Tag Archives: Reviews

Maid of Baikal: A Speculative Historical Novel of the Russian Civil War

Written by Preston Fleming

Review from The Copperfield Review

 

 

Maid of Baikal by Preston Fleming is a speculative historical novel, as it states in the book’s title. Fans of traditional historical fiction should be warned that this is a “What if?” novel based on the question “What if the White Russian army won the Russian civil war?”

The story of Maid of Baikal centers around Zhanna Dorokhina, a romanticized version of Joan of Arc who strives to beat back the Bolsheviks through military force. Like Joan of Arc, Zhanna believes she is on a divine mission as she leads her army, in this case the White Russian army against the Bolsheviks. The battle scenes were well written and compelling, and I found myself rooting for Zhanna to win. I felt as though I was there in Russia since the descriptions were so vivid and specific.

As an avid reader of historical fiction I wasn’t expecting to enjoy this book as much as I did. Normally I don’t care for alternative historical fiction because it defies the reason I like to read historical fiction, which is that I get to learn about the past. Even though some of the details presented in Maid of Baikal are the result of imagination, there is still a lot of history to learn here about the Bolsheviks, the Russian civil war, and Russia itself.

Creating a Tolstoy-like epic, Fleming shares a realistic, vivid world within the Russian civil war with rich, multi-dimensional characters that reveal various aspects of humanity as seen in war time, all made more fascinating by the question “What if?” If you love historical fiction and you’re open to speculative circumstances different to that of historical facts, then you will enjoy Maid of Baikal by Preston Fleming. Readers with an interest in Russia and Russian history will also enjoy this novel.

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Maharanis: The Lives and Times of Three Generations of Indian Princesses

Written by Lucy Moore

Published by Penguin UK (2004)

Review by Rosemary Johnson

 

Jit asked Indira why she looked so sad. If she was about to be married, he said, she ‘should be over the moon’.

‘I’m miserable because I’m getting married,’ she replied.

‘Well, why don’t you marry me?’ came Jit’s response.

The year is 1911 and the location the Dehli ‘durbar’ to celebrate the coronation of King George V. Jit (or Jitendra) is the second son of the easy-going, westernised Maharaja of Cooch Behar, a small province in north east India.  Indira is the only daughter of the Sayajirao Gaekwad, Maharaja of Baroda, who has just insulted King George by bowing once, instead of three times – and turning his back on him – when paying homage at the durbar ceremony.  Although otherwise liberal and forward-looking, Sayajirao and his wife, Chimnabai, have arranged for seventeen year old Indira to be married to the rich, thirty-five year old Maharaja Madhavrao Scindia of Gwalior, in full knowledge that she would be his second wife and live her life behind the purdah curtain, in the zenana.

So far, so Bollywood.  But this is history, not chicklit. Shenanigan followed shenanigan, the lovers egged on by Jit’s mother, Sunity Devi, friend of the British Royal Family and daily celebrity fodder for the British newspapers.  The Indian princely families could not resist the high life in Europe: gambling, horse racing, balls, cricket, polo, motor cars and alcohol – particularly alcohol.  Jit would die of alcoholism, together with his own and Indira’s brothers.

Lucy Moore’s Maharanis: The Lives and Times of Three Generations of Indian Princesses recounts the lives of three generations of princesses in Baroda and Cooch Behar.  One of the strengths is Lucy’s full descriptions of life in purdah.  When Chimnabai, then aged fourteen, arrived in Baroda as a bride, her carriage was curtained, so she saw nothing and nobody saw her.  Zenana women never saw the outside of the buildings in which they lived. They watched, intently, everything that went on in the palace, but their lives inevitably gravitated inward, taken up with squabbles amongst themselves. However, without giving away any spoilers, Indira would never suffer purdah, although her daughter, Ayesha, chose partially to enter the zenana when she became the third wife of Jai, Maharaja of Jaipur – because she was madly in love with him.

This book covers the period in which Indians challenged British rule.  All the princes supported independence, but without appreciating the extent to which Nehru, Gandhi and the Socialist-inclined Congress Party, which, at various times, courted the USSR, were opposed the existence of Indian aristocracy.  With the zenana becoming a thing of the past, Ayesha, a gutsy lady, becomes involved in politics, vigorously opposing Indira Gandhi, with whom she had been at school.

The writing style is occasionally rambling and occasionally difficult to follow, perhaps because we are unaccustomed to Indian names and places, but Maharanis is a well-researched and honest account of an emotional period of history.

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Rosemary Johnson has contributed to FictionAtWorkThe Short Humour SiteMslexiaLinnet’s WingsCafeLit, and Radgepacket.  Her work is based in reality, with a strong human interest element.  Although much of her work is humorous, she has also written serious fiction, about the 7/7 Bombings in London and attitudes to education before the Second World War.

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The Essex Serpent

Written by Sarah Perry

Review by E H Young

 

Sarah Perry’s The Essex Serpent is one of those darkly ominous historical novels that proves quite difficult to define; it’s not quite fantasy, but is nonetheless imbued with a sense of magic and dark whimsy.

I picked it up (as is my wont) entirely because of the cover. And a fitting cover it is too: at first glance all I saw was an attractive William Morris design, and didn’t notice the serpent winding sinuously through ornate leaves. That’s a good parallel to the book itself; the fictional Essex Serpent is as elusive as the one on the cover, wending its way through the minds of the characters and making itself known through strange, portentous events in many ways more frightening than any physical beast with snapping beak and leathery wings could be.

But it’s not clearly a gothic novel or a horror story either. The prose is beautiful and rich. It especially comes to life when Perry describes the Essex countryside: each page is full of the natural beauty of a region it is clear the author knows well. Though the protagonist might not approve of such a description, the way in which Perry describes the natural phenomena around which so much of the novel revolves—the Fata Morgana, the loamy undergrowth of English forests—is nothing short of magical.

Just as elusive and wonderful are the relationships between the characters. Their development does not progress in expected ways and none are neat and tidy enough for the book to be classified as a love story—unless, perhaps, one expands ones definition of ‘love’ outside the traditional sense of the word. The women, too, are an especial highlight of the book: there are wives and mothers but at no point is any woman in The Essex Serpent reduced to such a role. All, Stella especially, prove to have untold depths, often as strange as any natural phenomenon. Their stories, especially those of Cora and Stella, tangentially connected by their shared—though different—love for William, interweave to form the toothsome fabric of a deep, layered story.

Overall, The Essex Serpent is an esoteric, whimsical text that joins the ranks of generations of Victorian and Gothic novels from Doyle to Shelley, at the same time as it defies the very traditions these books have set down.

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E H Young is a writer and bookblogger from Southern California currently living in Edinburgh.

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