New Historical Fiction Novels – The New York Times


It might sound perverse, especially if you’re into e-books, but I tend to weigh down my summer travel bag with a big, fat novel – I know fiction will be good for the long haul, whether it’s a air travel prone to delays or an endless stretch of rainy days at the beach. These three books, although very different in style and intent, easily fall into this category.

For those familiar with the January 6 congressional hearings, Antonio Scurati’s mammoth novel about the rise of Benito Mussolini will set off all sorts of alarm bells. A bestseller in Italy, M: Sons of the Century (Harper, 773 pages, $35) has now been translated into English by Anne Milano Appel, and while you may need to keep checking the 10-page list of main characters, its themes will be all too familiar.

Set between 1919 and 1925, Scurati’s narrative blends recreated scenes with period sources and quotes to show how post-World War I Italy was plunged into the kind of economic and social turmoil that its conventional political parties were unable to contain. Enter the rioting leader of an “anti-party” who shuns “the encumbrances of consistency, the dead weight of principles.” This nearly bankrupt and deeply manipulative womanizer will pursue any path to power: “Negotiating everyone, betraying everyone.

How did Mussolini’s fascists go in a few years from a disgruntled group of less than a hundred veterans to a popular movement ready to take over the national scene? Fear and violence play their part. Also theatrical postures and bombastic oratories. Some crucial alterations to the electoral laws. The self-interest (and self-delusion) of career politicians. Most heartbreaking, however, is an autocrat’s plea to the blindly loyal masses: “They’re ready to kiss the shoes of any new master as long as they’re given someone to stomp on, too.”

Fourteenth-century Europe, devastated by the plague and beset by the warring armies of England and France, provides another turbulent fictional setting. But the knight-errant at the center of Boyd and Beth Morrison’s wild adventure, THE LAWLESS LAND (Head of Zeus, 474 pp., $29.95), is a worthily valiant paragon of chivalrous virtue. Very early on, while rescuing a damsel in great distress, Gerard Fox explains that his personal history is “full of murder, intrigue and betrayal of the worst kind”. Along with the occasional jerk of an inappropriate modern chat (“I’m not the only one on you”), it’s best ignored while indulging in the inventive twists of a satisfyingly animated plot.

Fox is a medieval action hero, battling not one but three villains, as well as platoons of knights and parasites. There’s a devious cardinal plotting to become pope, a miserly English nobleman eager to be made king of Jerusalem, and a bad-faith Frenchman who’ll do anything to get the noble title he’s sure to deserve. The key to all their machinations is a sacred relic considered the most precious in Christendom. Of course, the woman sworn to protect this precious item is the aforementioned damsel – who, despite her predicament, turns out to be an action hero herself.

Francesca Stanfill’s narrator THE EYES OF THE FALCON (Harper, 820 pp., $32.50) yearns for an independent life, but the realities of 12th century Europe dictate otherwise. Isabelle de Lapalisse, the youngest daughter of a noble but downwardly mobile Provençal family, is married to a wealthy foreigner whose devotion to his hawks is matched only by his thirst for heirship. At first attracted by Gérard de Meurtaigne – and by the comfort he lavishes on her – Isabelle ends up understanding that her love depends on her abject abandon. “My life would be controlled by my husband until I was old and tired, and all curiosity to see the world was quenched from me.”

Isabelle has long been fascinated by Eleanor of Aquitaine, once Queen of France and now Queen of England. But although “The Falcon’s Eyes” is billed as “an Eleanor of Aquitaine novel”, it doesn’t appear until Isabelle’s narration passes the 500-page mark. Rather, Stanfill’s book is a celebration of Isabella’s relationships not just with the Queen but with a host of other women: a brash aristocrat with influential connections, a beautiful nun whose abbey serves as a haven for women from all walks of life, two talented orphans, a servant hiding a secret and a “witch” whose potions attract a desperate clientele to her wooded house.

The plot sends Isabelle shuttling between England and France, with some dramatic revelations near the end. But for long stretches, it has a more languid pace, rooted in the details of the characters’ lives — not just meals and clothing, but the social routines and rigid etiquette that define their movements, whether domestic or domestic. or royals. Clever plots can sometimes subvert the power men hold over them, but is it possible to get out of it? At first, the ornamental bronze falcon Isabelle’s husband gives her is an “emblem of failure”. Over time, she comes to see him as a symbol of the freedom her living hawks find in the skies – but she must never forget that the hawk’s eyes are always “alert to kill”.

Alida Becker is a former editor of Book Review.

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