Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Book City: Historical London

image by Tanita Davis

A while back a group of us were kicking around a collaborative endeavor, and well, we're all pretty busy, so it turned into a celebration of cities. Any city, in any representation, anywhere in the world. An especially great companion to this post, among the many participating, is Sarah Stevenson's Alternate London, over at Finding Wonderland. Check out the entire (growing) tour over at Chasing Ray*

I don't know what it is about London. I don't tend to specifically get into much of the contemporary realistic fiction set there, but historical? I can't really get quite enough. Between Reformation and Restoration and the hell London went through during WWII, I'm fascinated. I intended to give you a list of some of my favorite titles set in historical London, but this post got hijacked - by the latent passion I discovered that I feel toward one of the books:

FitzOsbornes in Exile by Michelle Cooper
I have unbridled love for this second book of the Montmaray Journals. The enormous love I thought I felt for A Brief History of Montmaray pales in comparison for this longer, quieter, less axe-laden sequel. Our fictional royalty has moved off their island nation because of Nazi bombing, and now find themselves in London in the late 1930's as WWII is reving, fascism is creating divisions among and within the classes, and the city has no real understanding of what is in store for them just over the horizon.

Sophie, whose journal we're reading, Veronica, and the rest of the Montmaray Royalty... wait. Let me explain this first. That sounds all posh. It's not...

So, the first book, A Brief History of Montmaray, finds Sophie, her younger sister Henry and her cousin Veronica holding up the crumbling remains of their castle as her uncle the King gets progressively more insane, and her brother comes home more infrequently. They get by on selling the treasures of their formerly wealthy kingdom. They don't have much left and are the very picture of impoverished royalty. Then the Nazi's arrive. The Nazi's have their eye on their small but strategically located island nation for a couple of reasons. The impact of this results in lots of drama, some lethal axe-wielding, and some things that aren't going to be shared with the high society the group finds themselves plunged into at the start of FitzOsbornes in Exile. They've lost control of their beloved and historic nation, and they want it back. Now in the titular exile, and having fled to London and the estate of their long-expat, and very wealthy, Aunt Charlotte, the girls find themselves torn between Charlotte's expectations (they must be presented to society as proper royals of the highest order, and find very wealthy husbands) and their own concern for Montmaray. The girls, however, are far past the pretentious and uselessness of one ball after another (even if Sophie sometimes doesn't hate it), and their goal is to speak to the League of Nations and secure support for them to reclaim their island. But, royal or not, they're just a bunch of teenagers from a country no one remembers existing.

It is beautifully written and character-driven, full of fascinating historical and political details that are so perfectly woven into the plot that there is nary a single example of those pesky info-dumps so frequent in epic historical novels like this. You will learn a ton about the era without even realizing it - and it's definitely not at all the point. It perfectly captures the atmosphere of the location and time. None of it could have happened anywhere else. What you have is a quintet of characters desperately trying to grow up while being respectful to their heritage in a most tumultuous time. Oh, and due to the youngest of the clan, it's also often quite hilarious. It's not easy to prep a tomboy used to having reign of an entire island to become a debutante someday. Luckily (?) for Henry, we know that by the time she comes of age, there won't be so many balls.

The balance of fantastic, fully-developed, and lovable (no mere likable here!) characters set in a fascinating fully-realized setting, with a plot that is seemingly insurmountable for anyone, except maybe the particular talent combination of these characters, makes this a book that will always have a place in my heart alongside my rabid love for Ellen Emerson White's President's Daughter series, and Megan Whalen Turner's Attolia series. Cheesy or not, there you have it. Total fawning love.

Oh, and FitzOsbornes at War will be out on October 9, 2012. I can't tell you how happy it makes me to know that I get another one. Sadly, it looks like that's the final one, making this a trilogy, when I was hoping for a series taking us at least to 1945. Something epic like that.

Comparisons to I Capture the Castle are of course obvious, but even the most rapid fan of Dodie Smith's classic will not be disappointed with this trilogy.

As for the cover: Kelly pointed out some crazy about it some time ago, but regardless of phantom smoke (which until she said something, I'd just assumed it was light from a window I couldn't see), I think that it perfectly captures the tone of the book. Sophie right there in the thick of things, but still outside, looking in, and observing with an eye more aware than even she realizes.

Now, those other books I was planning to tell you about:

Newes From the Dead by Mary Hooper
Once upon a time I interviewed the author, and reviewed this one. It's based on a true account of a girl who failed to die when hanged, and was paralyzed, but fully aware, as the medical community of 1650 prepared to preform an autopsy. If you poke around enough, I bet you can find a digital version of the pamphlet this story was based on.

Bloody Jack by L.A. Meyer
Ok, I'll be honest here. I stopped reading this series. No, not like that. I switched to consuming these on audio. Katheryn Kellgren is THAT GOOD. She is, in my opinion, the absolute best audio narrator out there today. She rivals Jim Dale in talent. I'm not kidding. The ninth (!!) book in the series was just released in October, and while this series has covered almost every ocean and continent on earth, Bloody Jacky Faber often returns to good olde London (and Boston!). When she's not fighting pirates or the British government itself. The first book is most effective in its depiction of life a street urchin in the 1790s, and how desperate that life was.

Cat Royal Adventures by Julia Golding
Very much a Jacky Faber with a bit less sparkle, this still raucous adventure series starts with Cat being abandoned in a theater in London around 1790. There's more focus on mystery than with Jacky, at least in the first novel, and much more focus on slavery for the whole series (I've liked what I've read, but I haven't read them all).

I, Coriander by Sally Gardner
An older title with tinges of fantasy, this is set in Cromwell's England. As with any situation of tyranny, it's a frightening and precarious time where any misstep can end with deadly result. I posted about this one way back in 2006 (!). Notable mostly for the setting during the English Reformation and the fascinating (and/or horrifying) political situation, as well as the unusual combination of fantasy. I still think there should be more books set during this time period. Gardner has since come out with The Red Necklace and The Silver Blade about the French Revolution, which has been recommended with the highest enthusiasm, but I've yet to get to it. But I will.

A True and Faithful Narrative by Katherine Sturtevant
Reviewed back in 2007 (I'm really mining the archives here, aren't I?) this is set just a bit after I, Coriander, during the Restoration. Meg desperately wants to be a writer, but in the 1680's the "gentler sex" were not respectable writers. This remains a favorite four years later.

The Agency: Mary Quinn Mysteries by Y.S. Lee
I haven't yet read the second in this series, The Body at the Tower, but the interwebs reveal that the third book, The Traitor and the Tunnel was released in the UK in August. I'm hoping to see this hop the pond, because I was pleasantly surprised with the nuance of the first title, A Spy in the House. It was just a Victorian mystery, it explored every aspect of class of the time, from the upper, to the poor, to, most interestingly, the hidden Asian population of London.

Folly by Marthe Jocelyn
Speaking of Victorian... This was a tough read. One thing you have to know is that there was no tolerance of unwed pregnant servants during this era (and several after). A maid would find herself ruined if she were to be discovered to be pregnant. She would get dismissed without reference, reputation ruined. Many of that era then found themselves in squalor, and often turning to prostitution to survive. Mary Finn is lucky, comparatively, but she's still got a hard road in front of her. Side note: Holy new cover! I hadn't seen this, and I think it'll reach more readers than the original.

*and read Colleen's book The Map of My Dead Pilots!


Anonymous said...

Ooh - excellent review and awesome round-up! Thanks for this, Jackie!

Sarah Stevenson said...

I'm actually very excited that I've only read one of these (A True and Faithful Narrative, which was lovely). I've been wanting to read the Bloody Jack books for a while now, but the first one is ALWAYS out whenever I happen to be at the library and remember to look.

Somebody recently asked me if I'd read I, Coriander. (Was that you?? I can't keep my head on straight these days...)

Jackie Parker said...

It was me. I thought it worked well for both my theme and your theme for this.

Kelly Jensen said...

I've only read one of these, too. Well, I read half of two of the others. So, 2, technically.

I've been meaning to read Newes From the Dead. Perhaps after this other obligation.

Trisha said...

Love The Agency books. Candlewick is publishing the third one in February, I think. If you use NetGalley, you can try requesting it.

tanita✿davis said...

Ooh, I loved I, Coriander. Read that one over and over. The Agency series is one I really want to get to -- and somehow keep forgetting! It's on my list now. Funny - but not that odd, really - there are fewer hardcore England books in our Scottish library system. They *should* have this, but I've been repeatedly surprised by the Anglophile titles that they don't...

Great round-up. I didn't realize I'd read so many London books!

Anonymous said...

We may have talked about this, but I really love the reader in the Bloody Jack Series as well. I think I only read the second one when I couldn't get it on audio for a while. Not as fun! I haven't listened to the most recent, but will on my next road trip.

I'm interested in The Agency and your review makes me want to stop procrastinating. Even if my cue is a bit full at the moment...