Tuesday, September 20, 2022

Author Interview: C.W. Gortner Discusses The Romanov Empress

Welcome to Historical Fiction Reader Christopher. It’s a pleasure to have you with us. To start things off, please tell us about THE ROMANOV EMPRESS.
The Romanov Empress tells the story of Maria Feodorovna, mother of Tsar Nicholas II. Known in her family as Minnie and born as Princess Dagmar of Denmark, she wed into the Romanov dynasty and became tsarina, then Dowager Empress when her son took the throne. Minnie bore extraordinary witness to the final years of the Romanovs, living through the last three reigns, including her husband’s and son’s. She’s less well known today than the ill-fated Nicholas II and his family, yet her life was full of drama, tragedy, and tumult. Most of the Romanovs had very little idea about, or much care for, how dire things were in their country, but of all of them, Minnie was probably the most aware; she was one of the few in a position of privilege who sought to improve the plight of the poor and advocate for change. She was a complex and fallible woman; I loved writing about her.

At the risk of sounding impertinent, where did you find this story? Did it strike like lightning out of nowhere or was it an idea that grew over time?
It actually came about by accident. I’d always wanted to write about the Romanovs and had originally decided on another character. Not surprisingly, given that character’s real-life personality, the writing wasn’t going well, but every time Minnie appeared (at the time, she was a secondary character) my writing came to life. I finally realized I should be writing about her, instead. To inhabit a character, I must hear her voice. I heard Minnie’s rather than the character I’d chosen, which turned out to be a fortunate discovery. Her point of view is rarely depicted, allowing me to portray a more encompassing view of events. Minnie experienced firsthand the years of discord and agitation against Imperial rule that led to the 1917 Revolution. She also had family and friends outside of Russia and brought a broader sense of the world to the novel.

Maria’s rivalries with both Maria Pavlovna (her sister-in-law) and Alexandra Feodorovna (her daughter-in-law) are intrinsic components of the narrative. Why did you hone in on these particular relationships?
Because relationships in conflict often create history. History doesn’t occur in a vacuum; people make history happen. Minnie and Maria Pavlovna’s “frenemy” relationship was one of the most interesting to me; both foreign brides who wed into the Romanov family, and of opposing nationalities, they had such different approaches to life. Yet they became friends of sorts, because they recognized that both were indomitable. As for Alexandra, Minnie’s daughter-in-law, I realize she’s venerated by many; the execution of the Imperial family was one of the most defining, terrible events of the early 20th century. But in life, Alexandra was quite difficult. She had a distorted sense of the world and her place in it; she wasn’t equipped emotionally to cope with the demands of her rank—and Minnie knew it. There’s plenty of evidence that the Dowager Empress and the tsarina were antithetical, so it was important to highlight this because it drove an unsurpassable wedge between the tsar and his mother, on whom Nicholas had relied almost exclusively for advice. Alexandra was one of the key players in the downfall of the Imperial house, not intentionally, but through her inability to recognize the catastrophe brewing around her, some of it caused by her own actions.

Maria Feodorovna is not as well-known to modern readers as her son and his family. What do you hope readers take from their experience of this fictional account of her life?
First of all, I hope readers enjoy reading about her. I’m a novelist, so my primary goal is to entertain. But I also love history, so I hope readers will learn something about the circumstances that led to the demise of the Romanovs, as well as the personalities involved. We tend to think of the Russian Revolution as an isolated, abrupt upheaval; in truth, it was the inevitable culmination of centuries of blind privilege and unwillingness to change. Minnie wasn’t an exception, in that she upheld the notion of the tsar’s divine right to rule, but she also had a vital perspective that went unheeded. Her efforts to prevent the chaos are underappreciated, in my opinion. And through her eyes, we see a very different portrait of the Romanovs than is usually portrayed. I wanted to go beyond the popular mythology. While some of my conclusions may be controversial, they’re supported by factual evidence.

The Romanov family was very fond of their pets, and you managed to include many authentic cameos throughout the narrative. I was delighted to discover such attention to detail and wanted to ask why you felt this theme was so important.
Well, I too love animals and always try to include them in my books when the historical evidence supports it. And the Romanovs were well known for their love of animals, despite their hunting practices. They had many beloved pets, like Minnie’s spaniel, Beauty, and later, Alexei’s spaniel, Joy. Minnie founded the first chapter of the Russian Humane Society; she was an ardent supporter of compassion toward animals. I felt this trait among the Romanovs gave them humanity and also complexity; they’ve been accused, rightfully so, of being insensitive to the millions of people suffering in Russia under their rule yet they had this very human love and care for their companion animals.

Do you have a favorite scene in THE ROMANOV EMPRESS?
One of my favorites is the scene between Minnie and Alexandra, when Minnie visits the family after Alexei has been ill, and mother and daughter-in-law sit down for tea in an atmosphere of tension. Minnie has just met Rasputin in passing and spent time with her granddaughter Anastasia, who was often said to most resemble the Dowager Empress in character; Minnie is angry at Alexandra’s unfathomable attitude, but in that scene, we witness the quiet, unending suffering that the tsarina endures because of her son’s illness and the grief Minnie also carries over the loss of two of her children. In that moment, these women who cannot see eye-to-eye should bond over their shared sorrow, but they fail to find common ground. The scene really defines their relationship.

Authors are often forced to make sacrifices when composing their stories, and I always wonder what ended up on the cutting room floor. Is there a character, scene, or concept you wish you could have spent more time on while writing THE ROMANOV EMPRESS?
So many. I always say, real life is full of infinite details, while a novel is finite. You only have so many words to tell your story. I would have liked to delve further into ancillary characters, particularly Grand Duke Sergei, whose torment over his homosexuality fueled his astringent personality. Sergei really captured me as a novelist. We don’t often consider how a gay Imperial grand duke had to hide who he was and how that would have warped his personality. Sergei and Ella’s marriage would have been so interesting to explore; she truly loved him even though he treated her callously, probably because he resented that he’d had to marry. He was known to carry on clandestine relationships with men throughout their marriage, yet he could never be honest about it.

If you could sit down and talk with a member or members of the cast of THE ROMANOV EMPRESS, maybe meet and discuss things over drinks, who would you invite and why?
Minnie, without a doubt. And Marie Pavlovna, or Miechen, as she was known. To have them in the same room and be able to ask them about their feelings about the family, the events that led to the downfall . . . it would be incredible. I also think meeting Prince Felix Yusopov would be fascinating. What a life he led.

If you could pick a fantasy cast – anyone at all, living or dead, at any point in their careers- to play your characters in a big screen adaptation of THE ROMANOV EMPRESS, who would you cast?
Gosh, I never think about it. Isn’t that weird? I know a lot of writers do. Hmm . . . For Minnie, it would have to be an actress with range, as she goes from being a very young woman to a much older one in the course of the book. Someone like Rachel Weisz would be ideal for Minnie. Petite and dark, and strong-willed. For Sasha, her husband, we need a powerful presence: Joel Edgerton, perhaps? For Nicholas II, an actor like Jude Law or Jake Gyllenhall, you need a lean man who can brood and carry a beard! Alexandra would be difficult to cast, but I think Rosamund Pike could capture her. Fun to think about, but also tough, as I see these characters so distinctly in my mind.

Thank you for inviting me. Readers can always visit me at: www.cwgortner.com

Monday, September 19, 2022

Book Review: The Witches of St. Petersburg by Imogen Edwards-Jones

Inspired by real characters, this transporting historical fiction debut spins the fascinating story of two princesses in the Romanov court who practiced black magic, befriended the Tsarina, and invited Rasputin into their lives—forever changing the course of Russian history.

As daughters of the impoverished King of Montenegro, Militza and Stana must fulfill their duty to their father and leave their beloved home for St. Petersburg to be married into senior positions in the Romanov court. For their new alliances to the Russian nobility will help secure the future of the sisters’ native country. Immediately, Militza and Stana feel like outcasts as the aristocracy shuns them for their provincial ways and for dabbling in the occult. Undeterred, the sisters become resolved to make their mark by falling in with the lonely, depressed Tsarina Alexandra, who—as an Anglo-German—is also an outsider and is not fully accepted by members of the court. After numerous failed attempts to precipitate the birth of a son and heir, the Tsarina is desperate and decides to place her faith in the sisters’ expertise with black magic.

Promising the Tsarina that they will be able to secure an heir for the Russian dynasty, Militza and Stana hold séances and experiment with rituals and spells. Gurus, clairvoyants, holy fools, and charlatans all try their luck. The closer they become to the Tsarina and the royal family, the more their status—and power—is elevated. But when the sisters invoke a spiritual shaman, who goes by the name of Rasputin, the die is cast. For they have not only irrevocably sealed their own fates—but also that of Russia itself.

Brimming with black magic, sex and intrigue, The Witches of St. Petersburg is an exquisite historical fiction debut novel filled with lush historical details from the Romanov era.
Those with weak constitutions may want to think twice before picking up THE WITCHES OF ST. PETERSBURG. Imogen Edwards-Jones is a talented and descriptive writer, but she doesn't shy from the gratuitous or the grotesque. The hard truth is that if you can't stomach the prying of a half-developed chick from its egg, the disintegration of a miscarried fetus, Rasputin's wart-tipped phallus, or Alexandra Feodorovna dropping to her knees to scoop up and eat vomit, this book isn't for you.

I also struggled with Edward-Jones's decision to play fast and loose with history. A date change is one thing, but pitching Suzanna Catharina de Graaff's claim as fact is a bit of a stretch. An exciting and arguably creative stretch, but a stretch that wasn't convincing enough to swallow.

THE WITCHES OF ST. PETERSBURG is a beast at four hundred and sixty-four pages! The pacing is slow, and I struggled with the characters. I don't mean that I hated them or anything. I couldn't understand them or their motivations. Were they selfish social climbers or self-sacrificing Montenegrin royalty? The novel sways back and forth, and the lack of clarity made it impossible for me to appreciate what the author was trying to say about either heroine. 

There's some exciting content in this piece, and I think the author flirts with some fascinating concepts, but the execution is all over the place. Complex stories are great, but they need to translate, and I can't say that I feel this one does so effectively.

Rating: ★ ★ ☆ ☆ ☆
Obtained from: Edelweiss

Friday, September 16, 2022

Author Interview: Heather Webb Discusses The Phantom's Apprentice

Welcome to Historical Fiction Reader Heather. It’s a pleasure to have you with us. To start things off, please tell us about THE PHANTOM'S APPRENTICE.
Thank you for having me! The Phantom’s Apprentice is a re-imagining of The Phantom of the Opera by Gaston Leroux, complete with a historical context of the period—illusionists, spiritualism, what it means after we die, music as a means to find one’s inner power, Belle Epoque Paris in all its glory. It’s a sort of mash-up of genres, really; suspense, historical fiction, romance, women’s fiction (if that’s a true category). It’s all about Christine Daaé’s inner life, and who she “really” is—how her story “really” happened, at least in my imagination.

THE PHANTOM'S APPRENTICE is less a re-telling than it is a re-imagining of The Phantom of the Opera. Why did you opt to make such dramatic departures from the source material?
It’s funny you say this. I had a couple of publishers tell me it wasn’t different enough, that I had followed the original too closely. My agent and I scratched our heads about it. I can’t tell you how much I wrestled with this element of writing the book. How much canon from the novel do I retain? How often can I stray from the original story? If I strayed too far, it would be unrecognizable; if I didn’t stray far enough, I would be repeating the story that already exists. This was a very difficult thing to balance. My critique partners could tell you how much angst I had about this very thing—it was constant. The other issue is, what is so famous in Webber’s version isn’t necessarily what the book was trying to illustrate at all, so it added another layer of angst. The public knows and loves the play. Do I follow this outline more heavily or the original Leroux version?

In the stage play version of the story, so much is left out that was either touched upon in the novel, or was eluded to (Erik having conjuring skills, for example). I reconstructed that world, expanded it, sort of combining the two versions. Also, I used most of the original cast, but I gave them deeper motivations, as well as created another layer of stakes for each character beyond just “there’s a creep in the opera who is trying to kill us”, or “she’s really pretty, I want to be with her”. There were a couple of new characters that I hadn’t planned on, too, who butted their way into the narrative unexpectedly. When Delacroix showed up, I thought “who the heck is this guy and what does he want?” It led me down the spiritualism path.

Ultimately, this is a question about artistic license, and about what the original means to me personally, where I see its strengths and flaws and how I wanted to flesh out certain elements, how I wanted to add something new to a beloved story that a modern audience could relate to. I found that in Christine Daaé’s voice.

Spiritualism plays a unique role in the story. Can you tell us a little about the Spiritualist movement and its connection to the world of magic and illusion?
I was absolutely fascinated by this movement, and really wanted to incorporate it as historical context for the novel. First of all, Gaston Leroux lived during this time when the movement was at its height in popularity. He ingeniously weaved in this question of ghosts and spirits, as well as political commentary from the times into the narrative that doesn’t really come through in the play version.

Spiritualism began with an innocent séance between the Fox sisters in the first half of the 19th century that evolved into a sensation. Did the dead communicate with the living? Had they really passed on or did they live among us, evolving alongside us in the afterlife? This era is when you see the rise of Gothic novels and the occult, as well as the use of mediums and turning tables for séances. Add the technological push and rapid series of inventions and everyone grapples for the essence of what matters—their loved ones, the evolution of their souls, and so on.

Spiritualism evolved into a religious sect in some circles, and like with any religion, beliefs were tied to its principles and emotions ran high. There was much debate over the validity of spiritualism, and Scientists and philosophers sought to disprove or prove (whatever angle they were coming from), the likelihood that spirits were real. Many magicians/conjurers tapped into this emotionally volatile well and manipulated it for their own gain, especially as advances in projecting images and different types of glass were designed. They could “create” apparitions. Riots broke out after an illusionist’s show from time to time, because viewing the dead so easily in public caused a fright.

Erik could throw voices, used mirrors to deceive, made trap doors, dressed like an illusionist. Leroux was poking fun at the movement while simultaneously giving a nod to its ingenuity. I LOVED this about the novel and thought, how could this have gone unnoticed among modern audiences? We see magicians in top hats as hokey. This is because society today doesn’t understand the era when all of this was happening, how modern technology began, really, during this time, and the way it frightened the bejesus out of people. Major change was afoot. Fascinating stuff that I just HAD to include.

Speaking of magic, the narrative is filled with numerous illusions and tricks. Were these techniques inspired by any particular magician or popular performances of the period?
Yes, they were inspired by many illusionists that were popular during the time. I mentioned a few of them by name in the book. If you’re curious, I’d recommend reading Hiding the Elephant by Jim Steinmeyer. It’s a terrific book about the history of magic and the world’s most popular magicians. I read a few others, but this one was, by far, the best.

Do you have a favorite scene in THE PHANTOM'S APPRENTICE?
Hmm. I’ll just say my favorite scenes to write were when Christine sees Raoul for the first time at Carlotta’s salon, when she confronts Carlotta near the end, and also the masquerade ball when she discovers a few unsavory details about all those she has cared for and trusted.

How funny! The confrontation scene was my favorite while reading the book.

Is there a character you felt particularly close to while writing 
Interestingly, I’d say Claudette. As much as I enjoyed giving Christine Daaé a backbone, I just really loved Claudette’s voice. She popped up unexpectedly and I thoroughly enjoyed her. At times, I wanted the story to be more about her.

As a side note, I had trouble with Erik. I had to really scale him back because every time I started working on a scene with him, he wanted to take over the story. He’s a larger-than-life figure in our minds and I had to remind myself again and again that it wasn’t his story, that he already had a story. This was Christine’s.

Authors are often forced to make sacrifices when composing their stories. Is there a character or concept you wish you could have spent more time on while writing THE PHANTOM'S APPRENTICE?
YES! Initially, I toyed with the idea of setting up a framing device that was in Gaston Leroux’s voice. My intention was to show how he became inspired to write the original through things that happened to him and around him in society. I tried and tried to make this work—Leroux was kind of a wild man, and was the original and first celebrity journalist—but it just didn’t fit so I had to ditch it. I’m still mourning that. It just didn’t happen. Incidentally, I’d love to write a book about him.

If you could sit down and talk with one of your characters, maybe meet and discuss things over drinks, who would you invite and why?
I assume you mean in The Phantom’s Apprentice and not from all of my novels? I think I’d choose Monsieur Delacroix. He was incredibly intelligent and had loads of baggage as well as some interesting views on things. I’d like to pick his brain.

What do you hope readers take from their experience of THE PHANTOM'S APPRENTICE?
I usually like to allude to something meaningful about being alive and struggling as people on this earth. In The Phantom’s Apprentice, the struggle is about finding a place of your own, about discovering the bravery inside of you to face hardships that life throws at us. It’s also about using that bravery to strike out, do something meaningful in our short time on this planet. We should not grieve forever about what is lost, or we also lose our present and our future. It’s also about spirituality. What do you believe about souls and the afterlife? Is it scientifically-based, or do you believe in a higher power? Do they go hand-in-hand?

Finally, I was heavily inspired by The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern, one of my very favorite novels. That novel, to me, is much less about plot and so much more about atmosphere. It’s an experience, almost, rather than a story. I aimed to channel some of that essence in The Phantom’s Apprentice. I wanted to create a lush, Gothic ambiance that was so unique to the era, make the book an experience of its own. Most of all, I just want to entertain my readers!

Thursday, September 15, 2022

Book Review: The Phantom's Apprentice by Heather Webb

In this re-imagining of Phantom of the Opera, meet a Christine Daaé you’ve never seen before…

Christine Daaé sings with her violinist father in salons all over Paris, but she longs to practice her favorite pastime—illusions. When her beloved Papa dies during a conjurer’s show, she abandons her magic and surrenders to grief and guilt. Life as a female illusionist seems too dangerous, and she must honor her father’s memory.

Concerned for her welfare, family friend Professor Delacroix secures an audition for her at the Opéra de Paris—the most illustrious stage in Europe. Yet Christine soon discovers the darker side of Paris opera. Rumors of murder float through the halls, and she is quickly trapped between a scheming diva and a mysterious phantom. The Angel of Music.

But is the Angel truly a spirit, or a man obsessed, stalking Christine for mysterious reasons tangled in her past?

As Christine’s fears mount, she returns to her magical arts with the encouragement of her childhood friend, Raoul. Newfound hope and romance abounds…until one fateful night at the masquerade ball. Those she cares for—Delacroix, the Angel, and even Raoul—aren’t as they seem. Now she must decide whom she trusts and which is her rightful path: singer or illusionist.

To succeed, she will risk her life in the grandest illusion of all.
I caught wind of Heather Webb's THE PHANTOM'S APPRENTICE at the 2017 Historical Novel Society Conference in Portland. A devout cover slut, I was immediately smitten with the jacket design, but I was equally intrigued by the premise of the narrative and couldn't wait to get my hands on a copy.

Did the novel live up to my expectations? That is an interesting question. THE PHANTOM'S APPRENTICE exists within Leroux's canonical universe, but it is independent of his voice. That fact threw me as I feel the magic of retellings rests in how the inspired work echoes the tones of the original. I thought Webb's interpretation intensely creative and appreciated the historical details she folded into the narrative, but I struggled with how completely her voice tonally overshadowed his.

In terms of content, however, Webb hit the nail square on the head. Leroux capitalized on contemporary interest in the spiritualist movement with the original work. Webb expands on this idea by exploring the emotions of the movement's patrons and the means by which those emotions were exploited.

I also love the voice Webb gifted Christine. Mrs. Daaé is a passive and easily manipulated character under Leroux's pen, but she becomes a far more assertive and astute personality under Webb's. The character tried my patience at times, but I certainly appreciated the ideas that shaped her make-up and the contemporary relevance those afforded. 

Webb's foray into the world of illusion is also worthy of note. The novel takes place during a fascinating period in the developmental timeline of stage magic. Though the techniques she illustrates are not refined by today's standards, I found the technical descriptions of Erik's illusionary innovations engaging and couldn't help falling in love with Webb's authentic portrait of the magician's craft.

Rating: ★ ★ ★ ☆ ☆
Obtained from: Netgalley

Wednesday, September 14, 2022

Author Interview: Lynn Cullen Discusses Mrs. Poe

Welcome to Historical Fiction Reader Lynn. Great to have you with us. To start things off, please tell us a bit about MRS. POE.
Told through the eyes of Poe’s lover, poet Frances Osgood, Mrs. Poe traces the rise and fall of the mysterious author the year after he wrote ‘The Raven’ in 1845.

What inspired you to write this story? Where did it begin?
It all began with trauma in my own life. The week that I heard that the book that I’d been working on for 18 months wouldn’t be published, my husband, who’d been unemployed for a year, came down with a life-threatening case of meningitis which resulted in a brain injury. The day I brought him home from the hospital, I was worrying about whether he would ever be well again and how I might support us, when Poe popped into my mind. When I looked up Poe, I liked that he was an underdog—I love writing about underdogs—but when I read about his affair with Frances Osgood and her struggles to support herself with her writing after her husband left her, alarms went off. I knew I had to write about her.

During my race to tell Frances’s story, my husband began to slowly heal. Although he couldn’t read a sentence after his injury, he put in several hours each day trying to decipher a novel. After a few months, he started to talk to me about the plots and characters of the book he was reading. I knew he was back. You could say that novels healed him.

Edgar Allen Poe is an interesting individual. How did you approach characterizing him for your novel, and how do you hope he comes across to your readers?
The Poe that most people think of today—gloomy, unattractive, a bit mad—was not the Poe of 1845. The creepy Poe of legend is a product of the worst smear job in literary history, thanks to his archrival and literary executor, Rufus Griswold. It became my mission to correct this image in Mrs. Poe. The real Poe of 1845 was handsome, gentlemanly, and sought after by the ladies.

This portrait, drawn from life in 1846 by John A. McDougall, is said to be an accurate depiction of the writer. Along with this and a few other portraits from around the year of the Raven, I shaped my Poe on both contemporary descriptions and modern biographies. I then tossed in things I find attractive in a man--a dry sense of humor, a wonderfully wide kind streak, and keen intelligence--as well as evidence for the capacity for passion, running just below the surface, a la Colin Firth. I literally pictured Ralph Fiennes in the BBC Film version of Wuthering Heights when I needed a visual boost. It was fun creating my idea of the perfect hunk.

Frances Sargent Osgood was a popular writer and poet in her own right, but contemporary readers are probably less familiar with her work and/or character. Can you tell us a bit about your interpretation of her?
I drew a lot from my own experiences as a mother and writer while creating Frances’s character, and hoped to include the fears and joys for both. I tried to get a sense of Frances’s personality from her poems, which I had also done with Poe while I was developing his character. Frances’s way of thinking is much like my way of thinking if I had been in her shoes and falling in love with Poe. I tried to be as honest and forthright as possible, letting real human emotion guide my plot as opposed to letting my plot drive her character.

I was impressed with your treatment of Samuel and Virginia. Did you find it difficult working with the spouses of your star-crossed lovers?
I remember your kind review last year and I thank you very much for it! In truth, it was fun to write the Samuel and Virginia characters because even though they were flawed, I loved them. One of the best pieces of writing advice I have ever received, delivered to me in my twenties by my high school friend and distinguished writer, Michael Martone, is to always love your characters. Don’t mock them, don’t scorn them, and do try to understand them. Michael was talking about main characters but since then I have even applied that maxim to my villains. I delight in them all.

Another figure that stands out in my mind is Griswold. Can you tell us a bit about his role in MRS. POE?
Oh, Griswold! If anyone was truly mad in the real-life drama surrounding Poe, it was Rufus Griswold. This is a guy who actually dug up his wife a month after she died so that he could clip her hair and hug her once again. Relatives had to pry him off her decomposing body, yet while she was living, he wouldn’t give her the time of day—he refused to even live in the same city with her. He applied the same intensity of madness to his determination to destroy Poe. He was obsessed with Poe after Poe criticized his poetry anthology, and made it his life’s work to besmirch Poe’s name. How this sworn enemy of Poe came to possess Poe’s literary papers after Poe died became one of the central questions that I asked myself as I wrote Mrs. Poe.

New York is very much a character in the novel. How did you bridge nearly 170 years of history to recreate the vibrant backdrop of this growing metropolis for your story?
It was easy to bridge the gap from 1845 to the present in Manhattan because much of Poe’s New York from the time of ‘The Raven’ still exists. City Hall Park and Washington Square are still there as is Battery Park, although they have changed some. I consulted city guides and insurance maps at the New York Historical Society Library, among dozens of other books, to correct these and other places to their actual 1845 appearance. Fortunately, the house where Poe and so many literary figures met for “conversaziones” still exists at 116 Waverly Place. It’s a private home and can’t be entered but the exterior has been restored and you can imagine Poe and Frances treading up those porch steps. We are lucky, too, that a perfect model for both the exterior and interior of the Bartletts’ home in which Frances stayed exists today in the Merchant House Museum in Greenwich Village. My tours of this home, built in 1830 and furnished as a gentleman’s home would have been in Poe’s time, provided fodder for and verification of many scenes in my book. It’s open to the public and absolutely fascinating if you want to see what it was like to live in New York in 1845.

One of my favorite aspects of the story is that it’s brimming with literary references. Why did you chose to include these in MRS. POE?
Reading about Poe’s attendance at literary salons in New York led me to Anne Charlotte Lynch Botta, which in turn opened the world of the artistic leaders in the city at the time. Anne Lynch began what I think of as the forerunner of the book club in her home right around the time ‘The Raven’ was published. Her unpretentious gatherings, called “conversaziones,” were open to anyone who wanted to discuss literature, art, and ideas. They were an instant success, attracting everyone from Poe to Hawthorne to Louisa May Alcott. Lynch’s Saturday night book clubs quickly became a who’s who of important or soon-to-be-important New Yorkers. From the list of attendees over the years, I pulled the famous characters who would have been in the city in 1845. These luminaries gathered together each Saturday night at the conversaziones just as surely as movie stars gather today at the Academy Awards.

You probably have many, but is there a scene you particularly enjoyed writing?
Frankly, I had a blast writing the entire book but the scene up in the bell tower of Trinity Church was extra fun to put on paper. As I do with every scene in my books, I visited the setting to make sure I got the details right. The lovely man who rings the church bells took me high into the tower to see the little windows set in the face of the clock: Yep, a head can fit through them…

What scene posed the greatest challenge for you as an author? Why was it troublesome, and how did you work through it?
One of the harder scenes to write was the scene in Boston, when Poe and Frances steal a moment together. I wanted to be very honest and very real—I weighed every word carefully. The ending was also tough because I had to write through tears each time I worked on it.

Sometimes fiction takes on a life of its own and forces the author to make sacrifices for the sake of the story. Is there a character or concept you wish you could have spent more time with or expanded on?
I was very interested in the changes in the natural environment in New York in 1845. Along these lines, I loved the theme of how man is always trying to conquer nature but how nature will always have the final say. We try to impose our will upon human nature as well, making rules for ourselves that we so often break. These ideas are in Mrs. Poe but I couldn’t make a huge point of them without slowing down the action, although Frances and Poe are example of what happens to two people who should naturally be together but are bound by cultural rules to remain apart.

Historical novelists frequently have to adjust facts to make their stories work. Did you have to invent or change anything while writing MRS. POE, and if so, what did you alter and why?
The game I like to play with myself in writing historical fiction is to take known facts and to weave a story within any gaps in the history, while never allowing myself to alter the facts. For example, there’s a lot of evidence of Poe and Frances’s affair in their poetry, in eye witness accounts of Poe visiting Frances past midnight many nights, in accounts of their behavior together at parties, and in the New York literati’s rage toward Poe when love letters from Frances were purported to have been discovered at his house. I took the evidence, factored in where Poe and Frances were each day as gleaned from contemporary reports, then imagined what happened between them. But I don’t play with timing or geography or other things like that to make the facts fit my story. I fit my story around the facts.

If you could sit down and talk with one of your characters, maybe meet and discuss things over drinks, who would you choose and why?
Virginia Poe. Her character was drawn largely from my imagination because so little is known about her. While that was fun, I’d like to see how close I got to being right.

If you could pick a fantasy cast of actors to play the primary roles in a screen adaptation of your work, who would you hire?
My dream cast is Leonardo DiCaprio as Poe, Kate Winslett as Frances, and Jennifer Lawrence as Virginia Poe. But there are plenty others who would be fantastic. Who would you pick?

Way to put me on the spot! I guess if it were up to me, I'd cast Edward Norton as Poe, Michelle Dockery as Frances, and round out the group with Sarah Bolger as Virginia.

Tuesday, September 13, 2022

Book Review: Mrs. Poe by Lynn Cullen

A vivid and compelling novel about a woman who becomes entangled in an affair with Edgar Allan Poe—at the same time she becomes the unwilling confidante of his much-younger wife.

It is 1845, and Frances Osgood is desperately trying to make a living as a writer in New York; not an easy task for a woman—especially one with two children and a philandering portrait painter as her husband. As Frances tries to sell her work, she finds that editors are only interested in writing similar to that of the new renegade literary sensation Edgar Allan Poe, whose poem, “The Raven” has struck a public nerve.

She meets the handsome and mysterious Poe at a literary party, and the two have an immediate connection. Poe wants Frances to meet with his wife since she claims to be an admirer of her poems, and Frances is curious to see the woman whom Edgar married.

As Frances spends more and more time with the intriguing couple, her intense attraction for Edgar brings her into dangerous territory. And Mrs. Poe, who acts like an innocent child, is actually more manipulative and threatening than she appears. As Frances and Edgar’s passionate affair escalates, Frances must decide whether she can walk away before it’s too late...

Set amidst the fascinating world of New York’s literati, this smart and sexy novel offers a unique view into the life of one of history’s most unforgettable literary figures.
Ah distinctly I remember it was in the bleak December,
that at the library I spied, a fictional tale of Poe's young bride.
Over the pages I did pour, but the book fast became a chore,
the text echoing verbatim lore, a novel that had come before.
After that I swore - no more!

In December 2011, I noticed Lenore Hart's THE RAVEN'S BRIDE on the new release shelves at my local library. Intrigued, I brought the book home with me and, while doing some background reading, realized the novel was the center of a literary controversy that claimed Hart's novel plagiarized Cothburn O'Neal's THE VERY YOUNG MRS. POE. Not being one to place absolute trust in the news, I tracked down O'Neal's work to see with my own eyes just how closely the books resembled one another. The similarity between the two texts found my jaw on the floor, but I was also dismayed to discover I had no genuine enthusiasm for the story as neither Hart nor O'Neal could make me believe Edgar and Virginia's marriage was a union of passion. The exercise of working through both books left me frustrated with both Hart and her publisher, but it also killed my interest in fiction related to the macabre poet. 

As you might expect, my first impulse was to run from Lynn Cullen's MRS. POE. Warning bells chimed left and right, but curiosity got the better of me as reader interest in the novel grew. Having never been satisfied by Hart or O'Neal, I wondered if Cullen could succeed where her predecessors had failed. The thought niggled at my imagination until my defenses broke, causing me to track down a copy and pray history wouldn't repeat itself. 

Though a ladies' man in life, popular culture paints Poe as an awkward loner. For this book to have any hope of success, Cullen needed to strip away this misconception and highlight the man beneath it, and it is a challenge she rose to and executed with flawless grace. Between these pages, Poe reads as an authentically attractive and believable romantic lead. 

The emotional depth of this novel took my breath away. It's not easy to read the suffering of a bereft mother, the longings of a fatherless child, or the dangerous intrigues of a twisted mind and darkened heart, but I appreciated Cullen's handling of the material. Her depictions of jealousy, obsession, revenge, desire, and disloyalty humanized these characters in ways I'd not previously seen, and I liked how those ideas came through the text. 

I also liked how Cullen used Poe and Osgood's public exchange of poetry. Historically, there is a lot of speculation as to how far things went between the two writers, and while I've no particular opinion on the subject, I thought Cullen's depiction of their relationship creative and engaging. 

Spellbinding and seductive, MRS. POE is an impossibly addictive tale of tragic romance that refuses to let you go even after the final page.

Rating: ★ ★ ★ ★ ★
Obtained from: Netgalley

Monday, September 12, 2022

Author Interview: Sarah Penner Discusses The Lost Apothecary

Welcome to Historical Fiction Reader Sarah. It’s a pleasure to have you with us. To start things off, please tell us a bit about THE LOST APOTHECARY
Thank you so much for having me, Erin! I’ve been an avid fan of the Historical Fiction Reader for quite some time, and it’s such an honor to do this interview. 

The Lost Apothecary is my debut novel, and it centers around a female apothecary in 18th century London who sells well-disguised poisons to women seeking vengeance against the men who have wronged them. Centuries later, in present-day London, a woman travels to London and finds an apothecary vial while mudlarking on the River Thames. She soon suspects she’s found the culprit in the never-solved “apothecary murders” that haunted London two hundred years earlier. 

The novel is dual-timeline, and the stories of the two women intertwine in a stunning twist of fate, one in which not everyone will survive… 

Where did the idea for this story originate?  
I first learned about mudlarking years ago, while reading London in Fragments: A Mudlark’s Treasures by Ted Sandling. In the book, he shares striking images of interesting things he’s found near the River Thames in London. It is here that I first spotted a fragment of a mid-seventeenth century delftware apothecary jar, and the inspiration for The Lost Apothecary was born. I knew instantly the story would begin with a woman in present-day who finds an apothecary vial while mudlarking.

I didn’t actually have the chance to go mudlarking myself until the summer of 2019 after I was already agented and we were working on revisions to the manuscript. Over the course of several days, I went down to the river three separate times, finding an assortment of pottery, clay pipes, metal pins, even animal bones. 

I clung to the idea of an apothecary from the get-go. The word apothecary is evocative, drawing forth visions of a candlelit storefront with sash windows, its walls lined with mortar bowls and pestles, and countless glass bottles. There is something beguiling, even enchanting, about what might lie within those bottles: potions that bewitch us, cure us, kill us. When describing the apothecary’s hidden shop, I did my best to capture this allure. 

What historical resources helped you bring the Georgian world to life on the page?
I’ve spent years researching Georgian London. I much prefer it over the Victorian, Tudor, and Edwardian eras. Georgian London teemed with gin, brothels, eccentric intellectuals…it was such a scandalous time period! It was also before the advent of modern toxicology, which was necessary for my story: The Lost Apothecary is about disguised poisons, and if I’d set the story even fifty years later, some of the apothecary’s poisons would have been detectable via autopsy. 

Researching the many herbal and homespun remedies for this story was a time-consuming, albeit entertaining, task. I spent time in the British Library, reviewing old manuscripts and druggist diaries; I reviewed digitized pharmacopeias; and I studied extensively some well-known poisoning cases in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. I was surprised by the number of plants and herbs that are highly toxic, and I was fascinated while reading about the clever, if ineffective, remedies used by the predecessors of modern-day pharmacists.

Which character in THE LOST APOTHECARY do you feel you have the most in common with?  
Definitely the present-day character, Caroline. In fact, she and I are very similar, in that we both have a keen interest in digging into old documents and mysteries of the past. 

Which character do you feel you have the least in common which? 
I haven’t yet mentioned a third character in the story: Eliza, a twelve-year-old girl who helps the apothecary (a sort of apprentice, if you will.) I have the least in common with Eliza, given not only her age but her beliefs about magic and ghosts. 

Did any scene in THE LOST APOTHECARY challenge you as a writer? 
On a macro level, the structure of the novel as a whole was challenging. As I mentioned, the story is dual-timeline, and I structured the information reveal very carefully as the story went on. Especially at the end, when the present and historical narratives collide, I had to “drip-feed” the suspense to ensure I didn’t ruin a surprise too soon. 

On a micro level, there were a number of scenes that challenged me. I naturally prefer writing scenes that move quickly—think cliffhangers, twists, and big reveals. I find it more challenging to layer in characterization: motivation, backstory, and fundamental beliefs that make a person do what they do. But all of it is necessary in commercial fiction, and I’m thankful for an agent and editor who have both been immensely helpful in challenging me to dig deeper into my characters.  

Authors are often forced to make sacrifices when composing their stories and I always wonder what ended up on the cutting room floor. Is there a character, scene, or concept you wish you could have spent more time on while writing THE LOST APOTHECARY?
Yes! In an earlier draft of the book, my present-day character goes on a quirky tour of London in which the tour guide explains old mysteries and rumors about the city. During this tour, the guide also mentions the rumored apothecary murders from two hundred years ago, and this information allows my present-day character to continue her search of the apothecary. 

Alas…both my agent and editor felt the information revealed during the tour scene was too coincidental, and no matter how much I dug in my heels, they advised we needed to pull the tour scene and re-strategize. I’m still a bit bummed about it, as I’ve been on such tours myself in London and have fond memories! Perhaps it’s a scene for another story, someday…

If you could pick a fantasy cast – anyone at all, living or dead, at any point in their careers- to play your characters in a big-screen adaptation of THE LOST APOTHECARY, who would you cast?
The 18th C apothecary, Nella – Kathy Bates
The twelve-year old girl, Eliza – Emma Watson  
Present-day character, Caroline – Rachel McAdams

What do you hope readers take from their experience of THE LOST APOTHECARY?
The Lost Apothecary is very much a story about women controlling their own destinies. There are dark aspects to the story—like the burden of secrets and the destructive pursuit of vengeance—but it is also a story of hope and the way women can protect, honor, and free one another, even when separated by the barrier of time. I hope that when turning the final page, readers will feel connected to this sense of loyalty and better appreciate how we can honor our own loved ones.

Of course, I also hope the book is a form of escapism. It’s a historical mystery, and I hope that anyone who loves sleuthing or uncovering old documents will find themselves lost in the pages! 

Friday, September 9, 2022

Notes from the Margins: Reading the Windsors

Yesterday marked the end of an era, but as news of the Queen's passing rippled around the world, my thoughts strayed to the history of the Windsors and the novels their lives have inspired.

I began compiling a list, and as I finished, I was struck by how many of these books have shied away from the politics of empire. I wonder if that will change now that Elizabeth II is gone. Will it be easier to fictionalize now that her chapter has closed or will we continue to focus on landmark events and personal scandals? Only time will tell. 

Valhalla by Alan Robert Clark (George V and Mary of Teck)
The Royal Nanny by Karen Harper (Charlotte Bill, Nanny to Edward VIII and George VI)
Lost Autumn by Mary-Rose MacColl (Edward VIII's 1920 Australia tour)
The Woman Before Wallis by Bryn Turnbull (Edward VIII and Thelma Morgan)
The Shadow Queen by Rebecca Dean (Edward VIII and Wallis Simpson)
Another Woman's Husband by Gill Paul (Edward VIII and Wallis Simpson)
The Duchess by Wendy Holden (Edward VIII and Wallis Simpson)
In Royal Service to the Queen by Tessa Arlen (Marion Crawford, Governess to Elizabeth II)
The Good Servant by Fern Britton (Marion Crawford, Governess to Elizabeth II)
The Royal Governess by Wendy Holden (Marion Crawford, Governess to Elizabeth II)
The Queen's Secret by Karen Harper (King George VI and Elizabeth, The Queen Mother)
Before the Crown by Flora Harding (Elizabeth II and Prince Philip)
The Gown by Jennifer Robson (Elizabeth II and Prince Philip)
The Other Windsor Girl by Georgie Blalock (Princess Margaret)  
Coronation Year by Jennifer Robson (Elizabeth II's 1953 Coronation)
The Journey After the Crown by Andrew Mackie (Elizabeth II's 1954 Australia tour)
The Princess by Wendy Holden (Princess Diana)
The People's Princess by Flora Harding (Princess Diana)

Honorable Mentions: 
The Prince of Mirrors by Alan Robert Clark (features Mary of Teck)
The Rose Code by Kate Quinn (set against the wedding of Elizabeth II and Prince Philip)
The Royal Correspondent by Alexandra Joel (features Elizabeth II and Princess Margaret)

Thursday, September 8, 2022

Author Interview: Elizabeth Bell Discusses the Lazare Family Saga

Welcome to Historical Fiction Reader Elizabeth. It’s a pleasure to have you with us. To start things off, please tell us a bit about the LAZARE FAMILY SAGA.
It’s a pleasure to be here! I’ve been following your reviews for years. 

My series is about a multiracial family discovering where they belong in the young United States, from antebellum Charleston to the Wild West. Book One, Necessary Sins, focuses on a Catholic priest who grapples with doubt, his family’s secret African ancestry, and his love for a slave owner’s wife. 

Joseph Lazare and his two sisters grow up believing their black hair and olive skin come from a Spanish grandmother—until the summer they learn she was an African slave. While his sisters make very different choices, Joseph struggles to transcend the flesh by becoming a celibate priest.

Then young Father Joseph meets Tessa Conley, a devout Irish immigrant who shares his passions for music and botany. Joseph must conceal his true feelings as Tessa marries another man—a plantation owner who treats her like property. Acting on their love for each other will ruin Joseph and Tessa in this world and damn them in the next. Or will it?

Where did the idea for this story originate?  
This saga grew out of its settings. When I was eight years old, I first visited Charleston, South Carolina. I fell in love with the architecture, the gardens, and wildlife. When I was twelve, my family moved to the Front Range of Colorado. I fell in love with the mountains and the prairies. I wanted to inhabit both places before the encroachment of modernity. Historically too, beauty and ugliness existed side by side in these settings, in the enslavement of African-Americans and the destruction of the Native American way of life. I read Colleen McCullough’s Thorn Birds, John Jakes’s North and South, and Alex Haley’s Roots, which gave me a wide enough canvas to unite these places I loved, by creating my own multi-generational family saga. By making the central family multiracial, I am able to dig deep into the conflicts and injustices at the heart of the American Dream.

What historical resources helped you bring the Lazare Family’s world to life on the page?
I’ve spent almost three decades researching this saga. I’ve consulted hundreds of sources, which I list on my website. I mention the most important sources in my Author’s Notes at the end of each novel. My second home has always been a library, and I’ve worked in one since graduate school. Beyond books, visiting the same places as my characters helped me bring them to life, from a beach in South Carolina to a fort along the Overland Trail in what is now Wyoming. Paintings from the 19th century are a great resource. Surviving material culture like clothing, furniture, and horse-drawn vehicles has also been tremendously helpful. I read as many primary sources as I could, the writings of people who lived during the time period of my novels. 

Which character in the Lazare Family Saga do you feel you have the most in common with?  
There are aspects of me in several of my characters. To quote Walt Whitman, “I contain multitudes.” I feel closest to the patriarch of the Lazare family, René Lazare. He has my sense of humor and my skepticism. He’s the most progressive of the characters, so he feels the most contemporary. I think that’s why I didn’t want scenes from his point-of-view; I’m proud that most of my characters have authentic 19th-century psyches. But René is the voice of reason and stands in for me in many ways. After my editor suggested I write an Epilogue from his point-of-view, René gave it to me in first person, whereas the rest of the saga is in limited third-person point-of-view.

Which character do you feel you have the least in common with? 
Byron Cromwell because he’s very devious. He thinks his intelligence entitles him to power. He’s determined to get ahead in life no matter the collateral damage. He’s good at reading other people and exploiting their weaknesses. He’d run right over an introvert like me!

Did any scene in the LAZARE FAMILY SAGA challenge you as a writer? 
Almost every scene! So much is beyond my personal experience as a middle-class, 21st-century white woman and required massive amounts of research. That’s why this saga has taken me so long to write. Any scene from a male point-of-view. Any scene from the point-of-view of a person of color. Any scene from the point-of-view of a person of faith, from Joseph’s Catholicism to Náhgo’s native spirituality. I had to immerse myself in these experiences till I felt like they were part of me.

Authors are often forced to make sacrifices when composing their stories and I always wonder what ended up on the cutting room floor. Is there a character, scene, or concept you wish you could have spent more time on while writing the LAZARE FAMILY SAGA?
I quite liked one of the alternate openings to the saga, but it set the wrong tone and couldn’t exist alongside my current opening. I have thousands of pages of previous drafts, and I’ve trimmed many parts of the final draft. Some of that was painful to lose, but the revisions made the story stronger and I don’t regret them. The beauty of being an independent author is that I’m not forced to cut anything. I carefully consider the advice of my critique partners, beta readers, and editor, but the final decisions are up to me—so if I really liked a scene or turn of phrase and it fit into the whole, it got to stay.

If you could pick a fantasy cast – anyone at all, living or dead, at any point in their careers- to play your lead characters in a big-screen adaptation of the LAZARE FAMILY SAGA, who would you cast?
I have whole Pinterest boards devoted to fantasy cast members! I’ll confine myself to Book One of my series, Necessary Sins. I’d want actors with African ancestry to portray my characters with African ancestry: Brian Stokes Mitchell as René Lazare, Wentworth Miller as his son Joseph, Jennifer Beals, and Zendaya as his daughters Catherine and Hélène respectively. Keira Knightley would join them as Joseph’s soul mate, Tessa Conley. I know Keira can rock a 19th-century gown! Since this is a fantasy, the Lazare Family Saga would be adapted not for the big screen but into a long-running streaming series like Outlander.

What do you hope readers take from their experience of the LAZARE FAMILY SAGA?
I want to transport my readers to the 18th century Caribbean, to antebellum Charleston, and to a Cheyenne village. I want to make my readers laugh and cry. I want them to rejoice and grieve with my characters. I hope I draw readers out of their comfort zones. I hope they see American history in a vivid new way and not just through rose-colored glasses. I hope that my readers will walk away with a little more empathy for their fellow humans.

Wednesday, September 7, 2022

Author Interview: Janet Wertman Discusses The Boy King

Welcome to Historical Fiction Reader, Janet. It’s a pleasure to have you with us. To start things off, please tell us about THE BOY KING and its place in the Seymour Saga.
First, I just have to say how thrilled I am to be here. I have followed your reviews for a long time - and especially appreciate your comments on my own books!

The Boy King is the final book in my Seymour Saga trilogy, the story of the unlikely dynasty that shaped the Tudor era. The Seymours have been overlooked and ignored – but they were central players in just about every key story of the time. From Jane Seymour who married Henry VIII just ten days after Anne Boleyn was executed on trumped-up charges, to Edward Seymour who managed to grow his power during Henry’s crazy years, to Edward VI who took the throne at age nine and was forced to execute two of his uncles. They started out as a relatively common family (even though they could trace their ancestry to Edward III) that almost added their bloodline to the crown lineage. The trilogy is the story of that attempt.

Can you tell us a bit about how you approached characterizing Edward VI? 
Edward VI lived a highly public life from birth, so I had the benefit of a number of contemporary reports. We know he was on the skinny, delicate side; we know he was serious and a little pompous. We know he had this incredible sense of duty and can guess that he must have been overawed by and little scared of a father who was larger than life. So I started with that. 

We also have this additional insight into his personality: he kept a diary. Admittedly, its entries were still part of his “public-facing” façade, but they do tell us more than he intended to reveal. Like the way he begins his Chronicle with the equivalent of “Once upon a time.” Or the chilling entry that everyone uses it to sum up his character: “The Duke of Somerset had his head cut off at Tower Hill at nine this morning.” To me, giving the right context to that single sentence was the key to his whole story. 

Both of your earlier novels, JANE THE QUENE and THE PATH TO SOMERSET, feature adult members of Henry’s court. THE BOY KING shifts perspective to that of a nine-year-old boy. As a writer, did you find it challenging to adopt the voice and views of an adolescent? 
It did take me a while to settle into his voice! It helped that close friends have a nine (now eleven) year old boy that I could squint at for inspiration. But really, it was all about showing how incredibly young he was to be dealing with the stuff that came up – and that was about showing him puzzling through the different events, sometimes analyzing things correctly and sometimes not. 

That was actually the harder challenge: to have readers discern a different truth than what the point of view character believed! For that, I needed careful descriptions of people and events to help discern the flaws in Edward’s logic… 

Edward died young, but I have to ask, what kind of king do you think he’d have been if he’d lived long enough to rule in his own right? 
It could have gone either way, actually. Edward was smart, committed, and sincere – but he was also somewhat myopic and stubborn. Still, I think overall he could have been really good for the country. 

Admittedly, the whole Jane Grey episode shows a lack of judgment, but he was only sixteen. Similarly, he was terribly manipulated during his time on the throne, but most of that occurred during the earliest years, and the people who did the manipulating were people he should have been able to trust. By the end, he had a healthy dose of the skepticism he would have needed to manage his own court, so he really had the chance to be one of the greats…assuming of course, that circumstances didn’t conspire to thwart him as they did his father, turning Henry VIII from an idealistic young man into the Nero he was in the end!

Edward’s older sister, Mary, plays an interesting role in the story. What can you tell us about her character and the challenges she faces in THE BOY KING
Mary was principled, stubborn, and very brave. She was basically the flip side to Edward, the Catholic to his Protestant. The two siblings were equally fanatic in their own points of view, they both saw the divine hand in many of the events of the times…they just drew different conclusions. 

The thing is, Mary was convinced she was right – and most of the world (well, Europe – the world they knew) backed her up. Because of her powerful Spanish relatives, she was convinced that she had the right to stand up to her brother on religious matters…at least until he turned eighteen. She was not about to give up her faith a second before then (and actually, she would have figured out how to keep her faith even after that – it was more than just a form of worship, it was her very identity: to Catholics, she was Henry VIII’s only truly legitimate child since Edward’s mother was married by the Church of England).  

Do you have a favorite scene in THE BOY KING
I have two. My very favorite one is where I give Edward the puppy. The universe gave me an incredible gift: as I was writing the scene, someone brought a tiny ten-week-old puppy to my house and so I got to describe it in real-time. The softness, the puppy smell, the curling up to sleep in my lap…. My various critique partners loved the way I captured the moment, they also thought it humanized the boy and was just a wonderful, warm episode to include right then. Meanwhile, my Tudor fans will experience a sudden flash of recognition…

I also am proud of the scene where Somerset makes Edward promise that he will sign the next death warrant presented to him…

Authors are often forced to make sacrifices when composing their stories and I always wonder what ended up on the cutting room floor. Is there a character, scene, or concept you wish you could have spent more time on while writing THE BOY KING?
Sigh. I wish I could have spent a lot more time with pretty much everything in The Boy King, but I forced myself to focus everything on the basic story. Even with that, I was on the hefty side of how long a book should be. 

If you could pick a fantasy cast – anyone at all, living or dead, at any point in their careers- to play your characters in a big-screen adaptation of THE BOY KING, who would you cast?
I have always had a problem with this question because my characters live inside my heads, and they are unlike any actor I have seen. Except for Keith Mitchell, he will always be Henry to me, and Glenda Jackson will always be Elizabeth – but that’s cheating. 

Still, because it was you, I tried. It was hardest to come up with an actor for Edward – not a lot of child actors could do this (no offense to Macauley Culkin but…). The closest I came was Danny Lloyd, the boy from The Shining (he quit acting and is now a college professor – seemed appropriate given Edward’s intellectualism!). Then it got easier. I decided Trudy Styler – cool and badass – would make a great Katherine Parr…though a young Trudy Styler could also make a great Elizabeth. Since I was hiring Trudy, it was a small step to bring in Sting in as Edward Seymour – he’s got that intensity and that reserve. Then it hit me that Kevin Spacey (as he was in House of Cards) would make a great Northumberland (except I don’t want to work with him anymore after the #metoo revelations…). And best of all, Tim Curry for Tom Seymour – the ultimate seductive villain. 

I can see Frank Underwood (the character, not Spacey) as Northumberland, but I have to say, love your selection of Tim Curry. Fabulous casting choice. 

What do you hope readers take from their experience of THE BOY KING?
I want people to realize that Somerset’s signing his own brother’s death warrant reflected compassion for his young nephew. I want people to understand that the cold diary entry (“The Duke of Somerset had his head cut off at Tower Hill at nine this morning”) shields overwhelming emotion. But bottom line, I really just want readers to HAVE the experience. Somehow, this is the first time anyone has told Edward’s story from his own point of view (well, the story of his reign anyway – a hundred years ago, Mark Twain’s The Prince and the Pauper showed us the boy right before he acceded the throne). Given everything that happened to him, his story should have been told long ago.

Tuesday, September 6, 2022

Book Review: The Boy King by Janet Ambrosi Wertman

The Unsuspecting Reign of Edward Tudor

Motherless since birth and newly bereft of his father, King Henry VIII, nine-year-old Edward Tudor ascends to the throne of England and quickly learns that he cannot trust anyone, even himself.

Edward is at first relieved that his uncle, the new Duke of Somerset, will act on his behalf as Lord Protector, but this consolation evaporates as jealousy spreads through the court. Challengers arise on all sides to wrest control of the child king, and through him, England.

While Edward can bring frustratingly little direction to the Council’s policies, he refuses to abandon his one firm conviction: that Catholicism has no place in England. When Edward falls ill, this steadfast belief threatens England’s best hope for a smooth succession: the transfer of the throne to Edward’s very Catholic half-sister, Mary Tudor, whose heart’s desire is to return the realm to the way it worshipped in her mother’s day.
Divorced, beheaded, died. Divorced, beheaded, survived.

Henry VIII's quest for a legitimate male heir is immortalized in the well-known rhyme, but what of the child that drove his desperation? Though he can occasionally be found in a supporting role and is often mentioned in Tudor novels, Edward VI's most significant fictional moment was arguably shared with Tom Canty in Mark Twain's THE PRINCE AND THE PAUPER. That is, until now. 

Collectively, Janet Wertman's Seymour Saga chronicles the political ebb and flow of the noble family from which it takes its name, but I think the trilogy's framing is what makes it worthy of note. By centering each installment of the series around mother, father, and son, Wertman draws attention to a recognizable family unit and, in so doing, manufactures a sense of domestic intimacy in a royal house characterized by inconstant affection and competing interest. As a reader, I fell hard for this idea and freely admit feeling Wertman's approach to the material delivers a particularly poignant punch in the series finale, THE BOY KING

Unlike his parents, Edward is a child when he comes to his throne. The vipers of his court are quick to prey on his inexperience, and Edward is not always capable of recognizing the dangers. His tendency to turn inward, however, to draw guidance from the legacies of his parents, poetically anchors the larger arc of the series while illustrating a fundamental desire for parental love and approval. The result is relatable and sympathetic, but it also emphasizes the tragic realities of Edward's short life, the pressures he faced, the potential he wished to realize, the reasoning behind his missteps, and the isolation he experienced at the very pinnacle of power. 

Mary Tudor serves as a second narrator in THE BOY KING, and I would be remiss in neglecting my admiration for the agency Wertman gifted her character. Mary's legacy is drenched in blood, and where most authors allow history to drive their characterization of Henry's eldest daughter, Wertman challenges readers to understand Mary as a woman brought to odds by a conflict of sisterly compassion and fierce religious conviction. THE BOY KING is Edward's story, but it lays the groundwork for Mary's reign and pays homage to the strengths and weaknesses her historic counterpart exhibited upon taking the throne after Edward's death. 

The dramatic rivalry between Edward Seymour and John Dudley makes intense reading, but I loved how it played to the influence each exerted in Edward's court. Though relegated to supporting roles, I also appreciated what Elizabeth and Cheke brought to the story. Wertman's focus is clearly on Edward, but the author's nuanced understanding of the period creates a diverse and layered social landscape unmatched by most, if not all, of her peers. 

Highly recommended both as a standalone and series read. Wertman's work is among the best Tudor fiction on the market.

Rating: ★ ★ ★ ★ ☆
Obtained from: Author