Category Archives: Historical Fiction

Boneshaker – Cherie Priest (Clockwork Century#1)

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Some books are fun and some are refined works of art.  This is fun.  It is dystopian historical revisionism of the civil war with steampunk airships, zombies, and a mom coming for her son.  I listened to the audio version of the book narrated by Will Wheaton and Kate Reading.  I’m not 100% sure it’s fine lit, but it was performed well and I enjoyed it.  I did not read any portion of it and can not compare the experience. This may have altered my perception of the book for the good – Wheaton and Reading can do a lot for any book.

Briar Wilkes is defined by being the daughter of Maynard – a dead symbol of law, and wife of Leviticus Blue – the man who devastated Seattle.  His invention, the Boneshaker, brought the blight that contaminated a city’s population.  To breathe it in transforms a person into living dead.  This story starts years after Seattle has been sealed off. She lives outside the tainted city, protected by the walls, raising her teenage son Ezekial.  With her reputation she was lucky to get a job at the Industrial Plant.  They barely get by.  She isn’t the mother she wishes she could be, working all the time, and her son runs with a criminal element that respects the Maynard blood in his veins.  Ezekial sneaks into the Seattle. He wants to prove his dad is the victim of slander, but at sixteen the rumors of what lies behind the walls is nothing compared to what he finds.  Briar figures out what he has done.  She regrets not telling him of her past and his origins, but she doesn’t have time for lamentations.  So, she picks up her gun, and enters the city with the help of those who respect Maynard’s law.

More than a coming of age story for Briar’s son, Ezekial, this is a story of Briar.  Who she was and is have been determined by her fathers and husbands decisions.  This is not strange for a woman of civil war times.  She rejected her position as the daughter of a lawman she viewed as a tyrant, but that doesn’t mean she didn’t take the skills he taught her with her.  In reaction she turned to a man of learning, an inventor, but his decisions confined her son, her, and the Northwest to disaster.  She accepted the burden and guilt placed upon her.  This story shows her taking control of her life outside how others see her.  In tracking her son she enters the city.  It is dangerous, close to lawless, and free of societal expectations.  She becomes her own person and her son gets to see his mother as strong and capable.

The world building could be better developed.  I appreciate detail and would have liked more description of the cities warren of tunnels. Being historical revisionism Priest could have delved much further into the war.  It was secondary to the story of Seattle, little more than a backdrop, but there are good bones here.  It is a series and I hope the second book fleshes out the blighted Seattle, and why Priest decided to place it in the U.S civil war.  I understand that adding zombies and steampunk machinery may seem a bit much.   It sounds like it is catering to every current trend, but I believe Priest was able to tie it together.  In a first book you need to establish the story and include enough action to hook an audience.  Priest does that.  There is so much potential.    To really be able to claim this as steampunk or revisionism there will have to be stronger science and historical elements in the second book.  I’m hoping she does it.

I recommend you listen to the audio version of this.  In seeing reviews by others I respect, who read it, I had a better experience.

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The Watchmaker of Filigree Street – Natasha Pulley

This book is hard for me to categorize.  A review I read called it Steampunk but this 1880’s version of London doesn’t have to fall in an alternate timeline, and while clockwork gears and machinery play an important role, it is not fantastical.  Natasha Pulley’s novel plays with the line between fantasy and realism/ science and clairvoyance.  It is beautiful.  Thaniel shortened from Nathaniel, to distinguish himself from his father Nat, is simplified to match his unaffected straightforward character.  He is the center of this novel.  Keita Mori, Grace, and even Dolly circle arround the choices of this man.

Thaniel is a telegraphist. His profession isn’t world-changing and doesn’t hold much growth, but it allows him to live a sparse existence while helping him provide for his sister and her sons.  He doesn’t mind it.  His days blend until he goes home to his barely lived in room to find it burglarized.  I need to rephrase that, someone broke into his apartment.  Instead of taking anything they left him a gift in the form of a beautiful watch.  This is curious behavior.  It is something he could never afford.

When threats of a bomb meet his office he is told he must draw up a will.  This is laughable Thaniel doesn’t own anything – except the watch. His sister would never sell it, out of sentimentality, so he tries to pawn it.  The brokers, however, won’t take the piece of clockwork ridiculously claiming it will disappear.  Thaniel keeps it and when his office is bombed the watch chimes its alarm just in time to save his life …and make him look like a suspect.  Out of fear, anger, and no better idea, Thaniel drags himself bleeding to acclaimed watchmaker Keita Mori’s shop.

Thaniel, at the request of his boss, goes undercover.  He believes the watch and Mori are linked to the bomb.  Thaniel isn’t convinced.  The night he met Mori, this kind and unassuming man, offered him tea, a clean shirt, and a room to sleep in so he wouldn’t die trying to walk home injured.  Keita’s shop is a mystery filled with clockwork birds, watches, and a strange clockwork octopus that likes to steal ties and socks.  It appears to have a life of its own, but Mori assures that he created it as a pet.  Due to how the gears and magnets are programmed it only appears to have choice in its seemingly random actions.  Mori’s friend and pet plays a joyful and strange role in our tale.

Pulley’s comfortable and charming style of writing draws characters that feel real and carry the style of the 1900’s.  They play their roles in the politics boiling in London – including the early meetings for suffrage, the socialist movement, and the tentative international relations specific to Japan and  Brittain.  The mystery of who Keita Mori circulates through the story.  Mori has an uncanny ability to know what one will say and do.  Is it clairvoyance, trickery, or something more? Thaniel’s chance meeting with Grace, pulls her into the mystery. She studied physics at Oxford but did not receive a fellowship. That lack of fortune has her family pressuring her find a good man to take care of her.  She has a house left to her by an Aunt, but she only receives it if she is wed.  The women in her family historically are weak and unintelligent, so her own intelligence is seen as eccentricity and madness rather than ability.  The possibility to study this scientific phenomenon draws her in.

Mori’s unconventional and unexplainable way of living scares many, including Grace.  Her desire to understand the ether, the unknowable, makes her simultaneously drawn to and afraid of Mori. The man can manipulate events? These two characters, and the way they see life clash and pull Thaniel in alternate directions. Pulley’s novel boils down human actions questioning our ability to choose.   It takes predestination out of religion.  Can we control our actions, are our ideas and lives random, or are we really just ingenious clockwork? Humans may not be so very different from Katsu – the clockwork octopus.  Pulley’s placement of this story in the 1900’s is perfect, set at a time where the old ways that allow for magic and ‘the other’ fall to science and mechanical industrialization.

I listened to the narration by Thomas Judd.  He is the perfect voice to read Pulley’s work.  I am sure I would have enjoyed reading ‘The Watchmaker of Filigree Street’ but Judd’s voice captured every character.  He handled the assortment of accents with ease.  He was faultless and enhanced the experience of the book.  I would encourage people to listen to it first.  His reading made me feel like I was curling up in a blanket with a cup of tea in front of a fireplace.  Perfect for the books atmosphere which is predominantly drizzling and cold.

I loved this novel.  The end is quick – almost abrupt.  The slow thoughtful novel moves at a frantic confusing pace towards the end.  This is purposeful, and necessary, but it had me rereading/relistening to sections.  I wasn’t sure I followed Pulley’s frenetic path correctly.  This may take away from the reading enjoyment for some, but I encourage almost anyone to read it/listen to it.  If you like China Mieville and 1900’s history mixed with an ever so small amount of science fiction/fantasy this will appeal to you.  It is not as complex as Mieville and does not fit with the New Weird but it has some similarities.  Also, if you enjoyed The Golem and the Jini you will likely enjoy this.  Pulley created something special and something I will reread.  It became a friend.

I received ‘The Watchmaker of Filigree Street’ from Audible in return for an honest review.  If you would like to sample the narration click on the link below.


Icarus and the Wing Builder – Robert William Case; A mythological retelling

Icarus and the Wing Builder

I have read a few fairy tale retellings but never a mythological retelling unless you include ‘Grendel’ by John Gardner. This is the story of Daedalus and Icarus – but not the one you know. Daedalus worked hard to spread his mischievous story to trick King Minos. Intrigued? I was. If you enjoy mythology, literary fiction, and even fairy tale retellings you will enjoy this.

It is the story of Daedalus an inventor and builder for kings.  The story begins in Athens but due to the unfortunate death of one of his workers, and Daedalus not managing the situation, he has to leave his home.  No one will hire him, he gets beaten in the street, and even his relationship to King Aegus can’t help him.  As a result, he sets off for Krete.  Earthquakes ravaged Knossos.  The once great city that boasted the finest architecture is still falling apart.  King Minos needs Daedalus, but the path to Krete is dangerous and Daedalus  must enlist the help of a young street urchin, Icarus, to help him reach it.   Without him he is afraid of being targeted and robbed.  Things don’t go to plan, of course, but  it sets up the relationship between Daedalus and Icarus for which most of the book is dedicated to .  Navigating life is different for Icarus and Daedalus but both are learning what it means to be a man of worth.   They are at different stages in life but both must maneuver the politics of being Athenian in Knossos.  After King Minos’s son died in the Athenian Olympics a costly and punitive peace between the two Islands required Athens to provide Athenian youths as tribute to Minos every nine years to avoid war.  As the day approaches when the Athenian slaves will arrive hostilities arise for Daedalus and Icarus.  The welcome they initially were given soon appears to be entrapment.  As Minos says, “They can no more leave the island than they can fly.”

The pacing of the story is a bit slow to start but once it gets its rhythm it’s something you want to savor.  For me there are two kinds of books – ones I devour and ones I like to take my time with.  ‘Icarus and the Wing Builder’ is a book I enjoyed slowly.  It’s a short book of about 288 pages but I didn’t want to rush it.  Case’s writing is beautiful and the style fits the mythology and magic he’s created.  Chapters are short.  It allows you to digest small portions at a time, and I appreciated that.  It is set up for a sequel.  I’m unsure how I feel about that.  For me the story seemed to end appropriately.  I don’t have much interest in the continuation.  I would, however, love to see what Case could do with other myths in a similar manner.

My biggest complaint with this book is shallow.  It is the cover.  Let’s be honest, a lot of us do judge a book by its cover. I am one of those people and this isn’t one I would have picked up off the shelf.  The painting doesn’t draw me in.  With all the statues of Icarus and Daedalus out there I would have gone with  a photograph of one of those, the many urns, or frescoes.  It would match the high quality of literature in the book better.  I think it would do a lot to draw people to this book rather than allowing it to be a hidden gem.  – What I’m telling you is if you are like me, and the cover isn’t wowing you, ignore it and read the book.

I received this book from the author in return for an honest review.

*I’ve had a few people ask where they could find this.  I did not pick this up from the library but you can get it through Amazon for $3.99 as an e-book and a bit more in paperback.*


Written in My Own Heart’s Blood – Diana Gabaldon

Written in My Own Heart's Blood (Outlander, #8)

‘Written in My Own Heart’s Blood’ is Gabaldon’s eighth installment to the Outlander series and is set during the American Revolution.  It is best categorized as  historical fiction.  My parents both read it.  My dad, the professor, who has taught history enjoys them.  He does not read romance. I say this because I think people get overly focused on the romantic bits of her books.   People who don’t read romance end up missing out on some pretty amazing historical writing. We get to learn all about George Washington’s wooden teeth, having wounds packed with French Blue Cheese and putting honey in eye wounds to stop infection, utilizing marijuana for asthma, and making ether out of vitriol.  I would love to have a human guinea pig to try these remedies on, but I will not be it.  Should I get shot please take me to a hospital.  I don’t want anybody stuffing french cheese into any bullet wound I might receive. You will not feel that you are reading a textbook.  This would be banned – those romantic bits I spoke about are graphic.

I’m only giving basics about the story because if you are a Gabaldon fan you really don’t care – you have already decided to read it.  I don’t want to create spoilers for those considering picking up this long, but in my opinion, fulfilling series.

Gabaldon ended ‘Echo in the Bone’ with a cliffhanger and left us on tenterhooks for years.  ‘Written in My Own Heart’s Blood’  starts right where she left off.  Jamie had just shown up on Lord John Grey’s doorstep after he was supposed to be dead.  I read the first chapter of this book when it was first published and stopped.  I didn’t trust my memory of the series events.  I started over with the series but got to ‘Drums of Autumn’ and stopped.  It was just to large of an undertaking, and while I had no fear that she would publish another book before I finished, I became impatient.

Gabaldon takes us on new historical and scientific adventures.  In her afterword she discusses her inclusion of prominent historical figures.  Her key to historical fiction is to have those goliaths not be the center of the story.  Keeping them on the fringes allows history to remain accurate with little novelistic license. Through her books, Jaime and Claire find themselves in Bonnie Prince Charlie’s and Louis the IX’s company.  In this story it is Benedict Arnold, George Washington, Henry Clinton, Baron Von Steuben and the Marquis de Lafayette they meet.  The key battle for this book is at Monmouth – 1778.  It was Washington’s first opportunity to see how the rebel army could perform large-scale.  It was such a bloody and confusing event no one knew who actually won.  It was important historically not because the rebels won but because they didn’t lose.  It showed the people, specifically the English, that the rebels were a worthy enemy.  Gabaldon has the Fraser family fighting on both sides of war and puts them through the same complications families at that time suffered. The beauty of her writing is her ability to bring life to these events in all their messy glory.  There is none of the mythological elementary school nonsense children are raised with.  We get George Washington’s wooden teeth instead of the “I never told a lie” fable.  I’m perfectly happy with this trade since he was extremely instrumental in starting the revolutionary counterintelligence program.

What is this book about intrinsically?  Life doesn’t end at thirty.  We are still following the adventures of Claire and Jaime who are well into their fifties –  greying and scarred.  Oh, we also follow the young ones in the family.  The love and turmoil of nephew Scottish-Mohawk Ian Murray keeps us in impetuous danger and adventures.  Claire’s story is also juxtaposed against Brianna’s in Scottland during the 1980’s trying to find her son Jem, and Roger’s story in Scottland about 15 years before Claire’s original trip in Outlander.  Gabaldon expolores interesting questions about what would happen if Roger altered key events.  Would his son he is looking for be born, furthermore, would his wife Brianna be born?  Would Claire and Jaime meet? Gabaldon focuses on perspective change reflected in the prologue,”…old women see, young women are…”  I couldn’t help but smile.  It is nice to see older characters that remain just as adventurous and passionate as when they were young.  I’m very interested to see how Starz will tackle the age change that comes with the third book let alone this one.  It doesn’t match Hollywood’s portrayal regarding mature sexual relationships.

Sex is a controversial topic in the series.  Her sex scenes have always been graphic but that isn’t what causes concern. Consternation stems from the type of sex depicted. Concerns have been raised about the reality regarding every characters very enthusiastic sex drive.  Gabaldon addresses sex from a fictional and erotic perspective.  I will say I can’t remember a moment when anyone wasn’t in the mood except in instances of violent and traumatic rape.  This book doesn’t delve as deeply into these issues as in her other books, but the aftermath of rape is discussed for both the victim and spouse.  Gabaldon also addresses sex in historically accurate scenarios.  The role of women in relation to men is very different during the 18th century than it is now – for that matter Claire’s role in the 1940’s is very different from now.  How characters deal with rape, sex, and gender roles seems wrong.  It is not how I would want a person to have to deal with it but her characters aren’t contemporary.  The question becomes is she writing erotic fiction, a bodice ripper so to say, or is she writing sex from a historical accurate perspective.  Are your pirates having voluntary sex with virginal women?  Does the pirate fall in love and is he gentle and caring, or are your pirates sleeping with each other and whores? Is the sex paid for and/or violent leaving every one riddled with sexually transmitted diseases?  The way authors address sex is very different between these genres.  Her choice not to limit herself leaves her open to criticism for writing fiction that depicts violent sex as erotic and tantalizing.  It confuses the message she is sending about sex and gender roles.  She does not stick to either camp.  You will have to read her books to determine how you feel about this.  She doesn’t give you a nice little fence to pick a side to stand on.  It is very grey and she will also throw everything at you including the kitchen sink.

Gabaldon created a beautiful book with ‘Written in My Own Hearts Blood.’  It tugged at my heart-strings and reminded me exactly why I keep coming back to this series.  Davina Porter’s narration is superb and enhances the experience if you enjoy the audio format.   There are parts, however, that could have been edited out.  Gabaldon creates drama I enjoy, but there were times I questioned if I was listening to a telenovella.  On the opposite side of the coin there were times she described detail of towns, medical procedures, and historical information that could be considered excessive.  I enjoy detail but there should be a reason to include it.   I can’t say every detail had a purpose.  What I will say is if you like detailed, complicated kitchen sinks Gabaldon and her Outlander series are for you.  I clearly enjoy them.


The Snow Child – Eowyn Ivey

The Snow Child

This is a beautifully written book.  Take a broken married couple who wanted nothing more in their life than to have a houseful of children and place them in Alaska during the 1920’s. Mabel and Jack moved to the wilds, away from their families, to a homestead so remote the closest town doesn’t have a doctor.   This is their chance to start over, where it is just the two of them, away from family that judged their failure to have children.  Their life in Alaska shows two shadows of people growing outside of themselves to trust each other again, befriend a new family of chosen friends, and raise a young mysterious and wild girl of the woods.  ‘The Snow Child’ is linked to the Russian fairy tale, ‘Snegurochka.’  The beauty of Ivey’s story is that her characters, or at least Mabel, is aware of the fairy tale.  What would you do if your deepest dreams came true in the likeness of a story you were told when you were a child?  Would you believe it?  The more I think about this book the more I like it.

At the beginning, Mabel and Jack are estranged.  They purposefully have chosen to not interact with other settlers.  They are protective of their sadness.  Their move was made to get away from other people and to be able to create a homestead and life that is theirs.   As they grow through the book their peace of mind and happiness comes from their closest neighbors befriending them forcefully.  Mabel’s polite cultured upbringing is no match for Esther’s loving refusal of any form of convention.  This stubbornness is what breaks Jack’s and Mabel’s defenses to be able to care, love, laugh, and learn of their own strength.  This is one piece of the book.  The second is a mysterious little girl.

One evening, in the dead of the long Alaskan winter, a young girl appears at their homestead.  They don’t see her, but there is evidence of her.  Mabel and Jack built a small and beautiful snow child during the storm.  It was an image of the child they yearned for.  They dressed it in scarf and mittens knowing that there was no person in miles to claim the items during the night.  In the morning the articles are gone.  Jack follows tracks away from the statue but can not find the items.  Both he and Mabel think they see signs of a little girl but for a long time they think it could be the tricks of winter and cabin fever playing with their minds.  Eventually, the child reveals herself to them.  The child, supposedly, is the daughter of a trapper who has died.  She refuses to live with them and will only visit them if they do not restrict her movements or force her to stay.  She takes care of herself.  No one has seen this child other than Mabel and Jack.  Their friends are kind but do not believe she exists.   Mabel remember the tale of  “the snow child” from a Russian story book her father read her and starts to believe the little girl is  ‘Snegurochka.’ It fits.  Faina, the girl, disappears during the summer.  She only sees Mabel and Jack in the winter – disappearing when the snow melts.  Mabel has her sister send her the book.  She wants to know more about the tale.  What does it mean and what happened to Faina – the girl she loves as her own daughter?  If she has enough faith will she come back with the snow?

Ivey is a skilled writer.  She evokes the solitude and wild nature of the early Alaskan frontier.  The beauty of the landscape combined with her strong complex characters alone make the book worth reading.  Add in the magical realism of the fairy tale and you get something very special.   To be clear, the magical realism is a question.  It is not clear if Faina is ‘Snegurochka.’  Much of the story is dedicated to Jack and Mabel determining if she is in fact real or a figment of their imagination brought on by the duress of the Alaskan winter.  The other question is if she is akin to a feral child or if she is something more magical in nature.  Ivey explores the definition of magic, family, strength, and trust.  This book snuck up on me.  I didn’t expect to love it as I do.  I continue to think about it long after I finished it.  It is not action oriented.  Do not pick this up if you are in the mood for that.  It’s strength lies in being a contemplative book of ideas and character study.

If you enjoy audible books Debra Monk does a beautiful narration.  I highly recommend it.  Her performance added to the enjoyment of the experience.  This book is one I prefer to listen to than read.

 

 


The Red Magician – Lisa Goldstein

The Red Magician

This tale is set in a small European town. It is so small it doesn’t concern itself with the affairs of the outside world and the outside world is not concerned with it.   This Jewish settlement is led by its Rabbi, and while he is integral to the tale, the story is about and told through the eyes of a young girl named Kisci.   I call it a tale because the story is interwoven with folklore and myth.  Jewish mysticism is held in juxtaposition to the Nazi threat of World War II.  It is similar to Catherynne Valente’s ‘Deathless’ in this sense, but is centered on a Jewish village rather than Russian folklore in Leningrad.  If you enjoyed ‘Deathless,’ in concept not style, I believe you will enjoy this book as well.

When Kisci is young a stranger visits Kisci’s town.  He tells the people to call him Voros.  With his coming he sets in motion great change for the townspeople.  He is a magician, and in return for the kindness of Kisci’s father giving him shelter, he lifts a curse the Rabbi set on her father.   The Rabbi set a curse on any parent who chose to continue sending their children to the school after they started teaching Hebrew.  This kindness, while wonderful, pits the Rabbi against him to the detriment of everyone. Voros has a vision of a man with no teeth bringing death to the town’s people. When he warns them of the threat the Rabbi dismisses Voros and throws him out-of-town.  Kisci is heartbroken.  He does visit her in the future, however, and each time he tries to warn the village of the danger only to be dismissed and ignored .  Unfortunately, evil does come and how Voros, Kisci and the Rabbi adapt is the heart of this book.

Goldstein’s writing style has the feeling of reading a folktale.  I enjoyed ‘The Red Magician.’  I gained an attachment to Kisci, Voros, and in the end even the Rabbi.  Her characters are what drives her story.  There is very little action in the beginning, however, it significantly picks up towards the end of the book.  I did not want to put it down.  My heart broke for Kisci.  Goldstein is able to evoke emotion outside of just anger and love.  She was able to evoke and maintain a feeling of detachment that is not so easily understood or expressed.  She handled difficult subject matter with care from a believable and respectful manner.

The magical realism is handled well if not in such a lavish style as Valente.  It feels appropriately understated even though she adds magicians and golem.  The magic contrasts with the harsh real violence in the tale.  I encourage anyone who enjoys magical realism, Jewish folklore, or World War II fiction to pick this up.

If you enjoyed this you might enjoy:

The Golem and the Jinni – Helene Wecker

Deathless – Catherynne Valente

 


Quicksilver – Neal Stephenson

Quicksilver (The Baroque Cycle, #1)

Quicksilver is an interesting book-especially since you can be discussing two different books.  Quicksilver is the first installment of Neal Stephenson’s Baroque cycle.  It is a political and scientific monster delving into the 17th and 18th century.  The first thing you need to know is that Quicksilver:Volume One is a combination of Quicksilver:Book 1, King of the Vagabonds: Book 2, and Odalesque: Book 3. If you purchase Quicksilver Volume 1 do not purchase the Books that are available in a solitary format.  You are not getting anything new.  It is a marketing package to make the series look less intimidating.  You can purchase the books in whatever format is more appealing to your reading style.  My one comment is that if you choose to read Quicksilver: Book 1 rather than Volume 1 you may not be as impressed.  It explores of the story of Daniel Waterhouse the friend and colleague of Isaac Newton.  He is a Royal Society member in the English scientific community but ends up playing a much more political role.  The scientific details are rich.  Many have found them excessive.  I enjoyed them but the first time I read this it was as the volume and not the book and including the stories of Half-cocked Jack and Eliza helps to make Volume holistic.  I think if I had read book one initially I am not sure I would have continued.  My personal recommendation, if you enjoy large dense books, read the books in the three volumes rather than the 8 book format.

Daniel Waterhouse is a friend and colleague of Isaac Newton.  He comes from a deeply religious and puritan background.  His father was the infamous Drake and both paves a way for his career in Natural Philosophy as well as is a challenge.  Daniel and Isaac meet in Oxford and room together.  Daniel soon learns he can learn more from Isaac’s genius than what he can learn in class.  The price for this is keeping Newton fed, making sure he sleeps, and taking the brunt of his moods and temper.  Daniel is perhaps the only person that Isaac trusts and puts Daniel in the position of caretaker and social diplomat for Newton so the world can see his genius.  Nothing would be published of Newton’s if it weren’t for Daniel because Newton.  He does not produce his work for acclaim and most of his work isn’t seen by anyone else.  As a result, Waterhouse does not get to pursue his own scientific queries.  Instead he becomes steeped in politics and an integral important figure in the Royal Society.  This is what you learn in Quicksilver: Book 1.  Quicksilver: Volume 1 goes on to explore the story of Jack Shaftoe, or Half-cocked Jack.  This man is not a political giant but rather an intelligent street urchin grown into a man.  He’s not the best of men, but he is smart, crafty, and always seeking opportunity.  Jack brings the action to this tale as his story becomes entwined with Daniel’s as well as Eliza’s.  Eliza is rescued from a harem by Jack – not on purpose but their relationship is important.  She is spy, financial market genius, and rescued white sex slave.  If you stop at Book 1 you will miss so much.  Carry on because as with all Stephenson’s books it will all tie together in the end.

Stephenson, prior to this series, was known for his science fiction, specifically, Snow Crash and Diamond Age.  These are books I love.  The Baroque Cycle is purely historical and while it discusses scientific material and how it shaped 17th and 18th century society this is a historical novel.  The book provides a very different view of the scientific giants of this time frame compared to the version taught to you in school.  Personal issues and mental illness are evident. Stephenson is known for his level of detail and research.  In this series Stephenson is even more diligent than his previous works.  Later in his career Stephenson will write Mongoloid and Anathem.  I am not a fan of these particular books.  I have learned several things in being a fan of his work.  It is not all the same and if you like one of his books it is no guarantee you will like another.  You need to pick the books of his that fit in the genres you like.  I enjoy his science fiction and historical fiction.  I have no love for his joint works with other authors. Many of his fans have learned to pay attention to these factors.  Some say this series is where his work changed for them and they lost interest.  I disagree think The Baroque Cycle is intelligent and I am currently on my second read of it.  You must judge for yourself, but use some of the information I presented.  Approach the work in the format that agrees best with your reading style and don’t fall into the trap of purchasing a book you have already read if you purchased one of the volumes previously. I have layed out the process to reading this series below.

THE BAROQUE CYCLE

Volumes

1.  Quicksilver: Volume 1

2. The Confusion: Volume 2

3. The System of The World: Volume 3

OR

Books

1. Quicksilver: Book 1

2. King of the Vagabonds

3.  Odalisque

4. Bonanza

5. The Juncto

6.  Soloman’s Gold

7. Currency

8. The System of The World: Book


Blackout (All Clear#1) – Connie Willis

Blackout

Connie Willis created a beautiful piece of time travel/historical fiction with ‘Blackout.’  Depending on how you want to look at this book it is either the first book in the All Clear series or the third installment of the Oxford Time Travel series.  ‘Blackout’ includes characters from ‘The Doomsday Book’ with Colin Templar and Mr. Dunworthy.  They are not the stars of this double-decker novel but they do play very important roles.  ‘Blackout’ revolves around three historians from the future sent to observe different key events during World War II.  ‘Blackout’ is the story of what happens when their assignments end but they can’t get back home.  They either can’t get to their drops or they are damaged and won’t work.  Oxford should send a retrieval team.  ‘Blackout’ is what happens when they don’t show up.

I’ve read this and ‘All Clear’ three times.  I’ve listened to them and read them and enjoy it both ways.  What Connie Willis does extraordinarily well with these books is make the experience of the everyday person who didn’t enlist in the war accessible.  During World War II people in London were shop girls, children, and old men.  She focuses on the every day heroics of the people who lived at the time and took the famous words of Churchill to heart, ” Keep calm and carry on.”  These words that have been appropriated by a new generation were originally meant to steady a people who were sleeping in bomb shelters and waking to find their homes and places of employment bombed.  People who would never have been thought of heroes are highlighted as old clerics joining the fire brigade to keep St. Paul’s safe, the shop girls who signed up to become Ambulance drivers and WRENS, children under the age of 16 who were collecting scrap metal and lying to become ARP wardens.  Willis paints a realistic picture of rationing and living conditions during one of the coldest, wettest, and bleakest winters in England during 1940.  Our historians experience this from the perspective and benefit of privilege.  They are from the future where the living conditions and medical breakthroughs make life much easier.  They haven’t had to deal with shortage.  They are historians and they researched the conditions but research and experience are two different things.  They have the advantage of knowing that they win the war but the tables are turned when they can’t get home.  There is a fear that they have changed events.  What if they did something to alter the course of the war?  They become the contemporaries they were studying.  Their only hope is to find  other historians studying World War II.  If they can find another drop site they will have found a way home.

Willis explores the invasion of Dunkirk, experiences of the evacuated children, the fall of the service class, the Blitz, and the V1 attacks.  Her research is solid.  She did eight years of research to complete these two books.  Some have found the books to be daunting and long due to the amount of detailed historical information included.  This, however, is what makes this book special for me.    She provides great information sources, but one in particular caught my attention. She utilized the Mass Observation Diaries heavily and credits them as being invaluable.  The diaries came from observers and volunteers in London recruited by Mass Observation.  Harrison founded the organization in 1937 with Madge and Jennings to  create an ‘anthropology of ourselves’. The writers chronicled the lives of ordinary people in Britain. By luck, the study neglected to tell the volunteers writing the journals the study was ending prior to the start of World War II creating an amazing resource of first hand accounts detailing the everyday lives of Brittish citizens during the war.  Follow this link to find out more about the original Mass Observation project.  I can see why some people would have a hard time engaging in the All Clear Series. It is a commitment to read them.  Blackout is 512 pages and All Clear is 643 pages. Willis refers to them as a double-decker novel because Blackout ends abruptly and starts up immediately with All Clear.  Many have argued it should have been one book, but if two is a bit unwieldy one would have been extremely off-putting.  You will want the sequel immediately.  Plan to either download ‘All Clear’, buy the physical book when you get three fourths of the way done,  or download the fabulous narration by Katherine Kellgren immediately after finishing ‘Blackout.’

I  do not recommend this for people with a short attention span, or those who are looking for a light read.  It is hopeful, but it is also drenched in data.  If you want a light time travel piece I would encourage you to pick up Rysa Walker’s ‘Timebound’ or ‘Just One Damned Thing After Another’ by Jodi Taylor.  ‘Blackout’ is a great time travel novel and is a personal favorite.  Rarely have I seen an author be able to weave such great fiction around factual history.  Usually you get one or the other.  If you enjoy historical fiction with the added enjoyment of science fiction time travel this is perfect for you.

If you like this you may like:

–  The Doomsday Book by Connie Willis

–  Crytonomicon by Neal Stephenson


Timebound – Rysa Walker

Timebound (The Chronos Files, #1)

Time Travel, strong female lead, 1893 Chicago World’s Fair, multiple time lines – what’s not to like.  ‘Timebound’ is the first in Rysa Walker’s Chronos Series.  At this point we know there will be at least three books in the series.  The second book is scheduled to drop on October 21, 2014.  I’m ready for it now.  This is light and fun young adult fiction adults can enjoy.  Walker would have delved much deeper into the science of time travel etc. had it been for an adult audience but  ‘Timeboound’ is still solid.  In some respects it has a flavor of Connie Willis’s take on time travel, but that detracted nothing for me.  Walker also travels to The White City of the 1893 Chicago Worlds Fair.  This is an intriguing time frame for the amount of inventions, scientific discovery, rampant crime, the onslaught of a huge population influx in Chicago for a short period of time, and the notorious serial killer H. H. Holmes.  Walker takes us into this world without overwhelming amounts of historical information or exploiting the dark gritty level of crime to the level of ‘Devil in the White City.’  I enjoyed this book quite a bit.

Prudence Kate Pierce-Keller is a sixteen year old girl who goes to the private school her father works at.  She splits her time between her mom and dad’s house.  The book opens with her grandmother, Katherine, coming into town and unexpectedly wanting to meet with Kate and her mother, Barbara.  Barbara is reluctant,  she has a terrible relationship with her mother.  She only agrees to meet with her because  of Katherine’s diagnosis of cancer.  During the awkward lunch Katherine states she is leaving the house and everything to Kate.  Completely unconditionally she wants Kate and her mother, or Kate and her father, to stay with her so she can get to know her grandchild.  Since Kate is curious and it will be a cold day in hell before Barbara lives with Katherine, Kate and her father move in.

This is where things get interesting.  Her grandmother is  a trapped time traveler from the future.  Who knew? She has a medallion that glows for those with the ability of time travel.  Kate sees blue light and that capability is about to change her life.  Kate is a genetic anomaly, but the integrity of the time line depends on her.  In the future, where Katherine met her husband Saul Rand, children are scientifically altered to increase their abilities and make them suited to specific professions.  Katherine and Saul are historians who, who work for Chronos, and travel through time.  It is very strict about rules.  They protect and ensure the time line is unaltered.  Saul has different ideas, however.  He builds the Cyrist Religion while he is on assignment to purposefully change history.  Aided by his knowledge of the future he amasses power and uses it and the church to control history.  On the day Katherine got stranded in 1969 along with the other historians Saul set off a bomb that made it impossible for them to return to their time.

Saul, however, has not been lazy.  He figured out that while he can not time travel descendants of time travelers can.  He used the Cyrist religion to adapt and alter the timeline.  Kate is the only weapon Katherine has to counteract the damage he is creating.  The story brings us to the center of the 1893 Chicago Worlds Fair.  Kate is on a mission to save her family and history.

This was a delightfully fun book.  It’s just complicated enough, and just accurate enough that I could suspend disbelief and enjoy Walker’s first installment of the Chronos Series.  I said that I believe both young adults and adults can enjoy this.  Does it fall into YA traps?  The romance could be considered a love triangle, but, maybe not.  Can you really have a love triangle when the two male pieces of this puzzle only exist in different time lines?  It’s a bit more complicated than a simple yes or no.  You don’t have two petulant boys pushing a girl to choose to love them and only them.  So, I would say no, and Walker succeeded with the minor romantic element.

What I read is dependent on my moods.  Sometimes I want something that will really challenge me.  That is when I turn to the epics and Umberto Eco.  Sometimes I want something dark and gritty.  That is when I go for mysteries and crime thrillers.  Sometimes I want something lighter that is pure entertainment.  This is when I usually reach for YA, maybe a Nora Roberts book, or light Urban fantasy.  This book falls in this category but I have to give Walker credit and say this is on the higher level of YA.  It’s not just filler or candy.  Now, we get to wait for book two…sigh…


Deathless – Catherynne M. Valente

Deathless

This is a beautiful book combining the magic of Russian folk stories, old rule of Russian Czars, and the rise of Communism.  The story of Marya Morevna and Koschei the Deathless is told while St. Petersburg, becomes Leningrad and Russia enters World War II.  Valente shows folk tales and belief in magic to be old traditional Russia filled with Czars and Czaritza’s of life and death.  New communistic Russia is modern with no need of fairy tales.  It only needs what can be made by a comrades two hands.  Valentine’s tale is poignant, full of patterns, and the tragic inability to escape destiny.

Marya Morevna as a little girl sees what others do not.  She sees birds come to their house, transform into men, and  wed her sisters.  The world of magic opens to her and she waits for her own bird to whisk her away.  She clings to a book of Pushkin’s tales of magic.  She knows they are real, but when everyone else believes them to be silly tales, she must be careful who she talks to.  Her precious red scarf, the only thing that is truly hers and shows she is a good citizen comrade of The Young Pioneers, gets taken from her by girls in her class because she believes the old stories.  It marks her as old Russia, not modern, and not a comrade.  When Koschei comes for her she goes happily with him to Bolyan.  She is happy to leave Leningrad and the twelve families and mothers that now live in what was her family home.

Valente explores relationships and marriage.  Chairman Yaga or Baba Yaga gives Marya advise so she does not become one of the countless girls Koschei discarded.  Once Koschei is done with them, Yaga uses to build new soldiers in the war between life and death.   Yaga, who had eaten many husbands, says marriage is about power and control.  Only one can rule, and Marya has to prove her worth to marry Koschei.  Marya asks why he does not have to prove his worth, but since she is a consort and slept with him without marriage, had bargaining chips.  She must complete impossible tasks at Yaga’s request, our become soup. Their relationship is a struggle, as all marriages are a struggle.  Valente’s fairytale story is not a happily ever after, but the inevitable struggle that is life’s fight against death.

In the original tale of Koschei the Deathless there is always an Ivan that pulls Marya from Koschei and every Marya finds Koschei’s death.  She kills him so she can live her life with the Ivan.   Marya learns she has not been Koshei’s only love, and is one of many Marya’s in Koschei’s long life.  She is only one Marya, in one cycle of a story that repeats itself. Marya fights it  but it inevitably ends the same.  Fate wins, as it always does, and she meets her Ivan.  Even as she had no desire to leave Koschei, she falls in love in the moment she meets a warm blooded Ivan.  In him she sees her human life stolen from her, the children she could have had, the life with her family that was not filled with despair in the inevitable losing fight in the war with the Czar of death.  The war that has taken all her friends.

She goes with Ivan to Leningrad, she leaves one war only for it to be replaced with another.  Russia joins World War II.  A promised life of children and love is one of starvation, freezing, and death.  The depiction of life in Leningrad by Valente is an accurate portrait of the absolute despair that existed.  This beautiful book combines magic folk tales with the tragic life Russians endured during the 40’s.  The food lines, rationing, loaves of bread made with saw dust that sold for diamonds happened.  All at the same time, Valente has the Czar of Life lose the war to the Czar of death, Koschei loses his life to Marya and Ivan,  tradition and magic die, and the Russian people die.  Only death wins.

If you enjoy audible books Kim de Blecourt narrates a beautiful version.  Her character differentiation is fabulous, and she is able to handle both male and female voices well.  My one recommendation is to increase the reading speed.  This is the first book I have ever chosen to this with.  This is a minor concern and easy fix.

I make it sound terribly depressing and spirit crushing.  You would think I didn’t like it but I love it.  I will re-read it.  I appreciate the amazing book Valente created.  The juxtaposition of old world magic with communistic Russia is done so well.  I can’t see anyone who has an appreciation for history, folk lore, and Russian culture coming away unenlightened.  Yes this is a book of death, desperation, and inescapable fate, but it is also one of joy, love, appreciation for what one has.  Death comes for us all but there is freedom in that too.  I strongly recommend this book.


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