Friday, April 24, 2015

The Re-Created Past

However much historical novelists strive to portray the past in realistic ways, fiction can never be historically accurate in the scientific sense, for the simple reason that it requires an element of the imagination; otherwise, it is history, not fiction. Often a writer invents characters, but even if a novel focuses on the lives of real people, the author must fill in the gaps in the historical record. Depending on the distance between story time and the present, that may mean creating thoughts, feelings, conversations, or entire personalities. Details of daily life can also demand a considerable amount of research, followed by a necessary dose of invention. Good historical novelists try to keep the invention within the realm of the plausible, but that’s the best we can do.

My latest interview with Erika Johansen, the author of a trilogy that begins with The Queen of the Tearling, goes beyond this typical approach to fictionalizing history. The world of the Tearling appears medieval, but it is wholly invented, describing a society that does not yet exist—and one that we may want to ensure never comes into being. The future society that Johansen portrays is not as dystopian as those in young adult favorites like The Hunger Games, but its reversion to the Middle Ages—one powerful, central church, nobles and vassals, short life spans and high infant mortality, limited education and literacy—neatly fits the definition of a place that one might enjoy in books or film but would not want to experience in real life.

Johansen holds up a mirror to our own obsession with technological prowess, our tolerance of a widening gap between rich and poor, our indifference to climate change and the environmental pollution that drives it. And she does so without preaching, through the story of nineteen-year-old Kelsea, destined by birth to become queen of the Tearling and prepared by her unconventional foster parents to defy the entrenched representatives of aristocracy and religion—if they don’t find a way to get rid of her first. The series raises disturbing questions: How far, really, have we come in the last five hundred years? How easily might we slip back, relinquishing our democratic ideals? How dependent are we on our technology? What safeguards have we constructed against a future we might prefer not to live?

Raising such questions without dictating answers, making them personal to each reader, is one of the great virtues of stories, no matter the time or setting in which they take place. So let us not forget, amid the necessary checking of facts, that emotions and sensations are at least as important to fiction.

The rest of this post comes from New Books in Historical Fiction

Once in a while, we here at New Books in Historical Fiction like to branch out. This month’s interview is one example. Erika Johansen’s bestselling Queen of the Tearling blends past and present, history and fantasy, to create a future world that by abandoning its advanced technology (including, by accident, medicine) has reverted to a society that more resembles the fourteenth century than the twenty-fourth.

The world of the Tearling is not exactly the Middle Ages revived. The inhabitants know that life was once different, even though books have become scarce and computers nonexistent. They have learned the story of the Crossing, when a few thousand dreamers disgusted with the social stratification and environmental pollution around them decided to leave it all behind and start again on the other side of the Atlantic. And their idealistic young queen, Kelsea—raised in hiding to protect her from the savage politics of the center—yearns to restore her realm to the democratic and egalitarian principles of the founders. Assuming, of course, that she can survive on the throne long enough to establish her right to rule.

But treachery threatens Kelsea from within and without, by means military and magical. The greatest danger comes from Mortmesne, the kingdom to the east, where the Red Queen has ruled for more than a century. Kelsea’s first action as queen puts her on a headlong collision course with the Red Queen, with consequences that play out in book 2, The Invasion of the Tearling, due for release in June.

In The Queen of the Tearling (HarperCollins, 2014), Erika Johansen has created a thought-provoking and entertaining coming-of-age saga that both historical fiction and science fiction fans can enjoy.

Friday, April 17, 2015

Laurel Leaves

Congratulations are due—no, not to me, although I’m still pretty chuffed about The Winged Horse having made it as far as the long list for the inaugural M.M. Bennetts Award for Historical Fiction. These congratulations are for those on the short list, whose names were announced this week: David Blixt (The Prince’s Doom), Greg Taylor (Lusitania R.E.X.), and especially Steve Wiegenstein (This Old World), who is generously reviewing and conducting a series of interviews with all the authors on the long list. You can find the interviews on his blog, starting now and continuing through at least the end of June. Questions about The Winged Horse just arrived, so check back soon for the link.

I have yet to read the three books that made the second cut, although I have begun Wiegenstein’s Slant of Light, which is remarkable for its ability to set a scene and draw the reader into the story world while providing just the right amount of local color and description. So I can readily believe that these three are the best of the best. I do know a number of the other authors on the long list, so I also accept that the committee had a tough decision to make in winnowing the field. I hope that M.M. Bennetts looks down and feels comforted by the warmth of her friends and their determination to honor her writing legacy.

And in case you’d like to expand your reading list, the long list of writers included, in addition to my book and the three listed above: Ella March Chase, The Queen’s Dwarf; PDR Lindsay, Tizzie; Elisabeth Marrion, Liverpool Connection; Mark Patton, Omphalos; David Penny, The Red Hill; Judith Starkston, Hand of Fire; Stephanie Thornton, The Tiger Queens; and Jeri Westerson, Cup of Blood. A wide range of times, places, and topics, so there should be something for everyone.

Of course, it would have been nice to see Winged Horse flying higher amid the clouds, but I am happy with the outcome. I don’t envy the committee as it struggles to cut the list from three names to one. I will sport my semifinalist emblem with pride, and I wish success to all the writers who entered—and especially to the chosen three as they advance to the next round.

Friday, April 10, 2015

More News

Last week I posted about developments at Five Directions Press, but our fellow-cooperative Triskele Books has news, too. For starters, just in time for Easter, it released a no-calorie treat, A Time and a Place: seven award-winning novels by seven different authors, packed into one gorgeous box. Seven journeys through time and place to:
  • Ancient Palmyra, fighting alongside a warrior queen (The Rise of Zenobia by Jane Dixon-Smith);
  • Modern-day Anglesey, trailing a psychopath (Crimson Shore by Gillian Hamer);
  • World War II France, to join la RĂ©sistance and fall in love with the enemy (Wolfsangel by Liza Perrat);
  • Coventry, during the 1980s melting pot of racial tensions (Ghost Town by Catriona Troth);
  • Charleville and the incredible adventures of a lost manuscript (Delirium: The Rimbaud Delusion by Barbara Scott-Emmett);
  • Post-apocalyptic Wales, surviving with a rat pack (Rats by JW Hicks); and
  • Contemporary Zurich, where everyone has a secret  (Behind Closed Doors by JJ Marsh).

As of April 3, 2015, the books are available to order from (The link goes to the US store. If you want the UK store, click on the Triskele link at the top of the page.) A box of delights for less than the price of a large Easter egg. I’ve read a number of the individual books and enjoyed them all, so this is really a great deal.

But that’s not all. On April 17, 2015, Triskele is also organizing the 2015 Indie Author Fair at Foyles Bookshop, the big independent bookstore in the Charing Cross area of London. And in preparation, Triskele is hosting a Rafflecopter: forty different ebooks, paperbacks, or swag bag prizes. To sign up, go to the Triskele blog. But don’t wait, as you have less than a week to enter. And if you happen to be in London on April 17 (I wish I could be!), do stop by Foyles and see the Author Fair for yourself.


The last piece of news has to do with New Books in Historical Fiction, which posted two new interviews yesterday, neither of them by me. Our own is Libbie Hawker’s interview with George Stein about Sing before Breakfast: A Novel of Gettysburg, which went live almost to the minute of the 150th anniversary of General Robert E. Lee’s surrender at Appomattox Court House. But we also had our first cross-post, in which Siobhan Mukerji, the host of New Books in Law, interviews Sally Cabot Gunning about the legal issues associated with her Satucket Trilogy, a series of historical novels set in eighteenth-century America. Meanwhile, having polished off Laurie R. King’s delectable Dreaming Spies (no. 13 in her series featuring Mary Russell and Sherlock Holmes), the sequel to Garment of Shadows, I am gearing up for Erika Johansen’s Queen of the Tearling, to get her on the air (if all goes well) just in time for the release of her sequel, Invasion of the Tearling. Stay tuned!

Friday, April 3, 2015

Five Directions Press Expands

Five Directions Press is growing up—or at least growing. We released Courtney J. Hall’s much-awaited Some Rise by Sin this past week. You can find the links for the paperback and Kindle editions at the Five Directions Press site; a nook edition is underway and should be available within days. Here are the details for Some Rise by Sin:

Cade Badgley has just returned from an overseas diplomatic mission when he learns that his father is dying. Cade has no interest in filling his father’s shoes, but the inheritance laws of sixteenth-century England leave him no choice: he is the new Earl of Easton, with a hundred souls dependent on him, a rundown estate, and no money in his coffers. A friendly neighbor offers to help, but at a cost: Cade must escort the neighbor’s daughter Samara to London and help her find a husband.

Samara, a tempestuous artist, would rather sketch Mary Tudor’s courtiers than woo them. But her beauty, birth, and fortune soon make her the most sought-after young woman in London. As Cade watches her fall under the spell of a man he has every reason to distrust, he must balance his obligations to Easton against the demands of his heart and the echoes of a scandal that drove him away from his family twelve years before.

“Tudor history comes alive in this enthralling tale of a reluctant heir to an earldom and the high-spirited lady who wins his heart. An absorbing and memorable read.”
—Pamela Mingle, author of Kissing Shakespeare and
The Pursuit of Mary Bennet

“Some Rise by Sin is a sumptuous tale of romance, religious turmoil, and political intrigue set against the dramatic backdrop of the dying days of Mary Tudor’s reign. When the Earl of Brentford dispatches his unbridled daughter to the English court to find her own husband, will Samara choose wisely? Or will this naive country girl, who prefers sketching en plein air to playing the coquette, fall for the flattery of a deceitful seducer? With the keen eye of an artist, Courtney J. Hall paints a vivid picture, rich in historical detail, of this turbulent time of transition at the Tudor court.”
—Marie Macpherson, author of The First Blast of the Trumpet

In addition to a new book, we have a new author. Annabel Liu published eight collections of short fiction and literary essays in Chinese before sitting down to write her memoirs in English. Born in Shanghai, Annabel lived through the Japanese occupation during World War II, only to be whisked away to Taiwan when the Civil War ended in defeat for the Nationalist forces, for whom her father had been fighting for much of her childhood. After university, she moved to the United States, where she married, started a family, and and worked as a journalist for several US papers. She recounts these experiences in My Years as Chang Tsen: Two Wars, One Childhood and Under the Towering Tree: A Daughter’s Memoir. We are happy to welcome her.

Virginia Pye, the author of the exquisitely written River of Dust and the soon-to-be released Dreams of the Red Phoenix, comments: “In this beautifully written memoir, Annabel Lui tells the story of her family’s escape from China after the Civil War, settling first in Taiwan and then America. In vivid scenes, we see Liu’s traditional father inflict painful scars on her and other members of her family in his attempt to maintain dominance in a changing world. We cheer for her in this heroic and masterful tale as she succeeds in coming out from under his towering shadow.” Annabel is currently working on a third book in English, tentatively titled An Immigrant’s Memoir on Food.

In addition, we are included in Deb Vanasse’s article, “Joining Forces: The Why and How of Author Collectives,” which appeared in IBPA Independent in February 2015 and is now online. This article, which also quotes our friends at Triskele Books and Writer’s Choice, is well worth reading if you are considering setting up a cooperative of your own.

With all this change, we are putting a new emphasis on defining our brand and marketing. A Facebook ad for Courtney’s book reached 5,300 people, of whom almost 100 clicked through to find out more (bizarre as it seems, 2% is actually a great response for online ads). We have reorganized our book list on the website into five subcategories (past, present, future, remembered lives, young lives) to indicate the five directions, but we expect to do much more with the site in coming months. We have also been invited to participate in a local book fair celebrating independent authors, so expect to see announcements and updates for these things as spring turns into summer.

In passing, let me mention that Five Directions Press recently reissued our first book, The Not Exactly Scarlet Pimpernel, in a smaller trim size. The text has not changed except to correct a few minor errors, so if you bought the book already there is no reason to buy it again. But if you are looking for the print book on, be aware that Amazon still favors the original printing. To find the new one, click on the Kindle edition, then click the little plus sign next to the word “paperback,” and you will see the new cover (shown above: you will know you are in the right place if you see the picture of Harvard’s Widener Library across the back cover and spine). Or just click this link or the one at the Five Directions Press site. Otherwise, it appears as if the book is out of print—which only the original version is.

We had considered reissuing The Golden Lynx and The Winged Horse in the smaller size as well, having discovered a way to keep the page counts almost the same. But after watching the computers in action, we decided to leave well enough alone. This is what happens when computers run the world....