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From Medieval England to the 19th-century Austro-Hungarian Empire
Two exciting and very different historical novels today.
First, a medieval murder mystery set in 1350 England. A 17-year-old is called home to run his family’s Manor after his brothers and fathers are killed by the plague. That’s hard enough, but then a young girl is murdered. We are not the only ones singing the praises of Plague Land. S.D. (Sarah) Sykes has been compared to Raymond Chandler, Arthur Conan Doyle, and Ellis Peters in various reviews. And (good news!) she is working on a second novel featuring young Oswald de Lacy.
If you are curious about the author’s process, and in particular historical research, there are several interviews linked from the News page of her website. Sykes mentions the Down and Wealdland Open Air Museum near Chichester, which she describes as “probably the only place in Britain where it’s possible to sit inside a 14th century cottage, and for it to feel exactly as it would have been in those times.”
In The Accidental Empress, Allison Pataki (yes, the daughter of former Governor of New York, George Pataki) writes about Empress Elisabeth of Austria. The reader meets her at 15, and gets to know her as Sisi. She married Franz Joseph, Emperor of the Austro-Hungarian Empire in 1854. Her popularity with the people, difficulties with the royal family (in particular her mother-in-law), and involvement with a Hungarian Count make for fascinating reading.
I heard Pataki speak at a Simon & Schuster preview, and she is clearly passionate about the strong, forgotten women of history. (You can hear her talk about Sisi here.) Library Journal hits the nail on the head — “Highly recommended for fans of both Michelle Moran and Philippa Gregory.” Pataki’s debut novel, The Traitor’s Wife follows Benedict Arnold’s wife, Peggy Shippen, who was loyal to the British. It is also well worth consideration for school library collections.
This debut novel is a medieval murder mystery set in England in 1350, just after the Black Death has devastated the country. After the plague deaths of his father and two older brothers, 17-year-old Oswald de Lacy has been called home to Somershill Manor from the monastery where he has lived since he was seven. He is struggling to keep the manor going, with little experience and a decimated work force, when he is faced with an even bigger challenge. A young girl has been killed in the forest, and the local priest, John of Cornwall, is convinced that the culprit is a dog-headed beast. Oswald is certain that the killer is an ordinary human, and sets out to prove it. Oswald finds himself drawn deeper into village intrigue as the plot twists and turns to its final denouement, and he learns more than he ever wanted to know about his family and himself. In the process of discovering the murderer, Oswald discovers what kind of person he wants to be and what kinds of decisions he must make to become that person. Many of Sykes’s characters tend to the stereotypical—the ignorant priest, the drunken monk, the sadistic lord, the village “witch” who knows more than anyone else, the beautiful and wise peasant girl—but the story is compelling enough to keep readers interested. VERDICT: Teens who like historical novels and mysteries will find much to sink their teeth into here.—Sarah Flowers, formerly of Santa Clara County (CA) Library
Raised in the freedom of an outpost to the vast Hapsburg Empire, 15-year-old Sisi and her older sister Helene are surprised by a summons to meet their cousin, Franz Joseph, so that Helene can become his bride. It is 1853, and Franz Joseph is Emperor of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, ruling under the influence of his domineering mother Sophie. It is Sisi, however, who attracts Franz Joseph’s attention and with uncharacteristic defiance, he insists on marrying Sisi instead. Their love affair lasts only as long as Sophia allows it, and she segregates Franz Joseph from Sisi, and steals their babies to raise as her own. Sisi is devastated but cannot fight back against this powerful force in her husband’s life. Strictly regulated Court life conspires against freedom-loving Sisi, leaving her with little recourse but to turn to the handsome Hungarian Count Andrassy, who introduces Sisi to the Hungarian people. Recognizing a kindred spirit, the people offer her a love that she cannot find at Court with Franz Joseph. When rebellious countries within the Empire wage war against the Emperor, it is Sisi who keeps Hungary from joining in the rebellion. With the unexpected death of her oldest daughter, Sisi realizes that she will never escape Sophie’s influence over her family, so she begins a life of travel and goes to her childhood home to recover. While she is forever linked with Franz Joseph, it is with Andrassy’s help that she accepts her role and asserts small pieces of control where she can. VERDICT: A piece of history that will send teen readers to the encyclopedia to discover the true pieces of Sisi’s remarkable story.–Connie Williams, Petaluma High School, CA
About Angela Carstensen
Angela Carstensen is Head Librarian and an Upper School Librarian at Convent of the Sacred Heart in New York City. Angela served on the Alex Awards committee for four years, chairing the 2008 committee, and chaired the first YALSA Award for Excellence in Nonfiction for Young Adult committee in 2009. Recently, she edited Outstanding Books for the College Bound: Titles and Programs for a New Generation (ALA Editions, 2011). Contact her via Twitter @AngeReads.
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