Historical Musings #39: I Spy Historical-Style

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:

1. Food

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.

2. Transport

To Lie with Lions by Dorothy Dunnett

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.

3. Weapon

The Sunne in Splendour by Sharon Penman

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.

4. Animal

The Fortune Hunter by Daisy Goodwin

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.

5. Number

Twenty Years After by Alexandre Dumas

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

Sea of Poppies by Amitav Ghosh

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

The Fatal Flame by Lyndsay Faye

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.

9. Royalty

Edwin: High King of Britain by Edoardo Albert

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.

10. Architecture

Larkswood by Valerie Mendes

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.

11. Clothing

Fingersmith by Sarah Waters

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

The Midnight Rose by Lucinda Riley

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.

14. Music

The Long Song by Andrea Levy

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

Ghost Light by Joseph O’Connor

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.

16. Occupation

Gutenberg’s Apprentice by Alix Christie

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.

17. Season

The Spring of the Ram by Dorothy Dunnett

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.

18. Colour

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

Shadow of the Moon by MM Kaye

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?

28 thoughts on “Historical Musings #39: I Spy Historical-Style

  1. FictionFan says:

    Great list! Some of the categories are unexpectedly tricky, aren’t they? The only one I’ve read is Gutenberg’s Apprentice and I felt much like you about it, I think. I’ve forgotten most of the story now, but I still remember all the stuff about the printing. Sea of Poppies is still on my TBR…!

    • Helen says:

      It was definitely not as easy as I thought it would be! I remember reading Gutenberg’s Apprentice and thinking that it might have worked better as a non-fiction book – there were lots of interesting facts about printing and the time period, but it wasn’t completely successful as a story.

  2. piningforthewest says:

    I haven’t read any of them, but I have almost all of the Niccolo books now and plan to start on that series soon.

  3. Margaret says:

    Your post makes me want to read more historical fiction – I seem to be stuck in crime fiction at the moment! I’ve read The Sunne in Splendour, The Long Song and The Rose of Sebastopol, all books I enjoyed, especially The Sunne! And I have three more on my TBR list – The Story Keeper, Sea of Poppies and Edwin – so plenty to keep me going.

    • Helen says:

      The Sunne in Splendour is a great book, isn’t it? I’m glad you liked The Rose of Sebastopol – it has been on my shelf for years and it just never seems to be the right time to read it.

    • Helen says:

      I’ve only read the House of Niccolo series once so far, but I’m looking forward to reading it again. There’s so much that I missed or didn’t fully understand the first time.

  4. Calmgrove says:

    Oh, not seen this meme before. I’m partial to shiny new things that catch my eye so may well try it some time! Loved the way you highlighted how you went about your choices and, indeed, tempted by one or two of them as it’s been a while since I went for a historical novel that wasn’t a period classic.

  5. Sandra says:

    I started Shadow of the Moon last year and had to give up – just wasn’t the right time for it. You have several here that sound intriguing – or look intriguing from their covers! Larkswood, The Story Keeper, Ghost Light stand out for me. And I keep telling myself I’ll read the Edwin trilogy and The Long Song!

    Such a good spin on this meme, Helen!

    • Helen says:

      Thanks, Sandra! I’m pleased there are some books in my post that interest you. I had fun matching them up with the different categories.

  6. Carmen says:

    I always enjoy your creative connections, thus this I Spy post is perfect. You have so many books with beautiful covers! 🙂 I haven’t read any of them, but The Story Keeper by Anna Mazzola piqued my interest, especially for the Isle of Skye connection, which reminds me of Outlander.

    • Helen says:

      Thank you, Carmen. I’m glad you liked my post as it took a long time to put together! The Story Keeper does sound good. I haven’t read it yet, but I’m looking forward to it.

  7. Judy Krueger says:

    Delightful! You reminded me that I never have gotten around the the second two books of the trilogy which began with Sea of Poppies. I loved that book! Another one I enjoyed was The Long Song.

  8. Yvonne says:

    This was a fun meme to do. Of your choices I’ve read The Sunne in Splendour (which like you led me to read more about the Wars of the Roses), Larkswood and Shadow of the Moon. The Rose of Sebastopol is in my TBR pile. I’ve not read any books by Dorothy Dunnett. From the comments it appears that I’ve missed out on some good reading.

    • Helen says:

      If you haven’t read Dorothy Dunnett yet, I think you’re definitely missing out on some great books. I would recommend starting with The Game of Kings, which is the first book in her first series, The Lymond Chronicles. Reading that series for the first time back in 2012 was a wonderful experience!

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