It’s undeniable that the historical market has for years been flooded with plenty of choices for those who love Regency or Victorian England settings. And we’ve both certainly read (and enjoyed) plenty. However, there’s a LOT of history to be explored outside of 19th century England and having “unusual historicals” for a TBR prompt gave us the chance to explore. Thankfully, both of our picks were mostly successful. Caz went for a m/m alternate world based on Ancient Greece, and Lynn decided to pick up a Viking novel after going several years without one. What are some of your favorite historical settings?
Sword Dance by A.J. Demas
A.J. Demas’ Sword Dance is the first book in a trilogy set in an imaginary/alternate ancient world that reads rather like Ancient Greece, so I thought it would be a good fit for this month’s “unusual historical” prompt. There’s mystery and a slow-burn romance, lots of wry humour and a superbly realised setting to enjoy, together with some very poignant observations about trauma and grief, and discussions about power and privilege, gender and sex – but none of it overwhelms the main storyline or reads like the author ‘soapboxing’.
Damiskos Temnon was one of Pheme’s most respected warriors, but his career was ended by injury five years earlier, leaving him with a permanent disability and scars that aren’t all visible ones. Now he works for the army in a very different capacity, in the Quartermasters Office, and when the book opens, is on his way to the remote seaside villa of an old friend with a view to negotiating a supply contract. (For fish sauce of all things!) It’s very clear this isn’t a job he particularly enjoys, but it’s a necessity if he’s to keep body and soul together and to continue to send money to his parents, who are incapable of living within their means.
When Damiskos arrives, he finds Nione has guests, a party of philosophers from Boukos, mostly students and former students of Nione’s kinsman, Eurydemos, together with a merchant by the name of Aristokles Phoskos and his Zashian slave – a eunuch, Damiskos guesses, given his richly decorated clothing, and delicate, painted features. Damiskos finds the discourse of the students and philosophers distinctly distasteful in its blatant bigotry – far from enlightened free-thinkers, this bunch reads like a group of white-supremacist homophobes in pursuance of their aim of restoring Pheme to greatness. Damiskos has no time for them or their ideas, and can’t help wondering just how many of their sneering remarks about “unnatural half-men” the slave is able to understand.
The next day, when Damiskos encounters the slave – who he has learned is called Pharastes, or Varazda in his own language – he finds himself reassessing the feelings of pity he’d had the previous evening. The man may be enticingly beautiful, but he’s prickly and defensive, responding to Damiskos’ attempt at conversation with thinly disguised rudeness, and Damiskos finds himself disliking him.
Most of their encounters over the next few days follow a similar pattern – Varazda misinterprets everything Damiskos says and his frosty reaction puts Damiskos’ back up because he’s just trying to help. Varazda seems determined to keep Damiskos at a distance – until Aristokles disappears in suspicious circumstances, and the two of them team up to try to find out what is going on. Varazda explains that Aristokles was sent to investigate Eurydemos and his students following some anti-Zashian riots that took place in Boukos a few weeks earlier, and to retrieve some sensitive documents that were stolen from the Zashian embassy. Damiskos is surprised to learn that Aristokles is a spy – he’d seemed far too inept (and it doesn’t take him long to work out who the spy really is!) – but as he puts together some of the things he’s heard over the past few days, he realises what’s going on. In their fanatical desire to Make Pheme Great Again (#sorrynotsorry!), the students want to bring about a war with Zash. With Aristokles gone, Varazda suggests Damiskos should put about the story that he now owns Varazda so he has an excuse to remain at the villa, and let it be believed they are lovers, so nobody will question their spending time together.
I enjoyed everything about this book; the characters, the setting and the romance – although there’s no HEA here, just a tentative HFN with the promise of more. Even though the events of the story take place in around a week, there’s the definite feel of a slow-burn, but I think because there’s so much else going on, the romance seems to take its time – and that worked pretty well for me.
The two leads are superbly characterised, opposites in just about every way who somehow find their perfect fit. Damiskos – who is the sole PoV character here – is kind and understanding with a natural air of authority, but he is grieving the loss of the military life he’d loved and been good at and is still coming to terms with the traumatic event that caused it. He’s world-weary and trying to work out where he fits in, but is determined to be a good and decent person, no matter that life has ground him down. Watching him become completely smitten with Varazda and not even realising it at first is really sweet, and I loved seeing him fall just that little bit more under his spell every time they’re together.
Varazda is perceptive, smart and mercurial, a former slave – now freed – and sword dancer with a three-year-old daughter back home in Boukos. He presents himself with both masculine and feminine qualities and features, and talks to Damiskos about how he feels about it, sometimes feeling like a man, sometimes like a woman and the balance he gets from it. He’s a eunuch, but the author makes it clear that being non-binary isn’t something Varazda has ‘become’ because of what was done to him; he is what and who he is regardless of what is (or isn’t) between his legs. The sex scenes are handled in a sensitive manner – being a slave means Varazda was often used for sex, but being with Damiskos is his first experience of choosing a lover for himself. Their attraction is unexpected and outside both their experience, but they talk and there is no silly miscommunication; their uncertainties and hesitation are the result of who they are and what they’ve been through, and their backstories are skilfully woven into the story. The author does a great job of showing us Varazda through Damiskos’ eyes, and I loved getting to see the depth of his affection and care for Varazda.
Sword Dance is an entertaining read with great characters, an interesting plot and a wonderfully realised setting. I enjoyed Damiskos and Varazda’s romance a great deal, and I’m definitely going to be picking up the next book in the series as soon as I can.
Grade: B+ Sensuality: Warm
~ Caz Owens
Buy it at Amazon
To Wed a Viking Warrior by Michelle Styles
When I saw this month’s TBR prompt, I immediately went looking through my Harlequin Historicals. Harlequin is one of the few publishers who reliably explores the world outside of Regency society. I’d been toying with the idea of doing a Helen Kirkman reread for a while, so I definitely had Vikings on the mind when I made my pick. Michelle Styles is a Harlequin author I’ve enjoyed in the past, so I chose To Wed a Viking Warrior.
It turns out that this novel is third in a trilogy. While the leads from the first two books are mentioned and make a few appearances, this story stands on its own quite well. The heroine, Elene, is the youngest of three daughters of a Mercian aeldorman. Her older sisters have married Vikings who settled on nearby lands, and Elene’s father wants her married to someone that will meet the approval of the Mercian king so as to cement the family’s hold on its lands. Because of the politics in play, Elene’s father is vulnerable to machinations of his steward, who leads him to a candidate that Elene loathes – and who has issues, as one will see in the book.
As the novel opens, Elene is fleeing. She is discovered by a neighboring lord, Hafual. Hafual is also a Viking, but has been in the employ of the Mercian king. After having been widowed, Hafual simply wants to raise his young son and frankly, otherwise be left alone. He takes pity on Elene, though, and when he hears of her plight, he promises rescue.
At a banquet that evening, Elene’s father does something even worse than anticipated. He doesn’t just attempt to force a betrothal on her; he insists she be married at once. Elene and Hafual convincingly claim that they have been trysting in secret and have pledged to one another. And so, surprise wedding!
It’s quite a set-up and I’ll admit I had my doubts as I read the opening chapters. However, as the book moved along, I found myself getting drawn into it. Part of it was because I could empathize with the characters. Elene’s father may seem tyrannical in some ways, but the book makes it clear that he both loves his daughter but also needs to secure the family’s future. And in that time, setting up a political marriage was pretty commonplace.
I also liked that Elene and Hafual actually talked to one another and seemed to want to learn more about each other. There’s chemistry between them, but they also seemed curious about one another. For instance, it’s well-known that Elene had been involved with someone before Hafual. Unlike some alphahole heroes I’ve seen, he doesn’t shame her for it. However, he does get curious about what went on, whether she still has feelings for this guy, etc.. We also figure out early on that Hafual’s marriage wasn’t entirely happy, and some of the discussion of how he failed his first wife gets very emotional.
Speaking of emotional, anyone reading this should be aware of some very big triggers. Throughout the story, we hear about post partum depression/psychosis, and references to past death and injury of children. These scenes are going to be very disturbing for some readers, so I wanted to make that caution. In some ways, these issues are handled with sensitivity as it’s obvious that Elene cared about the mother who went through these things and is sad for what happened. However, there are also times in which this character’s illness is described in ways that make her sound like a monster. It’s probably a plot point that would have made me pass on this book if I’d known it was there before I got into the story.
However, aside from that and a somewhat overly wordy setup to the story, I did end up enjoying Elene and Hafual’s story. If you can get past a clunky opening chapter and handle the triggery plot point mentioned above, then I would give this a qualified recommendation. There’s some sweet romance and interesting history woven into this story, but also some issues of which readers should be aware.
Grade: B- Sensuality: Warm
~ Lynn Spencer
Just finished reading Natasha Siegel’s Solomon’s Crown which got a short but rousing review from New York Times. The author cheerfully admits that it is a historically inaccurate book: Set in the High Middle Ages, she takes two great medieval historical figures, Richard the Lionheart of England and King Philip II of France and spins a lovely queer romance by scrambling historical timelines, tossing aside real battles that took place and creating new alliances that could make love and happiness possible for two enemies whom history would always place on the opposite side of the battlefield. The two monarchs were ambitious brutal men but the author’s ravishing prose makes their love believably true. For those who have been concerned about the declining quality of historical romances, this brilliant novel might offer some hope.
I saw the blurb for that one and thought “oh – interesting!”. Then I read further and thought “what??” So this is basically Richard and Philip RPF – real person fanfic with history twisted to fit the author’s narrative.
Part of the reason for the decline in historical romances IMO – is because writers are ignoring and/or taking massive liberties with actual history. This book sounds like it suffers from the same problem. The author could easily have written this as a fantasy romance in a made-up place that draws inspiration from that period of European history, and I might have read it. But to pretend they’re the actual Richard the Lionheart and Philip of France? Stretching credulity way too far and not for me.
And whenever I read an author admitting they’ve got it wrong but they know they have and it’s on purpose, my reaction is to think they just couldn’t be bothered. If you’re interested in ‘alt’ historical fiction done right, I highly recommend Laura Andersen’s Boleyn Trilogy and its sequel. The premise is that Anne Boleyn’s son lived and went on to be king – it’s absolutely brilliant.
I think it’s all part of the urge to improve the present by rewriting or reworking the past. I certainly understand the impulse but it rarely works for me.
The very raison d’etre of historical romance is reworking gender relations of the past. To argue that in deeply patriarchal, misogynistic societies, love between men and women can not only bloom but also last forever is fantastical, isn’t it?
That’s interesting. I’m not sure I agree 100% but I completely see what you mean.
Having read the book in its entirety, I can confidently say that there is nothing lazy about her work. In order to write an alternate history, one must know the original history well and she seems to have done her homework.
Romance between Richard and Philip seems quite plausible. According to contemporaneous accounts, Richard and Philip spent a lot of their youth together and even had shared bed at night. Not surprising given that Richard was always the Duke of Aquitaine and his mother Elinor, the Duchess of Aquitaine was Philip’s father Louis VII’s first wife before she divorced him and married Henry II, the king of England. Richard was never expected to become the king but even after he became one he barely spent any time in England. Till 1914, England and France were at war with each other most of the time. In the high Middle Ages, political relationship between the two was one of constantly shifting alliances (Richard and Philip fought together during the third Crusade). Given the geographical proximity and political/strategic connections between Aquitaine and France, it is possible to imagine them being in love. Fantasy maybe, but isn’t historical romance by its very nature fantastical?
I think all romance novels, by their very nature are fantastical.
But I’ve always thought that the challenge of writing historical romance was being able to create believeable interactions between the protagonists while also creating a sense of the restrictions and conventions that existed in the chosen period, especially the rules that existed for men and women of the upper classes in the 19th century, whcih is still the period in which most HR is set.
I’m well aware that RIchard and Philip were rumoured to have been lovers and of the history of the period in which this book is set. I don’t know if the book has an HEA – if it doesn’t it’s not a romance novel; if it does, I go back to what I said about it being real person fanfic.
They believe it is HEA despite all the obstacles they are likely to face. I think we can agree to disagree as to which category of fiction it belongs.
We really need a good term for books like this where history is bent to allow a different outcome, but which aren’t actually fantasies. The writing and story ideas can be quite good, but the character and/or event distorions can be off putting for those who don’t like to see real history sidelined. Separating them from actual historically based novels would benefit most everyone,
My Mother-in-law wrote a book titled Shakespeare’s Sister based on an idea Virginia Wolf wrote once, “What if Shakespeare had a sister named Judith…” She took that and build a what-if world where it was Judisth that was the talented writer, but Will who gets to take credit because of the world they live in. My MIL was a historian, and studied Shakespeare for decades, and wove a alternative tale set in very real historical facts.I think this kind of storytelling has merit, but needs a name.
I suggest Alternative History, or alt-history romances. For example, I classify steampunk books (like Poe’s series) as alt-history as well as fantasy (the magical part of the stories), and also as romances (and ca half dozen or so other tags) on GR.
Alt historical I have no problem with – the Laura Anderson books I mentioned above are fantastic “what if” novels – where the author has very skilfully woven her fictional characters into actual events that recognised and had her fictional ‘Henry IX’ die in a completely plausible way so that Elizabeth could come to the throne as she did in real life. There is a romance at the heart of the series, but it’s between fictional characters and the series is very much alt. HF with romantic elements. Maybe if this particular book had been described in the same way I wouldn’t be so annoyed. But that said, I still wouldn’t say this book is alt history because the main characters actually existed. The real historical personages in the Andersen series are the secondary characters and all the protagonists are the author’s invention, so she can do what she likes with them. My problem is that the author has taken two real people and twisted their lives and personalities to fit the story she wanted to tell. KJ Charles sums it up perfectly in her GR review: (sorry, I can’t find a way to get a link!)
(my underlining) I did go and read the sample as a result of this discussion and I found the writing very simplistic.
I didn’t think you had problems with alt-hitoricals, but thanks for clarifying what you see as the difference between this book and alt-history.
I read KJ Charles’ review a while back, so I remember this. Her comparison of this book to historical fanfic is brilliant because that’s exactly what it is: a fanfic shipping Richard and Philip. Some people are going to be okay with that because fanfic is huge now, and they will probably see nothing wrong with fictionalizing and changing actual people and events. The idea behind fanfic is so popular, I expect we’ll see even more books like this.
I am unfamiliar with fanfic genre so looked up on Google. According to Wikipedia fan fiction is “fictional writing written in an amateur capacity by fans, unauthorized by, but based on an existing work of fiction. The author uses copyrighted characters, settings, or other intellectual properties from the original creator as a basis for their writing.” By this definition, this book is definitely not in this category.
That may be a dictionary definition of fanfiction, but it’s much broader than that in reality. And I’ve specifically referenced what is called Real Person Fanfic – where people write about actual people as opposed to fictional characters. It’s very common – half an hour on AO3 (An Archive Of Our Own – the world’s biggest fanfic site) will find loads of it. As Carrie says, the lines have become blurred in recent years with quite a few authors who began as writers of fanfiction becoming published authors (Everina Maxwell’s Winter’s Orbit springs immediately to mind – it began life as a serial on AO3) and there are others I can’t immediately recall. The idea of writing fanfiction to “fix” things that readers/viewers weren’t pleased with in the books, films and TV shows they are fans of is, in many ways, how fanfic began (I imagine there were a boatload of Mulder/Scully fics back in the day!) Hence my referring to this book as RPF – it’s the ultimate “fix it”; pairing two historical figures and rewriting history to give them an HEA.
My oldest writes fanfic (for TV series usually) so I’ve had a deal of exposure. One (in)famous example of fanfic books being published is Fifty Shades of Grey- which started life as a fanfic of Twilight.
I used to write fanfic back in the early 2000s – I was only active in a couple of fandoms, but I met a number of people with whom I’m still online friends that way. I loved the challenge of delving into what made the characters tick and then keeping my own versions of them as close to the originals as possible, regardless of the situations I was writing them in. The character of Aaron in Sally Malcolm and Joanna Chambers’ Total Creative Control articulates this aspect very well – not surprising as Sally wrote him and she is also someone with strong roots in fanfic writing (it’s actually how she and I first met – we were active in the same fandom.) Like most things there is a LOT of dross out there, but the good stuff can be REALLY good.
At the risk of sounding like a broken record or seen as sucking up the oxygen by being argumentative, I want to make couple of points.
1. First, I am troubled that a well-regarded, well-established author like K.J. Charles would knock down a published book by an emerging author as fanfic in an unmediated forum like Good Reads. It reads biased.
2. I also feel that the expanded definition you have given of fanfic is subjective and too broad. If we accept this definition, then the entire post Doyle sub-genre of Holmesian fiction becomes fanfic (not including the fanfic published in AO3). To give an example, can Michael Chabon ‘s (a Pulitzer Prize winner) The Final Solution be classified as fanfic? Or, Sherry Thomas’s Charlotte Holmes series? They are fans of Sherlock Holmes, it is true, but their novels stand as mystery fiction on their own. They probably would laugh it off graciously since they are such established authors.
I also wonder if fanfic categorization is very specific to American/British fiction writing. In Asia, especially in India, novels with real historical personages as main characters are not only common; several of them are considered classic and part of the canon. If I apply the term fanfic to such published works, I will be laughed out of town.
Like you I don’t want to flog this to death, but you’ve made some points I think need addressing.
1. KJ Charles is as entitled to post her opinion about a book as anyone else. She has made clear that she doesn’t give any star ratings, regardless of whether she likes a book or not. And if, as I did, you read more of the reviews, especially the 2 and 3 star ones, practically ALL of them mention fanfic and/or real person fic. I haven’t readthe book, but as I said in my very first response on this thread, I thought it sounded like RPF.
2. I didn’t give an expanded definition of fanfic – I just said that in practice, the reality encompasses something more than the dictionary definition you gave. That definition doesn’t even mention RPF, which, while not my thing is a big thing in the fanfic community. Sherry Thomas’ Lady Sherlock books aren’t technically fanfic because Charlotte is an original character – as are all the other characters in the books. ST has drawn inspiration from Conan Doyle, yes, but it’s not fanfic. I’m not familiar with the other book you mention (not a big SH fan) so I can’t comment, but there have been a number of instances where professional writers have continued the stories of fictional characters because they have been invited to do so (by relatives estates etc.) – and that isn’t what fanfic is. Fanfic is written largely by amateurs who don’t get paid. I doubt Crighton wrote that book for free.
I think we are at cross-purposes here. I’ve commented specifically about RPF in relation to Solomon’s Crown. An author taking two people who actually lived and then making stuff up about them to tell HER story rather than THEIRS is just fiction – it’s not historical fiction if you disregard the actual history. Is the point I am making.
Yes, we are talking at cross purposes. I will leave it at that.
I find your perspective interesting. Words mean different things in different contexts–I hope you will continue to comment here!
Historical figures can’t be copywrited, obviously, but the book you’ve described definitely bases on an existing story (actual history) which the writer takes for the basis of their own story. If you write about a historical character but completely change their personality, situation and lives, then in a way you are taking their life, their story, and creating your own version of it. You found a stroy you like and then write your own version of it.
But what K.J. Charles stated was absolutely true about this book. A really big element of most fanfiction is “shipping,” which is putting two original characters who were not a couple in the story into a relationship. That’s what this author has done. It would not surprise me at all if she started out as a fanfic writer. (there are some excellent writers doing this. Many people, especially those under 40, will recognize this Fanfic Trope very quickly, just like Charles did.
I’m not making a moral judgement on this one way or another. I think we’ll probably see more of this kind of Real Person Fanfic. I don’t think it’s anything I care to read, but others are obviously going to disagree and see nothing wring with it.
Another unusual historical setting can be found in Sujata Massey’s Parvin Mistry novels. They are set in the very early 20th century colonial Bombay (India). These novels straddle several sub-genres of fiction: feminist, historical, mystery and romance. Parvin Mistry is a female lawyer, first in India, belonging to the wealthy, highly influential and much anglicized Parsi community. So, while she lives and works within the constraints of that historical period, as a woman she is able to access secluded female spaces and bring legal recourse to her female clients. There is also a forbidden slow burning romance between Parvin (who is separated from her abusive husband but Parsi law prohibits her from seeking a divorce) and a British officer. As far as I know, Massey is the first author to write Indian novels set in this period with a female protagonist and the stories brim with historic details, descriptions of Parsi culture, credible mystery plots and a believable sympathetic heroine. I have greatly enjoyed the four novels in this series and looking forward to the fifth one coming out in July.
Correction: Three novels published so far in the series; the fourth one coming out in July.
I also went to the HH well and chose extremely wisely (IMO) with Jeannie Lin’s My Fair Concubine. It has a lot of ‘unusuals’ going for it, including the setting, the non-noble characters, the My-Fair-Lady trope, the outrageous secondary characters. It hit 1000% right for me. It’s been on my TBR for a long time and rarely does an author actually meet my expectations on the first book. Per other reviews this is different from Ms Lin’s other historicals (somewhat lighter, I suppose) but I don’t care. I have several of her books on Mount TBR and I’m excited to read more from her!
Oh, I love that book! If you have other Jeannie Lin books in your TBR, I’m a teeny bit jealous. You’re in for a treat!
I have never read a Lin book I didn’t enjoy. Have big fun!
This is not the first time Demas’ work has been recommended here at AAR and I think I need to check it out. And Lynn, thank you for the review on the Viking book. I’ve enjoyed books set in this geography/time period before and they can be very hit and miss. I’m curious. Without the mishandling of the illness, what would you have graded the book?
Definitely – it’s been on my radar for a while (and know it’s been rec’d in comments) so it was nice to have an excuse to finally read it!! I always add these reviews to the main DB so they show up in a Power Search – when you’ve read it do come back and let me know what you think!
I think, without the illness plot point, this one would have been a solid B.
The illness is postpartum depression?
Great reviews, thank you! Since I mostly read mm these days, Sword Dance definitely appeals. I’ll probably add that to my TBR list.
This month I did attempt to find an unusual historical on my TBR list, but couldn’t find one that felt actually unusual. So I decided to pick an audiobook that I already owned,and haven’t listened to. I chose Trust No One by Jayne Ann Krentz, narrated by Amanda Cobb. I’ve had the book 8 years so it was time to get it off my list, but it wasn’t a great success. Here’s a part of my review:
“The romance is cardboard, the characters have the depth of mud puddles, and the dialog is sometimes insipid. The mystery has some good things going on and almost made me rethink my feelings for the book until the villain gave perhaps the longest villian monologue I’ve ever read. sigh I was hoping to give the book a B- based on the mystery, but couldn’t.”
Amanda Cobb wasn’t inspired, but did a fine job with the material she had to work with.
I gave the book a C.
Trust No One did not impress me, either, and I read everything Krentz writes. I felt she just fell back on some of her more familiar plot and character tropes and met her deadline.
I love A.J. Demas’ Sword Dance series – I think you’ll enjoy the other two as well! The stand alone novel Something Human was also really enjoyable.
Thanks – I bought the next two Sword Dance books immediately after I finished this one – I’m hoping I’ll be able to find time to read them soon!
Both her Night in Boukos (a crazy romp, but still with depth to the characters) and her newest Honey and Pepper are wonderful as well. Highly recommended author if you like the setting (a fantasy old Greece), mm, and thoughtful characters.