Friday, August 31, 2018

Let’s Talk about Love

It surprises some of my readers that I don’t place my historical novels in the category of historical romance. I list them as “historical fiction,” qualified as 16th century and Russia for the sake of the computers. Depending on the novel, I also specify “coming of age” or “family life,” even “Ivan the Terrible” or “Tatars.” But generally I don’t specify “romance.” This post explores why.

For starters, let me say that I sympathize with the readers who wonder. After all, I have yet to write a novel that doesn’t include a romance, and the Legends novels are almost universally based around that hoariest of romance plots: the marriage of convenience. If they’re to include male-female relationships of any sort, they could hardly do otherwise, given the time and place and social class of my characters. As I’ve explained elsewhere, in elite sixteenth-century Russian society, every marriage was arranged for the political convenience of the great clans, and women of marriageable age generally lived in seclusion—meaning that they seldom encountered men outside their own families. That was a deliberate choice by those in power, designed to prevent unscripted attachments. And although my new series, Songs of Steppe & Forest, does explore the edges of that system and will include three books that don’t revolve around arranged marriages and a fourth with a bride who escapes her father’s plans for her, they too include the possibility of romance.

Moreover, my books generally have happy, often romantically happy endings. I believe that love is a reward for having done the hard work of growing up in some way, so I allow heroes and heroines who put in the time and effort to find each other. In general, as a reader I can tolerate unhappy endings as long as they’re uplifting, but I much prefer the other kind, so that’s what I write. Not every couple ends one of my novels in love: Nasan and Daniil have spent about 48 hours in the same house at the end of The Golden Lynx, for example, so if they’re to remain realistic, they can only agree to stop hating each other. But I’m sure it’s no surprise that their relationship grows over the course of the series into something a good deal stronger than guarded neutrality.

So in what sense are my books not historical romances? Well, in truth they are: the old-fashioned historical romances that I grew up with, exemplified by the novels of Georgette Heyer and Anya Seton, ably carried forward by Philippa Gregory, to whose bestselling stories one reviewer compared my Vermilion Bird—thank you!—and many others. Which means that the real question becomes, “So why don’t I list them that way?” And although I would note that my books are not only romances, the true answer to that question is simple. It has to do with readers’ expectations.

In short, as a genre historical romance has changed since I discovered Heyer’s These Old Shades as a teenager and tumbled into life-long fandom. It still plays host to Philippa Gregory and others like her, but it also includes a large number of authors and titles that put a lot of emphasis on the romance in preference to the history, resulting in female characters who behave in ways that no young woman who wanted to be considered proper would have done before the introduction of reliable birth control in the 1960s and male characters blessedly but anachronistically free of that psychological condition known as “mother/whore syndrome.”

I have nothing against such novels, although they make me laugh and roll my eyes, but I don’t write them. As a historian, I can’t write them and still hold my head up in public. I kind of wish I could, as I would probably sell many more books, but I can’t. I am, after all, the person who obsessed over having misidentified one historical figure’s place of incarceration, an error that only I and a dozen other people on the planet would even recognize, until I produced a second edition that resolved the discrepancy. Crafting a heroine who defies the rules of her time and place is one thing; the idea of creating someone oblivious to those rules would curdle my blood—my problem, I know, but so it is.

All of which makes me suspect that the large reading public devoted to that newer type of historical romance would be disappointed to discover my buttoned-down approach to the same subject. If I ever land a major publishing-house contract and become a household name, I’ll assume that readers who enjoy my traditional take on the past will not only find me but appreciate learning about the romantic elements in advance. As a relative unknown, though, I have hesitated to take that path. The last thing I want is to disappoint prospective readers. And that’s why I list my novels as “historical fiction” but not as “historical romance.”

Image: Konstantin Makovsky, A Boyar Wedding (1883), public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

Friday, August 24, 2018

The Uncomfortable Past

As I mentioned in a previous post, “The Fog of War,” there seems to be a zeitgeist in historical fiction that causes books addressing particular topics to arrive in waves. This is curious in a sense, because the length of roads to publication varies widely between commercial publishing and the world of indie presses and self-published authors. So even if anniversaries lead to media coverage of, say, World War I or the US Civil War that then sparks ideas in the minds of historical novelists, why do the books appear at more or less the same time, regardless of how they’re published?

I don’t know the answer, but I do see the phenomenon. For example, since the spring of 2018 no less than three books about the Underground Railroad have come to my attention. The first, Jacqueline Friedland’s Trouble the Water, is the subject of my most recent interview. The second, Terry Gamble’s The Eulogist, is destined for an interview next January, when it appears. I had to turn down the third, Martha Conway’s The Underground River, even though I loved Conway’s Sugarland, because there are only so many slots in the schedule and I like to cover as many times and places as possible over the course of a year. (For my previous interview with Conway, see 

Perhaps it’s the centennial of the Civil War that has turned people’s thoughts to the antebellum South and the dreadful inequality that kept those plantations running and their owners sufficiently satisfied that they were prepared to secede rather than accept the need for change. Perhaps it’s the current conversation about the lingering reality of racism and the removal of statues commemorating those who fought to preserve slavery that has writers wondering about those who opposed it, what drove them and what happened to them as a result of bucking the trend.

Trouble the Water doesn’t answer the question of the zeitgeist. As you’ll hear in the interview, Friedland decided to focus on abolitionism and the antebellum South because it interested her enough to keep her wanting to write about the topic for years—which for a novel is also a serious reason for choosing one topic over another. In doing so, she has given us a story that explores with sensitivity and depth the conflicting positions on slavery in 1840s Charleston: the views of slave owners and abolitionists, visitors and long-time residents, and, most important, in the person of Clover, the slaves themselves.

So listen to the interview, where we discuss, among other things, the difficulty for an author of portraying characters whose views she finds distasteful. Because whether the past makes us comfortable or not, we can’t avoid it—it’s already happened—and we do the present no service by sugarcoating the misdeeds and mistaken views of our predecessors. One day, no doubt, our descendants will wonder about us. “What were they thinking?” they’ll say. “How could they act that way?” And you know what? They’ll probably be right.

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

Douglas Elling has left his home town in England and made a name for himself in Charleston. It’s about twenty years before the US Civil War, and slavery is still very much an institution in South Carolina, but Douglas finds it abhorrent. He has promised his father-in-law to care for the family business, so he can’t simply pack up and go home. Instead he becomes involved in the nascent abolition movement, using his inherited fleet and his manumitted laborers to intercept illegal slave traders on the high seas.

But when his estate goes up in flames, killing his wife and young daughter, Douglas is shattered. Can any good he might do by fighting the entrenched slave culture of the US South justify the death of his loved ones? He retreats into his shell until, three years later, the arrival of Abigail Milton, another English refugee, summons him back to society.

Abigail, aged seventeen, has a difficult past of her own. Her family has fallen from a comfortable middle-class existence to a life of poverty, and the wealthy uncle who helps them keep food on the table expects a price in return: Abby’s virtue. She doesn’t dare share the truth of her uncle’s advances: he’s promised to cut off all support if she tells. But the invitation to live as Douglas’s ward offers a perfect solution, even after she arrives in Charleston and realizes that not all is as it seems. Especially where Douglas is concerned …

In Trouble the Water (Spark Press, 2018), Jacqueline Friedland explores the complex society of the antebellum South, the influence and consequences of slavery, and the contributions of those who strove to help its victims escape through the Underground Railroad and ultimately to end the system altogether.

Friday, August 17, 2018

Interview with Linnea Hartsuyker

I made the acquaintance of Linnea Hartsuyker when her publicist pitched her first book, The Half-Drowned King, to me for a New Books in Historical Fiction interview. You can find out more about that book below and in my blog post from that time, “The Power of the Sea.”

Even then I knew that The Half-Drowned King was the first part of a trilogy, so when I received a query about book 2, The Sea Queen, I jumped at the chance to set up a blog Q&A for Linnea, who in the meantime had also written a wonderful blurb for my own Vermilion Bird. (No tit-for-tat there: I’d have happily sent her my questions anyway.)

I’ll let her take over here, with thanks and a note that I’m looking forward to The Golden Wolf this time next year, especially having read that description at the end. And make sure you read right to the end, where you can find Linnea’s website address and social media links.

Congratulations on publishing book 2 of your series! For those encountering your novels for the first time, could you give us a capsule introduction to The Half-Drowned King, which precedes the new book?

Thank you! In The Half-Drowned King we first meet the young viking Ragnvald and his sister Svanhild. Ragnvald’s quest during The Half-Drowned King is to revenge himself on his stepfather and gain control of his ancestral land. But he has also seen a vision of a golden wolf who he must follow, and finds that wolf in young Harald of Vestfold, who is prophesied to become the first king of Norway.

As Ragnvald pursues his goals, his sister Svanhild flees from an unwanted marriage, and finds her escape in the arms of Ragnvald’s most powerful enemy, the sea king Solvi Hunthiofsson. Brother and sister both succeed in their aims, but end up on opposite sides of the fight for Norway’s future.

And where is your hero, Ragnvald Eysteinsson, at the beginning of The Sea Queen?

At the beginning of The Sea Queen, five years after the end of The Half-Drowned King, Ragnvald is in the service of King Harald as he battles to conquer all of Norway. While Ragnvald would sometimes rather be back at home, ruling his district, he also enjoys the success he has at Harald’s side. But in fighting one of Harald’s battles, he is involved in a bloody accident that will have repercussions for himself and many of his friends and enemies.

The first person we meet, though, is actually Ragnvald’s wife, Hilda—one of my favorite characters in The Half-Drowned King, at which point Ragnvald and Hilda were not yet married. Alas, their domestic life seems to be, to put it mildly, more complicated than either of them probably wants. What can you tell us about that?

Something I’m very interested in exploring in my writing is different kinds of long-term relationships. Vikings, living in the 9th–11th centuries, did not share our notions of romantic love. Love affairs occurred, and sometimes led to marriage, but most marriages were arranged between families. Also, the historical Ragnvald is known to have had sons by concubines other than his wife Hilda. So I wanted to present a complex marriage, based on affection and practicality more than on romantic love.

Ragnvald’s relationship with Hilda is further complicated by his affair with his stepmother—which led to a son only a few months older than Hilda’s eldest son. And finally, in an era without reliable birth control, the only way for women to be sure to avoid pregnancy was to avoid sex, and that too causes problems in Ragnvald and Hilda’s marriage.

Ragnvald is still, I gather, a strong supporter of King Harald, your own ancestor. But the situation in Harald’s court is also troubled, and not only Ragnvald but his stepbrother, Sigurd, get caught up in the conflict. What are their relative positions, and how are Ragnvald’s own impressions of Harald changing in this second novel?

One thing I love about The Heimskringla, the saga that tells us the most about King Harald’s rise and reign, is how ambivalent it is about kingship. It was written by the Icelander Snorri Sturlsson in the 12th century, as a compliment to Norwegian kings, but it also asserts Iceland’s independence—Iceland was something approaching a democracy at the time. So in my source material, Harald is both a mighty warrior and a successful king, but also a source of conflict.

I was interested in using this trilogy to explore the benefits and pitfalls of kingship, as well as how people and societies balance freedom and safety. Ragnvald believes in Harald’s quest to unite Norway, bring it into the wider European sphere, and protect it from raiders, but he is too clear-eyed not to see the negative things that come from that as well.

Sigurd, Ragnvald’s stepbrother, begins the novel following the path that many Norse took at that time, which was to escape Harald’s wars and new taxes for land overseas. He encounters those who wish Harald ill, and has to decide where his own loyalty lies.

My absolute favorite from The Half-Drowned King was, of course, Ragnvald’s sister Svanhild, who’s been living at sea with the trickster Solvi. What’s going on with them—and between them and Ragnvald—here?

Ah, Svanhild. She is everyone’s favorite, and so fun to write!

Sea-faring was dangerous in the Viking Age, and while Svanhild loves adventure, at the beginning of The Sea Queen, she is looking to settle down for the sake of her young son. Unlike Hilda and Ragnvald’s relationship, Svanhild and Solvi’s is based on romantic, sexual love, and is a strong partnership as well. But Solvi is not ready to stop exploring, or to give up all hope of ruling the kingdom he was supposed to inherit in Norway, and that puts him in conflict with both Svanhild and also Ragnvald again.

And where do things stand with book 3, The Golden Wolf? Any hints of or pointers on what to expect?

The Golden Wolf has been much harder to write than The Sea Queen. The Golden Wolf begins fourteen years after The Sea Queen. Not only are Ragnvald and Svanhild still main characters, but their children are growing into adulthood, and have their own conflicts and storylines. Svanhild may be a wonderful character, but she’s a difficult mother!

One of Harald’s tactics for uniting Norway was marrying every king’s daughter he could find, and that filled Norway with his sons, all of whom want kingdoms and responsibility. So in The Golden Wolf, all of the characters have to negotiate the problems that come from a king having too many ambitious heirs—the golden wolf has wolfish sons who threaten to destroy the tenuous peace that Ragnvald and Harald have made for Norway.


Linnea Hartsuyker grew up in the middle of hundreds of acres of forest outside Ithaca, NY. She holds an MFA in Creative Writing from New York University. The Sea Queen is her second novel. Find out more about her at
Twitter: @linneaharts
Instagram: @linneaharts

Friday, August 10, 2018

Farewell, Kit

This Monday morning, I learned with both shock and sadness—on social media, of all places, a venue that so often appears trivial—that the writer Ann Swinfen had died unexpectedly the day before. It says a great deal about her family that in the first flush of their grief they thought to reach out to her many friends, followers, and readers to let them know of her passing. I’m not sure that under the same circumstances I could have mustered that much consideration. But I’m very grateful to them for making the effort.

Ann Swinfen is not yet a household name, although she was on her way to becoming one and certainly deserves that status. We never met in person, but I considered her a friend. Back in February 2015, I interviewed her about The Testament of Mariam, an early novel that she had reissued under her own imprint, Shakenoak Press, not long before. She really wanted to talk about her most recent book, This Rough Ocean, a novel
about her husband’s family in seventeenth-century England—or at least about the Chronicles of Christoval Alvarez, set in the Elizabethan period—but as always during the few years we knew each other, she was gracious, in this case about the fact that so few novels about biblical times came my way compared to those set in the sixteenth century and later.

Ann had published at least half a dozen novels with a commercial publisher before the company decided that no one wanted to read historical fiction. An accomplished editor and proof reader as well as a gifted writer, she responded by starting her own press, devoted to reissuing those older novels and producing, at a pace that left the rest of us reeling, more than fifteen new ones in the years between 2014 and now. Particularly remarkable, given the rate with which she churned them out, the books were good: meticulously researched, well written, well edited, with beautiful covers designed by JD Smith and excellent formatting. She exemplified everything a self-published author can be, even mastering the art of marketing in an online world. I had no need to match her in speed, but the consistency of her output impressed me, especially as I widened my acquaintance with her books.

Despite my temporary focus on Mariam in the interview, I soon followed up on the story of Christoval, née Caterina, and known to all and sundry as Kit. I read the first book, The Secret World of Christoval Alvarez, and fell in love with the main character: a gifted Portuguese doctor, trained by her father, who dresses as a boy for her own safety and so that she can practice her profession, who befriends a young actor named Simon, and who is in every sense a kindred spirit to my Nasan. I read the four or five titles already published and gobbled down the new ones not long after they came out. I even acted as historical consultant on the sixth book, Voyage to Muscovy. In return, Ann read the first three Legends novels and wrote an endorsement for The Swan Princess that I still treasure.

After a while, Ann developed a second series, The Oxford Medieval Mysteries (these are not her only books, just the ones I followed most closely). As counterparts to Kit and Simon, whose relationship naturally develops slowly because even in book 9 it’s unstated whether Simon knows of Kit’s masquerade (I’ve assumed he does since at least book 6), the second series presents Nicholas and Emma, living about five years after the arrival of the Black Death in England in 1348.

As explained in the opening to The Bookseller’s Tale, Nicholas lost his wife to the plague and is now rearing their two children with the assistance of his sister, who lives with them. Emma, a reluctant resident in a convent whom we meet in The Novice’s Tale, soon comes to return his affections, but they both know that her social standing far exceeds his, which in the fourteenth century poses a serious barrier to their chances of marrying. As the series continues, one local mystery after another throws these two together, but where they will end up remains uncertain. I had just purchased book 6—the last, as it turns out—when I heard the news of Ann’s passing, so I have that installment still to look forward to, but I regret that I won’t have the pleasure of following their story further.

The sense of community is strong among writers, especially among self-published or small-press and coop-published writers. There’s surprisingly little competition, perhaps because the world always has room for more good books, and a great deal of support. Ann exemplified that element of authorship, too. I will miss her.

And as a reader I will miss her too. I’d love to see Kit and Simon’s long friendship resolved. Maybe a half-written sequel will emerge, waiting for the right person to finish it. I’d offer to complete it myself if no one else wanted to step up to the plate. But that seems like too much to hope for.

So rest in peace, Ann, knowing that you leave your characters behind to carry your name forward. And farewell, Kit and Simon, Nicholas and Emma, and all the other wonderful creations you gave us. As Nasan would put it, may their journey continue in the worlds beyond this one, under the grandmothers’ loving eyes.

Image: Russia, Starry Sky, from Pixabay (no attribution required).

Friday, August 3, 2018

The Power of the Past

I wrote this post for the “All the Russias” blog maintained by the Jordan Center at New York University, and it went live just this week, so I grabbed the chance to post it here as well. If you’re interested in Russia more generally, both its past and its present, make sure to check out “All the Russias” for yourself.
Ten years ago, when I began writing a series of novels set in Russia during the minority of Ivan the Terrible, the last thing I expected was for the books to have present-day relevance. Yes, like most scholars of pre-Petrine Russia, I cut my academic teeth on Edward L. Keenan’s “Muscovite Political Folkways” (1986), an article that, however schematic and speculative, still resonates along the corridors of time in fascinating ways. But a lot has changed since 1538, whatever principles of Russian political culture continue to play out in contemporary life.

On the contrary, my goal in tackling the Legends of the Five Directions series was simple. Because I work as an editor rather than a professor, and publishing continues all year, I found it difficult to schedule the kind of intensive archival study necessary for serious academic research. I’d already begun writing fiction for fun, so why not put my PhD to work and get back to the subject I love?

What I wanted, more than anything, was to produce historical fiction that accurately reflected what scholars have learned about social, political, and cultural life in Muscovy, ideas developed in great detail yet still missing, with rare exceptions, even from college textbooks. The general public has little familiarity with academic history on Russia in general and Muscovite Russia in particular, and that observation includes novelists. As a result, historical fiction tends to get at best a mixed reception from scholars, often deservedly so. That’s true everywhere, but it’s especially true of fiction set in Russia. 

But there is no fundamental reason why historical fiction can’t conform to the general outlines of the historical record. It can never be wholly accurate, since it involves imagined feelings, invented dialogue, and characters who never existed or about whom little information survives. Novelists can’t say, “we don’t know.” They must fill in the blanks, decide among the available options, and craft the whole into an emotionally satisfying tale.

Fiction writers can, however, choose to respect the details we have, understanding that exact sequences and events are themselves clues to the underlying story. Pursuing that approach to historical fiction became my goal, and being a specialist on the sixteenth century, I believed I could accomplish it. If, in addition, I convinced a general audience that Russia had more in its past than vodka and communism, so much the better.

Then in March 2014, the very month in which I published The Winged Horse (Legends of the Five Directions 2: East), the Russian Federation formally annexed Crimea. Russian President Vladimir Putin justified his land grab by insisting that “Crimea has always been part of Russia.” Yet here was my novel, set on the steppe, in which a Crimea that was very much not part of Russia played a significant role in the events—fictional and otherwise—affecting my characters’ life choices.

If anything, Crimea in those days was Turkish, a vassal state of the Ottoman Empire, although the sultans appear to have contented themselves with appointing its khans, calling on Tatar troops during military campaigns, and establishing strategic control of Crimea’s section of the Black Sea coastline. The Girei (Giray) clan that ruled Crimea allied with Russia under Ivan III (r. 1462–1505), only to fall out with his successor, Vasilii III (r. 1505–1533). 

Whether the falling out took place because Sigismund I the Old of Poland-Lithuania paid better, because Vasilii appointed a foe of the Girei clan to rule the subordinate principality of Kasimov, because Russia and Crimea went head to head in a contest to take over the rival khanate of Kazan, or some combination thereof, the result was a powerful, semi-independent, Ottoman-supported, hostile khanate on Muscovy’s southern border.

The khans of Crimea had grand ambitions, too: they sought to reestablish a single Tatar state with themselves at its head, replacing the disintegrated Juchid ulus, better known as the Golden Horde. With that goal in mind, the Girei dynasts defeated Ahmed Khan of the Great Horde in 1502, sent persistent demands to Moscow noting that Kasimov belonged to them, and did their best to install their own candidates in Kazan through means that included the assassination of at least one Muscovite-backed ruler, Jan-Ali, in 1535. These activities, too, put Crimea on a collision course with Moscow, which had its own plans to conquer the Tatar khanates.

Nor did the Girei khans stop with meddling on the steppe and in Kazan. Crimean Tatars regularly raided the Muscovite lands, stealing people and plunder; launched massive attacks on various southeastern fortresses; and burned Moscow to the ground more than once. And this despite an intermittent but prolonged contest between uncles and nephew for control of Crimea itself that lasted from 1523 to 1537.

Not all these events play starring roles in The Golden Lynx and its sequels—The Winged Horse, The Swan Princess, The Vermilion Bird, and The Shattered Drum (the last released in July 2018). But they form the backdrop of the series, in which Tatars of various khanates and hordes interact with Russians in circumstances both friendly and otherwise.

The Russia in these novels is an embattled state, despite its expansionist ambitions. Its juvenile leader—Ivan IV (r. 1533–1584), the future Terrible Tsar—has little authority at home or abroad, although every decision enacted by others takes place in his name. His mother struggles to keep him alive and in power; his government locks up his uncles to prevent them from usurping the throne. Foreign states perceived as enemies beat at the gates: Poland-Lithuania, Crimea, Kazan. And beyond Poland lies “the West”—not yet identified as such—with its Italian architects and artillery founders, its German doctors, its Greco-Latin learning and supposedly heretic religion, ready to invade and to judge.

Perhaps not so much has changed since 1538 after all.

Images: Legends of the Five Directions covers © C. P. Lesley 2012–18; Miniature depicting the Ottoman campaign in Hungary, 1566, with Crimean Tatars in the vanguard and Sergei Ivanov, At Moscow’s [Southern] Defensive Border (1907) public domain via Wikimedia Commons.