Summer reading should be completely escapist, sending you to places and times you’re reluctant to leave. The best historical novels do just that, and this season there are plenty to choose from.
The plot of Laura Spence-Ash’s BEYOND THAT, THE SEA (Celadon, 368 pp., $28) is rooted in the home-front upheavals of World War II, but it’s also a timeless exploration of what it means to create a family, of how dreams can die and be reborn in surprising ways. In August 1940, 11-year-old Beatrix Thompson is among a shipload of youthful British refugees whose parents have sent them to safety in New England. Her few years among these welcoming strangers will trigger decades of connections and disruptions involving the two sons of her host family, not to mention two very different maternal figures on either side of the Atlantic. “Some secrets,” Bea concludes, “are weights to be borne. Others are gifts, little bits of warmth, to be revisited again and again.” Sorting through them will be her big challenge.
Charles Frazier is best known for his vivid rendering of the Civil War South in “Cold Mountain.” For his latest novel, THE TRACKERS (Ecco, 324 pp., $30), he paints an equally vibrant portrait of Depression-era America via the extracurricular travels of Val Welch, a perhaps-too-trusting artist at work on a W.P.A.-funded mural in rural Wyoming. An invitation to lodge with a friend of his academic mentor will enmesh him in the domestic drama of a wealthy, politically ambitious art collector whose much younger, much less conventional wife has suddenly gone AWOL. Intent on quietly investigating her compromised past, Val’s host sends him on a mission that will open his eyes to the realities of what happens to “a mass of young people moving like a rain cloud all around the country, hungry and dirty and scared.”
Another decidedly unconventional spouse narrates Susanna Moore’s impeccably detailed depiction of THE LOST WIFE (Knopf, 172 pp., $27). In flight from an abusive marriage in Rhode Island, the woman later known as Sarah Brinton hopes to join a friend in the Minnesota Territory. But on arrival she discovers that the friend has died of cholera, and the Western frontier in 1855 is no place for a woman alone. A marriage of convenience takes her to the Yellow Medicine Indian agency, where her new husband has been appointed resident doctor — and where the violent confrontation between encroaching whites and the increasingly restive Dakota strands her between their two worlds.
Brinda Charry has concocted a fascinating novel called THE EAST INDIAN (Scribner, 272 pp., $28) from the brief mention of a particular indentured servant in the historical records of early-17th-century Virginia. Getting her narrator from his childhood on the Coromandel Coast of India to the New World is a task she attacks with gusto, spicing his tale with references to a play he sees during a brief stint in London before he’s imprisoned on a ship bound for the colonies. Could the minor role of the foreign boy in “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” provide a hint that this young man will find a place in the larger English story? Charry sends him through a host of venues to explore the possibilities.
The birth of the British raj and the death of princely India provide a backdrop for the addictively absorbing adventures in Tania James’s LOOT (Knopf, 304 pp., $28), which also invents a lively hero from a footnote to history. This time that footnote is not a person but an automaton, known as Tipu’s Tiger, which may have been a collaboration between an Indian craftsman and a French visitor to the court of the sultan of Mysore. James’s central character is a Muslim woodworker with a knack for carving toys and an insatiable curiosity, talents that will serve him in good stead as he follows his French mentor back to Europe. There he will eventually be reunited with their elaborate faux beast (depicted, with horrifying sound effects, in the act of devouring a British soldier), but in circumstances that require a great deal of subterfuge, the perhaps unattainable good will of an eccentric English aristocrat and the kindling of what could turn out to be a rather profitable romance.
Emilia Hart’s WEYWARD (St. Martin’s, 336 pp., $27.99) doesn’t stray far from the Cumbrian countryside of northern England. Instead, its movement comes from the juxtaposition of three narratives linking the travails of a trio of women whose family history stretches back to the early 17th century. When first met, in 1619, Altha Weyward is on trial for witchcraft, accused of murdering a local farmer with the spells she learned from her mother. Intersecting with her story — and its gradually unfolding revelations about Altha’s actual activities — is an account of the viciously unhappy youth of a World War II-era descendant, an entomologist named Violet, who has been disinherited for reasons as yet unexplained. Also dealt into the mix is the present-day tale of Violet’s pregnant great-niece, Kate, whose attempt to wrest herself from a bad marriage takes her to the derelict cottage she has inexplicably inherited in Violet’s will. All three women will find solace in a powerful connection with nature, but all three will need to combat the life-changing power of some very bad men.
What historical fiction roundup could fail to include the Tudors? And what could be more fun than some subversive Tudoriana? That’s what’s on offer in ALL THE QUEEN’S SPIES (Atria, 392 pp., $27.99), the latest installment in Oliver Clements’s rollicking series of historical thrillers featuring John Dee, the real-life alchemist who was court astronomer to the first Queen Elizabeth, and Francis Walsingham, her constantly conspiring spymaster. This time Clements has concocted a European mission for Dee involving the occult-obsessed (and extremely odd) Holy Roman Emperor Rudolf and a band of seductive ladies employed by France’s queen, Catherine de Medici, to do her clandestine bidding. The action comes to a climax in a forbidding castle in Prague and features an over-the-top guest appearance by the future playwright Christopher Marlowe.
Little is known about Will Somers, who became court jester to Henry VIII at the age of about 20 and held that position for the rest of his life. Which, of course, makes him irresistible to Jeri Westerson, who has already written a series of medieval noir novels. COURTING DRAGONS (Severn House, 210 pp., $30.99) is the first in a new series narrated by Will himself, a sprightly figure with a well-cultivated flair for gossip and a vigorously pansexual appetite. It’s this latter that embroils him in the murder of a Spanish diplomat and a murky blackmail scheme, as well as a possible plot to kidnap Princess Mary. “The court was full of dragons,” Will observes. “Which dragons must I slay to protect Henry? And which to protect myself?”
Alida Becker is a former editor at the Book Review.