While everyone else is out chasing vampires, I’ve been hot on the heels of my favorite new literary trend: historical fiction! Which is not to say I don’t love a good vampire yarn – Kelly Link, anyone? – but there’s some seriously exciting historical mojo happening in publishing right now.
From a tennis match between famous artists to the romance of the Parisian opera, the natural philosophers of the English Restoration to terror on the underground railroad, something is in the water. Let’s jump in, shall we?
Margaret the First by Danielle Dutton (Catapult)
Margaret Cavendish is an unusual girl, unable – and unwilling – to rein herself in. Raised in a wealthy household on the eve of the English Civil War, she’s shipped off to the queen to make herself useful. Instead, Margaret finds herself in the midst of a philosophical, scientific, and political revolution that she longs to join – despite one little hiccup called “being a woman.” Dutton, author of S P R A W L and publisher at Dorothy: A Publishing Project, carefully traces the many sources of inspiration for Margaret’s outlandish public persona. Written in kaleidoscopic prose that includes everything from nursery tales to scientific experiments, Dutton juxtaposes Margaret’s philosophical inquiries about space, gravity, and ethics with personal anxiety and political upheaval. Margaret the First is a window into the seventeenth century like you’ve never seen before, and your guide is the most fabulous – and outlandish – woman at the ball.
Want to learn more about the formidable Margaret Cavendish? Check out my interview with Danielle Dutton in Brooklyn Magazine!
Sudden Death by Álvaro Enrigue (Riverhead)
If you think a novel that spans a single tennis match between Caravaggio and the Spanish poet Francisco de Quevedo sounds…impossible? Boring? Weird? Think again. Enrigue’s high wire act shouldn’t work, but it does. He’ll take you from Henry VIII’s England to Mexico to contemporary New York City, in the name of colonialism, art, and politics. This book’s totally worth the ride.
The Queen of the Night by Alexander Chee (Houghton Mifflin)
If for some reason you haven’t read The Queen of the Night yet, then run – RUN – to your bookstore/library/bodega and demand a copy. Oh my gosh, this book. Forgive me for wanting to use adjectives like “sweeping” and “epic” because, for once, they’re the perfect words to use. A young librettist approaches the world-renowned soprano Lilliet Berne at a ball to offer her the role of a lifetime – an opera written just for her voice. Flattered and excited, Lilliet is tempted to accept – until she learns the plot of the opera. How could this writer know a secret from Lilliet’s past she’d long since thought buried? What begins as an examination of the opulence of nineteenth century Paris turns into a winding mystery with a fearless and spectacular heroine at its center. This is the long bubble bath of books you’ve been waiting for.
Learn more about the research process that produced The Queen of the Night, the book’s fashion inspirations, and Lilliet’s connection to fairy tale heroines in my interview with Alexander Chee at The Believer.
The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead (Doubleday)
A new book from Colson Whitehead is always cause for celebration. Set on a southern plantation, The Underground Railroad describes young Cora’s bid for freedom. Because this is Colson Whitehead we’re talking about, there’s – of course – a twist. The underground railroad is no mere trail of safe houses leading to the Canadian border but a physical network of tunnels dug deep beneath the surface of the earth. Described by the publisher as a sort of Gulliver’s Travels, I plan to cheer Cora on until The Underground Railroad hits stores in September.