the Little Red Reviewer

Posts Tagged ‘historical fiction

neat! My review of Pete Rawlik’s Reanimators posted over at SFSignal. If you’re up on your Lovecraftian canon, this is the book for you. Me, on the other hand, prefers what other authors have done with Lovecraftian mythos, rather than within in (Charles Stross, I am looking at you).

Here’s a teaser:

Odd things are afoot in the sleepy new England town of Arkham. Strange creatures stalk the night, and even stranger research is happening at and around Miskatonic University. Dr. Stuart Hartwell is determined to get his revenge on Dr. Herbert West, the twisted man whose reanimation experiments were responsible for the deaths of Hartwell’s parents. Fans of H.P. Lovecraft (and certain fans of some early 80s cheesy horror flicks) may recognize the title of the book and the name Herbert West.

Pete Rawlik’s Reanimators is certainly not a retelling of the original story “Herbert West – Reanimator“, but more a revisiting. When they first meet, Stuart Hartwell is a colleague of West’s, and suspects the strange medical student is up to no good. He spies on West and his friend Daniel Cain, sabotages their experiments and steals their research. Hartwell is determined to develop a safer reagent, one that won’t turn the resurrected people into violent zombies. After receiving his medical degree, Hartwell runs his physicians practice out of the first floor of his home, and it becomes more and more difficult to keep his co-workers from finding the basement laboratory that is nearly overrun with lab rats.

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Sky Coyote (The Company series,  book 2) by Kage Baker

published in 1999

where I got it: purchased used

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What’s your favorite beer or cocktail?  What’s your favorite drink at Starbucks or coffee shop of your choice?  How many drinks did you have to go through to find the perfect combination of hops and malt, or soy milk or foam or espresso shots? What I’m getting at here is that feeling of when you’ve got something just right, that this coffee has exactly the right amount of cream and is exactly at the right temperature, that feeling of “if only every drink could be this perfect”. That feeling of finally finding out what you like and the perfect combination of ingredients? I found it in a book. A book with perfect combination of sly dialog and sarcasm, great characters, sex jokes, painful introspection, and a feeling of running, running from the truth.  I was the crazy girl whispering to herself over breakfast because I was reading large portions of this book out loud to myself.

And since a book review that consists simply of metaphors that makes sense only to me followed by “this book was incredible, amazing, everything I wanted it to be and more” is useful only to me, I’ll get to the more comprehensible portions of the review, just for you.

Sky Coyote is the second book in Kage Baker’s Company series, and it’s told from the point of view of Joseph, who we met in In the Garden of Iden.  It’s been about a hundred and fifty years since Joseph last saw Mendoza, and she’s still mad at him. When you’re an immortal cyborg you’ve got all the time in the world to stay angry and hold grudges. They’re going to be working together again, and they meet up at the decadent  Mayan Lost City also known as New World One, where Mendoza has been researching New world grains and where Joseph is preparing to become a god.

Well, imitate a god at least.

It’s 1699, and the white man will be making permanent inroads into the New World any day now.  The native tribes of the west coast of the Americas don’t know the disease and horrors that are on their horizon. Usually company operatives are tasked with acquiring objects, technologies, or even plant samples that will be valuable in the future.  This time Joseph has been tasked with acquiring and entire native village. Armed with research of their beliefs and multiple prosthetics, Joseph is about to convince an entire village of Chumash that he’s their trickster god, Sky Coyote.   Joseph has a tough time at first, of course they tell stories about their gods all the time, but they have no idea how to respond with a god shows up on their doorstep.

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Bitter Seeds by Ian Tregillis

published in 2010

where I got it: purchased new

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I’ve been avoiding this book for a while now. Alternate history is always fun, but I tend to shy away from War stories. When this book was chosen for my local book club, there was no getting around it.

The first few chapters were a little rough going for me, more because the time and place jumps around with little context than that I wasn’t sure I wanted to be reading this. A british boy is caught ripping plants out of a garden, another British child is hidden from his terrifying grandfather, and elsewhere two dark complected siblings survive a harrowing journey to an orphanage in Germany. Time jumps forward nineteen years, it’s 1939, and suddenly I wished I’d paid more attention in history class.

The young boy in the garden is Raybould Marsh. Mentored and then sponsored by John Stephenson, Marsh grows up to become a spy for Her Majesty. Sent to Spain in 1939 to meet an informant,  Marsh gets the clue that something strange is going on when the man bursts into flames, taking most of his evidence with him. The evidence that Stephenson’s team is able to reconstruct makes no sense, and to investigate it, project Milkweed is born.

The siblings are Klaus and Gretel, and the orphanage later becomes Reichsbehörde für die Erweiterung Germanischen Potenzials , the Authority for the Advancement of German Potential. For the glory of the Reich, Dr. von Westarp has spent twenty years trying to create supermen. The subject’s willpower, or willenskrafte, is augmented by battery power, allowing the person to fly, or set something on fire, or read minds, or disappear, or who yet knows what else. Klaus’s talent lies in dematerializing into an ethereal ghost capable of moving through walls and people, and Gretel’s talent lies in seeing the future. The surgical procedures are experimental and dangerous, and nobody talks about the rows and rows of child sized graves.

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garden of IDenIn the Garden of Iden, by Kage Baker

published in 1997

where I got it: library

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I’d read Kage Baker’s The Anvil of the World a while ago and loved it, but where to begin with the rest of her works? Why not start at the beginning, with her first novel, In the Garden of Iden?  Her first “Company” series book, In the Garden of Iden is told in a diary style by Mendoza, a young company operative who is reminiscing about her youth and her first mission.

Saved as a young girl from the Spanish Inquisition, Mendoza is recruited into The Company, a 24th century organization of time travel and artifact hunting. Instead of sending people or cyborgs back in time to collect specimens or change history, they send a few people back with all the technology, recruit “natives”, and offer them immortality and cyborg implants in exchange for being a Company operative.  It sounds gruesome, but Mendoza happily takes this over starving to death in an Inquisition prison. As a native, Mendoza knows the languages and the customs like the back of her hand.

Yes, this is a futuristic scifi  book that takes place one hundred percent in the 16th century. That’s pretty damn awesome when you think about it.   Remember Joss Whedon’s show Dollhouse?  Garden of Iden had a bit of that feel, with operatives being trained to act and roleplay and dress and walk in a certain way, except no hypnotizing or brain scans. All the operatives remember everything that happens to them with perfect clarity. And some of them have been working for The Company for centuries. All of a sudden that sounds awesome, and, uh, really creepy.

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The Anubis Gates, by Tim Powers

published in 1983

where I got it: that one bookshelf where my favorite books are.

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The short version of this review is that The Anubis Gates by Tim Powers is utterly brilliant and amazing.   Aren’t sure if time travel books are your thing? Doesn’t matter, this book transcends. Aren’t sure if Tim Powers is for you? He transcends all as well, and you can learn more about him in my Why You Should be Reading Tim Powers article.

here’s the long version:

Brendan Doyle lives a remarkably boring life. An expert in the lives of the romantic poets, Doyle tracks down obscure manuscripts and gets papers published in even more obscure literary magazines.  When he flies to London to meet with wealthy yet eccentric J. Cochran Darrow, Doyle’s in it for the money. this crazy old guy wants to pay Doyle a million dollars to give an hour lecture about Samuel Taylor Coleridge to a dinner party? No problem.  that money will go a long way towards Doyle’s research of an obscure poet who was in London around the same time as Coleridge, William Ashbless.

Except it’s not just any dinner party, and this isn’t just any old rich guy. J. Cochran Darrow has discovered how to jump through time. Brendan will give his lecture, answer a few questions, and then entire group, Darrow, Brendan, and the guests, will travel through time to 1810 see Coleridge himself. Everything must be timing perfectly, as these breaks in the river of time are sometimes only open for a few hours.

The only predictable scene happens when the time travel jump is successful, everything is going swimmingly, and suddenly Doyle gets separated from the group and is left behind in 1810.  Abandoned, yet hopeful, Doyle has a plan. He knows the exact time and date that Ashbless wrote a famous poem at a tavern in London. If Doyle can survive for a week, he can approach Ashbless and hopefully work with the man. Should Doyle ever get back to modern day London, he’d be able to write the ultimate Ashbless biography.

But Darrow isn’t the only person jumping through time. A few someone elses, many hundreds of years ago, used arcane magic to open these gates in time.  These ancient magicians have forsaken their connection with the earth, and wear heels, platform clogs, and even spring heeled shoes to keep their flesh as far from the Earth as possible.  Even J. Cochran Darrow has his own ulterior motives.

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Anno Dracula, by Kim Newman

published in 1992, reprinted by Titan Books in 2011

where I got it: purchased new

(and don’t you just adore that  cover art?)

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If you’ve never read Bram Stoker’s Dracula, I’m going to spoil the ending for you – the good guys win. Dracula and his brides are destroyed by the silvered weapons and quick thinking of Van Helsing and his friends. (If you’ve never read Dracula, you really should. I don’t do so well with the classics, and even I found it highly engaging.)

But what if that wasn’t how the story ended? What if Dracula won? What he traveled to England to be “among the teeming masses”,  married Queen Victoria, and set London up as a safe haven for vampires? What if being reborn as the undead became acceptable, even fashionable? This is the premise of Kim Newman’s Anno Dracula, and a brilliant premise it is. The story has many of the trappings of Victorian literature, but with a number of deliciously dark twists. This was a book I absolutely couldn’t put down, Newman had me on page two. The premise was fascinating, the plot was engaging, and I adored the characters.

Under Dracula, who now styles himself the Prince Consort and Lord Protector, more and more businesses and society in London run from dusk to dawn, with socialites hosting “after-darks”, banks and merchants only being open at night, and a massive upswing in the sales of luxury coffins.  For many, receiving the dark kiss allowed them to rise even higher in society, but for others, the opposite has been true. Those of the lower classes still starve and prostitute themselves, drunks still beg for money (but to buy pig blood, not booze).

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The Mongoliad, by Neal Stephenson, Greg Bear, Mark Teppo, Erik Bear, Cooper Moo, E.D. deBirmingham and Joseph Brassey

published in April 2012 by 47North

where I got it: purchased new

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I’ll buy just about anything with Neal Stephenson’s name on it. Environmental thriller, or multi thousand page epic, if he writes I want to read it, and so far I’ve always been rewarded (even when that reward comes after me wanting to bash my head against the wall). So when I heard about The Mongoliad a while ago, a group project between Neal Stephenson, Greg Bear, and a handful of other talented authors, to say I was excited was a vast understatement. And when I brought that beautiful softly bound grey book home from the bookstore a few weeks ago? Why yes, yes there was singing and dancing. Red was a happy girl indeed.

It’s 1241 and the Crusaders still have a lot of work ahead of them.  C’nan, a scout and Binder of eastern descent, has been sent to assist a secretive order of Knights who are making their way east across northern Europe. In what will become Poland, Onghwe Khan is waiting for more supplies and troops and sets up a fighting circus in the meantime. Christians who participate in the fighting circus have the opportunity to win the freedom of all of Christendom. C’nan and the Knights come across the fighting circus and hatch a plot to rid themselves of the Mongol threat once and for all. I was most interested to learn more about C’nan’s binding skills, as it is implied early on that this is very important in the grand scheme of things.

It’s 1241 and Khagan Ogedei, son of Ghengis Khan, is slowly drinking himself to death. His brothers and sons are swarming across Asia and Europe, and Ogedei sits, trapped in a palace, besieged by courtiers and ambassadors, when all he wants out of life is the sky above him and a horse beneath him. One of those ambassadors, Gansukh, has been sent by Ogedei’s brother to help the Khagan get his drinking and his life under control. With the help of a beautiful tutor, Gansukh must learn that palace life is even more dangerous than the life of a soldier,  and that Ogedei’s problems are larger than his drinking vessel. Along with Ogedei’s flashbacks of his father, this was the more interesting plotline for me.  In fact, even in the other plot line, the Mongol characters were far more interesting than the Europeans.

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Heart of Iron by Ekaterina Sedia

Published in 2011

where I got it: library

why I read it: have heard very good things about the author

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In an alternate 1850’s Russia, Alexandra Trubetskaya takes too much after her unorthodox Aunt. Aunt Eugenia may have the ear of the Emperor, but she is a brash spinster, too clever by half, and sees marriage as a waste of a good woman. Torn between tradition and opportunities that are suddenly available to women (such as attending University), Alexandra plans to have it all: an education, possibly a career, and marriage if she meets the right man.

On the train to the University, she meets a young Chinese man, Chiang Tse, who is part of an Asian contingent of students also invited to study at the University. The plan of course, is for the women and foreigners to fail miserably, thus allowing the university to ban their attendance in the future.  Along side the verbal abuse from other students and instructors, the women get top grades. Chiang Tse and his compatriots however, are quickly arrested for petty crimes, with one of them being thrown in prison and the rest deported back to China.

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The Doomsday Book by Connie Willis

Published in 1992

Where I got it: purchased used

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In the future, historians don’t just study the past, they visit it.  In 2048 the technology that allows time travel is still rather new, so calculations are double checked and triple checked. At Oxford, Kivrin has been studying for years with Dr. Dunworthy to qualify to travel back to the early 1300s.  Armed with inoculations against the plague and other diseases, a translator, and a recorder embedded in her wrist, Kivrin is as prepared as anyone could be. What could possibly go wrong?

Kivrin refers to her ‘corder as the Domesday Book, in reference to the records of life in the middle ages that were created for William the Conquerer, and she starts recording as soon as she arrives in the past.  But something has already gone wrong. If she can only get to the village in the valley, perhaps someone can help her. Maybe they know the name of the town, or of the village. But she is so cold, and so dizzy all of a sudden. . .

Meanwhile, back in merry old modern (comparatively) times England,  other people aren’t feeling well either.  As a dangerous illness spreads across Oxford, quarantines are put into place and medications start to run low.  Dr. Dunworthy needs to be sure that Kivrin arrived in the right place, and even more important, in the right when.  With a narrative that jumps back and forth between Middle Ages England and 2048, Willis keeps keeps the suspense high.

 

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The Enterprise of Death, by Jesse Bullington

published in March 2011

Where I got it: the library

why I read it:  covered in alchemical symbols, how could I not read it?

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This book was absolutely disgusting. At times gut bustingly funny, and often intriguingly mysterious, it was still pretty disgusting. Weak stomachs need not apply, especially if reading about necrophilia obsessed necromancers didn’t make your bucket list.

The geography at the beginning of the book is purposely a little fuzzy, because as a Harem slave, young Awa is quite ignorant of where she lives (Somewhere in Northern Africa is a good guess).  While she and another house slave are escorting their Mistress Omorose to her new home, bandits strike, and the threesome never makes it where they are going.  Kidnapped by undead bandits and brought to a mountaintop (possibly in Andalusia?) the three offered a choice: become the apprentices of the necromancer who lives there, or die.  Only Awa survives.

Years pass. Awa learns the arts of the necromancer. She grows up unaware of Renissance Europe, unaware of the Inquisition and the punishments exacted on witches.  It’s not long before Awa accidentally uses her newly gained knowledge to do something unspeakable to Omorose’s raised corpse, and soon after she is cursed by the Necromancer. Could her life possibly get any worse? Omorose wants to kill her, and the Necromancer’s curse states that in 10 years he will return to obliterate Awa’s soul, but in that time frame the dead can not harm her.
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About this redhead, etc.

Redhead is a snarky, non-politically correct 30-something who reviews mostly science fiction and fantasy and talks about all sorts of other fun scifi and fantasy geekery. She once wrote a haiku that included the word triskaidekaphobia.

This blog contains adult language and strong opinions. The best way to contact her outside of this blog is twitter, where she is @redhead5318 .

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some of the books reviewed here were free ARCs supplied by publishers/authors/other groups. Some of the books here I got from the library. the rest I *gasp!* actually paid for. I'll do my best to let you know what's what.