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My Historical Fiction Challenge, an update (Book Reviews for Maid of Secrets by Jennifer McGowan and The Rose Throne by Mattie Ivie Harrison)

When I was in the 8th grade, my parents received a mysterious letter in the the mail.  I soon would learn it was called a “Progress Report”.  In this particular case, it was reporting the fact that I was not making very good progress in the subject of history.  In fact, I was failing. There was punishment involved. And tears.  Eventually, I passed 8th grade history and went on to pass all other history classes. But a hate affair was history was born.

But this only partially explains my struggles with reading historical fiction.  I am an accidental though not apologetic feminist.  One thing that stood out to me in my travels through the history timeline is how prone we are to treating others different, often less than, ourselves.  And as a woman, it stung to learn that there was a time when my parents may have traded me to a man for a cow in marriage.  For the record the man would have married me, not the cow.  Or that I didn’t have the right to vote.  Or that I couldn’t get my tubes tied to prevent myself from dying in pregnancy without my husband’s permission.  So I came to realize that part of what I struggle with in reading historical fiction is how it (sometimes) romanticizes the past and the subjugation of women (or others).  Not all of it, of course, but there is a tendency in historical fiction to have a romantic bent and, in all honesty, I am not very romantic and I don’t find the oppression of any people group romantic.

BUT . . . last year I read Code Name Verity by Elizabeth Wein which literally knocked my socks off.  See my naked toes wiggle.  Here was a strong, confident, take charge woman rising above the cultural norms. Two of theme even!  And it was just an amazing book.  So this year, I decided to challenge myself and read 5 historical fiction titles.  You can read about that challenge here: Take A Step Back in Time.

So, how am I doing and what do I think? Why, I’m glad you asked.

“themes of empowerment woven into its tapestry of Tudor-set intrigue” – from Between the Covers, on Maid of Secrets

The first title I read was Maid of Secrets by Jenn McGowan.  It is part one of a new series called Maid of Secrets.  When we first Meg, she is part of an acting troupe/gang of thieves.  Interestingly, women couldn’t act in this time period so she is sent out to work the crowd and is a master thief.  Ironically, she is also a great actress.  Meg was awesome because she is very nontraditional; see, for example, master thief.  She is eventually caught and forced to be a spy for the Queen. She is one of many, each of whom have different skills they bring to the table.  There is crossing and double crossing and a threat around every corner.  And sometimes fancy dancing. Also, there is a murderer.  So, as you can see, this was not at all what I was expecting and was a very interesting read.  I thought Meg was a strong female character, there were many others, and there was a lot of nice twists here.  It is a compelling read.  I did have problems tracking some of the characters and their titles, but I am pretty sure that is a reader issue and not a storyteller issue.  I will actually continue to read the series to find out what happens, which is high praise indeed.  This is a must have and I think readers of mysteries and thrillers will be happy reading this title along with historical fiction readers. I give it a 4 out of 5 stars for strong character development, and intricate and thrilling plot, and empowering females while still being realistic to the historical setting.

“There are some secrets worth killing for.  And some deaths that are worth keeping secret.” – Maid of Secrets

Two princesses, two kingdoms, and ancient prophecy . . . 

The second title I read was The Rose Throne by Mette Ivie Harrison.  The first thing you should know is that this is not actually historical fiction, it is fantasy.  But like a lot of fantasy, it has a medieval times sort of feel to it.  Here we meet two princesses from neighboring kingdoms: Ailsbett and Marissa.  They live in a world where men have a certain type of magic and women another, except one of the princesses has no magic in a world that esteems magic more than anything.  Both of these women are forced in various ways to hide their true thoughts and feelings and put in a variety of roles that often make them miserable.  In short, they were forced to be everything I hate about historical fiction, but it IS authentic to what life like that back then would have been (and it is authentic to this fantasy world).  It just makes me ragey (and thankful I was born in the 20th century).  They do grow and make amazing choices, but often at great cost.  I thought that this book was a little slower in its storytelling and incomplete in its world building.  However, my mom borrowed and read the book and she loved it.  It has its charms, for example, I was invested in both the princesses and wanted them to break out of this oppressive life to pursue their passions, but I think it really was a case of wrong reader.  It has 48 reviews on Goodreads with an average rating of 3.29 and I would give it a 2.5 largely in part because I felt it was slow to develop and I would have liked a bit more world building, which may come in the sequels.  Also, the language was a little stilted and formal for me.  My mom, however, would give it a 3.5 and is looking forward to reading more.  I must add, one of the Kings in this story is such a good dad and the other is truly barbaric.  Games of Thrones fans may appreciate another look at Kings and kingdoms wrestling for power.

“I assure you, if I had been in control of myself, I would not have done it.  I would have been safe instead of courageous.” – The Rose Throne

It is interesting to me to even compare the covers.  Maid of Secrets, we see a strong, confident female with her head up and holding a knife.  Everything about her screams power and confidence.  Make no mistake, she is not entirely powerful as she is being held a prisoner by the Queen and forced to serve as a spy, but she has an inner power and confidence that allows her to still have some autonomy.  With The Rose Throne, we see a girl looking down, her head bowed.  One of our princesses, in particular, is very much forced to be in subjugation to the prince that she is betrothed to and his father the king.  In fact, she is in love with another man and must work hard to hide this secret out of fear of what will happen if others learn; It’s a very Romeo and Juliet doomed, star crossed love affair.  So your romantic readers should eat it up (remember, that is so not me.)  And there is romance in Maid of Secrets, so don’t despair.

I have had a lot of teens come in lately and ask for historical fiction.  Demand has been increasing it seems in my area.  Are you seeing the same trend?

Next up, Tarnish by Katherine Longshore.  It comes highly recommended so I am excited.  How about YOU?! What historical fiction have you been loving and why?  Let me know in the comments.

Take a step back . . . in time: Karen’s personal historical fiction reading challenge

Paris Hilton left us with these infamous words: Math is Hard.  I loved math.  You always knew you had a correct answer before turning in your test.  The subject that is my arch nemesis? History.  I am not a fact retainer, but think in ideas and abstraction.  The essay test is my friend.  But trying to remember who did what with whom and on what specific date – gets me every time.

I remember very distinctly being forced to sit in a chair for hours during the 8th grade as my dad yelled at me for the note he got in the mail letting him know that I was failing history.  Good times.  And in college, I actually wrote the following as answer to a test question: “I can’t remember his name, but I know that he went around preaching door to door with a person whose first name is Andrew.”  That very nice professor gave me partial credit.

The Mr., he can recite TV and movie quotes like it is nobody’s business and I am super jealous of this talent.  It must have come in hand during all those history classes.  I can explain to you why the events of history happened and what we can learn from them, but not who did them and when.  And I can count the number of quotes I can recite from memory on one hand, which is one of the reasons I keep a quote journal.

The point of all this, I don’t read a lot of historical fiction – which I regret.  The other day I had a teenage girl and her mom in my teen area and they were trying to talk to me about historical fiction.  So I have set for myself a challenge: in 2013 I am going to read 5 historical fiction titles for yas.  I am listing the titles I am reading below, but need your help: what titles do you recommend? And for the record, I did read and LOVED Code Name Verity last year.

I am currently reading Maid of Secrets by Jenn McGowan.  It is different then I expected because it has a strong, independent female lead and isn’t overly swoony.  I am having a hard time keeping all these names and titles apart, but overall I am really enjoying the story.  PS. For more historical fiction, Jenn McGowan wrote a guest blog post for us last year highlighting some titles, be sure to check it out.

Tarnish by Katherine Longshore
Ann from over at Zest Books highly recommended this title to me and since I respect her infinitely, I am going to be reading it.  It comes out in June 2013 from Viking.  This is the story of Anne Boleyn and the tagline says, “You only think you know her story.”

Victoria Rebels by Carolyn Meyer
This title is based on Queen Victoria’s diaries, which sounds interesting.  Published in January from Simon & Schuster.

Dreaming Anastasia by Joy Preble
I had the chance to hear Joy Preble speak this past weekend at the Montgomery County Book Festival, so I thought I would give this series a try.  The story of Anastasia has always been interesting to me, and I like that it has some paranormal elements in it and isn’t a straight forward historical fiction title.

The Rose Throne by Mette Ivie Harrison
Two princesses, two kingdoms, and ancient prophecy . . .
Does a fantasy romance set in a medieval sounding location actually count as historical fiction?  Probably not.  Maybe.  But, Orson Scott Card gives it a thumbs up and I am going to give it a go. Plus, I do love fantasy.  Coming in May from EgmontUSA

So here is where I need your help, I technically have 5 titles listed here, but it is possible that a couple of them aren’t technically historical fiction.  So tell me in the comments, what 2013 historical fiction title do you recommend that I add to my personal reading challenge?

Take a step back in time with guest blogger Jennifer McGowan (Historical ya fiction spotlight)

Earlier this week I confessed that Historical Fiction is my Achilles heel (I even managed to turn a post about historical fiction into a post about epidemics – I am that awesome) when it comes to collection development – so I enlisted help! Today I bring you a guest blog post by someone who writes historical ya fiction, Jennifer McGowan.  Her ya historical, Maid of Secrets, comes out in the spring.

Why in the World write YA Historicals?

With the recent boom in Young Adult fiction series such as Twilight, The Hunger Games, The Mortal Instruments and, of course, Harry Potter, the obvious sub-genre for an author interested in writing Young Adult novels would seem to range from contemporary paranormal to futuristic dystopian.  With novels like these, readers can explore larger-than-life magic or mythical beings or evil governments sprawling out of control… and escape into a world that just isn’t quite real. Seems like a terrific formula of success, doesn’t it?
So of course, I didn’t follow it.

Instead, not only did I choose to write YA Historical… but I wrote it about a group of fictional girls in Elizabethan England—a time period not exceptionally well known by most teen readers.  And although I was not entirely sure how my stories of Elizabethan spies would fare, I was thrilled when Simon & Schuster picked up the first two books in the series, starting with MAID OF SECRETS (debuting May 7, 2013).

As for choosing the Elizabethan time period for the setting of my novel, I blame my College History class. Under the instruction of Rev. John LaRocca, S.J. at Xavier University, I fell in love with the danger and royal intrigue of Queen Elizabeth’s court, and was awed by the incredible strength of will that she demonstrated during her extraordinary 44 year reign.  I became somewhat of a scholar on the subject of Elizabethan England, and learned that the men and women surrounding Elizabeth proved as fascinating as she was – her scheming Ladies in Waiting; the diabolical Sir Frances Walsingham, spymaster to the Queen; the shrewd strategist Lord William Cecil; and the endless round of suitors who pursued the unmarried Elizabeth for most of her life.

The Young Adult angle came later. When I decided to write about Elizabethan female spies, it seemed natural that they should be unmarried… which perforce made them younger (aged 15-18). In addition, I elected to set my tale at the very start of the Queen’s reign, when she was only twenty five years old. With that in mind, an author friend suggested that I write the story primarily for teens instead of adults, and MAID OF SECRETS was on its way.

Maid of Secrets by Jennifer McGowan
Simon and Schuster for Young Readers
May 2013 ISBN: 9781442441408
Check it out on Goodreads

But Elizabethan England isn’t the only time period that has gained publisher and reader interest recently—in fact, some recent and upcoming novels help demonstrate exactly how diverse and intriguing the world of YA and Middle Grades Historical Fiction has become:

THE WICKED AND THE JUST, by J. Anderson  Coats, set in 13th Century England, is the story of medieval teens behaving badly in English-occupied Wales.  (debuted April, 2012)

THE KEY AND THE FLAME, by Claire M. Caterer, set in a fantasy version of Medieval England, is an MG tale in which an eleven-year-old American girl and her friends travel to an alternate universe of mystical adventure. (debuts April, 2013)

A MAD, WICKED FOLLY, by Sharon Biggs Waller, set against the backdrop of the women’s suffrage movement in 1909 England, tells the story of an Edwardian teen who, after getting expelled from her French boarding school, pursues her passion for art – and for an attractive police constable – despite the restrictions of her upper-class family. (debuts Winter, 2014)  

GILT, by Katherine Longshore, set in Tudor England, is the tale of a young woman who must learn to walk the fine line between secrets and treason when her best friend marries Henry VIII … and who discovers that in the Tudor court, the price of gossip could literally be her head.  (debuted May, 2012)

THE FALCONER, by Elizabeth May, set in 1844 Scotland, is the fantasy historical tale of a young Edinburgh socialite who endures the murder of her mother by a faery… and becomes a hunter of the fae. (debuts May, 2013)

BORN WICKED, by Jessica Spotswood, set in 1890s New England, is the story of three eccentric sisters who must keep their magic a secret from the repressive Brotherhood. (debuted June, 2012)

IN THE SHADOW OF BLACKBIRDS, by Cat Winters, set in WWI-era America, is the tale of a teen girl mourning the loss of her first love in 1918 California, where a flu has turned deadlier than a world war, and spirit communication has become a dark and dangerous obsession, illustrated with early-twentieth-century photographs. (debuts April 2013)

EVERY DAY AFTER, by Laura Golden, set in Depression-era Alabama, is the story of a young girl finding the true meaning of family when her father leaves, her mother is lost in sadness, her best friend betrays her, and the very roof over her head is at risk.  (debuts  June, 2013)

And of course 😉

MAID OF SECRETS, by Jennifer McGowan, set in Elizabethan England, is the story of a wry, resourceful thief forced to join an elite group of spies in Queen Elizabeth’s court—to find a murderer, save the crown, and resist the most forbidden temptation of all: falling in love. (debuts May, 2013)

These books I’ve listed above are just a small sample of what YA historical readers have in store, and all of the authors are members of the brand new historical blog http://corsetsandcutlasses.wordpress.com/.  So stayed tuned, keep reading, and let’s make a little history!
Jennifer McGowan writes Young Adult Elizabethan romance fiction full of swash and buckle. Her first novel, MAID OF SECRETS, debuts May 7, 2013 from Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers. You can learn more about her at www.jennifermcgowan.com, or follow her online at @Jenn_Mcgowan.
What’s your favorite historical fiction title for yas? And what’s your favorite historical time period to read about?  Tell us in the comments.