Books We Loved, Feb. 2021
Lots of good picks here, and—if you enjoy historical fiction set in a lesser-known time and place (sixteenth-century Russia), don’t miss our own C. P. Lesley’s latest novel, Song of the Sisters, which debuted just last month.
Greta Kelly, The Frozen Crown (Harper Voyager, 2021)
Princess Askia is fresh from battle, having been forced to flee her kingdom, the northern country of Seravesh, where her cousin now rules under the protection of the Emperor of Roven. All she has is one general and her elite fighting troop of Black Wolves—not enough to protect her former kingdom from men who are willing to burn entire towns to the ground to get what they want.
Askia has one hope left, and it will not depend on her skill with a sword. Her father, a healer, once helped the Emperor of Vishir, the only land capable of matching Roven in strength. If Askia can reach Vishir and convince Emperor Armaan that Roven will eventually challenge the peace and prosperity he’s created, Armaan might be drawn into the war before it’s too late to save Askia’s homeland.
But how to obtain the favorable notice of Emperor Armaan? Should she take advantage of his son’s infatuation with her? Should she try to earn the favor of his principal wife, a stern woman who seems put off by Askia? Should she accept the help of the religious zealots who champion her cause, even though they tortured her years ago, on suspicion of being a witch like her father?
In a court full of devious strangers, Askia will have to learn who to trust. But it is her own dark magic that could ultimately hold the key to her survival.
Full of twists and turns, the first installment of the Greta Kelly’s Warrior Witch Duology left me checking publication dates for the follow-up. If you like strong heroines, court intrigues, magic, and a touch of sensual sizzle, this novel is for you.—GM
Barbara McHugh, Bride of the Buddha (Monkfish, 2021)
It takes a certain chutzpah to tackle the lives of renowned religious figures of the past, even in fiction. But as has been noticed elsewhere, one of the novel’s great gifts is to give voice to the voiceless, and it’s difficult to imagine a voice more suppressed than that of Yadhosara, the legendary bride of Siddhartha, who callously abandoned her and their newborn son to pursue his spiritual quest.
Almost everything we know about the Buddha depends on legends circulated long after his death, many of them since contradicted by research. In those legends Yadhosara is no more than a footnote—the deserted spouse. But Barbara McHugh brings her to vivid, captivating life as a scrappy fighter who, long before she allowed her family to divert her into marriage, sought to pursue a spiritual quest of her own. With elements of cross-dressing and a husband-wife relationship that evolves and even morphs over the decades, this novel pulled me into the sounds and sights and scents of ancient India. By the end, I was in no hurry to leave that world behind.
For a written interview with the author, see my blog.—CPL
Julia Phillips, Disappearing Earth (Scribner UK, 2019)
Disappearing Earth takes place on the Kamchatka Peninsula in the far eastern section of Russia. Kamchatka’s climate zones include subarctic, temperate maritime, monsoon, and continental. The land is full of volcanoes, rich in flora and fauna, and surrounded by water except where it is attached to Siberia. After World War II, the Soviets declared the area a military zone, and as such it remained closed to Soviet citizens until 1989 and to foreigners until 1990. The inhabitants of the peninsula are either ethnic Russians who emigrated from the mainland or indigenous people who herd deer in the tundra.
The story begins with the kidnapping of two young sisters, but rather than follow closely on their trail, Disappearing Earth sidesteps into the exploration of the lives of various characters on the periphery of the kidnapping event, particularly women assessing their identity in modern times in the context of traditions of the past. For this reason, the book feels less like a thriller and more like interrelated stories about particular people in an especially beguiling setting. But like the landscape itself, the plight of the girls hangs over everything, and their total absence from some chapters only heightens the reader’s concern for them.
Nothing is forced or contrived or rushed in Disappearing Earth. It is a beautiful book, unfolding at its own pace and thrilling on its own terms.—JS
Kathleen Williams Renk, Vindicated: A Novel of Mary Shelley (Cuidono Press, 2020)
Mary Godwin Shelley had yet to reach her nineteenth birthday when she had the dream that gave rise to the classic Gothic horror tale Frankenstein. The daughter of a dissenting English clergyman and Britain’s first feminist, Mary Wollstonecraft, Mary Godwin lost her mother not long after her birth. After an unconventional upbringing by the standards of late eighteenth-century Europe, followed by the arrival of a very conventional and far from accommodating stepmother, at the age of fourteen Mary fell madly in love with the poet Percy Bysshe Shelley. Two years later, they eloped to Europe, leaving behind Percy’s wife and child but bringing along Mary’s stepsister, Claire.
For the next decade, the trio traveled around the continent—especially France, Switzerland, and Italy—with occasional returns to London to secure funds. Through trips over the Alps by mule, sailing expeditions on Lake Como, and wild parties thrown by Lord Byron—a misogynist who belittles Mary’s talents even as he engages in a wild affair with Claire—Mary records in her journal the events and experiences that will blossom into her first and best-known novel.
In Vindicated Kathleen Williams Renk re-creates Mary’s inner world. Her crisp, utterly compelling prose brings to life a woman whose creation, as in the novel Frankenstein itself, has taken on a life of its own, eclipsing its creator.