Tag Archives: historical fiction

The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet

I frequently hear from readers, and O. Ray Pardo is someone who more or less regularly emails me about the books he’s enjoyed. He’s  an avid reader and friend of the library who lives in Manchester, WA.

Here’s what he has to say about David Mitchell’s newest novel: The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet.

Guest Blog by O. Ray Pardo

Come back to the Japan at the cusp of the 18th and 19th centuries, as the author introduces us to a naive young Dutchman, Jacob de Zoet, and then peels back the onion of his storyline.  As the story winds and then rushes to conclusion we meet many different characters, with their individual points of view set in the polyhedron of prejudice, misunderstanding, and geography.  This is a story of honor, obligation, isolation, trust, treachery and love.   As Jacob discovers the complexity of Japanese culture, and the richness (and darkness) in the lives of those around him, he finds strength and confidence in his upbringing and in his ability to play the game of life. (I especially applaud the bravery of including engravings—so easy in our digital age, but so little used.)

The book is breath-taking in the beauty of its language and printing (do not wait for the paperback). 

* * *

Now (this is Nancy again) I began this book with great hopes. I loved Mitchell’s novel Cloud Atlas, but have had great difficulty in getting into the thick of  Jacob de Zoet. Reading Ray’s comments makes me eager to get back to it and try again.  It’s so clear to me that so much of what we like or don’t enjoy at any particular time is dependent on our moods.  It could have been—it probably was— that I was looking for something that was a bit faster moving.  Or at least something different than what Mitchell was giving me.

 Ray also asked me for suggestions of what to read next, and—naturally—I changed continents and centuries by suggesting the two historical series by Dorothy Dunnett.  Anyone have any other suggestions?


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Sienkiewicz Trilogy

Sometimes people email to tell me about the books they’ve been reading recently.  It’s always great fun for me to get one of these emails, both because it’s intrinsically interesting to hear about what others are reading but also because I somehow inevitably add the books to my ever-growing “to be read” list. 

Here’s a recent email from Kay Robart, who describes herself as “a technical writer who reads constantly and hosts two book clubs. I especially love good historical novels and mysteries.”

Guest Post by Kay Robart

My latest discovery is not a new book, but a trio of old ones, the trilogy written by Henryk Sienkiewicz about the history of Poland, which won him the Nobel Prize. The books are purely adventure/romance stories of the late 1800s, but historically accurate and extremely well written. Even though they are mostly about war (and I was the girl who skipped all the war in War and Peace), they are really exciting and about a period and place that most of us Americans don’t know much about.

The first book, With Fire and Sword, is about the Cossack rebellion of 1648, which ultimately resulted in the Ukraine splitting off from the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth. Yan Skshetuski is a young Polish officer in the hussars of the Ukrainian Prince Yeremi Vishnovyetski. Just after Yan becomes engaged to the lovely Helen, Prince Yeremi sends him off as an emissary to Bohdan Hmyelnitzki, the leader of the Cossack rebellion. But Yan is sent too late. When he arrives at this destination, the rebellion has already started.

Yan escapes with difficulty from the Cossacks and makes his way through the war-torn landscape, all the time worrying about Helen. But his duty is to his Prince, who because of the political landscape ends up fighting the Cossack invasion with very little help from the other Polish or Lithuanian nobles. Helen has been kidnapped by the wild Cossack Bohun, who also wants her for his wife, but Yan cannot take time to look for her. He must leave on another mission for Prince Yeremi. In the meantime, his friends, Pan Zagloba, the fat buffoon; Michal Volodyovski, the small, continually lovelorn knight and master swordsman; and Longinus Podbipyenta, the gentle Lithuanian giant, try to help Yan by rescuing Helen.

The second book, The Deluge, is about the 1655 Swedish invasion of the Commonwealth. The Cossack rebellion is still going strong and the Russians are invading from the East, so many of the Polish nobles simply hand the government over to the Swedish King, and the Polish king must flee the country. Andrei Kmita is a Lithuanian knight who has been living a wild life, rioting around the country and fighting off the Russians with a band of hooligans who do not treat their own countrymen any better than the Russians. But then he meets his fiancée, Olenka, an upright girl who lets him know he needs to mend his ways. Prince Radzivill offers him the opportunity to redeem himself, he thinks, and help save the country. But the Radzivills are misleading him. They have other things in mind than their country’s welfare, and it is awhile before Kmita figures this out. In the meantime, the Radzivills have taken Olenka hostage. How can Kmita redeem his name, try to mend his errors, fight for his country, and win back Olenka? His redemption starts with the defense of a famous monastery from the Swedish army. In the meantime, he keeps running into Yan Skshetuski, Pan Zagloba, and Michal Volodyovski, who are fighting the Swedes under a Lithuanian general. They don’t know whether he is a hero or a scoundrel, but they end up fighting beside him.

I haven’t started the third book yet, Fire in the Steppe, about another invasion by the Ottoman Empire, featuring the small knight Michal Volodyovski, but I can hardly wait to begin. The books are hefty reads (book 1—1035 pages; book 2—two volumes of about 1700 pages; book 3—500 or 600 pages), but they are worth every minute of your time. There are two major translations and some controversy about which is best. I read the one from 1991 by Kuniczak, which is very well written but much longer than the original translation by Curtin.

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Under Heaven

by Guy Gavriel Kay

Guy Gavriel Kay’s Under Heaven (Roc, 2010) is, in a word, superb.  Like many of his earlier novels (including The Lions of Al-Rassan, The Last Light of the Sun, Sailing to Sarantium, and Lord of Emperors), this is historical fiction at its absolute best. It’s gorgeously written and, though thoroughly researched, wears its scholarship lightly. Under Heaven is set during the 8th century Tang Dynasty, one of the most dynamic in China’s history (although in the novel the country is called Kitai).  Shen Tai, the son of a general who’d led the Kitai armed forces in its last, devastating war two decades before, decides that he is going to spend the requisite two years of mourning his father’s recent death by journeying to the distant battle site and burying the dead from both sides of the battle, all the while living among the still suffering ghosts of the unburied.  As a result of this seemingly simple decision to honor his father in a non-traditional way, Shen Tai’s life is forever altered in ways that couldn’t be foreseen.  Here, the turn into fantasy is barely noticeable, because it makes perfect sense in the cultural context, and is both poignant and beautifully described.  For me, though, the best aspects of Kay’s novels are always his characters, who are utterly human (and therefore somewhat flawed, with difficult and complicated lives), sympathetic, and amazingly real.  They don’t always get want they want, or at least not in the way they would wish for. Kay’s endings are really never completely happy—his characters are always marked in some manner by the experiences they’ve undergone; they always pay a price for the choices they make.  It’s a shame this book will be shelved in the fantasy and science-fiction section of bookstores and libraries, because that inevitably makes it highly unlikely that fans of historical fiction will find it on their own.  (That’s a good example of one of the many reasons that I dislike our reliance on genre divisions in describing fiction).  Kay is a best seller in his native Canada, and one of my life’s missions is to have him be just as popular with readers here in the U.S., too.  You can watch an interview I did with him in 2007 at: http://www.seattlechannel.org/videos/video.asp?ID=3030703


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The Night Inspector

The-Night-Inspectorby Frederick Busch

Frederick Busch’s novel, The Night Inspector (Ballantine, 2000),  isn’t nearly as well known as it should be. (In fact, I fear that Busch himself is known to only a relatively small group of readers; but we’re rabid about loving his books.) The Night Inspector will please fans of historical fiction, those who simply love good writing, and anyone interested in the life and times of Herman Melville, author, of course, of the brilliant short story, “Bartleby the Scrivener,” Moby Dick, and other works. Busch’s novel takes place mainly in Manhattan, just after the end of the War Between the States. The main character, Will Bartholomew, spent his army years as a Union sharpshooter, until the day a bullet from an enemy’s gun horribly disfigured him. Because most of his face was shot away, Bartholomew now wears a papier-mâché mask at all times. Along with Herman Melville, now working as a customs inspector with his writing career apparently at an end, and Jessie, a beautiful Creole prostitute, Bartholomew concocts a plan to rescue a group of black children who are still being held by their owners, despite the abolishment of slavery. Busch has captured in vivid, evocative prose New York of the late 1860s, with its unbridgeable chasms between social classes, its casual cruelties, and its myriad of pleasures and dangers. At the same time, the flashbacks describing Bartholomew’s experiences during the Civil War are graphic enough to give most readers nightmares. (I found it impossible not to visualize them.) Sadly, Frederick Busch died when he was only 65; the literary world lost a great teacher and a productive, imaginative writer. If you’ve never read anything by him, drop everything and start now.  Two of my favorite books of his are Girls and Harry and Catherine, but Don’t Tell Anyone is an amazing collection of short stories. In fact, except for Busch’s Closing Arguments, a novel which freaked me out, I can honestly recommend without reservation everything that he wrote.

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