The following reviews originally appeared in the February 2016 print and online edition of the Historical Novels Review of the Historical Novel Society.
THE LOST TIME ACCIDENTS, John Wray, Farrar, Straus & Giroux
Taken together, John Wray’s first three novels clearly demonstrate his facility in representing a broad, eclectic range of subjects, time periods, and characters; thus, this novel should come as no real surprise, but it does. Defying easy categorization, the book weaves elements of science, science fiction, history, pop culture, and religion to produce a funny, mordant, thoughtful, and thought-provoking exegesis on the nature of time.
Waldemar Tolliver is both the hapless victim and natural product of his notorious family’s history. When his great-grandfather, pickle baron and amateur physicist Ottokar Toula, dies just hours after making the stunning but ill-documented discovery that it’s possible to move freely within the dimension of time, Ottokar’s descendants are trapped in lifetimes of attempting to unlock those lost secrets. Waldy’s family, certain it has the inside track on the right answer, dismisses Einstein as “The Patent Clerk.” “The belief that every physicist since Newton has been a fraud or a sucker (or both) is our family dogma, passed from generation to generation like a vendetta or an allergy to nuts.”
The details unwrap themselves slowly as we read over Waldy’s shoulder while he pens his family’s sordid history for the faithless woman he loves, Mrs. Haven. He writes from inside the depths of his late aunts’ huge, stuffed-to-the-rafters New York apartment where, incidentally, he finds himself entirely outside the stream of time. How he came to be there, how he is named after his great-uncle the war criminal, how his father’s bad science fiction writing is responsible for the founding of a cult (Wray doesn’t bother to hide that he’s describing Scientology), and how his thoroughly eccentric aunts may have finally solved the puzzle are all eventually revealed in this story that, like a black hole, winds ever tighter around its core.
THE VATICAN PRINCESS: A NOVEL OF LUCREZIA BORGIA, C.W. Gortner, Ballantine
Pity Lucrezia Borgia and the legacy of historical gossip permanently attached to her. Simply saying the name conjures up titillating visions of wealth, power, evil, and lots of illicit sex. C.W. Gortner, who specializes in Renaissance fiction featuring strong female protagonists, uses his latest novel to cut through the innuendo and perhaps shine a more historically accurate light onto this notorious woman, who seems to have simply had the misfortune of being born into the wrong family.
Gortner has Lucrezia narrate her own story, and he presents her as a credible witness. She and her siblings are the children of Cardinal Rodrigo Borgia and one of his many long-term mistresses; the barest of charades is used to maintain the required appearances. The story opens when Lucrezia is twelve and the conclave of cardinals is set to elect a new pope. We immediately plunge into the stunning complexities, intrigues, and cold-blooded cynicism of life among the Vatican elite. Rodrigo’s machinations win him the papacy, a thoroughly political office that demands constant power-brokering and frequent wars to protect it. Lucrezia is used as any Renaissance princess would be, as a useful tool for cementing allegiances, and she has precious little real influence. However much Rodrigo dotes upon her, or her brother Cesare claims to love her, the entire Borgia clan uses her horrifically and eventually causes her nothing but misery.
The author has invested his novel with impressive historical detail that is woven neatly into the threads of the story, and his afterword and references offer excellent insight and final wrap-up. Though he strikes a few false notes – Lucrezia’s relinquished child seems to play almost no part in her emotional make-up – Gortner gives us a sympathetic portrait of a woman who was treated badly both in life and by the historical record.
THE MAN WHO SPOKE SNAKISH, Andrus Kivirähk, translated by Christopher Mosley, Black Cat
In The Man Who Spoke Snakish, Estonian writer Andrus Kivirähk weaves a melancholy, often brutal, tale of the last gasp of an ancient folkloric culture. He describes a people who live entirely in the forest, keep wolves to ride (like horses) and milk (like cows), command wild deer and goats to come to slaughter, and speak the language of their friends the snakes. It is this ability that offers the people dominion over the wolves, deer, and goats, and the forest in general.
Even as the novel opens, though, we find a culture in steep decline. People are leaving the forest in droves, drawn into the tantalizingly modern life of the village with its foreign invaders’ concepts that appear to offer a better life. The title character, Leemet, lives with his widowed mother and sister in their hut in the forest surrounded by an ever-shrinking community. Leemet’s uncle Vootele is the last fluent human speaker of Snakish, and he insists that Leemet learn it equally well. Vootele teaches Leemet about their ancient protector, the Frog of the North, and about Leemet’s grandfather, the last man to have poisonous fangs, which he used to tear into the “iron men” before those invading knights were able to capture him, chop off his legs, and throw him into the sea.
Though there is humor, particularly in some of the early descriptions and observations, the novel becomes ever darker as Leemet finds himself increasingly isolated. Kivirähk can perhaps be forgiven for drawing caricatures on both sides of the culture clash that traps Leemet, since every folktale features archetypes rather than well-drawn characters. Nonetheless, Kivirähk’s tale is poignant in its depiction of the loss of community, of the utter loneliness of living without the people who most understand who we really are.