You've never read a historical treatment quite like a Jo Walton novel, which tend to leapfrog across and between genres in the most exciting way. Her latest is Lent, set in 15th-century Florence, and in this reading list, she recommends other books in which story and history are interwoven, a list whose eclecticism demonstrates the way fascinating way in which Walton's mind works to connect disparate things.
Marian Engel's Monodromos or One Way Street (1973) is about a Canadian woman in Greece in the 1950s, dealing with her own past, with the historical past, with the uneasy cultural relationship between Europe and Canada, with the question of love, and with a quest to find the icon of the saint with the head of a dog. I first read it when I was working in Greece between school and university, and I have loved it ever since. It's feminist but set before second wave feminism, and it's a book that's revelatory of many layers of history, including the time it was written.
Alice Munro's The Beggar Maid or Who Do You Think You Are (1977) is set in a small town in Ontario just after WWII, and it's about growing up, childhood, class, and an intense consciousness of time and place. It's almost like a historical novel or science fiction in the way it immerses you in the stifling details of a different culture and technology. But even though it's in many ways depressing, the experience of reading it is uplifting and illuminating.
Margaret Atwood's Cat's Eye (1988) is deeply concerned with the way the world has changed between the childhood and the present of its protagonist, and the ways in which it has changed because of the forces of history and the ways in which it has changed because of individual people's individual actions. Cat's Eye is consciously dealing with history in these ways, and it's a consciously feminist book. But one of the things it's about is how women bully women, and it refuses simplistic answers. It is a lens as multilayered as the marble from which it takes it's title.
Kari Maaren's Weave a Circle Round (2017) is a fantasy novel in which a teenage girl time travels randomly through history, accompanied by the forces of order and chaos—but whatever that sounds like, it's a marvellous book and it fits much better with the novels I've already mentioned than you might think. Maaren's richly imagined characters have to cope with history up close and present, but also with family problems and details of everyday life that are problems wherever you find yourself in time.
Karl Schroeder's Stealing Worlds (June 2019) is straight up science fiction, set about twenty years in our future. It's a fast paced story of technological innovation. But it's also about how you can't leave history behind because everything grows out of it—and that goes for personal history as well as capital H History. In the off-the-books economy of blockchains and startups people are using history in all kinds of different ways and braiding different strands of it together to build new things. This is a story about a woman finding herself and her relationship with history and the future.
From Hugo, Nebula, and World Fantasy Award-winning Jo Walton comes Lent, a magical re-imagining of the man who remade fifteenth-century Florence—in all its astonishing strangeness.
Young Girolamo’s life is a series of miracles.
It’s a miracle that he can see demons, plain as day, and that he can cast them out with the force of his will. It’s a miracle that he’s friends with Pico della Mirandola, the Count of Concordia. It’s a miracle that when Girolamo visits the deathbed of Lorenzo “the Magnificent,” the dying Medici is wreathed in celestial light, a surprise to everyone, Lorenzo included. It’s a miracle that when Charles VIII of France invades northern Italy, Girolamo meets him in the field, and convinces him to not only spare Florence but also protect it. It’s a miracle that whenever Girolamo preaches, crowds swoon. It’s a miracle that, despite the Pope’s determination to bring young Girolamo to heel, he’s still on the loose…and, now, running Florence in all but name.
That’s only the beginning. Because Girolamo Savanarola is not who—or what—he thinks he is. He will discover the truth about himself at the most startling possible time. And this will be only the beginning of his many lives.
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