If the recession has nixed your trip to Buenos Aires and left mind-travel as your sole getaway option, these six scintillating historical novels will transport you without security checkpoints or flight delays.
First stop: the Dark Ages and Donna Woolfolk Cross’ Pope Joan. The perennial book-club favorite has gotten a makeover (and an upcoming film) in this new release, but the chaos of Europe’s spiritual upheaval still permeates this story of a woman who rises to power as the church’s only female pope. Don’t expect incense and choirs: Joan survived a Viking massacre and she’s steely, wily, and determined to triumph despite her status in a hierarchy where her gender is forbidden.
Skipping ahead to 11th-century Japan, there’s the brutality-beneath-the-silk of The Convict’s Sword, I.J. Parker’s sixth installment in her Sugawara Akida mystery series. The scenario is lush and the plot fast-paced; Parker has a truly conflicted hero in her lead detective, who must unravel the enigma behind a promise he made years ago to a dying friend. This historical reads like a modern thriller, due in great part to Parker’s keen wit and ability to immerse us in the dazzlingly unfamiliar.
Then, dust off your velvets, because we’re headed for 15th-century England in Vanora Bennett’s Figures in Silk. Feuding sisters have become a fiction staple, but Bennett evades the cliché, presenting us instead with opposing sides of life during the War of the Roses. While the prettier sister chooses the evanescent luxury of a king’s bed, the darker, more interesting sister muscles her way into the silk commerce and a secret affair with a man who could be her downfall. Bennett captures the peril of an era when heads rolled and the grit of two women seeking to survive on their own terms.
From England, plunge into the glories of 16th-century Italy and the opulent world of Sacred Hearts, where a strong-willed girl with an angelic voice is forced to take the veil, and whose determination to escape the convent at any cost sets off a series of cataclysmic events that forever changes the isolated peace the nuns’ have made with their fate. Sarah Dunant, author of the international sensation Birth of Venus, conjures a heady brew of passion and faith, once again revealing a hidden part of the Renaissance we rarely see.
Cross the Mediterranean and enter two eras: ancient Greece and the 19th century, delving into the controversial Elgin Marbles with Karen Essex’s Stealing Athena. Priceless artifacts of the Parthenon which were carted off to England, ownership of the Marbles is contested to this day, and Essex alternates between the elegant philosophy of the courtesan Aspasia and the whalebone-encased view of Lady Mary Elgin, offering a portrait of distinct societies tainted by misogyny and the illusory value of objects.
Finally, end your trip in the macabre panorama of 1920s Barcelona, where bizarre architecture festoons a city pulled between its genteel past and mechanized future. After the explosive success of The Shadow of the Wind, author Carlos Ruiz Zafón delivers a narrower, spookier look at the price of obsession in The Angel’s Game, as told through the eyes of an ambitious young writer whose desire for the unattainable leads him to self-destruction and a Faustian pact with his enigmatic publisher.
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C.W. Gortner’s novel The Last Queen (Ballantine Books) was a Marin Independent Journal bestseller and is being translated into eight languages. His next novel, The Confessions of Catherine de Medici will be published in 2010. He is a regular contributor to the Historical Novels Review. Visit him here or at his blog.