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January 15, 2019

At first glance, Caleb Carr’s The Alienist looks a lot like a New York version of Sherlock Holmes. The main action takes place in the 1890s (1896, specifically). There’s a Watson-like first-person narrator (John Moore, a reporter for The New York Times). And the protagonist (Dr. Laszlo Kreizler) is a brilliant—if troubled—mind with unconventional investigative methods.
 

But the setting isn’t the only difference. For starters, it’s not Kreizler that’s the degenerate (as Holmes was in Si...

September 11, 2018

“Without Radu to gently push her in new directions, she was turning into the most brutal version possible of herself.”
 

The quote above is both the culmination and problem with Bright We Burn, Kiersten White’s final book in her trilogy about Vlad the Impaler (if Vlad were a girl named Lada).
 

Lada has grown truly ruthless now, willing to kill thousands—and earn her nickname by displaying their bodies on stakes—to cement her claim to the throne of Wallachia and free it from vassalage to...

January 26, 2018

Kiersten White’s Now I Rise is an example of a sequel that wouldn’t work on its own, but as part of a series, makes for a strong second installment.
 

In the first book, And I Darken, we watched Lada and Radu, the point-of-view characters, navigate a challenging childhood in the 15th-century Ottoman Empire. Early on, they’re sold to the sultan by their father, the brutal king of Wallachia (part of historical Romania). Lada coped by training to be a warrior, Radu by learning to be a skil...

October 20, 2017

I’m always fascinated when an author I like switches point of view. And Bernard Cornwell does it admirably in The Last Kingdom, the first book in his Saxon Stories series.
 

Most of Cornwell’s novels (or at least, all the ones I’ve read) are written in third person. But he tells the Last Kingdom from the first-person perspective of Uhtred, a ninth-century English boy who’s kidnapped and raised by invading Danish Vikings. Uhtred narrates his tale in hindsight, reflecting on his youth fro...

March 25, 2017

Michael Punke’s The Revenant is brutal, gripping, and perhaps too historically accurate for its own good.
 

The story starts with a flash-forward, showing us the moment in 1823 when Hugh Glass, the protagonist, is left to die near the Missouri River. Then Punke flashes back to show how Glass came to join the Rocky Mountain Fur Company, get horrifically mauled by a grizzly bear, and be abandoned by the two men who were supposed to stay with him until he passed. Glass survives, though, an...

December 30, 2016

On the surface, Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose looks like Sherlock Holmes in a 14th century Italian abbey. There’s a murder mystery; Adso, a young Austrian monk at the time of the story’s events, serves as a Watson-like, first-person narrator; and William, a former inquisitor, plays the part of an observant English detective. Eco even nods at this relationship by having William hail from Baskerville (the site of Holmes’ most famous case).
 

But The Name of the Rose is far more than...

December 4, 2016

And I Darken is the perfect title for Kiersten White’s novel about Vlad the Impaler’s origins.
 

The plot (eventually) focuses on machinations for the 15th century Ottoman throne, but at its heart, And I Darken is a character-driven tale that shows how abandonment changes Vlad and the other protagonists.


Oh, and in White’s retelling, Vlad isn’t a man—he’s Lada, a girl who’d rather swing a sword than don a dress.


It’s a compelling mix.


The character development begins almost immediately,...

May 3, 2016

History rarely presents a neat narrative, and the Wars of the Roses are about as messy as it gets. Multiple royal houses battling for the throne of England in the 15th century; social unrest caused in part by the hardships imposed by the Hundred Years’ War; buckets of Richards and Henrys to keep track of—it’s a hell of a jumble.
 

But the bloody, backstabbing complexity offers excellent source material for storytellers up to the challenge of sorting through it; George R. R. Martin mined...

January 13, 2016

Anthony Doerr’s All the Light We Cannot See is aptly named. His World War II novel of a German boy and a French girl shines brilliantly throughout, but I closed the book feeling like I’d missed the most revealing illumination.
 

Two quotes preface the story. The first, attributed to Philip Beck, informs us that in August of 1944, the Nazi-occupied French city of Saint-Malo was all but destroyed by Allied forces. The second quote, attributed to Joseph Goebbels, emphasizes the importance...

November 12, 2015

Recently, my dad asked if the first Bernard Cornwell novel he lent me in high school (Sharpe’s Eagle) set me on the path to majoring in history. It probably did.
 

Cornwell is a master of historical fiction. Specifically, he’s a master of historical military fiction. His Richard Sharpe series follows a British solider through the Napoleonic Wars. I remember being totally enthralled by those books, to the point that I packed six of them to take on a week-long vacation, and read all six w...

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I write mostly speculative fiction. Usually fantasy, with historical elements mixed in. Sometimes there's a bit of mystery too, or (shhh!) even a little romance.

 

But it's weird—it's always weird. Consider yourself warned.

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