the Little Red Reviewer

Archive for the ‘Historical Fiction’ Category

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









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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Memoirs of a Geisha, by Arthur Golden

published in 1997

where I got it:  it was in the free box at work

why I read it: I loved the movie, have been meaning to read it for a while.

first things first:  Geisha are not prostitutes.  they are not home-wreckers, they are not call-girls, they are not exotic dancers. If you’re having even the slightest difficulty grokking that, Memoirs of a Geisha probably isn’t the book for you. Or perhaps it’s the perfect book for you.

With her parents no longer able to support her, Chiyo and her older sister are sold to a broker of sorts, who arranges for the girls to be taken to Kyoto. Perhaps they will be maids their entire life, perhaps geisha, perhaps something else.  Chiyo finds herself at nine years old as a maid in an Okiya alongside another girl named Pumpkin.   Coming face to face with Hatsumomo, the Geisha of the  okiya, Chiyo learns fast that her life will take one of two paths: become a geisha, or be a maid for the rest of her life.

After a chance encounter with a gentleman, Chiyo experiences her first crush and decides no matter what, she will become a geisha in hopes of meeting this man again.  Taken on as an apprentice by the famous geisha Mameha, who happens to be Hatsumomo’s chief rival, Chiyo is about to discover becoming a geisha is harder than she ever imagined.  Hours of education on music, dance, and the art of conversation, and still, no garauntee of anything unless she gains a wealthy and influential danna, or patron.  Meanwhile, her crush has turned into an obsession of sorts.  But Chiyo is young and naive, and doesn’t realize that everyone in her life, from Mameha to the Mother of her okiya has their own plans for her. Read the rest of this entry »

 Scarlet (King Raven book 2) by Stephen Lawhead

Published in 2007

Where I got it: purchased a few years ago

Why I read it: enjoyed the first book in the series, Hood.

Stephen Lawhead writes only two kinds of books: very good and excellent.  Hood  was the former, Scarlet the latter.  
Scarlet is the second book in Stephen Lawhead’s King Raven trilogy, his take on the Robin Hood legend. Only this time, “Robin Hood” is Rhi Bran y Hud, also known as Bran ap Brychan, also known as King Raven, a prince of Wales who has lost his father and his land to William the Red and his cronies.   Scarlet is not a stand alone, you really must read the first book in the series, Hood (reviewed here) first.

After the slowish Hood, I was happily surprised at how fast of a read Scarlet was.  It helps that we already know most of the characters and where we are, we’ve already met Bran and Iwan and Merian and Tuck and Angharad and the rest of the downtrodden Welshmen who make their way in the forest.  Will Scarlet is the only new character, and we meet him right away, as he is languishing in prison waiting to be hung for a crime he didn’t commit.

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 Twelve, by Jasper Kent

Published in 2010

Where did I get it: Library, but plan to purchase a copy

I’ve been waiting a long time to read a book like this.  A book that puts the horror back in supernatural myths. Although it’s somewhat spoiled on the back of the book, I won’t even tell you which supernatural myth I’m talking about, just know that it’s one you are supposed to be afraid of.

To risk sounding cliche, Jasper Kent’s writing is just damn good.  Every sentence, every word moves the plot forward. There isn’t a slow moment in this book. Kent brings us to early 19th century Moscow, where the people are proud yet afraid of invasion.  Talk of republic is in the air, along with the early snows of autumn.

Don’t know anything about Russia, 1812 or Napoleon? Don’t worry,  the main character, Aleksei will walk you through everything you need to know.  My historical education is so lacking as to be embarassing, and not once did I feel lost. Twelve takes place during a war, and Aleksei and his friends are soldiers, but this is not a war book.  

As Napoleon’s Grande Armee marches towards Moscow, Dmitry offers to bring in some mercenaries to help with the effort. Aleksei, Dmitry, Maksim and their commanding officer Vadim aren’t on the front lines, per say, they are beyond the front lines.  Their mission is to cross enemy lines and cause disruptions and problems for the invaders. In modern jargon I’m sure the French would call them terrorists.

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If you’re a follower of this blog, you know I mostly review fantasy, scifi, and other weird stuff.    

Let’s do something completely different today.

Barbara Kingsolver’s books have been described as chick lit, contemporary lit, environmental, feminist, and historical fiction. I like to call them just damn good.  Of her more than a dozen novels and nonfiction, I’ve only read three, but I’ve liked everything I’ve picked up by her – Poisonwood Bible, The Bean Trees, and Animal Vegetable Miracle

and thanks to Fyrefly over at Fyrefly’s Book Blog (go visit her!), now I have a copy of The Lacuna as well.

As much as I enjoy a rip roaring crazy fantastical adventure, sometimes it’s really nice to sit back and enjoy a novel that feels like a never ending mug of hot chocolate.

If you’ve never read Kingsolver, she has two drastically different books that I can’t recommend enough:

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You know that list of books you want to read again the moment you finish them? Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose makes that list for me.

For an Eco, it’s surprisingly readable, and layered in such a way that readers of any interest level will get a lot out of it.

At its most basic level, this is a murder mystery. In Eco’s afterward, he mentions the concept of the novel was born when he played with the idea of poisoning a monk. He also mentions that he wrote the prose in a specifically open manner to encourage readers to form their own interpretation of events and conversations. Is that person being sarcastic? Is there some kind of secrecy going on? If you interpret it that way, then he is, and there is. Like so many things in life, it’s all about how you interpret it.

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Inspired by the Small Press/ Independent Books posts on Genre Reader and Fantasy Book Critic, I decided to pull my review of Albert Dalia’s Dream of the Dragon Pool out of the archives. Small Press, but readily available, this should be a must read for fans of historical fiction/fantasy or Asian legends. I think this might have been one of the first true fantasy novels I read, so reading the review again, I laugh at my naive opinions on fantasy.

* * * *

At first blush, Dream of the Dragon Pool seems a rather simple narrative following the poet Li Bo on his journey into exile after being expelled by the royal court. Stopping at an ancient dream temple, Li falls into a dangerous quest that he must complete, or face the anger of the spirits.

Li Bo was a real person, one of the most famous poets in Chinese literature. Of central Asian descent, Li Bo was often seen as an outsider. After an attempted coup, he was sent into exile to the southern reaches of the empire. Before reaching Burma, he was invited to return to the capital. Dream of the Dragon Pool is what may have happened during his travels south. Although many of the people and places in the novel have historical context, Dalia does a beautiful job of unique  world building. Where some historical background would usually be helpful, it isn’t needed to enjoy this wonderful tale.

Li is told at the dream temple that he must bring the Dragon Pool Sword to Mount Wu, to be protected by the Spirit who resides there. To accomplish this, Li and his swordsman companion Ah Wu travel down the Yangzte River and through the three gorges (also a real place, The Three Gorges is to this day a dangerous area of the Yangzte River). But they aren’t the only ones who know the Dragon Pool Sword is in transit. The sword is an object of power, can it be protected by a mere mortal?

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When I first read Chabon’s Gentlemen of the Road, I wasn’t sure what to think of it. Successfully passed off as historical fiction, my brain kept telling me I was reading a sword and sorcery fantasy, just with chemisty substituted for sorcery. The illustrations featuring the tall slender Zelikman dressed all in black with long white hair and the plot lines focusing on revenge and violence put me in the mind of an Elric story. After letting the book percolate through my brain for a week or so, I’m concluding the weaknesses in the story can mostly be blamed on my slightly off interpretation.

In Chabon’s afterward, he says the working title of the book was “Jews with Swords”, which is pretty much what this book was, and the prime reason why I had to keep reminding myself it really is loose historical fiction. Taking place in and around the Khazar empire (think modern day Azerbaijan), and for about 100 years around 1000 AD the state religion of the Empire was Judaism. And just like other empires of the day, they were constantly fighting off invaders and neighbors. Put simply, the story follows two Jewish friends, Zelikman and Amram who are soldiers for hire, scholars by choice, and con men for fun and money.
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FTC Stuff

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.