly 12,000 comments, and over 2.6 million pageviews. The most popular posts over this time have been:
  1. Ten new and upcoming historical novels I found interesting, for my 1000th blog post, from 2014
  2. Author Barbara J. Taylor's guest post about the Billy Sunday snowstorm, also from 2014
  3. Author C.W. Gortner's guest post about Marlene Dietrich, from 2016
  4. My thoughts on the similarities between two Pack Horse Librarian historical novels, from 2019
  5. The bestselling historical novels from 2012
Blogging is nowhere near as popular as it was back in the early years of this site, and I haven't had as much free time this year as I've had in the past, but I hope to continue for a while longer.

The Tower and A Wild and Heavenly Place

As a way of celebrating, I'm offering a giveaway of two historical novels I've recently reviewed here and received copies of in hardcover: Flora Carr's The Tower, about the year when Mary, Queen of Scots was confined, with her chamberwomen, in a tower in remote northern Scotland; and Robin Oliveira's A Wild and Heavenly Place, a romantic adventure/saga set in Scotland and the Pacific Northwest in the late 19th century. Links go to my earlier reviews.

This giveaway is open worldwide, though for winners not in the US or Canada, I'll likely arrange copies sent via Blackwell's rather than from me directly.

Good luck, and whether you're a new or longtime follower, thanks for reading and following along with my posts!

Update, 4/5: The giveaway has ended.  Congrats to Terry M and Nancy M.  Hope you enjoy the books, and thanks to everyone who entered!

Thursday, March 21, 2024

Finding Margaret Fuller by Allison Pataki evokes an unjustly overlooked American intellectual's life

Historical fiction can restore neglected figures to their rightful place in the public consciousness, and Pataki’s (The Magnificent Lives of Marjorie Post, 2022) sweepingly urgent, inspiring novel about the astonishing life of Margaret Fuller aims to do just that.

American feminist writer, Transcendentalist thinker, journal editor, foreign correspondent: Fuller was all of these and more, blasting through gender-based barriers insufficient to deter a woman of her intelligence and ambition. The prologue dramatizes her friends’ reaction to her tragic early death in a shipwreck in 1850, but while a sense of what-might-have-been permeates the story, readers will emerge with even greater amazement about her accomplishments.

Using first-person narrative, Margaret explores her relationships with Ralph Waldo Emerson and his circle in Concord, Massachusetts, enticingly described as a pastoral New England paradise blossoming with creative thought. Her itinerant quest for belonging is driven partly by financial insecurity.

From Nathaniel Hawthorne to Elizabeth Barrett Browning, a vibrant cast of mid-nineteenth-century luminaries comes alive alongside Margaret, who follows her desire to create original works and take action. Her salon-style “Conversations” in Boston galvanize their female participants, and in faraway Italy, Margaret finds love, political purpose, and a spiritual home. An invigorating journey of a brilliant woman always striving to achieve her potential.

Allison Pataki's Finding Margaret Fuller was published by Ballantine on March 19th; I wrote this review for Booklist's Feb. 15th issue. The quote below from Poe is used as an epigraph to open the novel.


Sunday, March 17, 2024

Stefania Auci's The Triumph of the Lions continues her saga about a prominent Sicilian dynasty

This second in a trilogy (after The Florios of Sicily, 2020) about a real-life Italian industrialist dynasty opens in 1868, as thirty-year-old Ignazio Florio takes the reins after father Vincenzo’s too-early death. “Swear to me that you will never put work before your family,” Ignazio’s grieving mother Giulia demands, but despite their opposing temperaments, Ignazio resembles Vincenzo in his dedication to the firm above all else.

Ignazio succeeds beyond anyone’s greatest plans, establishing a shipping empire alongside existing achievements in tuna canning and marsala wine. The Florios’ power, plus Ignazio’s marriage to Giovanna, a young baroness who adores him unrequitedly, guarantees their societal acceptance.

Business and family are deeply interlinked here, and Auci’s smooth narrative explores this dynamic from multiple angles, depicting the inner workings of business deals alongside personal triumphs and romantic regrets. Giovanna, a greatly sympathetic character, suffers marital neglect while raising their children, and we later see the torch pass again from father to son.

A diverting, informative saga and detailed tour of Sicily, from bustling Palermo to the picturesque outlying islands.

The Triumph of the Lions, which was translated from Italian into English by Katherine Gregor and Howard Curtis, was published by HarperVia, HarperCollins' imprint for international voices, on March 12th. I wrote this review for Booklist's March 15th issue. The Lions of Sicily is a new TV series on Hulu (which I haven't yet seen) that's based on this internationally bestselling series. There will be a third book, The Fall of the Florios, out in late August.

Saturday, March 09, 2024

Review of The Romanov Brides: A Novel of the Last Tsarina and Her Sisters by Clare McHugh

Decades before the Bolshevik Revolution and the Romanov dynasty’s terrible end, the future Tsarina Alexandra and her older sister, Grand Duchess Elizabeth, were princesses of the small German state of Hesse and by Rhine. Leading us very capably through these young women’s lives, McHugh shows how their marriages into Russia’s imperial family were by no means predestined.

Ella and Alix, as they’re called, tragically lose their mother to diphtheria but grow up alongside their siblings and an extended family that includes the rulers of Britain, Prussia, and Russia. (McHugh travels through this potentially confusing mass of royal relationships with aplomb.) As a teenager, Ella, an elegant beauty, captivates Tsar Alexander’s brother, the Grand Duke Serge, and wonders if hidden emotional depths lie behind his seriousness.

Her protectively imperious grandmother, Queen Victoria, begs her not to marry into a “country where no one of rank is safe” – and she’s right, as we know – but Ella comes to believe she’ll fulfill a higher purpose as Serge’s wife. As Ella navigates her marriage’s unexpected confines, Alix, painfully shy, remembers the bond she formed with Serge’s nephew, the tsarevich Nicky, when she visited Russia for Ella’s wedding. However, multiple barriers keep them apart.

The story remains within the characters’ inner circles, with an occasional nod to outside politics (“They believe they are owed everything and their people are owed nothing,” says Ella’s uncle Leo about the Romanovs’ autocratic rule). The intimate focus ensures a sympathetic view while emphasizing how sheltered the women are.

In this beautifully spun chronicle of love, family, and faith, McHugh carefully illustrates her protagonists’ religious views. One might wonder if a novel about both couples’ early histories (it ends in 1894) would offer enough plot to keep the pages turning, but it definitely does. The Romanov Brides will be enlightening for royalty buffs.

The Romanov Brides will be published by William Morrow on March 12th. I reviewed it initially for the Historical Novels Review, from an Edelweiss e-copy. This is one I grabbed to read myself as soon as I heard it was available!  I've read many nonfiction accounts about Romanov family members, but Alexandra and Ella don't appear in much fiction as principal characters. Their later lives are especially tragic, which may be a reason. There is an older biographical novel about the pair, Antony Lambton's Elizabeth and Alexandra, but it devolves into such bizarre scenarios at the end that it's better called alternate history. So this new novel about their earlier lives is definitely welcome.

McHugh has also written fiction about Queen Victoria's oldest daughter, Vicky, who became Empress of Germany and the mother of Kaiser Wilhelm, in A Most English Princess (2020). I look forward to seeing who she'll write about next.

Tuesday, March 05, 2024

Flora Carr's The Tower explores a dark, pivotal year in Mary, Queen of Scots' life

Carr’s taut debut recalls Maggie O’Farrell’s The Marriage Portrait (2022) in its evocation of a highborn Renaissance woman trapped against her will and desperately contriving to escape. The setting: Lochleven Castle, a stone fortress on a Scottish island, hauntingly picturesque from outside, but a dank, oppressive prison for Mary, Queen of Scots and her two chamberwomen, Jane and Marie, called “Cuckoo.”

In 1567, Mary, the embattled Catholic ruler of a Protestant country, is with child by her third husband, the despised Bothwell, and pressured to abdicate in favor of her one-year-old son, James. The women’s shifting emotional patterns, and regular flashbacks illustrating the political background, keep tension bubbling and prevent the story from feeling claustrophobic. Mary’s childhood friend Lady Seton joins the trio later, complicating their dynamics.

Mary remains captivating as she earns and feeds off others’ devotion; Carr dexterously explores how the seductive allure of royalty is undimmed by Mary’s grim circumstances, which are depicted with earthy physicality. Despite Mary’s foreshadowed downfall, this pulled-from-history event resounds as a victory for female camaraderie and cleverness.

The Tower is published today in the US by Doubleday, and this is the draft review I'd submitted for Booklist (the final version was published in the 2/15 issue).  If you know the history, it's a novel that will have you reconsidering all of the characters in a new way, including (especially) Mary, Queen of Scots.  If you don't mind some spoilers about the real history behind the story and how it ends, read more at The History Press.