Gardner’s debut historical novel, set during the Thirty Years’ War in the 1600s, tells the story of a Lutheran pastor and a Catholic major whose lives are intertwined from boyhood.
The novel opens in 1618 in Prague, the capital of the Kingdom of Bohemia. Sixteen-year-old Peter Erhart and his father, Jakob, the chief accounting officer for the Holy Roman Emperor’s Bohemian Embassy, make their way to a meeting at Hradschin Castle. A group of Bohemian Protestant rebels forces its way into the castle, intent on provoking an uprising by murdering Catholic representatives; the young Peter comes to the aid of Hans Mannheim, a Catholic boy who’s attending the meeting with his father, a baron and chief military adviser. The boys witness the incendiary spark that ignites the Thirty Years’ War—a complex post-Reformation conflict, fought largely between Catholics and Protestants, which resulted in 8 million deaths. After this brief meeting, Peter and Hans are riven apart, but neither forgets the encounter. The novel then revisits them in 1629, when they’re bothin their late 20s. Peter is now married and has become an influential, charismatic assistant pastor in Magdeburg, Germany. He’s also caught the eye of Anna Ritter, a feisty peasant girl. Hans, meanwhile, is a cavalry major in the Catholic Imperial Army, planning to besiege and conquer the city where Peter and Anna live. How will Peter and Hans’ fleeting encounter as kids determine the future of Magdeburg? And how will Anna shape their fates?
This is a dazzling historical novel in which fictional and real-life historical characters, including Lutheran administrator Christian Wilhelm, intermingle seamlessly. Surprisingly few novels are set during the Thirty Years’ War, which will be obscure to most Americans. Gardner ably breathes life into these characters, though, and part of this talent lies in how he creates realistic, thought-provoking interplay between them all. A tantalizing example is when Peter delivers a sermon and is afterward approved to the cathedral council; Wilhelm observes the sermon, scowling, and later approaches Peter to offer insincere praise: “My compliments to you, young man. Your delivery was thorough and clear, the tone pleasant, and the content was for the most part quite edifying.” He then turns on his heel to leave but checks back, his demeanor changing, and he soon proceeds to critically dismantle Peter’s sermon: “you’re going beyond your station as a pastor when you hint at your personally preferred solutions to complex political issues.” Throughout the novel, Gardner is repeatedly able to accurately reflect subtle shifts in his characters’ emotions—in this case, Wilhelm’s biting capriciousness—by employing elegant, cutting, well-timed dialogue. He combines this with a plot that burns with suspense, intrigue, and passion, bolstered by thorough historical research. The end result is a compelling page-turner that won’t allow readers to rest before they reach the final page. Overall, this is a sharply written offering that’s thrilling and shocking in equal measures.
A gripping novel that effectively captures the predicaments of those caught up in one of history’s bloodiest wars.
A historical novel follows the intersecting lives of three troubled travelers hunting redemption in the Alaska Gold Rush.
In 1897, the prospect of quickly acquired wealth drew both adventurous and desperate sorts to Alaska in search of gold. But others were driven by the desire to escape their former lives and reinvent themselves anew. Kaplan (Over the Edge, 2006) chronicles three such self-exiles whose lives improbably but serendipitously intersect. Maggie Saunders is a prostitute working at a brothel in St. Louis, carefully stashing away money to eventually go out on her own. But a physically imposing customer brutalizes her, leaving her for dead. Maggie helps herself to an involuntary gratuity from his purse of gold, and when he finds out, he attacks her savagely. She defends herself with a stiletto knife, inadvertently killing him. She disguises herself as a young man and furtively hops a train out of town. Meanwhile, Jared Monroe plans to dash his father’s designs for him to earn a doctorate of divinity from Yale and rejoin the family farming business. But his father and brothers all rebuff his return dismissively—one of the brothers beats him to the precipice of death. Jared, too, hops a westward train to start fresh with his loving dog, Brutus. And Alex Stromberg is the son of a successful San Francisco merchant, Mordecai, who constantly squashes the young man’s entrepreneurial dreams. Alex kills a man in a bar fight and is forced to flee San Francisco in order to elude a plot to exact revenge upon him. All three end up in Skagway, Alaska, their lives financially and emotionally intertwined.
Kaplan cleverly collapses the three parallel stories into one coherent narrative, at first by sheer happenstance and then by shared existential purpose. His prose is simple and largely unadorned by literary embellishment, but that straightforwardness is the chief source of its resonance. For example, an old man succinctly captures Jared’s despair at the world’s nihilistic inhumanity: “Ain’t no right or wrong...You get away with what you can get away with. That’s the law of the Yukon.” The drama is briskly paced, with no deficit of spectacular violence and suspense. But the author’s true gift is for vividly revealing the way sparks of goodness strain to light an otherwise morally dark landscape. The combination of avarice and desolation is harrowingly depicted. Furthermore, the author’s historical research is impeccable. His meticulous descriptions of otherwise minor details—the geography, the supplies needed for a gold expedition, the currency of exchange—color the work with an aura of authenticity. The United States more than a century ago is nearly unrecognizable to contemporary eyes, still so unexplored and ungoverned by stable laws. Kaplan expertly portrays this strange cosmos, so foreign and yet so unmistakably American. The torrid action alone turns this into a worthwhile read, but the historical accuracy makes the book worthy of an unabashed recommendation.
A gripping and historically rigorous account of a harsh America.
A timeless story of forbidden love set against a Saudi Arabian backdrop.
This intriguing work of historical fiction begins in the city of Jeddah in 1978. A single woman named Fawzia Bughaidan pursues a forbidden relationship with a young man named Hisham in secret. When her sister Ibtisam discovers this and confronts her, Fawzia must choose between her love for Hisham and her fear of repercussions. After tragedy strikes during a family trip to Mecca, she finds healing in a new friendship with an old woman named Salma al-Shamaali. Looking back to 1917, Salma tells Fawzia of the long, arduous, and adventurous journey of her own life. She was also tempted by forbidden love as a young woman, and when her fatherfound out about it, she was forced to marry her abusive cousin. When his temper made her fear for her life, she and her servant girl sought refuge, traveling hundreds of miles across the deserts and mountains of Saudi Arabia dressed as men. Salma’s memorable journey and the lessons that she learned along the way give Fawzia the inspiration that she needs to move forward—and to finally decide what to do about Hisham. Campbell’s masterful debut novel delivers a story that matches up flawlessly with real-life aspects of Middle Eastern culture, geography, and history. The characters are deeply developed, and their stories intertwine with true events that readers may be unaware of, such as the 1918 flu epidemic and the 1979 Grand Mosque siege. The storytelling transports the audience to a foreign place and time with vivid details and timeless themes. As the well-paced plot moves forward, readers may nearly forget about its destination because they’re so wrapped up in the journey.
A mesmerizing Middle Eastern tale to be savored from beginning to end.
In Kerns’ (Standard of Care, 2007) latest novel, a student learns much more than obstetrics during a baptism by fire on Chicago’s West Side in the fateful spring of 1968.
Every med student in Northwestern University’s program must spend two weeks at the Chicago Maternity Center, whose mission is to serve a deeply poor, predominantly African-American area of the city, overseeing pregnancies and delivering babies. The students are pushed to their physical limits, and some are scared about working in a potentially threatening neighborhood—and about their own competence as doctors. Nick Weissman, a Jewish-American student, is flush with idealism and liberal political views; he’s tested while earning the trust of Blossom Amos, a sullen, withdrawn 14-year-old African-American girl pregnant with twins. A parallel storyline follows the notorious James Earl Ray, who escapes from a Missouri prison, travels all across the South and eventually to Memphis—the site of his assassination of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., which sets off horrific riots in Chicago and elsewhere. In this chaos, Nick and the others are about to evacuate for their own safety. Then comes word that Blossom is in labor, and Nick makes a fateful decision to help her, against all odds. Kerns is an engaging writer who gives the story such momentum that it fairly gallops to its conclusion. He also effectively draws on aspects of his own life, including two weeks that he spent working at the Chicago Maternity Center in real life; all of the novel’s gritty details ring as true as they should. Some elements are fictional, though, such as the Abrafo, which is said to be the most terrifying of the local African-American gangs. Also, Nick and James Earl Ray never meet—but the fact that they serve as vectors of good and evil makes for an inspired plot device.
A highly recommended historical tale that will make readers hope that the good doctor has more novels in him.
In this novel, a 5-year-old girl (whose father is a minor Jane Austen character) makes unexpected discoveries while adventuring through Europe in search of Utopia.
Sofia-Elisabete remembers the unforgettable months of travel and discovery she enjoyed as a 5-year-old in 1815. Sofia-Elisabete is the child of Col. Fitzwilliam, whom readers of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice will recall as the likable but poor cousin of Mr. Darcy. Sofia-Elisabete’s mother is a Portuguese bolero dancer, Marisa Soares Belles, who abandons her baby at a convent. She’s eventually reclaimed by her father and taken to Scarborough, England. Blessed with a rich imagination and vigorous self-confidence, the little girl thrives; her father sometimes suffers from war flashbacks and drug-induced lethargies but makes a good marriage and is a fond father. Doña Marisa and her escort, Señor Gonzalez, come to Scarborough “to find a special someone”—in fact, to retrieve Sofia-Elisabete. For some time, the girl believes they’re journeying to “la luna.” Sofia-Elisabete hopes to discover, like the Spaniard in Francis Godwin’s The Man in the Moone, a paradise where hunger and crime don’t exist. Having many adventures across the Continent and over the Alps, the travelers reach Genoa, where Marisa hopes to find a home. While joyful at her mother’s acknowledgement and reunion with her father, Sofia-Elisabete is left with a difficult choice. Kobayashi (Freedom & Mirth, 2017) captures the magical thinking of young children while anchoring the novel’s peregrinations through repetition of key phrases. Each chapter, for example, begins with the formula “My first [memory, foot-race, etc.], thinks I, was….” Sofia-Elisabete’s perfectly original narrative voice is a delight, as is the girl herself; she’s compassionate, imaginative, and always game to master new skills (drumming, rope-dancing, “jodeling,” dancing the bolero). The glimpses of 1815 Europe, such as Dutch cleanliness and Swiss goiters, are well-observed, yet Kobayashi preserves the childlike point of view. While often very funny, the novel has depth in its concern for humanity’s problems and children’s emotions.
A sparkling, robust young hero with a distinctive voice—a real winner.