My Debut as a reviewer for Historical Novels Reviews

I am delighted to announce my debut as a reviewer for the Historical Novels Society, a community of historical fiction lovers.

The task proved not as easy as I’d imagined it to be.  How to summarise a whole novel in a paragraph?  How to describe it so that readers who will love it can come to it – and readers who are less keen on that style can skip on and find something else to enjoy?

And, the biggest question of all. How to be respectful to the blood, sweat and tears that all novelists must shed, to create their work?

The first three books I reviewed for the Historical Novels Society

My first three books were wildly different.  Conquest: the Anarchy, by Tracey Warr, was set in the 12th century Welsh borders, featuring families riven by power struggles between the ancient Welsh kings, and Anglo-Norman invaders.  My next, Red Hands, by Colin W. Sargent, was set in 20th century Romania.  And the third, Secrets of the Lavender Girls, by Kate Thompson, was set in London during World War II.  But what united these books was the hard work their authors had put into research.

Conquest: The Anarchy, by Tracey Warr

Tracey Warr gave a video interview on her researches, which you can view here.  Discovering facts about women is notoriously difficult, and conquered women are even harder to discover. But Tracey worked hard, and discovered Nest, a real Welsh princess who became a political bargaining chip, married off to Anglo-Norman nobles. 

There are absolutely no records of how Nest might have felt about this, leaving Tracey free to imagine Nest’s personality.  She created a character who negotiates an emotional roller coaster of divided loyalties, making a very readable book. 

To help visualise Nest’s life, Tracey visited the castles where she lived.  The stunning locations shine in the text.

Conquest: the Anarchy is the third in a trilogy of Nest’s adventures.  It was readable alone, but it certainly whetted my appetite to read more about Nest.  You can read my review here.

Red Hands, by Colin W. Sargent

At first sight, Red Hands, a book set in 20th century Romania, would seem to have little in common with 12th century Wales.  But author Colin Sargent’s heroine, Iordana Borila, shares Princess Nest’s fate, to be married across the political divide. 

The difference is, Iordana chose her husband.  At least, that is what the story says. And author Colin W. Sargent should know, as, he claims, the book is based on over 80 hours of interviews with Iordana, a real person who lived through the rule of Nicolae Ceaușescu. Sargent publishes, however, not as biography, but as fiction, claiming that a novel can tell ‘a higher truth.’  Truth or fiction, he’s styled it as a thriller, and, although distressing, it’s a compelling read. Read my review here.

Secrets of the Lavender Girls, by Kate Thompson

The third book I reviewed kept the distress light, despite describing multiple problems faced by three London girls during World War II.  Kate Thompson’s Secrets of the Lavender Girls celebrates the help and comfort that friendship brings to her three protagonists.  It’s heartwarming, and made for an easy reading experience.

Unlike the other two stories, Kate Thompson’s characters are fictional.  And yet, their experiences were inspired by the social histories of real people.  Thompson describes meeting women still living, who could describe their experience of working in her setting, Yardley’s cosmetics factory in Stratford, London. You can read my review here.

The strength of all these authors’ researches, and their skill in bringing characters to life on the page, created what I love about historical fiction: the sense of ‘being there’.

About Helen Johnson

Freelance writer specialising in Yorkshire's history and heritage.

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