Three overdue reviews of historical fiction

I’ve been a bit swamped with work at Five Rivers Publishing, as well as squeezing in time for my own writing, so am overdue writing reviews of three novels I recently read. Quite different in their subject matter and writing styles, all historical fiction, my reviews follow.

A Morbid Taste for Bones (Chronicles of Brother Cadfael, #1)A Morbid Taste for Bones by Ellis Peters
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The first in a beloved and popular series by Ellis Peters. This is excellent historical fiction, well-written with a wry sense of humour and impeccable period detail seamlessly written into the narrative.

A Morbid Taste for Bones sets the tone for the series, in this case Brother Cadfael’s intelligent and deft hand unravelling the deception of a fellow monk, and the obsessive machinations of another, all the while bringing justice to the Welsh village his order have all but invaded.

A great read for any age. Timeless. Memorable.

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The Physician (Cole Family Trilogy, #1)The Physician by Noah Gordon
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

It is no secret I adore historical fiction. It is also no secret I become impatient with historical fiction which isn’t particularly well-researched and riddled with modern intrusions and perspectives.

Unfortunately, such is the case with Noah Gordon’s first book in his Cole Family Trilogy.

The story follows a young man’s need to find gainful employment in medieval England, a search which lands him with a charlatan medic who operates an itinerant snake oil show. There is something of the paranormal in Gordon’s story, an ability the protagonist develops whereby he is able to feel the health of imminent death of a patient.

When his employer dies, he takes it upon himself to travel to Persia, disguised as a Jew, in order to study with a physician purported to be the best in the world.

While a consumable read, for this reader the story just didn’t hang together, primarily because there were so many plausibility questions, outright material culture errors, and stereotyped gender and cultural points.

Altogether disappointing, and not enough interest to want to continue with the series. Your mileage may vary.

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Imperial WomanImperial Woman by Pearl S. Buck
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

It isn’t often I give up on a novel. Generally it’s my policy to finish a book whether I’m enjoying the journey or not, because often I’m surprised in the last moments, finding the author has brought all the elements of the story together in a brilliant finish.

Such is not the case with Imperial Woman, by Pearl S. Buck.

Buck presents what should be a fascinating story about the last, and most famous, empress of China, Tzu Hsi. Instead Buck has taken the easy route and presented what is very nearly a Harlequin romance, instead of a tightly written novel rife with the subtleties and intrigues of the Imperial Court. There were moments I asked myself how many times we were going to be told about the beauty and grace of the Empress.

When Buck does present historical facts, it ends up being a dry, drawn-out narrative heavy on the expository and devoid of deep character point of view or input.

The result is a novel which feels interminable, plodding between longings of the heart and retention of power.

I am sure many readers would take issue with my assessment. That is the joy of debate and variety. But for me, this is a novel which falls into an epic fail category.

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