Usually I devote my final Musings of the year to looking back at my previous twelve months of reading and putting together some charts and statistics, but I’ve decided it would really be better to do that in January so that the books I read in the last few days of December don’t get excluded. This month, then, I’m going to look forward instead to some of the upcoming historical fiction due to be published in 2021.
The books listed below are just a small selection that have come to my attention and are a combination of books that I’ve already received for review, books by authors I’ve previously read and enjoyed or books that just sound interesting. The publication dates I’ve given are for the UK and may be subject to change.
Blurbs are taken from Goodreads and Amazon.
“Dublin, 1904. Nora Joseph Barnacle is a twenty-year-old from Galway working as a maid at Finn’s Hotel. She enjoys the liveliness of her adopted city and on June 16—Bloomsday—her life is changed when she meets Dubliner James Joyce, a fateful encounter that turns into a lifelong love. Despite his hesitation to marry, Nora follows Joyce in pursuit of a life beyond Ireland, and they surround themselves with a buoyant group of friends that grows to include Samuel Beckett, Peggy Guggenheim, and Sylvia Beach.
But as their life unfolds, Nora finds herself in conflict between their intense desire for each other and the constant anxiety of living in poverty throughout Europe. She desperately wants literary success for Jim, believing in his singular gift and knowing that he thrives on being the toast of the town, and it eventually provides her with a security long lacking in her life and his work. So even when Jim writes, drinks, and gambles his way to literary acclaim, Nora provides unflinching support and inspiration, but at a cost to her own happiness and that of their children.”
Odile Souchet is obsessed with books, and her new job at the American Library in Paris – with its thriving community of students, writers and book lovers – is a dream come true. When war is declared, the Library is determined to remain open. But then the Nazis invade Paris, and everything changes. In Occupied Paris, choices as black and white as the words on a page become a murky shade of grey – choices that will put many on the wrong side of history, and the consequences of which will echo for decades to come.
Lily is a lonely teenage desperate to escape small-town Montana. She grows close to her neighbour Odile, discovering they share the same love of language, the same longings. But as Lily uncovers more about Odile’s mysterious past, she discovers a dark secret, closely guarded and long hidden. Based on the true Second World War story of the heroic librarians at the American Library in Paris, this is an unforgettable novel of romance, friendship, family, and of heroism found in the quietest of places.”
“London, 1782, Caro Corsham finds a woman mortally wounded in the bowers of Vauxhall Pleasure Gardens.
When the constables discover that the deceased woman was a high-society lady of the night, they stop searching for her killer – and it’s up to Caro to seek justice.
But the hidden corners of Georgian society are filled with artifice, deception and secrets, and finding the killer will be harder, and more treacherous, than she can know…”
“1940. Three very different women answer the call to mysterious country estate Bletchley Park, where the best minds in Britain train to break German military codes.
Vivacious debutante Osla is the girl who has everything—beauty, wealth, and the dashing Prince Philip of Greece sending her roses — but she burns to prove herself as more than a society girl, and puts her fluent German to use as a translator of decoded enemy secrets. Imperious self-made Mab, product of east-end London poverty, works the legendary codebreaking machines as she conceals old wounds and looks for a socially advantageous husband. Awkward local girl Beth, whose shyness conceals a brilliant facility with puzzles beneath her shy exterior.
1947. As the royal wedding of Princess Elizabeth and Prince Philip whips post-war Britain into a fever, three friends-turned-enemies are reunited by a mysterious encrypted letter–the key to which lies buried in the long-ago betrayal that destroyed their friendship and left one of them confined to an asylum. A mysterious traitor has emerged from the shadows of their Bletchley Park past, and now Osla, Mab, and Beth must resurrect their old alliance and crack one last code together…”
“A breathtaking conclusion to Bracewell’s Emma of Normandy Trilogy, brimming with treachery, heartache, tenderness and passion as the English queen confronts ambitious and traitorous councilors, invading armies and the Danish king’s power-hungry concubine.
In the year 1012 England’s Norman-born Queen Emma has been ten years wed to an aging, ruthless, haunted King Æthelred. The marriage is a bitterly unhappy one, between a queen who seeks to create her own sphere of influence within the court and a suspicious king who eyes her efforts with hostility and resentment. But royal discord shifts to grudging alliance when Cnut of Denmark, with the secret collusion of his English concubine Elgiva, invades England at the head of a massive viking army. Amid the chaos of war, Emma must outwit a fierce enemy whose goal is conquest and outmaneuver the cunning Elgiva, who threatens all those whom Emma loves.”
“As Princesses of Crete and daughters of the fearsome King Minos, Ariadne and her sister Phaedra grow up hearing the hoofbeats and bellows of the Minotaur echo from the Labyrinth beneath the palace. The Minotaur – Minos’s greatest shame and Ariadne’s brother – demands blood every year.
When Theseus, Prince of Athens, arrives in Crete as a sacrifice to the beast, Ariadne falls in love with him. But helping Theseus kill the monster means betraying her family and country, and Ariadne knows only too well that in a world ruled by mercurial gods – drawing their attention can cost you everything.
In a world where women are nothing more than the pawns of powerful men, will Ariadne’s decision to betray Crete for Theseus ensure her happy ending? Or will she find herself sacrificed for her lover’s ambition?
Ariadne gives a voice to the forgotten women of one of the most famous Greek myths, and speaks to their strength in the face of angry, petulant Gods. Beautifully written and completely immersive, this is an exceptional debut novel.”
“1606. A year to the day that men were executed for conspiring to blow up Parliament, a towering wave devastates the Bristol Channel. Some proclaim God’s vengeance. Others seek to take advantage.
In London, Daniel Pursglove lies in prison waiting to die. But Charles FitzAlan, close adviser to King James I, has a job in mind that will free a man of Daniel’s skill from the horrors of Newgate. If he succeeds.
For Bristol is a hotbed of Catholic spies, and where better for the lone conspirator who evaded arrest, one Spero Pettingar, to gather allies than in the chaos of a drowned city? Daniel journeys there to investigate FitzAlan’s lead, but soon finds himself at the heart of a dark Jesuit conspiracy – and in pursuit of a killer.”
“Orkney, 1940. Five hundred Italian prisoners-of-war arrive to fortify these remote and windswept islands. Resentful islanders are fearful of the enemy in their midst, but not orphaned twin sisters Dorothy and Constance. Already outcasts, they volunteer to nurse all prisoners who are injured or fall sick.
Soon Dorothy befriends Cesare, an artists swept up by the machine of war and almost broken by the horrors he has witnessed. She is entranced by his plan to build an Italian chapel from war scrap and sea derbis, and something beautiful begins to blossom.
But Con, scarred from a betrayal in her past, is afraid for her sister; she knows that people are not always what they seem.
Soon, trust frays between the islanders and outsiders, and between the sisters – their hearts torn by rival claims of duty and desire. A storm is coming…
In the tradition of Captain Corelli’s Mandolin, The Metal Heart is a hauntingly rich Second World War love story about courage, brutality, freedom and beauty and the essence of what makes us human during the darkest of times.”
“From the No.1 bestselling author of The Last Protector and The Ashes of London comes the next book in the phenomenally successful series following James Marwood and Cat Lovett during the time of King Charles II.
Two young girls plot a murder by witchcraft. Soon afterwards a government clerk dies painfully in mysterious circumstances. His colleague James Marwood is asked to investigate – but the task brings unexpected dangers.
Meanwhile, architect Cat Hakesby is working for a merchant who lives on Slaughter Street, where the air smells of blood and a captive Barbary lion prowls the stables. Then a prestigious new commission arrives. Cat must design a Poultry House for the woman that the King loves most in all the world.
Unbeknownst to all, at the heart of this lies a royal secret so explosive that it could not only rip apart England but change the entire face of Europe…”
“A WOMAN TORN BETWEEN LOVE AND DUTY.
Two husbands dead, a boy and a sick man. And now Katharine is free to make her own choice.
The ageing King’s eye falls upon her. She cannot refuse him… or betray that she wanted another.
She becomes the sixth wife – a queen and a friend. Henry loves and trusts her. But Katharine is hiding another secret in her heart, a deeply held faith that could see her burn…
KATHARINE PARR. HENRY’S FINAL QUEEN. HER STORY.
Renowned, bestselling historian Alison Weir reveals a warm, clever woman of great fortitude who rose boldly to every turn her life took.”
Circus of Wonders by Elizabeth Macneal (May 2021)
“1866. In a coastal village in southern England, Nell picks violets for a living. Set apart by her community because of the birthmarks that speckle her skin, Nell’s world is her beloved brother and devotion to the sea.
But when Jasper Jupiter’s Circus of Wonders arrives in the village, Nell is kidnapped. Her father has sold her, promising Jasper Jupiter his very own leopard girl. It is the greatest betrayal of Nell’s life, but as her fame grows, and she finds friendship with the other performers and Jasper’s gentle brother Toby, she begins to wonder if joining the show is the best thing that has ever happened to her.
In London, newspapers describe Nell as the eighth wonder of the world. Figurines are cast in her image, and crowds rush to watch her soar through the air. But who gets to tell Nell’s story? What happens when her fame threatens to eclipse that of the showman who bought her? And as she falls in love with Toby, can he detach himself from his past and the terrible secret that binds him to his brother?
Moving from the pleasure gardens of Victorian London to the battle-scarred plains of the Crimea, Circus of Wonders is an astonishing story about power and ownership, fame and the threat of invisibility.”
“China in the nineteenth century: a proud and ancient empire forbidden to foreigners. The West desires Chinese tea above all other things but lacks the silver to buy it. Instead, western adventurers resort to smuggling opium in exchange.
The Qing Emperor will not allow his people to sink into addiction. Viceroy Lin is sent to the epicentre of the opium trade, Canton, to stop it. The Opium Wars begin – heralding a period of bloody military defeats, reparations, and one-sided treaties which will become known as the Century of Humiliation.
From Hong Kong to Beijing to the Great Wall, from the exotic wonders of the Summer Palace and the Forbidden City, to squalid village huts, the dramatic struggle rages across the Celestial Kingdom. This is the story of the Chinese people, high and low, and the Westerners who came to exploit the riches of their ancient land and culture.
We meet a young village wife struggling with the rigid traditions of her people, Manchu empresses and warriors, powerful eunuchs, fanatical Taiping and Boxer Rebels, savvy Chinese pirates, artists, concubines, scoundrels and heroes, well-intentioned missionaries and the rapacious merchants, diplomats and soldiers of the West. Fortunes will rise and fall, loves will be gained and lost.”
Mrs England by Stacey Halls (June 2021)
“West Yorkshire, 1904. When newly graduated nurse Ruby May takes a position looking after the children of Charles and Lilian England, a wealthy couple from a powerful dynasty of mill owners, she hopes it will be the fresh start she needs. But as she adapts to life at the isolated Hardcastle House, it becomes clear there’s something not quite right about the beautiful, mysterious Mrs England.
Ostracised by the servants and feeling increasingly uneasy, Ruby is forced to confront her own demons in order to prevent history from repeating itself. After all, there’s no such thing as the perfect family – and she should know.
Simmering with slow-burning menace, Mrs England is a portrait of an Edwardian marriage, weaving an enthralling story of men and women, power and control, courage, truth and the very darkest deception. Set against the atmospheric landscape of West Yorkshire, Stacey Halls’ third novel proves her one of the most exciting and compelling new storytellers of our times.”
“Troy has fallen. The Greeks have won their bitter war. They can return home victors, loaded with their spoils: their stolen gold, stolen weapons, stolen women. All they need is a good wind to lift their sails.
But the wind does not come. The gods have been offended – the body of Priam lies desecrated, unburied – and so the victors remain in limbo, camped in the shadow of the city they destroyed, pacing at the edge of an unobliging sea. And, in these empty, restless days, the hierarchies that held them together begin to fray, old feuds resurface and new suspicions fester.
Largely unnoticed by her squabbling captors, Briseis remains in the Greek encampment. She forges alliances where she can – with young, dangerously naïve Amina, with defiant, aged Hecuba, with Calchus, the disgraced priest – and begins to see the path to a kind of revenge. Briseis has survived the Trojan War, but peacetime may turn out to be even more dangerous…”
Daughters of War by Dinah Jefferies (September 2021)
“Deep in the river valley of the Dordogne, in an old stone cottage on the edge of a beautiful village, three sisters long for the end of the war.
Hélène, the eldest, is trying her hardest to steer her family to safety, even as the Nazi occupation becomes more threatening.
Elise, the rebel, is determined to help the Resistance, whatever the cost.
And Florence, the dreamer, just yearns for a world where France is free.
Then, one dark night, the Allies come knocking for help. And Hélène knows that she cannot sit on the sidelines any longer. But bravery comes at a cost, and soon the sisters’ lives become even more perilous as they fight for what is right. And secrets from their own mysterious past threaten to unravel everything they hold most dear…”
Raised at the court of King Henry III as a chamber lady to the queen, young Joanna of Swanscombe’s life changes forever when she comes into an inheritance far above all expectations, including her own.
Now a wealthy heiress, Joanna’s arranged marriage to the King’s charming, tournament-loving half-brother William de Valence immediately stokes the flames of political unrest as more established courtiers object to the privileges bestowed on newcomers.
As Joanna and William strive to build a life together, England descends into a bitter civil war. In mortal danger, William is forced to run for his life, and Joanna is left with only her wit and courage to outfox their enemies and prevent them from destroying her husband, her family, and their fortunes.”
Are you tempted by any of these? What else have I missed? Are there any other new historical fiction novels being published in 2021 that you’re looking forward to reading?