Three Historical Fiction Books with a Twist of Magic

cover of three historical fiction books, washington black by esi edugyan, the mermaid and mrs hancock by imogen hermes gowar and the essex serpent by sarah perry

Here I will explore three novels Booktube made me read, all hyped historical fiction books with a twist of magic. Historical fiction is not my go-to genre these days, especially not the ones with magical elements in them but I gave these three a go. Let’s see how it went…

  1. Washington Black by Esi Edugyan
  2. The Mermaid and Mrs. Hancock by Imogen Hermes Gowar
  3. The Essex Serpent by Sarah Perry

See other posts in this series. In part one I read my first poetry book, Grief Is the Thing with Feathers by Max Porter. In part two I fall in Love with Madeline Miller’s Circe.

Slave escapes and goes on an adventure on a hot air balloon…

Washington Black by Esi Edugyan

Have I given the plot away with this title? Washington Black (Wash) is a young slave on a Barbados sugar plantation in 1830. His life changes when the eccentric brother (Titch) of his master chooses him as a manservant. He is initiated into a new world of science, flying machines and exploration.

The book explores the unusual relationship between master and slave and questions whether the divide between them can ever be bridged or whether they can see each other as human beings or if a former slave can ever achieve a meaningful and dignified life.

When a man is killed on the plantation and a bounty is set on Wash’s head, Titch abandons everything to save him. At the core this is a book about friendship and betrayal, love and freedom. I loved the idea of this book, the setting and the themes of slave and owner relationship and friendship it set out to explore in an unique West Indies setting.

I loved the beginning, getting to know Wash’s background and relationships as a slave, his introduction to a world of science and knowledge previously alien to him, his relationship with Titch. There were many good plot lines introduced which were abandoned and instead we get a second part set in the Arctic which didn’t make much sense to me.

In this second part set in the Arctic, Titch sets out to find his father who is believed to have passed away and takes Wash with him. In the third part Wash is trying to establish himself but he cannot move on with his life until he finds the only father he knew, Titch, who has disappeared. So disappearing fathers seem to be a recurring theme here. In a way this is about how one has to grow out of the shadow of ones parents and find meaning in life without them, I think.

Washington Black is about a boy who needs to find out that he cannot depend on anyone in life but on himself. It is about realizing one’s self worth and about how only he can change his circumstances in life.

The three parts, Barbados, the Arctic and Wash’s quest for Titch, seem to pull this novel apart. It feels like the author tries to pull off too much. Is this a slave narrative about a slave in 1830s Barbados or a Victorian era adventure novel? Both are great premises for a book but do they work together?

Despite so much happening and the beautiful writing this was a slow read for me. I contemplated DNFing it many times. Now, I’m happy I didn’t as now I can look at the whole thing at see what the author tried to accomplish.

This book is not just about the adventure and escape from slavery. It is about coming to terms with his own freedom and his identity as a free human being.

I liked the premise of escaping on a balloon with a mad scientist in the 1830s West Indies and going on an adventure (very Back to the Future’esque), but the part with the balloon was much too short and I feel that it was marketed as such to increase the book’s appeal to the general public.

Overall, I recommend it, especially if you like historical fiction books. But even though it is action packed, the novel’s drive comes from the main character and his development. The underlying themes of identity, friendship, love, betrayal and redemption is what makes Washington Black a great novel.

For more books on slavery check out my review of Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi.

Widowed merchant’s life changes after his exhibit of a dead mermaid…

The Mermaid and Mrs. Hancock by Imogen Hermes Gowar

In 1785 London, the widowed merchant, Mr. Hancock, finds himself the owner of a dead mermaid, brought to him by a captain of his ship, ship sold to acquire the mermaid. In order to minimize his losses Mr. Hancock decides to exhibit the mermaid, during which he comes into contact with Angelica Neal, a courtesan who’s protector suddenly died leaving Angelica in search of new means of living and surviving.

This is again one of those books I struggled to finish as, similarly to Washington Black, it suffers from the meandering plot syndrome. On top of that this too is extremely slow paced.

There are a lot of subplots introduced and I feel not all of them are explored to satisfaction or better yet, not all of them are needed.

What does this novel want to accomplish, I ask myself? On one side we have Mr. Hancock, his niece and sister and their relationship. On the other side we have Angelica Neal, her confidante and love affair. But there’s also a subplot with Mrs. Chappell and her prostitutes. Then off of Mrs. Chappell’s subplot we have that of Polly, one of her courtesans and how she escapes. And lastly, let’s not forget the plot with the other mermaid.

There’s just too much happening and there’s no real purpose to it.

The writing is amazing, the setting and time period really come alive, but the plot has its faults and the story dragged on for way too long. I have to admit to skimming the last part, I just wanted to be done with it.

I just don’t know, this is definitely not for me. But many people seem to love it on Goodreads. So, I guess, if you love historical fiction books then go for it.

Society wife-widow becomes a naturalist and investigates the existence of a mythical creature…

The Essex Serpent by Sarah Perry

There is more I wanted to add to this title but… length, so let’s just continue here. When Cora Seaborne’s domineering husband dies she decides to leave behind the constraints of London high society and move to the countryside where in a quite unladylike manner she shows interest in naturalism and begins to investigate the existence of the local mythical creature, the Essex Serpent. In her meanderings she meets and falls in love with the local vicar, Mr. William Ransome. How appropriate that his name rhymes with handsome as he indeed is a very handsome man.

One if the points is that Cora is a scientist who doesn’t have patience for religion or superstition comes to face her opposite Mr. Ransome who is convinced that the rumors are caused by moral panic, a flight from true belief. So it’s the case of superstition and faith versus science and facts.

Other points the author conveys is the Victorian’s obsession with everything that’s supernatural and the position of women in society in that era. Cora’s escape from the confines of society comes in the form of her husband’s death. As a widow she has more freedom to do what she wants as if her grief allows her peculiarities to be accepted by society.

So why read this novel? You might fall in love with the writing or you might just like historical fiction books. Or perhaps you want to know if the serpent really exists? If you fall in the latter category and you’re expecting action then you’ll be disappointed. This is a slow paced book and its focus is on the characters.

Sadly, this one I DNFed at about halfway point but I’m still including it here, as I feel these three books really complement each other. So, if you’re a fan of historical fiction then these three books are definitely for you. I might even give The Essex Serpent another go as I feel there’s a lot of great commentary on being a woman in the late Victorian era and the debate between faith in science especially now that I read Salman Rushdie’s Two Years Eight Months and Twenty-eight Nights which explores the same topic.

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