Historical fiction thrives in the empty spaces scholars have yet to fill. And thanks to poetic license, sometimes magic realism can also lurk in those shadows. Superstition? Sleight of hand? Sorcery? Each of these three novelists has a unique trick to play.
Rebecca Stott’s DARK EARTH (Random House, 336 pp., $27) sets out to recreate the world of early-sixth-century Britain through the lives of two sisters exiled with their blacksmith father to an island in the Thames. It’s been roughly a century since the Roman withdrawal and the city once called Londinium lies in ruins. Bands of refugees from the continent have settled in the countryside, where warlords jostle for power. All that keeps Isla, Blue and their widowed father safe is his skill at crafting swords, which are believed to have special powers. But his sudden death means these young women must find their own means of protection.
Blue is said to have “the Sight” and is also adept at mixing remedies and tinctures. Isla, with one green eye and one brown, is suspected of being cursed — which would become a certainty if others knew she had defied local taboos and secretly learned her father’s trade. What will happen when they deliver his last creation to Lord Osric, a violent despot whose stronghold lies on the edge of Brittania’s former capital? Is Londinium really the “Ghost City,” populated only by the dead? And will Osric, who keeps altars to both the Christian god and Mithras, associate the swordsmith’s daughters with predictions made by a mysterious female soothsayer? The answers lie in an engaging mix of real adventure and elusive possibility, revealed on the other side of Londinium’s much-feared bridge gate.
Miguel Bonnefoy packs an entire century into HERITAGE (Other Press, 160 pp., paperback, $15.99), despite its slender size. Elegantly translated by Emily Boyce, this tale of a French immigrant and his Franco-Chilean descendants casts a sometimes playful, sometimes tragic spell that will be familiar to devotees of Gabriel García Márquez. Renamed Lonsonier by a clueless customs officer at the turn of the 20th century, the family patriarch has fled his blight-ravaged vineyard in the Jura with 30 francs in one pocket and a single bit of root stock in the other. He’ll make his fortune in the Andes, but it’s in his Santiago mansion, with its exotic overflowing aviary and its long-hidden cache of dinosaur bones, that he and his children and grandchildren will discover how much their fates are still linked to his homeland.
World War I will draw some of them back across the Atlantic, as will its successor. And a battlefield death will result, decades later, in a ghostly twist to the lives of the next generation. Thanks to two impassioned marriages, some members of the family will be obsessed with music and birds — but also with the possibly fatal lure of aviation, which inspires Lonsonier’s granddaughter, Margot, to build a jerry-built copy of Lindbergh’s Spirit of St. Louis. Much more dangerous is the brutal dictatorship that grips the country after the overthrow of Salvador Allende, creating political dangers that will entrap Margot’s Marxist son. In the “chessboard of migrations,” he may be forced to take the patriarch’s route in reverse, “and perhaps in another half-century, another exile would come to be added, another tendril in a boundless jungle of quests, sorrows and births.”
Leyna Krow locates her first novel in a late-19th-century American boomtown that “prided itself on being wild and rugged.” Washington Territory is on the brink of statehood when Spokane Falls succumbs to the disaster that gives FIRE SEASON (Viking, 336 pp., $27) its title. But rising from the ashes is a process that reveals its citizens to be rather more vulnerable than they’d like to believe. So too are the grifters who will soon find themselves at loggerheads — and over much more than easy money.
For Barton Heydale, an embittered bank manager who’d been contemplating suicide, the sudden flood of insurance claims provides a chance to cheat the people who’ve given him no respect. For the con man who’s calling himself (at least for now) Quake Auchenbaucher, the post-conflagration confusion offers a way to collect a generous salary by masquerading as a federal arson inspector. Neither, though, will be a match for Roslyn Beck, the alcoholic prostitute who attracts their romantic advances. For her, being burned out of a seedy brothel creates unexpected opportunities.
Roslyn drinks not just to forget her past but to quell the visions that allow her to see into the future, to make them go “from a pressing obligation to something more akin to watching a bad play.” Many years earlier, she’d predicted her father’s death. Now she knows who started the fire — because she’d glimpsed images of it beforehand. But what if, rather than wallowing in guilt, she could turn this burden into a gift? After all, her meditative power (she calls it “levitating”) has become so strong that she can even influence people who aren’t in her presence. “For her whole life, Roslyn had been hunching her shoulders, hiding so as not to be seen. … What if she acted like the men she knew instead? Took what she wanted, lived the way she liked?” In other words, what if “she need not be a victim of herself”?
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