Tag Archives: Historical Fiction

Half of a Yellow Sun

Historical fiction about briefly independent African nation Biafra

Content warning: civil war, starvation, sexual violence

When you have a to-read pile as large as mine, it can be very challenging choosing the next book and I am always looking for inspiration, in any form, to help me make that decision. I had definitely heard of this author and have had one of her books (which I picked up from the Lifeline Book Fair) on my shelf for a really long time. When the author last month posted an essay on her website about virtue signalling on social media, there was some backlash about some views the author had posted previously about transwomen. I am absolutely the last person qualified to weigh into Nigerian LGBTQIA+ discourse, but seeing the author’s name made me realise that her book had been waiting its turn far too long.

Image is of “Half of a Yellow Sun” by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. The paperback book is in front of a cream coloured retro style radio / record player with silver dials and speakers. The cover is an African woman in profile wearing brightly coloured clothing, out of focus.

“Half of a Yellow Sun” by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie is a historical fiction novel set in 1960s Nigeria. A teenager called Ugwu moves from his small village to work as a houseboy for Odenigbo, a charismatic lecturer who regularly hosts friends and colleagues for academic debates in his home. Allowed to attend school again, Ugwu soaks up the atmosphere and the political rhetoric. Odenigbo’s partner, Olanna, has given up her privileged upbringing to live with him. When the Igbo nation of Biafra secedes from Nigeria, the reality of their idealism is a far cry from the life Olanna is used to. Meanwhile, Olanna’s quiet twin sister Kainene is dating Englishman and aspiring writer Richard. Learning fluent Igbo and becoming swept up in the nationalism of this new nation, Richard is forced to examine the role of white people in African nation-building and how even during an African civil war, an Englishman’s word is worth more than a Biafran.

This is a compelling and challenging novel that uses three diverse, intersecting perspectives to tell the story of the rise and fall of Biafra the nation. Through the eyes of a poor young man, a wealthy woman and a white man, Adichie examines the leadup to and fallout from the civil war and the ensuing food scarcity. Ugwu in particular was a really powerful character who undergoes a lot of character development and who as a young man with the opportunity for significant social mobility finds a lot of opportunity through this historical period. I also thought that it was really interesting to see the sacrifices, financial and social, that Olanna and Odenigbo had to make and how the more doggedly they clung to the idealism of Biafra, the worse their individual circumstances became. Adichie writes unflinchingly about starvation and it was really hard reading about children suffering. I thought it was a courageous narrative choice for Adichie to explore the issue of sexual violence during war from the side of both the victim and the perpetrator. It was also surprisingly hard going reading about roads and borders being closed and not being able to check on family during these times when borders closures are becoming more and more commonplace.

An emotionally and politically complex novel that brings microhistory to microfiction.

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Gulliver’s Wife

Historical fiction inspired by “Gulliver’s Travels” from the perspective of his wife

2020 was a tough year for authors with new releases and unfortunately this was another book that missed out on its due publicity. I first heard about this author through her amazing cookie art. She is also a really lovely person and sent me a gorgeous note and gift when my wedding was postponed last year. It’s a beautifully designed book with bronze foil and I was really excited to read it.

Image is of “Gulliver’s Wife” by Lauren Chater. The paperback book is resting in a bed of purple irises. The cover design is of dark red orchid-like flowers and greenery and a small brown bird with bronze foil around the edges.

“Gulliver’s Wife” by Lauren Chater is a historical fiction novel that asks the question: while Lemuel Gulliver sailed around exploring previously uncontacted lands as depicted in Jonathan Swift’s “Gulliver’s Travels“, what did his family do without him? Moreover, it asks what did his family do when he comes home after years of being missing, presumed dead, telling stories of tiny people? Set in London, UK, in 1702, this book follows his wife Mary and his daughter Bess as they navigate the change his return brings to their home’s dynamic, the financial impact his presence has on their lives and their increasingly strained relationship with each other.

This is a meticulously researched book about life as a woman in 1700s England. Using the tension between Mary’s lack of individual rights as an apparent widow and the family’s increasing economic needs as a framework, Chater explores what options are available for a woman of Mary’s background and station, and how they are further limited when her husband resumes his position as head of the household. Choosing midwifery as Mary’s career was a really clever choice: one of the few roles for women with minimal male influence. I thought that the interaction between midwives, surgeons and the church was really interesting as well as the lenses through which decisions are made about who was best placed to handle the work of delivering babies. Mary is a fully rounded character with hobbies (gardening), a love interest (not her husband) and

One of the most powerful elements of this book was the mother-daughter relationship. With utmost sensitivity, Chater teases out the complexities of the way Mary and Bess relate to each other, and how they are at once too close and too distant. Bess idolises her father, and I thought that there were some interesting questions posed about whose responsibility it was to disabuse her of reverence. Should Mary have been more frank with her and risk further teenage derision, or should Bess have been more realistic and let go of her childish ideas about her father’s promises? I really liked the way their relationship evolved over time and how space was made for a new type of respect. Alice, the family’s sole domestic worker, is a great counterbalance to the tension between the two as well as having her own complex family background.

One ever-present challenge for historical fiction is being as true as possible to the era while while still writing for a modern audience. I think that for the most part, Mary’s tolerance for others and openness in relation to social issues is done really well. A career as a midwife creates more room for Mary to be exposed to a variety of different circumstances and creates a bit of distance from an otherwise very religious, patriarchal society. However, there were a couple of situations in which I thought Mary was perhaps a little too understanding for a person of her time.

A creative take on a classic novel. Unlike other works of historical fiction that have used classics as inspiration, I think that this novel has a very clear purpose and prompts the reader to consider what life may have been like for the people literary heroes left behind.

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The Factory Witches of Lowell

Historical fantasy about industrial action in America

Content warning: slavery

I received a copy of this eBook courtesy of the publisher.

“The Factory Witches of Lowell” by C. S. Malerich is a historical fantasy novella set in Massachussets, USA in the 19th century and is a fictionalised account of the Lowell Mill Girls. When management increases the rent of the women who work in textile factories without increasing their wages, the women organise themselves and agree to go on strike. With the help of Mrs Hanson, who runs one of the boardinghouses, and the guidance of ailing Hannah Pickering who has a gift for seeing, the women cast a spell to ensure they all stick to the strike until their demands are met. However, when management counter their action, the women realise they are going to have to take more drastic measures.

This is a light-hearted story that transforms a historical event into a subtle fantasy novella just one step shy of magic realism. The magic is sparse yet effective. Although dealing with serious issues including women’s rights and workers’ rights, Malerich has a humorous and gentle style that makes this book very quick and readable. Judith Whittier is a strong character and a strong leader, and I really enjoyed the banter between her and Hannah. I thought the romance in this book was done well, and was a good counterbalance to the industrial action afoot in the town. There is a point in the book where Mrs Hanson’s loyalties come into question, and I had my heart in my mouth wondering what was going to happen next.

I think that the only issue I had was that this book does at times border on an irreverent tone. The reader is thrown headlong into a very limited point in time, and I felt that the terrible working conditions of the women were downplayed somewhat, and the resolution seemed too simple, given the historical context. Malerich, I think in an effort to acknowledge that slavery was still in place during this time, refers to Hannah’s ability to see a physical embodiment of being enslaved. This was handled in an unfortunately dehumanising way, and became more about furthering Hannah’s story rather than a comment on slavery itself.

A light, enjoyable read that perhaps occasionally made too light of some things.

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Virgins

Novella prequel to the “Outlander” series

Content warning: sexual assault, sex work

After having no positive COVID-19 cases in my city for over 3 months, I have accepted that I really have no excuse for not returning to the gym. It has been a bit surreal, to be honest. I’m santitising all the equipment before and after use, and I’m jogging to and from the gym to reduce my time in the space. However, it has been really good to be able to increase how much time I’m listening to audiobooks for (though I have to say, I seem to have a neverending amount of mowing to do). After my last audiobook, I thought I would try something a bit shorter this time. While I have mentioned her books previously, I actually haven’t reviewed any of this author’s books on my blog before. This is wild to me because I am a huge fan of the TV adaptation of this series and watch it religiously every season, and have been reading these books since I was a teen. The most recent book was published in 2014, and the author has been busily working on the 9th book of the series since then. I had this on my Audible wishlist and it was blessedly short, and kept me busy for two gym sessions and a run.

Virgins cover art

“Virgins” by Diana Gabaldon is a historical fiction novella and prequel to her “Outlander” series set in France in the 1700s. Two young Scots, Jamie and Ian, are reunited when Jamie joins a band of mercenaries in rural France. Jamie, beset with physical and emotional wounds following an incident with the English back in Scotland, takes a while to open up to his best friend about what really happened. Meanwhile, a simple job to escort a priceless treasure and a young woman safely to Paris soon goes awry.

This is a quick novella that shares a brief insight into the life of Jamie Fraser before he meets Claire in the main series. Although Jamie is traumatised, badly injured, over-confident and very naive, we see glimmers of the man that he will become later in the series. Jamie and Ian’s friendship is a given in the “Outlander” series, so it was interesting to see a little more of the interplay between the two and to see Jamie occasionally being less than generous with his best friend, bragging about his superior education. A large part of the plot centres on a femme fatale archetype which was titillating if not surprising.

I think if you haven’t read any of the other books in the series, I probably wouldn’t recommend you start with this one. While there are no spoilers, there are a lot of nods to character development and history that I think would make a lot more sense to a reader with more context. “Dragonfly in Amber” is largely set in France, and I think it makes for interesting reading to reflect on Jamie’s first experiences there knowing what happened later on than vice versa. There was a graphic sexual assault scene in this book that was pretty confronting as I was jogging along to the gym alone in the evening, and while I think that the scene was certainly historically plausible and Gabaldon does revisit the incident later in the book to mete out some justice, it was pretty shocking hearing the assault being rationalised due to the victims occupation as a sex worker.

This is a quick, easy book to read (or listen to) and I think my suspicions that I need audiobooks to be quick and easy have been proved once again. A good choice for an “Outlander” fan looking for something to tide them over until the next book and season.

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A Dance with Fate

Historical Celtic fantasy novel 

Content warning: family violence, disability

This is the second novel in this series, so if you haven’t read the first novel yet I’d recommend checking out my review here first. I was so excited to see the second book come out so soon after the first and rushed to buy it.

“A Dance with Fate” by Juliet Marillier is the second book in the historical fantasy series “The Warrior Bards” that picks up shortly after the events of the first book. Former rivals Liobhan and Dau have become comrades after their challenging undercover mission, but are still eager to compete for recognition as warriors on Swan Island. However, when the evenly matched pair spar together in a display bout, an accident and a head injury causes Dau to lose his vision. Word is sent to his estranged family who demand payment, and Liobhan accompanies Dau to his home at a grim place called Oakhill. Despite his disability, Dau is no longer the frightened boy his brothers tormented and he must face his old demons if he and Liobhan are to uncover the truth of what has been happening at Oakhill. Meanwhile, Liobhan’s brother Brocc struggles to adjust to his new life in the Otherworld. The Crow Folk who so threatened the Fair Folk have begun turning up horrifically maimed and his wife and queen Eirne has grown distant. A journey to save a friend’s life brings him more than he bargained for.

My girl Pepper also wanted to get involved in being a book model

While I often find myself struggling with sequels in fantasy series, Marillier has the singular skill of making her sequels even better than the first book and this is no exception. This is a captivating and challenging tale about power and justice. Despite all his character growth in the previous book, and adjusting to his newfound confidence, Dau finds himself in a position of extreme vulnerability back in his family home where he was subjected to extreme and repeated abuse by his brothers. Marillier often writes about disability, and in this case again writes sensitively and compellingly about Dau’s grief at losing his vision, the adjustments the characters make to assist him and his gradual acceptance of his new circumstances. I also love the way that Marillier writes romance and how gentle and full of equal parts trust and passion relationships emerge.

But Tabasco is the one who matches Liobhan’s hair the best

One theme that shone through this book was the healing power of dogs. One of Dau’s childhood traumas involves his dog Snow, and the lies his brothers told about what really happened weigh heavily on Dau. However, through the dogs we meet in this book, we learn how deeply Dau cares for animals and how much they bring joy and meaning to his life, even when he is at his darkest. My own dog Pepper has been attacked several times by dogs, something that I know Juliet Marillier has also experienced, yet the generosity with which she writes about dogs in this book – especially dogs with poor training and unkind treatment – is honestly heartwarming. Where we were struck by the tragedy of what happened to Snow in the previous book, this book feels like a reconciliation for both Dau and reader.

In the previous book, I did find Brocc’s story a little less engaging, but in this book I was absolutely hooked. Marillier fleshes out the Otherworld and Brocc’s relationship with Eirne. I felt that Brocc underwent a lot of character development in this book, coming to terms with his own mixed ancestry, navigating honesty and expectations with his new wife, and trying to decide his own morals in relation to the Crow Folk. The Otherworld characters, old and new, were very interesting and I simply adored True.

This book had me in tears more than once and I cannot wait for the next installment.

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The Buru Quartet (Tetralogi Buru)

Content warning: colonialism, racism

This series was given to me as a 21st birthday present by some family friends, and I must admit that was a very long time ago. They were no longer banned in Indonesia, and although I was nevertheless a little nervous about it, I decided to take them with me when I studied in Java for a year. I definitely finished the first book and had at the very least begun the second, but while I was over there, my third book went missing. It took some time of scouring op shops and the Lifeline Book Fair before I finally found another copy in this set. It’s a beautiful set, and it’s been gathering dust on my shelf far too long. Some relevance to research I’ve been doing recently and the Year of the Asian Reading Challenge finally encouraged me to give this series another go. I also found out that last year the first book was adapted into a really great and well-cast film which is currently on Netflix.

“The Buru Quartet” by Pramoedya Ananta Toer and translated from Bahasa Indonesia by Max Lane is a series of four historical novels called “This Earth of Mankind” (Manusia Bumi), “Child of All Nations” (Anak Semua Bangsa), “Footsteps” (Jejak Langkah) and “House of Glass” (Rumah Kaca). The series is largely about Minke, a young Native Javanese man of significant family standing who, at the end of the 19th century, is permitted to study at the HBS – a secondary school typically reserved for students of Dutch or Eurasian (Indo) heritage. One day, an Indo classmate invites him to visit another Indo friend at his family’s home. Despite being on of the most educated Natives in Java, Minke is struck by the impressive Nyai Ontosoroh, a Javanese woman who is both concubine to a Dutch man and single-handedly managing his estate and business without ever having been formally educated. Minke is also struck by Nyai’s beautiful Indo daughter Anneleis. Growing close to this unusual family sets Minke on a new path of enlightenment and understanding about the true nature of colonialism. Already a published writer, Minke begins to write about his observations of inequality under colonial rule. When he experiences an unthinkable tragedy, he focuses his attention on how to wake a sleepy Java and navigate the subtleties of class and culture to bring a national awareness to his readers.

I cannot stress enough how excellent this series is. In it’s own right, it is a masterpiece of historical fiction combining meticulous research, characterisation (my absolute favourite character was Darsam the bodyguard) and political insight. However, I cannot write about this series without mentioning the circumstances around how it came to be published. Not unlike the historical figure Tirto Adhi Soerjo upon which his books are based upon, Toer was imprisoned under the Suharto regime and forbidden from having any writing materials on an island called Buru which became the novels’ namesake. Toer, who had spent many years researching this story before his personal library was burned, recited the story of Minke to his fellow prisoners and was eventually able to write it down. After release, Toer published his books himself where they were subsequently banned for nearly 20 years in Indonesia despite being available to great acclaim around the world. The fact that they exist at all is a veritable miracle and it is a privilege to be able to read them in Lane’s well-considered and nuanced translation.

There are so many things that I could write about these books, but I think that I’ll limit it to two key things: it’s brilliance as a piece of historical fiction, and how well it has stood up to the test of time. If this is the result of a narrated story after a library’s worth of research was destroyed, I cannot fathom what this book would have been like had Toer not gone through so much hardship in writing it. The book is crammed full of cultural references from the Dutch East Indies at the end of the 1800s and early 1900s. Toer refers heavily to literature, art and music of the times, Native and European alike, bringing the story alive with context and colour. Toer helps the reader to understand the extremely complicated social hierarchies made up of traditional Javanese feudalism, white supremacy imported by the Dutch, emerging roles for educated and elite Javanese within the colonial bureaucracy and the uncertain position of Indos and Chinese people. Language is extremely political, and Toer introduces the reader to the concept of Malay as an egalitarian language through Minke’s initial internalised prejudices about Dutch and reluctance to write in his native Javanese. I was fascinated by the way in which Toer leads Minke to nationalistic ideas by referring to news of political movements in the Philippines and China through conversations with Dutch friends because news in the Indies was so suppressed by the colonial regime. Lane did an admirable job of capturing this nuance and providing informative yet unobtrusive notes, commentary and a dictionary in each book to help readers to understand some of this cultural context.

I think one of the most delightful and surprising things about this series is its progressiveness given it was published in the 1980s. Toer is without a doubt a feminist and the women in his books are fierce, intelligent and determined. A cornerstone of these novels is the lack of rights over children and property under Dutch colonial law that nyai have as compared with their Dutch masters. Minke is a lover of women and throughout the novels has a number of wives and lovers of all ethnicities. Each is adroit, beautiful, capable and brave and unlike his compatriots, Minke refuses to have more than one wife at a time. However, it is the issue of racism that is at the heart of this book. Minke, whose nickname is itself a distortion of a racial slur, observes racial inequality in the home, in the street and in the courts. His own education is limited by both his race and the availability of further education in the Indies and his only option is a medical school though his heart lies in writing. He observes stolen land, debt bondage and Javanese women traded to Dutch men for position and money. He observes the hierarchical nature of traditional Javanese society and how that hierarchy was exploited by the Dutch to place themselves firmly at the top. He observes how the riches of the Indies are extracted and exported with no financial benefit to his people. Eventually, Minke’s observations begin to be published and people begin to listen.

There is so much more I could write about this series, including the emergence of organisations, Toer’s handling of mental illness and the troubled policeman Pangemanann. However, I’ll stop here and just say that there is only one thing I regret about reading it which is that I didn’t read it sooner. I hope one day I can read it again in Bahasa Indonesia.

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Beloved

Historical fiction about a mother’s trauma in the wake of slavery

Content warning: slavery, racism, infanticide

Last year, the renowned author Toni Morrison sadly died. She was the recipient of countless awards for her work including the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1993 (a display of which I was able to see when I visited the Nobel Prize Museum last year).

I have only read one of Morrison’s novels, “The Bluest Eye” and I had been debating for a while which of her books I would read next. I found out that many of her novels are available as audiobooks narrated by Morrison herself, and despite this year being a bit shaky for my gym/audiobook routine, I had been doing a bit of running and lawnmowing in lieu of the gym, and decided that I would listen to this one next.

Beloved cover art

“Beloved” by written and narrated by Toni Morrison is a historical fiction novel set in Ohio, USA just after the American Civil War. Sethe, an African American woman and former slave, lives in a haunted house with her 18 year old daughter Denver. The presence in the house is furious, chasing off Sethe’s two sons, and the mother and daughter live an isolated life together. However when Paul D, another former slave from the plantation Sethe escaped, arrives, he challenges the spirit and encourages Sethe and Denver to leave the house. He takes them to a fair, but when they return, they find a girl waiting at the doorstep. The girl, who calls herself Beloved, Sethe believes is her daughter who was killed as a baby.

This is a complex, subtle novel narrated beautifully by Morrison herself. She has a soft, breathy yet expressive voice with each sentence punctuated for excellent dramatic effect and the characters each brought to life. Sethe is a particularly interest character who, up until this point, appears to have been operating on two parallel levels. When Beloved manifests at the house at 124, and Paul D arrives with his questions and memories of the plantation, the two layers of Sethe’s psyche are unable to continue to exist separately. Denver, also initially drawn to Beloved, is the perfect lens through which to observe the changes in Sethe as a result of Beloved’s arrival and goes through significant character development herself. This book is a critical exploration of the multifaceted traumas caused by slavery, and the interplay between memory and identity.

I will admit that despite Morrison’s beautiful narration, this wasn’t a great book for me to listen to as an audiobook. I do have some difficulties with listening comprehension sometimes, and I think the subtlety and the cleverness of this book meant that each time I started daydreaming, I missed a critical part of the book. However, it was captivating enough that I think I would like to reread it in text so if I do, I will come back and update this review.

An excellent and provocative piece of fiction that I would very much like to revisit.

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Stone Sky Gold Mountain

Historical fiction about Chinese siblings during the Queensland gold rush

Content warning: racism, mental illness, sex work

When I heard this book was coming out, I was really excited. I absolutely loved the author’s first book “The Fish Girl” and was really looking forward to this release. Unfortunately, this book came out around the same time as the pandemic starting which meant that lots of authors missed out on the usual author events and publicity that accompany a new release. However, one advantage of everyone going remote is that I didn’t have to worry about travelling for an event, I was able to sign up and livestream. The cover is really pretty – my photo doesn’t quite do it justice but it has little flecks of gold foil in the lettering.

“Stone Sky Gold Mountain” by Mirandi Riwoe is a historical fiction novel about two siblings, Ying and Lai Yue, who have travelled from China to Far North Queensland to seek their fortune on the gold fields. Older brother Lai Yue takes responsibility for saving the little gold they find, purchasing supplies and making decisions. However, when Ying, disguised as a boy, begins to weaken from the hard labour and lack of food, the siblings eventually must move to Maytown to seek more stable employment. With Ying settled in as a shop assistant, Lai Yue takes a job with a team of men headed for a sheep station and the siblings must each make their own way in this strange and hostile country.

This was a fantastic book. Riwoe is a phenomenal writer and in a full-length novel really stretches her muscles to bring to life an era from somewhere that is now nothing more than a ghost town. Ying is a curious, resourceful and flexible character who quickly adapts to her role as shop boy. Enjoying the freedom that a male disguise buys her, she pushes boundaries and befriends a white woman called Meriem – another point of view character. I really found myself cheering Ying on and enjoying her delight in the world and her adventurous spirit playing different roles. Meriem is a complex character who has run from her past to work as a housekeeper for a sex worker. Riwoe does an exceptional job of examining Meriem’s initial prejudices against Chinese people and sensitively handles the stigma and allure of sex work in the Maytown community.

However, I think the real masterpiece of this book is Lai Yue. Laden with the responsibility as the older brother, Lai Yue buckles under the weight. I was initially reminded of the older brother Seita in the film “Grave of the Fireflies“, with Lai Yue initially hoarding the gold they find away instead of using it to buy food Ying so desperately needs. However, as the book progresses, we learn that there is a lot more going on with Lai Yue. Riwoe’s exploration of how mental illness and self-esteem are intertwined is heartbreaking, and initial frustration with Lai Yue quickly makes way to empathy. Riwoe also doesn’t shy away from the many types of racism experienced during this period of history. Unflinchingly, she depicts Chinese people participating in brutal acts of violence against Aboriginal people while back in town, Chinese people themselves are victims of racist attacks and discrimination. At a time when people of Asian heritage are increasingly experiencing racism, it is an important and timely reminder that racism is a part of our history and that we can and must do better.

This is a rich, touching novel and I honestly could continue to wax lyrical about it but instead I very much recommend you read for yourself this critical and necessary contribution to Australian historical fiction.

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The Philosopher’s Daughters

Historical fiction about two English sisters drawn to the outback

Content warning: racism, colonialism, sexual assault

I received a copy of this book courtesy of the author. I previously reviewed one of her books which I quite enjoyed, so I was looking forward to seeing her work in another genre.

“The Philosopher’s Daughters” by Alison Booth is a historical fiction novel about two sisters, Harriet and Sarah, who are brought up by their father in London in the late 1800s. Musical Sarah accompanies her father to a meeting about women’s suffrage where she meets Henry, a friend of a friend, who has returned from working in New South Wales. When they marry and move overseas to the colony on an extended honeymoon, artistic Harriet remains to assist their father with his work. However, when the unthinkable happens, Harriet finds herself adrift, she decides to join her sister and see if she can capture the light Sarah keeps writing about on canvas.

This is a gentle, flowing novel that carries the reader from a relatively privileged, intellectual life in London to a rather idyllic, if physically demanding, experience in the Northern Territory. Despite being raised in the same household, Sarah and Harriet have quite different takes on women’s empowerment and Booth uses the sisters to examine how there is no one correct way to practise feminism. While Harriet is practical and a fierce advocate in her own right, it is Sarah who finds adjusting to horse riding, hot weather and even wielding a revolver. However, although independent and forthright, the sisters are not invincible and I thought that Booth was convincing and sensitive in the way that she handled the aftermath of a sexual assault.

I enjoyed Booth’s use of art and music to help forge connections between the characters, and how the change in lifestyle, climate and landscape necessitates flexibility in new instruments and artistic styles. Booth also does not shy away from examining some of the violent and racist practices and policies of the colonies, tackling issues from forcing Aboriginal sportsmen to play cricket with sticks all the way to massacres. Stockman Mick was an interesting character whose education and experience set him apart from the other Aboriginal characters in the book, and through Mick, Booth explores questions of legal identity, stereotypes and even stigma around interracial relationships.

I think a lot of white Australians, who did not learn about the realities of the Terra Nullius myth, the Frontier Wars and the Stolen Generation until recently, are currently finding themselves having to grapple with their ancestors’ history and participation in colonialism. This novel is a good example of trying to make sense of what happened and write about early allies to feminism and racial equality in the beginnings of a colonised Australia. This was a really interesting book to read having recently read “Talkin’ Up to the White Woman“, a thesis on Indigenous women and feminism, especially because this book is very concerned with the beginnings of feminism as we know it.

Reading this novel with Moreton-Robinson’s words in my mind, I think there were two things missing from Booth’s book. The first is a critical assessment of Sarah and Harriet’s role as white women perpetuating the subjugation of Aboriginal women, including Bella and Daisy. There is no real explanation in this book of how the two women become housemaids, whether they are paid wages and how their land has been appropriated for white profit. I felt that there was less nuance in Bella and Daisy’s characters than, for example, Mick’s. I think this could have been rectified by the second thing which was missing: consultation with Aboriginal people.

While Booth’s book is very well-researched, using a number of contemporary sources, family history and observations from her own travels around the Northern Territory, one thing conspicuously absent from the acknowledgements section are any Aboriginal academics or writers. There is no shortage of Aboriginal academics, and I think that given what we know about bias, erasure and self-serving lies in colonial texts, it is critical that when we write about Aboriginal people, we include Aboriginal perspectives.

Nevertheless, this is an enjoyable, easy read that will appeal to historical fiction buffs.

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The Bird King

Historical fantasy novel about the fall of the Emirate of Granada

This was the the latest set book for my fantasy book club, and I did attend this time (albeit with lots of typing out my thoughts on my phone). I had not heard of this book before but the premise was interesting, and I did manage to finish most of it before the book club.

“The Bird King” by G. Willow Wilson is a historical fantasy novel set just before the downfall of the Emirate of Granada. The book is about Fatima, a slave and concubine to the last sultan for whom the palace is a gilded cage. Although well-fed and well-cared for compared to the rest of the declining nation, the walls of the palace chafe against Fatima and it is only in her friend Hassan, a mapmaker, that she finds solace. However, Hassan’s ability to make imagined places reality with his maps draws the attention of representatives from the new Spanish monarchy. When his life is placed in danger, he and Fatima flee the palace. With nothing but themselves, a jinn and faith in half a story about an island ruled by the Bird King, Fatima and Hassan must outrun the Spanish Inquisition.

This book started out really strong with a very unique premise. Fatima is a compelling character who, despite her official status as a court slave and concubine, is very smart, spirited and doted upon by the sultan and his mother. However, despite her relatively luxurious lifestyle, there are constant small reminders of her true position in the palace – including that her relationship with the sultan is only ever on his terms. I really liked the way that Wilson posed two possible lives for Fatima: a life of certainty and comfort, possibly as the mother of a sultan’s sons, but a life never truly her own; and a life of uncertainty but with the freedom to live and die on her own terms.

I also really liked the relationship between Fatima and Lady Aisha, and the complexities, parallels and empathy between the two. Vikram the jinn was another great character who slowly revealed himself to become one of Fatima’s greatest allies. Hassan’s ability to recreate reality through his maps was such an interesting and original magical ability and Wilson really explored it well throughout the book.

However, I felt like the second half of the book started to unravel a bit compared to how compelling the first half was. Although the antagonist Luz was a deeply ominous presence early in the novel, I felt like (without giving too much away) her character’s arc was a little confusing and ultimately a little convenient. I didn’t think the sailor-cum-monk Gwennec added a lot to the story either, and was one of many new characters who were introduced very late into the story and therefore hard to form a connection with. While Fatima and Hassan’s friendship was for the most part incredibly beautifully written, I did feel a bit like it would have been even more powerful had it been strictly platonic on both sides the entire time. The final chapters of the book felt very muddy, and I think perhaps if the final battle was going to be the focus of the book, it would have been better to spend more time getting to know its location than on how they got there in the first place.

A refreshingly original story with a lot of great elements and writing that unfortunately lost a bit of steam towards the end.

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