Wednesday, 17 December 2014

My name is Mikki and I am a historical fiction junkie. (Hello, Mikki!)

So for this Top 5 Wednesday challenge, I opted against choosing books that are just set in different time periods. Instead, I figured I might as well interpret this topic to mean books that took actual historical events or practices great and small and turned them into a great story. Because historical figure cameos are my favorite kinds of cameos!

Go back in time with me!

Top 5 Historical Books
1. The Tokaido Road, by Lucia St. Clair Robson
Japanese history is replete with tales of honor and redemption, and the account of The Forty-Seven Ronin is no exception. During the 18th century, the lord of these ronin committed suicide after attacking Lord Kira. The ronin quietly planned their revenge, posing as commoners to allay suspicion. They were shamed as cowards and criminals.

A year later, the ronin stormed Kira's mansion in the night, announcing to the neighborhood that this was a matter of revenge, not a criminal act. And the neighbors were just like, "Oh okay, we never liked that guy anyway." (Bushido, amirite?) Sparing the women and children, the ronin found Kira and killed him.

As they marched Kira's head to the grave of their lord, news spread of their night's work. People cheered them along, because everyone loves a good revenge story (and I guess this Kira guy was a really unpopular dude?). The government sort of just scratched their heads, because the ronin upheld the precepts of bushido. On the other hand they basically just murdered a guy. So they eventually decided that they should commit suicide as heroes, not criminals. The forty-seven ronin died honorably and were buried with their lord.

The Tokaido Road takes the story of the lord's daughter. Forced to live in a brothel after her father's suicide, Cat's life is interrupted once more when Kira tries to poison her. Taking her naginata and disguising herself, she flees up the Tokaido Road, seeking to join her father's retainers in their quest for vengeance. It's an amazing story that combines clever characterization, intricate cultural research, extremely potent romantic chemistry (both between Cat and mercenary ronin Hanshiro, and between me and this book omg I LOVE IT), and good old fashioned ultraviolence (most of it perpetrated by Cat herself). The act of reading this book alone was an actual pleasure.

2. The Devil in White City, by Erik Larson
Murder, magic, and madness indeed! Who but Erik Larson would have thought to combine the awe-inspiring trainwreck/miracle of an undertaking like the 1893 World's Columbian Exposition with the nefarious workings of a serial killer quietly living right under its nose? It'd be enough to give one severe whiplash, you'd think.

But it works. As Daniel Burnham and the rest of the minds behind the sprawling Chicago World Fair desperately race the clock to build an overburdened shrine to American achievement, Dr. Henry Howard Holmes makes his own mark on history--across the throats and bodies of the doomed victims he lures into his hotel. 

Wonder at the feats of human imagination and willpower! Shudder at the depths of human depravity! Will the Columbian Exposition be a success or will it be the largest public failure in American history? Will anyone ever catch that dastardly Dr. Holmes and will the women of Chicago ever be able to sleep soundly at night? Am I being overly dramatic? Yes, possibly! I'd apologize except I'm writing this with the nasal quick-talking voice of an old-timey American news reporter in my head, and that's kind of a lot of fun. You should try it sometime!

3. The Ghost Bride, by Yangsze Choo
I chose Yangsze Choo's The Ghost Bride not for any particular historical event that occurred within the story (though it's incredibly rich in details of Malaysian history) but for the fascinating historical custom that forms the core of its narrative: ghost marriage. And also because it's a really great book which you should add to the top of your TBR pile like right now. Go on, I'll wait.

A ghost marriage is a traditional Chinese custom where basically a living person is married to a dead one. Sometimes it happens when death takes away one half of an engaged couple and the marriage goes through anyway (presumably because they've already paid the caterer). Other times it's to give a dead unmarried daughter a family to remember her after death, or to remove the shame of a living unmarried daughter by linking her to a man's family. Which is worlds of problematic, because girls who remained unmarried were apparently considered as "threats to the family" and to have "psychological problems." But anyway.

The Ghost Bride is set in the British colonial town of Malaya (now Malaysia), where Li Lan's bankrupt, opiate-addled father is driven to desperation. He sells her to the powerful Lim family as a ghost bride meant to placate the restless spirit of their son. It doesn't quite work--Lim Tian Ching is even more of a bastard dead than he is alive, haunting Li Lan until she's never quite sure whether she's awake or in the grip of another nightmare. She also falls in love with Tian Bai, the new Lim heir, which puts her further in a pickle as she tangles with the bane of all brides everywhere, the Mother-in-Law.

Luckily, Li Lan can only take so much of this horseshit before she goes into the Plains of the Dead to take charge of her life--and her afterlife. There's the small matter of being stuck in a world of ghostly cities, evil spirits, and trickster gods forever, but a heroine's gotta have some form of adversity to overcome. Though mild-mannered and polite, Li Lan heroines up with the best of them.

4. Outlander, by Diana Gabaldon
Beneath all the badass Claire antics and the sexy Jamie shenanigans, Outlander is fundamentally a retelling of the events leading up to the Battle of Culloden, which was the culminating battle of the 1745 Jacobite Rising. The clans of the Scottish Highlanders banded together against the English to install their own king from the House of Stuart on the throne. It was a spectacular but stirring failure, resulting in the total collapse of the Jacobite rebellion and the government's suppression of Highland culture (which, regretfully, also involved the banning of kilts).

Claire, who was transported back to this dangerous time, finds herself on the side of the Jacobites and eventually married to one of them. Burdened with the knowledge of things to come, she tries to change the course of history to save the people she has grown to love (whereas I, were I in her position and armed with more than a spotty knowledge of Scottish political history, would probably just jump Jamie and demand he take me on a year-long honeymoon in some far away place and forget the outside world existed. Don't pretend you'd do otherwise, you know you want to). 

5. The Scarlet Pimpernel, by Baroness Emmuska Orczy
Chiefest in my heart of hearts is Baroness Orczy's The Scarlet Pimpernel, which won my heart even before I realized what a period fiction junkie I'd ultimately turn out to be. I read this back when I was a wee elementary student who never thought things like the French Revolution were even possible in the scope of human deeds. Ah to be young and innocent (I say as I contemplatively lean back in my old person rocker and smack my dentures).

Our story begins in the middle of the Reign of Terror. French aristocrats are fleeing to the winds, only to be caught by the revolutionaries and put to the mercies of Madame Guillotine. Marguerite St. Just is a French actress who married Sir Percy Blakeney, English baronet and professional fop. Unfortunately, they're experiencing some marital difficulties at the moment, and sort of hate each other's guts.

If secrets can kill a marriage, then the St. Just-Blakeney one should be dead and rotting in the ground: Marguerite is being blackmailed to work as a spy for the French government by one oily little man named Chauvelin. 

And Sir Percy, inveterate dandy who has more bejewelled stickpins than thoughts in his head, just so happens to be the mysterious vigilante who rescues French aristocrats from certain death. He is known by his enemies as The Scarlet Pimpernel, for the flower on the card he leaves at every scene of his triumph. As you will. (I mean, it's slightly more creative than "Batman," but I imagine the word "Pimpernel" does very little to strike fear into the hearts of the revolutionaries.) They've also constructed a short angry little poem about how darned sneaky he is:

We seek him here, we seek him there
The Frenchies seek him everywhere!
Is he in heaven? Is he in hell?
That damned elusive Pimpernel!

How delightful is that??? I chanted that little ditty for DAYS. At the end of the day, the nefarious Chauvelin is foiled, Marguerite and Percy fall in love again, and all is right in the world of one happy elementary school student. Imagine my delight when I found out that Orczy wrote about fifteen more of these books! In fact I think I'm going to pick the first one up right now.


  1. I'm so excited that you have The Ghost Bride on your list. It's been sitting on my bookshelf for a few months now, just waiting for me to pick it up. You've inspired me to make sure I read it soon!

    You can check out

    1. It's great for the sheer level of historical and cultural detail alone, but it's also topped off with good spooky ghost shenanigans! When you do get around to reading it, I hope you'll let me know if you liked it!