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Category Archives: Historical Fiction

Boxers/Saints by Gene Luen Yang

Boxers (Boxers & Saints)Saints (Boxers & Saints)Premise: Little Bao is a Chinese peasant tired of the Western missionaries that are infiltrating their country and corrupting it with their religion and ideals. The Westerners are also converting some of the Chinese people to their religion and gaining protection from the Chinese government. Bao creates a rebellion, energized through the visions of Chinese gods, that turns out to be incredibly successful, storming through the countryside and gaining strength as they fight for Chinese values.

At the same time, a young Chinese girl is taken in by some of the missionaries in a search for identity and acceptance. She is the fourth girl of the family but the only one to live, so instead of giving her a real name, her family names her Four-Girl, four being a Chinese homonym for death. It is with the missionaries that she finds love and a forgiveness she dreams for, including a new life with a real name: Vibiana. She faces the Chinese rebellion with an unexpected decision of faith, one inspired by a great Christian follower from the past.

In this two volume series, we see that there are multiple sides to every conflict. When stories intersect, the greatest of decisions are made, and the smallest influence can make all the difference in the world.

Themes: Religion is all over both Boxers and Saints, especially in the way each perspective comes across to the other. Bao sees the Christian missionaries and the Chinese who convert as devils by their corruption and abuse of villagers, while Vibiana converts to become a “devil”, finding the forgiveness and acceptance she was actually seeking all along. When given both perspectives, we can see that it is the individuals who are corrupt or good, not necessarily the religion itself.

With each protagonist being the hero of their own story, perspective becomes key as both Bao and Vibiana experience the conflict with their own histories. How they see people is colored by their past, and when those beliefs are really challenged they learn what true strength, bravery, and compassion are really about.

Pros: Visually, these two books are stunning, with drab browns and grays highlighting the contrasting stunning colors of the Chinese rebels in Boxers and the illuminated gold of the ghosts in Saints. These stories give some perspective on opposing viewpoints that can cause the reader to consider how they judge others. It also emphasizes the damage of war on a country and the terrible things that can be justified on any side of conflict. I liked the way the character stories intersect and come full circle as you read both books, especially mirroring each other in juxtaposition for mercy and compassion for others in the end.

Cons: Compared to Boxers, Saints is a little short. The missionaries come off as unlikeable and evil, even in their own book. The protagonist in Saints has motives that seem genuinely naive for her interest in the Christian faith, though it is hard to believe the missionaries wouldn’t have made it clearer the truths of their religion earlier on in their studies. The connection between Bao and Vibiana seemed a little too open-ended at the end of Boxers, making up for it a little by the decisions they both make in Saints. Most importantly, it’s hard to imagine reading one of these without the other. I’m not sure why these are even offered for purchase separately.

Recommendations: The Boxers & Saints duology infuses an air of fantasy into an historical account of the Boxer Rebellion as we get both perspectives of the rebels in Boxers and the Chinese Christians in Saints. While both of these volumes are interesting on their own, the most impact is made when they are put together as contrasting stories, giving the reader more to consider about worldview and religious beliefs, especially in the context of war. Boxers and Saints are insightful stories that can expand how we perceive the beliefs of others, including for someone with a strong grounding in their own beliefs. If you are going to consider a purchase, make sure you get both books, perhaps in the boxed set.

Gene Luen Yang’s website
Boxers & Saints Boxed Set on Goodreads
Buy the Boxers & Saints Boxed Set on Amazon
Download Boxers & Saints for your Kindle
I received a copy from the publisher to write this honest review.

 
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Posted by on September 10, 2013 in Graphic Novel, Historical Fiction

 

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The Resurrectionist: The Lost Work of Dr. Spencer Black by E.B. Hudspeth

The Resurrectionist: The Lost Work of Dr. Spencer BlackPremise: Dr. Spencer Black spent his childhood in the 1870s robbing graves with his father and brother. From there he attended the Academy of Medicine in Philadelphia and became an esteemed young surgeon until his strange and disturbing theories proved too strange for most scientists to accept.

Dr. Black finds ways to fund his research, from joining traveling carnivals to doing private showings of his horrifying taxidermy specimens. When his work becomes too much for his family to bear, Dr. Black becomes estranged from his brother. The specimens that he gathers from all around the world lead Dr. Black to some strange beliefs that ancient and mythical creatures may very well have existed, and his obsession is to make them live again. He is labeled a madman by most people and a miracle worker by others.

The first part of The Resurrectionist is a biography of Dr. Spencer Black with correspondences between Dr. Black and his family and colleagues included. The second part is The Codex Extinct Animalia, a collection of labeled anatomical drawings of mythical creatures with explanations of their existence.

Themes: Dr. Black’s descent into madness shows the reader the extent to which obsession can harm someone and those around them. Not only are his relationships with his colleagues and family tarnished, but some are also physically affected, some under unexplained circumstances.

There is a vein of science versus religion, science versus nature, or something of the sort in the biography. As Dr. Black delves deeper into his work, his claims against the existence of God become more vocal. His ability to create new creatures, and life itself, grow more insistent, even as other scientists decry his work.

Pros: The drawings in The Resurrectionist are splendid: the work of an artist who has obviously had practice drawing people and animals. The idea encompassed in The Resurrectionist is unique. The only thing I can think to compare the plot to is Frankenstein by Mary Shelley. Hudspeth does a good job capturing the obsession of Dr. Black in his work, especially how it negatively harms his relationships.

Cons: Aside from the drawings, there just isn’t much depth to the story in The Resurrectionist. The idea is there, but it is like a short story attached to a book of drawings. As Dr. Black pushed those around him away, I found myself siding with everyone else instead of him. Some of the anatomical claims about certain bones fitting together and evolutionary anomalies causing ancient genes to reemerge in certain cases just didn’t make sense, as splicing animal parts together through taxidermy doesn’t support claims that they once existed that way. It also wasn’t clear which creatures claimed to have existed because of natural specimens or which were created by Black.

Recommendations: The Resurrectionist is the kind of book you can pick up in the store, flip through the pages, and know if it is something you would be interested in. The Codex of drawings in the back might be enough for some people to pick it up, but the biography was just too short for my taste. The weaknesses in the text wouldn’t be enough for me to purchase a copy myself. I only wish the writing had been more fleshed out because I think E. B. Hudspeth had a good idea and the potential to execute it, but didn’t take the time to do so. More story to back up the drawings would have made The Resurrectionist much better.

E.B. Hudspeth’s website
The Resurrectionist: The Lost Work of Dr. Spencer Black
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I received a copy from the publisher to write this honest review.

 
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Posted by on April 23, 2013 in Fantasy, Historical Fiction, Horror

 

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Ganymede by Cherie Priest

Ganymede (The Clockwork Century, #4)Premise: After years of smuggling the blight gas used to make the drug sap, air pirate Andan Cly has decided to become a legitimate businessman. Unfortunately, the money paying for his first job comes from a sap dealer in Seattle. Luckily, this trip to New Orleans comes with a good amount of money, with Andan doubling up on pay by taking a job when he gets to his destination. His employer in New Orleans happens to be an ex-girlfriend and brothel madam Josephine Early.

Andan has no idea what kind of job he is getting himself into in New Orleans. He only knows that it will help cover the costs to retrofit his airship for legal shipping and it might give him a chance at closure in the relationship with Josephine that he never really got. When he arrives to pilot the ship, it turns out it isn’t an airship at all. He is to pilot a massive submersible from Lake Pontchartrain to the Gulf through enemy lines in order to use its weapons capabilities to swing the tides in the war, assuming he and his men can survive the trip.

Facing his past will be difficult with his future back in Seattle. This set of jobs might be the break he needs to make a good amount of money, get the necessary supplies for Seattle to expand, and settle down with his new flame with a new business. This is all assuming he doesn’t die in battle or by sinking the Ganymede to the bottom of the ocean.

Themes: Ganymede is a romance story between Andan Cly and the past love in Josephine Early and present and future love in Briar Wilkes. We get to see Andan and Josephine work out their problems of the past, but also get to see how those problems and resolutions might affect their future relationships.

Letting go of the past is a major theme in Ganymede not just for Andan and his relationship with Josephine, but also as Andan makes the attempt to get out of the life of piracy shipping drugs and into the legitimate business of setting up Seattle as a shipping hub.

Ganymede also attempts to bring the issue of discrimination to light through Josephine. She is a mixed race prostitute but has connections which come in handy in a New Orleans bordered by Confederate states with a penchant for racism. One of her prostitutes also has a secret that we see an issue in modern discrimination topics.

Pros: With some thoughtful character development, Ganymede gives the reader not only some great character interactions, but it also elaborates on some familiar characters from previous books in the series in Andan Cly, Briar Wilkes, Mercy Lynch, Ranger Korman, and more. Josephine Early stands out as a strong female protagonist who is not only successful in spite of her circumstances, but also who is a leader of the common people. Something Cherie Priest does well is creating multiple settings in the same novel that help define each other through contrast.

Cons: As the third full novel in the series, the plot for Ganymede was thinner than Boneshaker or Dreadnought. Especially at the main climax of the entire story, things felt like they just fell into place and nothing was really going to go wrong. Perhaps it was a failure to create tension, but I got the sense that no one was really in danger. In fact, it almost felt like the last few chapters were just lopped off the end. The primary climax seemed more like a minor one, leaving me with a desire for the stakes to be raised but left hanging.

Recommendations: My recommendation for Ganymede is that you at least read Boneshaker first, if not Boneshaker and Dreadnought. Ganymede creates some depth to characters from those previous novels, but that background will probably be helpful. The character development is very well executed for the main characters, even compared to the previous books, which is good because this book is more of a romance than the more action-packed predecessors. While thin on plot compared to its predecessors, Ganymede narrows the focus on a couple of the characters in the Clockwork Century series while bringing back some familiar faces in the periphery.

Cherie Priest’s website
Ganymede on Goodreads
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Posted by on March 3, 2013 in Fantasy, Historical Fiction, Science Fiction

 

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Jane by Robin Maxwell

JanePremise: In this retelling of the Tarzan story, Jane Porter is a scientist who sets forth with her father on an African expedition that is led by adventurer and entrepreneur Ral Conrath, wherein they are on a mission to find the missing link. When they arrive in Africa, they encounter a hostile environment, from the natives to the flora and fauna to natural events out of their control. Jane soon learns Ral Conrath’s true character and finds herself in a confrontation with the wildlife which leaves her injured.

As she tells her story to writer Edgar Rice Burroughs, Jane explains the details of her time being nursed back to health by Tarzan, her discovery of who Tarzan is and how he got to Africa, and her encounters with the Mangani, the very missing link she has been searching for and the creatures who raised Tarzan after the death of his family. Through this, Jane learns his ways and the ways of the Mangani and develops a love and a trust for Tarzan.

But the jungle is dangerous, especially for Tarzan and Jane, with the brutish Mangani leader Kerchak ready to kill Tarzan if he reappears in their midst and Ral Conrath willing to do whatever it takes to gain the gold of the natives, with unknown secrets of their own. Even more frightening is what to do with Tarzan now that his roots are known. And with Jane growing to love Tarzan, what will she do with herself?

Themes: A major theme in Jane is romance. When she meets Tarzan, Jane is immediately struck by his protective behavior and his physical structure. During her time with him, Jane’s animal lusts are drawn out along with romantic emotions she rarely feels.

Jane is packed with adventure and action that is almost nonstop. When they aren’t swinging from trees or fighting animals, Jane is experiencing life from a less civilized perspective in the African wild as Tarzan teaches her the ways of the jungle.

Pros: The pacing in Jane is well-executed. There is so much action in Jane to which the romance and dialogue adds a nice contrast. The linguistic intricacies add a lot to the feel of the story and a depth that might have been lost without them. It helped having a language glossary in the back of the book. The interaction between Tarzan and Jane learning each others’ languages is gripping. If I had to pick one thing to say about Jane it would be that it is full of wonder and freshness on the part of almost every character, as if every single thing they are experiencing in this story is new. It is an inspiration to seek new experiences.

Cons: One of my complaints is the character consistency for Jane, especially in the last chapter. At the beginning she seems outspoken and uncompromising and without a sense of humor, but when we reach the final chapter she seemed like a completely different person who withholds information with a wink and a smirk from the very person she is telling her story to who she is trying to get to believe her. Her animal lusts for Tarzan seemed out of sync with her feminist ways, and giving in to Ral Conrath’s advance on the ship on the way to Africa and making excuses for him in their little encounter did not make sense at all. With that said, there is too much sex in Jane, especially Jane’s fascination with breasts. But my biggest problem with Jane is the outright anti-religion/pro-secular humanist thread through the story.

Recommendations: Jane is a creative re-imagining of the Tarzan story that comes from the perspective of Jane. We get a feminine perspective that is often lost in adventure stories. I think Jane is a great addition to the Tarzan story, adding depth to a character who sometimes fades into the background. While I thought there was too much sex and it was too anti-religion, I was still drawn into the characters and the execution of Jane. There is hinting at a sequel when we reach the end, but I felt it unnecessary since the story is complete as is. If this is the case, perhaps it is to go along with the serialized Tarzan stories of Burroughs, but I only hope Robin Maxwell will be less heavy-handed in future installments with any political or religious agenda she might have that came across in this one. It might sound like I didn’t like Jane, but overall I enjoyed it and had trouble putting it down in spite of the things I felt were the author’s views coming through in the writing.

Robin Maxwell’s website
Jane on Goodreads
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Posted by on January 18, 2013 in Fantasy, Historical Fiction, Romance

 

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The Merchant’s Daughter by Melanie Dickerson

The Merchant's DaughterPremise: Annabel Chapman comes from a wealthy family, but when her father dies and the family accumulates debt, they must work in the fields to pay off what they owe. When Annabel’s family refuses to work, she either must agree to marry Tom the Bailiff, who has offered to pay their debt for them, or work in the home of the new lord, Ranulf le Wyse, in order to repay it. Lord le Wyse has a reputation of being harsh and uncompromising, and he wears a beard to cover a scar on his face, which all adds to his fierce countenance.

Annabel proves to be a hard worker, but continually finds herself bumping into Lord le Wyse in awkward situations. Their relationship becomes complicated when they begin to develop feelings for each other, though they are conflicted with how they really feel. Lord le Wyse bears the pain of losing a child and a wife, and Annabel has dreams of becoming a nun, so romance is the last thing either of them want. Since Annabel can read and has always wanted to read the Bible for herself, she jumps at the chance to read to Lord le Wyse. It is during these nightly readings that their relationship becomes confusing, but it is also a time when they gather answers to questions they have about life.

Things come to a head when Bailiff Tom is injured when trying to take advantage of Annabel in the woods. She is quickly suspected of injuring him but refuses to reveal the truth in order to protect someone else. Ranulf le Wyse faces a revolt incited by Tom and Annabel must make the decision to save her own life by fleeing to the convent or staying to defend Ranulf’s honor. It is during this time that everyone’s true feelings come to light.

Themes: The Merchant’s Daughter is a romance, bringing together people who are initially not attracted to each other but begin to see the good in each other through adverse circumstances. Lord le Wyse initially comes off as mean and Annabel desires to become a nun, but their desires to be alone are slowly changed as they spend more time together.

This is also a story of faith and seeking truth. Annabel has never seen a Bible, let alone read one, and her dreams of becoming a nun stem from her deep-rooted desire to read the “Holy Writ” with her own eyes and thoughtfully come to conclusions based on her own reading. Ranulf has a Bible and allows her to read to him, and their reading and accompanying conversations lead them to deep discussions about faith, contrasted by the sermons of the local priest.

With the historical medieval setting of The Merchant’s Daughter, there is also a vein through the story of the separation of classes. We have lords controlling land and the peasants they oversee, kings who rule and those who judge on their behalf, and a sense of duty, both for the peasants to work for their lord and for the lords to protect and provide for those people. Questions of propriety come up, with Annabel being a servant to the lord, along with her desire to read the Bible to make her own decisions of her faith.

Pros: It is humbling how easy it is to take the printed and written word for granted, especially the availability of a Bible for people to read. It was refreshing to read a romance that didn’t focus on sex as the basis for a relationship. I was thankful that the main characters struggled with their faith and didn’t make blind assumptions. They ask valid questions that are relevant to everyone who has questions about belief in God.

Cons: The Merchant’s Daughter suffers from too much telling and not enough showing. Some additional dialogue would have helped, but I can see how this might have taken away from the tension between the characters. Annabel seemed a little too perfect as a character, being kind and beautiful and virtuous in all ways. A couple of the supporting characters felt unnecessary, especially Gilbert Carpenter, who could have probably been omitted or combined with another. The Merchant’s Daughter might be considered preachy for some, but this can be easily accepted if the reader opens the book knowing that it is Christian fiction.

Recommendations: For a clean, Christian retelling of the classic Beauty and the Beast fairy tale, The Merchant’s Daughter does a satisfactory job. There is some violence and attempted rape, but it is not in any way graphic. The romance is palatable, though I am certain I am not really the intended audience. This would probably be more entertaining for a female teen than an adult male. Give this a chance if you are looking for historical fiction with a good message or if you simply like fairy tales and are looking for a different take on a classic.

Melanie Dickerson’s website
The Merchant’s Daughter on Goodreads
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Posted by on September 12, 2012 in Fiction, Historical Fiction, Romance

 

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By the Blood of Heroes by Joseph Nassise

By the Blood of Heroes (The Great Undead War, #1)Premise: In the midst of World War I, Major Jack Freeman gets in a dogfight with Baron Manfred von Richthofen. When he is shot down by the Red Baron, veteran Captain Michael Burke is the logical choice to go in to rescue him. Burke must gather several trusted men to make the suicide mission because not only is Jack his half brother, but he is also the son of the president.

To make things worse, the Germans have produced a corpse gas that turns the dead into zombies, raising enemy and ally to fight again and unleashing an almost unlimited supply of new soldiers into the fray. On top of this, it also seems that they have modified the gas to work on the living as well, raising Richthofen from the dead but also giving him enhanced abilities and strength.

Burke must find a way to sneak into the German prison camp to rescue Freeman before they learn his political secret, but also before they have a chance to experiment on him and release their new and improved corpse gas upon the world using tunneling machines and airships to turn the tide. Will Burke be successful, or will it be too late for the Allies and the world?

Themes: By the Blood of Heroes is almost primarily a war story. It could survive on its own without the zombie and steampunk elements, though these things create a mystique and incorporate current trends with the military aspects of the book.

In a way, By the Blood of Heroes is a heist novel in the way that Burke and his men plan their infiltration of the German camp to accomplish the goal of rescuing Freeman. Among other things, in their discovery of the corpse gas production facilities their plans change and they are forced to improvise as they go.

Pros: While I can’t vouch completely for the accuracy of all the weaponry, the historical military lingo is evidence that Joseph Nassise did his homework for this book. The blending of steampunk and zombies in the historical military setting is accomplished masterfully, creating a zombie novel far better than others I have read, but quite unique comparatively.

Cons: Knowing what I know about zombies, it is hard to believe that they have the potential to have heightened senses and abilities while at the same time constantly decomposing. I also wasn’t a fan of the cover. Despite its unique setting, seeing the Red Baron with a decomposing face seemed cliche for the zombie genre.

Recommendations: On seeing the cover for By the Blood of Heroes and reading the blurb, I was wary of it being too cheesy. I was thankfully proven wrong that this turned out to be a historical war story that played the zombie and steampunk cards judiciously. I put this up there in the same vein as Boneshaker and Dreadnought by Cherie Priest in the realm of successful cross-genre fiction, blending historical fiction, zombies, and steampunk all in one tasty story. I am very much looking forward to Book 2.

Joseph Nassise’s website
By the Blood of Heroes on Goodreads
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Posted by on June 5, 2012 in Fantasy, Historical Fiction, Science Fiction

 

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Hide Me Among the Graves by Tim Powers

Hide Me Among the Graves: A NovelPremise: When Christina Rossetti smears her blood on the little statue belonging to her father, she unknowingly releases a curse upon her family: the vampiric spirit of her late uncle John Polidori, physician to poet Lord Byron. Not only does Polidori’s spirit inspire great poetry and painting to Christina and her brother Gabriel, it threatens their other family members and resurrects Gabriel’s dead wife as a vampire as well. They agree that their uncle must be stopped at all costs.

The Rossettis are not the only ones threatened by Polidori. Adelaide McKee is a reformed prostitute who had a tryst with the veterinarian John Crawford seven years earlier, producing a child who had been previously presumed dead. When she discovers that the girl is alive and in danger of being claimed by Polidori, she strikes out with Crawford to find the Rossetti family for their help to save her daughter and to stop Polidori.

Racing across Victorian London streets, riding on carriages, and climbing through dark and mysterious sewers, they all discover there are strange supernatural unseen things in their midst, and the very foundation of London is at risk. With the help of Edward Trelawney, friend of Shelley and Byron, they must track down vampires, speak with ghosts, and discover the way to stop the destruction of their loved ones and of London before it is too late. Some are willing to give up the muse in exchange for stopping Polidori, but there are others who are willing to embrace him and all that entails.

Themes: One of the great themes in Hide Me Among the Graves is sacrifice. Several of the characters are faced with sacrificing their poetry, painting, and other writings in exchange for stopping Polidori. Not every character is willing to do so, and the cost of themselves and of others. It is interesting that the sacrifice can be seen as going either way, as a sacrifice of soul and life in exchange for the muse and eternity, or vice versa.

Hide Me Among the Graves is also a redemption story, with Adelaide McKee making up for her past sins by her relentless pursuit of Polidori and her daughter, Johanna, and with Christina attempting to redeem her mistake of releasing Polidori to begin with. Crawford seeks redemption for his mistakes by following wherever McKee leads him. We even find Trelawney faced with opportunities for redemption after an entirely unrepentant lifetime.

The love story between Crawford and McKee comes into full view when they discover their daughter from their tryst years before is still alive. The steps they take to save her lead them to face their feelings for each other years after their one night stand.

Pros: Hide Me Among the Graves has exquisite characters full of depth and faults, with opportunities for failure and for redemption. The setting plays such a huge part in the story and is so well established that, even though I have never been to London, I felt like I was riding in the cabs and crawling underground right along with the characters. The supernatural elements are so full of intrigue that I felt transported to another world within a world, and was especially fearful for the characters when Polidori and the other vampires revealed themselves.

Cons: The story is thick with information and characters. I was a little confused at the beginning, not knowing anything about the book, as to what was happening and who these people are. Some assumptions are made that you will simply buy into some supernatural or magical elements without explaining why or how they work before you even know what kind of a book this is. As it progresses, however, and you learn more, they begin to make sense at least in the context of this story.

Recommendations: Using real historical figures and giving them unique personalities, this is historical fantasy at its best. Reading Hide Me Among the Graves made me feel the same way I felt after reading Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell for the first time. Powers places you right amongst the characters and makes you feel and fear as they do, especially when facing the supernatural and as they make new discoveries of the unknown. Pushing past Bram Stoker’s Dracula, this is my new favorite vampire novel.

Tim Powers’ website
Hide Me Among the Graves on Goodreads
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Posted by on April 15, 2012 in Fantasy, Historical Fiction

 

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