Wolf Hall, by Hilary Mantel

The trouble with history is that we can never really know how
accurate it is.  And this goes
double for historical fiction.  The
answer for Hilary Mantel in her Tudor novel Wolf
Hall
?  Give the narrative to
the smartest character in the room, and see what happens.  Thomas Cromwell told stories for a
living.  He wasn’t a playwright,
but a lawyer.  And he was lawyer to
the King of England, charged with doing whatever was necessary to give the king
what he wanted, even if that was getting rid of the king’s old wife, to make
room for a new one.  But the story
doesn’t end at the king’s palace.

Wolf Hall succeeds as a novel because
Mantel puts herself in the position of her protagonist and chooses to tell—not
historical truths, as we like to imagine they exist—but the truths of human
nature.  She does not tell
Cromwell’s story as part of a sweeping history, but in small, mostly domestic
moments in time, the way a life is lived. 
Mantel’s strength as a historical novelist is in admitting that we can
never truly know what happened, who said what, how she reacted, and she revels in
that knowledge.

Through
Cromwell, Mantel narrates in a Modernist, present-tense, stream-of-consciousness
style that defies sweeping generalizations and revisionary histories, revealing
the fractious, uncertain nature of the time.  The Cromwell of Wolf
Hall
is pragmatic, hopeful, yet often pessimistic, and to put the narrative
in the hands of a character who can’t possibly know how history will play out
draws the reader’s attention to those small moments between characters, the
human stories within this larger-than-life historical period.  This is a novel of control, which both
Mantel and Cromwell exercise with confidence and brisk efficiency.

Anyone
with an interest in Tudor or early-modern English history should of course
check out this novel.  Those who
enjoy period fantasy with subtle characterization and dubious heroism or
villainy will find this novel a compelling read.  Wolf Hall is a
triumph of language and understated storytelling, without a word out of place,
which will appeal to anyone who reads and enjoys modernist literature a la Kate
Atkinson, Sarah Waters or Emma Donoghue.

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Sorcerer to the Crown, by Zen Cho

England’s
magic is failing.  Every
thaumaturge in London knows whom to blame, but no one has an answer for
England’s magical woes.  Set during
the time of Napolean and England’s rapid colonial expansion, Sorcerer to the Crown takes on
imperialism, nationalism, and the fantasy genre itself with a humorous and warm
first installment in Cho’s new Sorcerer Royal series.

Prunella
Gentleman is a young woman raised at a school for gentlewitches, where young
ladies are taught not to use their magical abilities.  Zacharias Wythe is the newest Sorcerer Royal, a young man
still, and fighting to overcome the obstacle of his irregular ascension to the
title.  Both have secrets to keep;
some secrets, even Prunella and Zacharias themselves don’t fully realize.  They are, after all, magicians.  Zacharias is trying to find the source
of England’s lack of magic, defending himself from other thaumaturges who
believe he is the cause; orphan Prunella is trying to make her way in the world
while learning more about her past.

Part
romance, part fairy story, part novel of intrigue, Sorcerer to the Crown is a galloping ride across England’s storied
countryside, deflating plot devices and tropes just as fast as Prunella can
slap down a hex thrown by an angry mer-creature.  Cho breathes energetic and vivid life into all her
characters, while her narrator reminds one of the conversational early novel
tone of the eighteenth-century, handily dropping the reader into setting and
scene, leaving the reader free to enjoy Cho’s take on fantasy and fairy. 

Fairyland comes off both
better and worse than many a tale that treats fairy with proper dread and
awe.  Reminiscent of T.H. White’s The Once and Future King, and echoing
the irreverence of Monty Python and the
Holy Grail
, Cho’s story delights in the vast imagination that created fairy
stories in the first place, while using Fairyland as a useful foil against
which to explore our own notions of foreignness and, indeed, Otherness.  Sorcerer
to the Crown
is a story about the other.  And while Cho lets readers float along happily without
enumerating every point of magical logic and lore, as some authors will do, she
does not let the reader off easy when it comes to considering the humanity of
her characters, not least because her characters will always demand it for
themselves.

Readers who enjoy fairy
stories that don’t take themselves too seriously will love the way Cho throws
everything together with a dash of irreverence and a whole lot of panache.  Prunella is the sorceress inside every
reader, a more confident Hermione, a more calculating Katniss, reminiscent of
another Cat—Cat Barahal of Kate Elliott’s Spiritwalker series—and never ready
to give up.  Cho is obviously
familiar with Austen and the Bronte’s, and readers who enjoy period language
and manners will feel right at home with Sorcerer
to the Crown.

A God in Ruins, by Kate Atkinson

What
is the sum of a life?  In a
companion piece to Atkinson’s earlier Life
After Life,
A God in Ruins asks
the question, how do you take all the disparate parts of a life, the ones
everyone knows about, the ones nobody knows about, the ones people have wrong,
and add them up to some final measure of quality, of richness; how do you
declare a life well-lived?  In her
previous novel, in which Ursula Todd lived life over and over through the
incalculable permutations any life can take given different decisions we might
all make, trying to get it right, Atkinson showed herself to be an astute
observer of the small details that make a story worth reading, and she doesn’t
disappoint in A God in Ruins.

This
novel is, on the surface, about Teddy, Ursula’s little brother, however it
spiderwebs out to tell the stories of Teddy’s daughter, Viola, her two children
Sunny and Berty, as well as Nancy Shorecross, who Teddy eventually marries.
Teddy, like everyone, does not live his life in a vacuum.  He is shaped by and shapes the lives of
his family and friends.  Teddy’s is
also the story of a nation’s, enduring the nightmare of World War II.  Ursula’s story, in Life After Life, told it from the point of view of London during
the Blitz.  Teddy’s is the story of
the bombers and pilots tasked with trying to win the war by ruining Germany’s
infrastructure and morale.  Anyone interested
in World War II narratives will find this an extremely compelling narrative;
non-WWII aficionados, be prepared become one.

Atkinson’s
style is not that of the cliffhanger or great quest to be achieved, but rather
the slow winding out of a skein of wool as the story is knitted together ever
so meticulously, not revealing the full meaning until the very last.  Her narrator is like an old friend, who
has told this story countless times and is reciting it, not to tell some great
truth, but that it might not be forgotten. 

Lovers
of contemporary fiction will enjoy the breadth of this narrative, which spans
from the opening salvos of World War I, through the first decade of the new
millennium.  The characters in this
novel tell the story of a rapidly changing world, and those attracted to
character-driven narrative will find much to love in it.  Readers who enjoy non-linear
narratives, especially including digressive narrative style, will enjoy the
puzzle-piece aspect of the novel. 
And of course, those interested in English fiction, and World War II,
will be captivated by the research and stark reality Atkinson presents.  This is far from a romanticized version
of war.

Life After Life, by Kate Atkinson

           There are books that are affective
for what they say about life, the world, and our place in it.  And then there are books that are affective
for what they don’t say.  At 544 pages in
hardcover Life After Life is an
extremely wordy novel.  And it has a lot
to say about a great number of subjects.
It is the story of Ursula Todd and her many lives.  It is not a time travel novel, nor a parallel
worlds novel, but a meditation on what it would be like if, every time someone
died, they started over, back at the beginning, and did it all again.  If there was in fact life, after life.  The novel imagines what it would be like to
be Ursuala Todd who, through no fault of her own, must experience life after
life after life, with no respite.

           Atkinson is one of the most subtle
wits I have ever read.  Her subject and
setting—England and Europe during first World War I and then World War II—is
not particularly original although it must be said that her narrative of life
in a perpetually bombarded city, or of the feeling of waiting for the worst to
happen, is poignantly rendered.  Her wit,
though, comes through in how she allows characters to react to the world around
them, and how the world reacts to them.
Child Ursula grows in precocity every time she is born, to the point she
practically carries the weight of the world in her later childhoods.  Let us consider that the greatest tragedy
often imagined in society is that of a child experiencing evil and war, and let
us then imagine a child being continually born to experience the same war and
the same death.  As Ursula grows up having
a greater and greater foreboding of that death and of her death, one life after
the other, Life After Life becomes an
astounding work of literary finesse.

           Life
After Life
is inhabited primarily by women, who represent a range of feminine
identities.  Atkinson allows them each
their own nature, to have contradictory reactions to life and to each other, in
fact to be human without any special attention being given to it.  Atkinson’s understated approach to women in
her novel lend a startling poignancy to our view of how society treated those
women who strayed too far from feminine ideals, of how women were taught to
hate themselves, and how the lives of men were given precedence over those of
women.  There are many beautiful moments
in Life After Life, and many
heartbreaking ones.  Many people have no
doubt fantasized about what they would do if they had life to live over, but
that fantasy becomes a nightmare when you don’t have the luxury of choosing
when you live or die.  The most affective
moments were when the reader knows that if Ursula had a choice she would have
died, and yet life forces her to go on.
Death is only an escape when it lets you go.

           Readers interested in life during
the Great Wars will enjoy this novel for its realistic representations of
London and Berlin during the bombings.
Readers who can suspend disbelief and allow a novel to become an
experiment in narrative meant to reveal something about the nature of life,
rather than just being a straightforward story, will enjoy the speculative
aspects of Life After Life.  It is a novel driven by ideas, written with a
delicacy that allows its characters to shine.
Anyone in search of a “great, big book” will find much to love in this
novel.