Welcome to my monthly post on all things historical fiction. I noticed this I Spy challenge appearing on lots of other blogs a month or two ago and wanted to give it a try, but didn’t get round to it at the time when everyone else was doing it. When I was thinking of a topic for this month’s Historical Musings post I thought it might be fun to put together a historical fiction (and non-fiction) version of the I Spy game which would give me an opportunity to highlight twenty books from my shelves, some of which I’ve read and some that I haven’t.
I’m not sure where this challenge first originated but these are the rules:
Find a book that contains (either on the cover or in the title) an example for each category. You must have a separate book for all 20, get as creative as you want and do it within five minutes!
I decided to ignore the five minutes rule and add a new rule of my own – that all twenty books must be from the historical fiction or non-fiction genres. And here are the results:
The Lives of Tudor Women by Elizabeth Norton
I was nearly defeated before I’d even started. I couldn’t find a single historical fiction novel on my shelves with food either on the cover or in the title. Surely, I thought, I would be able to spot an apple or a cake or a plate on a table in the background…but no, nothing. Finally, I discovered some food on the cover of The Lives of Tudor Women by Elizabeth Norton, hence why I had to expand the scope of this challenge to include historical non-fiction as well as fiction! I haven’t read this book yet, but I will think about picking it up next time I’m in a non-fiction mood.
This one was also more difficult than I’d expected. I was sure I must have a book with a train on the cover or maybe a plane on a World War II cover, but when I started searching for them I couldn’t find any. There were plenty of pictures of ships, though! To Lie with Lions, set mainly in Scotland and Iceland, is a wonderful book (as are all of Dunnett’s historical novels), but be aware that it is the sixth in her House of Niccolò series and I would strongly recommend beginning with the first.
For ‘weapon’ there were a few books with swords on the cover that I could have chosen. I decided to feature The Sunne in Splendour, Penman’s fictional account of the life of Richard III, because it’s another book that I loved and the one that sparked my interest in the Wars of the Roses, which is now one of my favourite periods in English history. The picture on the cover shows, as well as a sword on the ground, what is obviously supposed to be the crown in the hawthorn bush, which is one of the legends surrounding the Battle of Bosworth.
I started seeing some overlap between categories at this point. I could have used To Lie with Lions for the animal book, but instead I decided to choose one with a picture of an animal on the cover – in this case, a horse. Horses play an important role in The Fortune Hunter, which tells the story of the 19th century horseman Bay Middleton and his relationships with the heiress Charlotte Baird and the Empress Sisi of Austria.
This is the sequel to The Three Musketeers and the ‘twenty years’ in the title refers to the time that has passed between the events of the first book and the second. In this book, d’Artagnan, Athos, Porthos and Aramis become caught up in the conflict between the supporters and opponents of Cardinal Mazarin, are involved in the execution of Charles I in England, and face a new enemy, the sinister Mordaunt. I enjoyed this one as much as The Three Musketeers and went on to read the rest of the series.
6. Something you read
The Story Keeper by Anna Mazzola
You read stories, of course, and the stories in the title of Anna Mazzola’s new novel are folktales from the Isle of Skye which are collected by a young woman who visits the island in 1857. I haven’t read this book yet but it is on my 20 Books of Summer list and I am looking forward to it, having read her first novel, The Unseeing, last year.
7. Body of water
Another ship on the cover of this book, but also a body of water and the word ‘sea’ in the title. The novel – the first in a trilogy – follows a diverse group of characters who come together on a voyage from India to Mauritius in the 1830s, just before the First Opium War. The second book in the trilogy, River of Smoke, could have been used for this category too and also for the next one…
8. Product of fire
A surprising number of books to choose from here, with ‘smoke’, ‘ashes’ and even ‘soot’ in the title. I decided on this one because it gives me an opportunity to mention how much I enjoyed Lyndsay Faye’s Timothy Wilde novels, a trilogy of mysteries set in 19th century New York. I particularly loved the relationship between Tim and his brother Valentine. This is the last book, so read The Gods of Gotham and Seven for a Secret first.
As you might expect, there are many, many historical novels with references to royalty in the title or pictures of royalty on the cover. I simply picked up the first one that caught my eye on my shelf, which happened to be Edoardo Albert’s Edwin: High King of Britain. I loved this book about Edwin, the 7th century King of Northumbria, and the sequel Oswald: Return of the King. There is also now a third book on Oswiu, King of Bernicia, but I haven’t read that one yet.
I have plenty of books with houses, castles and other architectural structures on the cover too. Again, I just picked up one of the first I came to. Larkswood is the name of an English country house in which family secrets unfold over a period of forty years, taking us up to the beginning of the Second World War. I can’t remember very much about this book, but I know I liked it.
For ‘clothing’, it was tempting to choose one of the ‘faceless woman in pretty dress’ covers that are used so often by publishers of historical novels, but then I remembered my copy of Fingersmith with its picture of a pair of white gloves. I didn’t love this book quite as much as most people seem to, possibly because the plot reminded me so strongly of a certain Victorian novel, but I did enjoy it, as I have all of Sarah Waters’ books.
12. Family member
Daughter of Siena by Marina Fiorato
Lots of daughter, wife and sister titles – but few, if any, that mention male family members, which could be a discussion for a future Historical Musings post, do you think? Anyway, I haven’t read Daughter of Siena yet. I’ve enjoyed some of Marina Fiorato’s books but had problems with some of her others, so I wonder what I’ll think of this one, set in 18th century Italy.
13. Time of day
Like many of Lucinda Riley’s novels this one is set in two time periods – one historical and the other in the modern day. The historical storyline takes us to India in 1911, where a young girl is befriended by Princess Indira, the daughter of the Maharaja and Maharani of Cooch Behar. I have read most of Lucinda Riley’s books now – I would particularly recommend her Seven Sisters series – and am looking forward to the others.
I was torn between this book and Songs of Willow Frost by Jamie Ford, but eventually settled on this one. There’s not much of a music connection, apart from the title, though…this is a novel about a girl born as a slave on a Jamaican sugar plantation who lives through the abolition of slavery in the 1830s.
15. Paranormal being
This book may have a paranormal being in the title, but it’s not a paranormal story…it’s actually the story of the Irish actress Molly Allgood and her relationship with the playwright John Millington Synge. I’ve forgotten the plot but I remember the beautiful writing – and the unusual second person narration.
Peter Schoeffer, the protagonist of this novel, is originally a scribe but his father has other plans for him and arranges for him to become apprenticed to Johann Gutenberg, who is working to produce the first printed copy of the Bible. I remember feeling slightly disappointed with the story and characters, but as a book lover I did enjoy learning about the history of the printed word. The conflict between the new and the traditional is a theme I always find interesting too.
After I took my photograph I remembered Drums of Autumn by Diana Gabaldon and The Winter Palace by Eva Stachniak, but by then it was too late and I had already chosen this one. Anyway, it gives me another excuse (not that I needed one) to highlight Dunnett’s House of Niccolò series. This book has one of my favourite settings in the series: Trebizond in 1461.
Red Sky at Night by Jane Aiken Hodge
All book covers have a colour on them, I suppose, so I selected one with a colour in the title for this category instead. I have read a few Jane Aiken Hodge books and enjoyed them but haven’t read this one, set in the Regency period, which I found in a second-hand shop a while ago. I have one of her other novels on my NetGalley shelf, though, so I will really need to read that one first.
19. Celestial body
This was the first book that came to mind here. I read it last year as part of a readalong and loved it – not quite as much as Kaye’s The Far Pavilions, but almost! I really like the way she writes about India in both of those books, with such a deep understanding, lack of bias and obvious love for the country. Her mystery novels are great too, but I’m really looking forward to reading her other historical novel, Trade Wind.
20. Something that grows
The Rose of Sebastopol by Katharine McMahon
This book has been on my TBR for a long time now, so I will really have to read it soon. It is set during the Crimean War, which is not a setting I have read very much about. It’s also the second book I have mentioned here which has ‘rose’ in the title – another example of books counting towards more than one category.
Well, those are my twenty I Spy books. Have you read any of them?