The criteria is simple. It had to be releases in 2008. This means any of the following:
- released for the first time in hardcover
- previous hardcover release now in trade or mass market for the first time
- first time release in your neck of the woods (i.e. 1st U.S. release of a U.K. title from a previous year
- must fit into the realm of historical fiction
I think that is OCD enough for one thread, no?
my picks (I'm fudging slightly as I'm including some 2008 releases I read in 2007 as arcs and the last book is a slight cheat as well):
Devil's Brood by Sharon Kay Penman.
On the less positive side, I think this book pales a bit in comparison to it's predecessors. Mainly because it did not have the main narrative character that we had and I think the son attached to Richard could have served nicely. Penman is the only author who so seamlessly integrates her fictional characters into history's tapestry and the book suffers slightly from the lack. Otherwise it is still a Penman historical fantasy and even in lesser degree it made for great reading.
The Gift of Rain by Tan Twan Eng
I loved this book. Eng delivers such a rich and evocative tale. I wanted to savor every single descriptive passage of a time that really wasn't that long ago and was quite familiar even as it was exotic. I'm surprised this didn't get more attention in the U.S. than it did.
The Good Thief by Hannah Tinti
Odd, whimsical book that still kept me reading. My only complaint is that the book could have easily been four times the length as Tinti's plotting and characterization could easily have supported something much more complex and detailed. But in this case the lack was like eating just one piece of fine chocolate knowing that is all you get!
The Shadow Year by Jeffrey Ford
This also made my best fantasy reading list for 2008. But it really manages to be exclusively both in some ways. It is a wonderful book and captures a time and place differently and yet oddly much the same as Eng did in his work.
Varanger by Cecelia Holland
Another author that could so much deeper and yet frustrates me by deliberately not. And the fact that it works so well even as it tantalizes me with futile potential makes this a sure thing (High City is just as good but you'll have to wait another 360 so before I can get to that)
Silent in the Sanctuary by Deanna Raybourn
This is definitely a series that is character driven. There really is not that much to the actual plot (though what there is works just fine for me) and usually that is the kiss of death for me concerning a book. But Raybourn delivers wonderful characters that manage to be clever and self-deprecating and wonderfully ruefully foolish at just the right time. There are so many reasons why I should not like these books and yet I do. And not in spite of but in many cases because of. Raybourn's one "historical flaw" for me is that she writes with a more Wharton or James sensibility which might post -date her own period a bit. But perhaps this wry undertone is what I enjoy so much.
Imprimatur by Riata Monaldi and Francesco Sorti
I love this book. It is dry and plodding and yet so deliberately so. Not since Charles Palliser's Quincux have I been so delightfully challenged and engaged by a writing style that manages to capture period and atmosphere and make me really have to think my way through passages. Too many bad books have tortured me in such a fashion but in this case it was wickedly delightfully consensual adults involved all around. This is not for many I suspect. If Eco is not your bag stay away. If you want exact Eco. Stay away. But I'm on the edge of my seat waiting for Secretum due out this spring in the U.K.
The King's Gold by Arturo Perez-Reverte
I know this was not well received by many. But I really enjoyed the shift in narrative (and not just because I know why it was done having struggled through the whole series already in my piss poor Spanish). There is a subtlety that has to struggle in the english translations but it still manages somewhat; a world weariness in tone even as there is the maudlin and wistful nostalgic awe as reflections on a hero with feet of clay are explored like a tongue probing at a sore tooth.
Sword Song by Bernard Cornwell
This barely made it. Seriously. I love the series. And the book was great fun. But I had a bit of a problem with how Cornwell is making the series into almost too-slight vignettes out of the Saxon Chronicles. There just was not enough meat on this bone for me. And unlike Holland and Tinti, this type of work for me requires a bit more than one rather simple plot point that was nothing but a bridge to the next book. In this case it was definitely a case of liking the book in spite of its weaknesses.
The Whiskey Rebels by David Liss
Liss is one of those rare authors who can take a situation I normally would not find interesting; add main characters I usally somehow develop a slight dislike if not open loathing for and still deliver something to grabs hold and does not let go. Definitely one of his best works and it had me immediately rooting through my shelves for his older works to throw on the 'Someday' re-read piles.
The Glass of Time by Michael Cox
Cox delivered the sequel that was better than the first in my mind. This really had me engrossed and I found myself constantly second guessing the plot even though I pretty much knew where it was going by a certain point. I love that in a period piece (as opposed to a more biographical known history approach -- in that case you surprise me and I'm probably thumping the wall with it).
The Lightstep by John Dickinson
One of those books that hit the right mood at just the right time. Dickinson writes with a subtle elegance that is perfect for the time.
The Jewel Trader of Pegu by Jeffrey Hantover
This was more of a novella. And it really had no surprises. But it was a beautifully told tale that captured a place and period perfectly.
Last but hardly least is my 'cheat'. Published in Europe already in pretty much every language but english, Carlos Ruiz Zafon delivers what I thought was a nigh impossibility; a better work than The Shadow of the Wind. El Juego del Angel or The Angel's Game, as it will be titled when it comes out in english this coming June, even in my poor stuttering spanish; even in my headache-producing efforts that had me scrambling for my dictionary and reading some passages at least ten times? Had me captivated. This is the rare instance when I strongly suspect that I can not only list this as one of my favorite reads of this year, but place the english translation firmly near or at the top of my list for 2009. Though darker and much more of a fantasy, it still delivers a wonderful historical love letter to Zafon's Barcelona that I suspect will have many pondering a call to their travel agent.
Overall it was a good year for historical fiction. On the not-so-good side, I found the non-historical fiction books decent but ultimately disappointing. Robilant's Lucia, Murphy's Murder of a Medici Princess, Herman's Mistress of the Vatican, Hibbert's The Borgias and Their Enemies and Simonetta's Montefeltro Conspiracy. All in theory should have been huge reading successes. Instead they all were a bit flat and a bit too much generic fodder taking up the place of personal and pertinant detail of some of histories most fascinating characters. It's hard to find good character studies that have a richer and more complex detail than a History Channel special. I know that is probably what sells more books but it's disappointing to buy a non-fiction work and find out that you know as much or more than the author about the subject. Worse is when events that would seem to have a certain significance end up getting a sentence. If that.