Review: The Crescent Spy by Michael Wallace + Giveaway

Review: The Crescent Spy by Michael Wallace + GiveawayThe Crescent Spy by Michael Wallace
Format: eARC
Source: publisher via NetGalley
Formats available: hardcover, paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: historical fiction
Pages: 325
Published by Lake Union Publishing on November 10th 2015
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleBook Depository
Goodreads

Writing under a man’s name, Josephine Breaux is the finest reporter at Washington’s Morning Clarion. Using her wit and charm, she never fails to get the scoop on the latest Union and Confederate activities. But when a rival paper reveals her true identity, accusations of treason fly. Despite her claims of loyalty to the Union, she is arrested as a spy and traitor.
To Josephine’s surprise, she’s whisked away to the White House, where she learns that President Lincoln himself wishes to use her cunning and skill for a secret mission in New Orleans that could hasten the end of the war. For Josephine, though, this mission threatens to open old wounds and expose dangerous secrets. In the middle of the most violent conflict the country has ever seen, can one woman overcome the treacherous secrets of her past in order to secure her nation’s future?

My Review:

liar temptress soldier spy by karen abbottThe Crescent Spy goes really, really well with both The Spymistress by Jennifer Chiaverini (reviewed here) and Liar, Temptress, Soldier, Spy by Karen Abbott (reviewed here). Both the Chiaverini and Abbott books tell the stories of women who were spies for one side or the other in the war variously known as the “War of the Rebellion” if you were a Union partisan and the “War of Northern Aggression” if you supported the Rebel states.

While Liar, Temptress is intended as a more factual and less fictional account, both it and the fictionalized Spymistress feature stories of real women who were known as spies. The Crescent Spy uses its invented protagonist, Josephine Breaux, to show another aspect of the role of spies in the war, and the way that covert intelligence could affect actual policy. And it also gives us an intimate view of the battle for the port of New Orleans, as well as showing just how effective newspaper reporters could be as spies.

We meet Josephine Breaux as she is fleeing the First Battle of Manassas, or Bull Run, again depending on which side you are on. Josephine is not alone – a surprising number of civilians and society people traveled down from Washington DC to watch the Union kick the Rebels’ tails. But it didn’t happen that way. Instead, the Union Army, along with the spectating civilians, fled in disarray from the spirited defense of the Confederate Army. Josephine, writing as she travels, details that it wasn’t so much that the Confederates won, as that the Union Army lost its will to fight in the confusion. The fog of war is a very real thing, especially when you feel all alone in the middle of it.

After she returns to DC, Josephine finds herself exposed by a rival newspaper. The real exposure is that she is the writer behind the male war correspondent Joseph Breaux. That would be survivable, but a story has been planted that she is a Rebel spy. She is done in DC.

Instead of setting out for New York City as she planned, she finds herself sitting in the White House, listening to President Abraham Lincoln explain that she has been chosen by the Pinkertons to travel to her former hometown of New Orleans to cover the war and spy for the Union. While angered that her downfall in DC was engineered by the Pinkertons, Josephine is flattered by the President’s attention to her intelligence and writing skill, and as an ardent Union supporter, finds herself accepting the President’s offer of clandestine employment.

This is where the fun really begins, as Josephine has to make her way from DC, through the Union blockade, to the Confederate port of New Orleans. In NOLA she uses her newfound notoriety as a Rebel spy to get herself a job on a New Orleans newspaper and makes herself both a war correspondent and the recipient of all the military-preparedness related gossip she can lay her hands on.

Josephine plays a major role in the Union’s relatively early capture of the South’s biggest port. The war began in 1861, and New Orleans was occupied by the Union Army in 1862. While the South mourned its loss, the early capture of New Orleans saved it from destruction by the Union Army such as was visited upon Atlanta and other cities during Sherman’s March.

But during that tumultuous year, we follow Josephine as she learns to be an effective spy while continuing to ply her trade as a journalist. That she is sending secret reports on Confederate readiness (or lack thereof) to the Union Command does not prevent her from reporting the war that she witness to the people in the city that are eagerly awaiting news and reassurance. Even when her news is true and her reassurance is false.

She is constantly aware that she could be betrayed at any moment. Her own past as a riverboat dancer’s daughter comes back to haunt her, and old friends resurface as enemies, willing to sell Josephine out for a chance at enough money to escape the war. Her old life is a much greater threat to her future than anything she does as a spy, including blowing up a powder magazine.

As a later Southern writer will say, “The past isn’t over. It isn’t even past.” Josephine discovers that her past isn’t done with her yet. Both it and her inability to deal with it nearly does her in, but she soldiers on.

Escape Rating B: This is a good solid story of a woman who is doing things that women were not supposed to do in her time and place. But the war provides the excuse and the impetus for Josephine to break out of any role that she is supposed to be in.

She is a likeable character without being too goody-two-shoes or too aggressively strident, although she occasionally comes close to the latter. If she were a man, no one would think twice about her extreme self-confidence or her desire for glory and validation of her prodigious talent. As a woman, she often finds herself in the position of needing to equivocate in order to get the military brass to see that she, not merely female but barely 21, actually does know more about military tactics than most of the idiots that are currently leading the Union Army. And while she is good enough at playacting in order to pursue a story, she has no capacity for hiding her light under a bushel basket when she is giving her own opinions. Even when those opinions sound a lot like giving orders to generals.

Josephine always thinks she knows best, and only lets her fear out when she’s alone.

The most difficult part of the story is the way that Josephine deals with her past. It’s not that she’s the daughter of a riverboat dancer and occasional prostitute, or even that she feels ashamed of what she came from. But she is still running from her ghosts, including the man who might be her father. Her past nearly overruns her present, and the secrets she keeps about who she is and how she got her start have a real chance at getting both her and the Pinkerton agent she works with killed. Even by the story’s end, while she has finally revealed the information to her partner, she still hasn’t dealt with the fallout emotionally. She still has some growing up to do. Which makes her a very interesting character to follow.

~~~~~~ GIVEAWAY ~~~~~~

I am giving away a copy of The Crescent Spy to one lucky U.S. or Canadian commenter:

a Rafflecopter giveaway

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Review: Battle Lines by Jonathan Fetter-Vorm and Ari Kelman

battle lines by keller and fetter vormFormat read: hardcover provided by the publisher
Formats available: hardcover
Genre: history, graphic novels
Length: 224 pages
Publisher: Hill and Wang
Date Released: May 5, 2015
Purchasing Info: Ari Kelman’s Website, Jonathan Fetter-Vorm’s Website, Publisher’s Website, Goodreads, Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Book Depository

The first graphic history to capture the full scope of the Civil War, gorgeously drawn and expertly told

The graphic novelist Jonathan Fetter-Vorm and the award-winning historian Ari Kelman team up to create a unique portrait of a brutal and defining event in American history: the Civil War. The result is Battle Lines, a monumental graphic history—rendered in Fetter-Vorm’s sweeping full-color panoramas, and grounded in Kelman’s nuanced understanding of the period—offering a series of wholly new perspectives on the conflict that turned this nation against itself.

Each chapter in Battle Lines begins with an object; each object tells its own story. A tattered flag, lowered in defeat at Fort Sumter. A set of chains, locked to the ankles of a slave as he scrambles toward freedom. A bullet, launched from the bore of a terrifying new rifle. A brick, hurled from a crowd of ration-starved rioters. With these objects and others, both iconic and commonplace, Battle Lines traces a broad and ambitious narrative from the early rumblings of secession to the dark years of Reconstruction. Richly detailed and wildly inventive, its stories propel the reader to all manner of unlikely vantages as only the graphic form can: from the malaria-filled gut of a mosquito to the faded ink of a soldier’s pen, and from the barren farms of the home front to the front lines of an infantry charge.

Beautiful, uncompromising, poignant, and utterly original, Battle Lines is a daring vision of the war that nearly tore America apart.

My Review:

Note that the subtitle for this is “a Graphic History of the Civil War” and not anything like “the Complete History” or “the Comprehensive History”, because it isn’t either of those.

Instead, Battle Lines is the history of the Civil War told in a series of snapshots. Each chapter illustrates the history of one found and commonplace item, as seen through a short graphic story of what the thing is and how it got to be part of the history of the Civil War.

The snapshots usually show the story of someone equally commonplace, or someone who would be commonplace except for their intersection with the War. These are stories of regular people who are in uncommon and usually unpleasant situations. It is a refreshing change from all of the histories of the war as it appeared to generals and statesmen, or even to upper and upper middle class observers.

These objects and these individuals tell the story of the war as it felt on the ground. It brings the tragedy of the war down to a human level, and the graphics make the reader feel. The thinking comes later – but it certainly does come.

The graphic stories relate things and incidents that are known, but are generally seen at a more strategic and less visceral level.

The chapter on Andersonville Prison is stunning and heart-breaking. We all know from reading even a cursory history of the Civil War that conditions at the POW camp were brutal and degrading. In this graphic history, we see it from the prisoner’s side, as a diary is passed from one prisoner to another, as each one goes through the cycle of initial internment through grinding hunger and despair to sinking into oblivion and death, only for the diary to be found and continued by the next inmate/victim.

Although the Andersonville chapter sorrowed me deeply, the one that gave me the biggest chills was the one about the draft riots in New York City in July of 1863, 152 years ago this month. The draft could be avoided by paying a fee, and many, but not all, rich people paid to stay out. So the draft affected the immigrant population, who took out their frustrations on a readily available target – the free blacks who lived in NYC, as well as federal institutions. The scenes of death and destruction, and of mob violence aimed at non-threatening targets out of hate and fear, are utterly chilling. This chapter is told from three perspectives: the immigrants participating in the riot, the rich family who act as if it is none of their business, and the black families trying to protect their children from the mob.

The story in Battle Lines starts from an attempt to show the flash points that caused the Civil War, both from the direct military standpoint at Fort Sumter, and the court cases and laws that built the cause of abolition. The denser history is conveyed through short but compelling and accurate newspaper article type pages that tell a lot of history with succinct exposition. For the background history, it helps to already know at least the outline of the causes of the War, but then, most Americans have had this in school, probably multiple times.

The narrative ends with a chapter about Reconstruction and the rise of the KKK and the white supremacists in the post-Reconstruction South. Just because the official battles were over, it did not mean that hostilities had in any way, ceased.

Have they yet?

Reality Rating A-: Anyone who is looking for an accessible history of the Civil War will want to read this book. It is not comprehensive, but the graphic stories make the reader feel the War. It is not a view from 1,000 feet. Instead, it is a view from the muddy, bloody ground. For a war that still inspires so much passion, it helps the understanding to experience, even vicariously, some scintilla of what the participants might have felt. Even through the glass darkly.

While the format makes it difficult to convey large pieces of complicated history, such as the parts about the causes of the war, when it reaches for one single illuminating article, it works incredibly well. These stories and these pictures feel true, even though they are made up of amalgams of personal accounts and histories rather than simply illustrating a single one.

And we know what the Civil War looked like because there are so many photographs. One of the chapters of the book shows the creation of one such photograph, and it feels like we are there.

If you need to tell someone what the Civil War was, and most importantly, why it still matters, hand them this book.

***FTC Disclaimer: Most books reviewed on this site have been provided free of charge by the publisher, author or publicist. Some books we have purchased with our own money or borrowed from a public library and will be noted as such. Any links to places to purchase books are provided as a convenience, and do not serve as an endorsement by this blog. All reviews are the true and honest opinion of the blogger reviewing the book. The method of acquiring the book does not have a bearing on the content of the review.

The Sunday Post AKA What’s on my (Mostly Virtual) Nightstand 9-21-14

Sunday Post

First, be sure to check out the Stuck in a Good Book Blog Hop. The hop ends on September 25, so you still have a few days to get in on all the terrific prizes. (I’m giving away a $10 Gift Card).

On Saturday I was part of a fabulous panel at the Gay Romance Northwest Conference about getting books into libraries. The whole program was terrific (as usual) and it’s great to have a chance to help authors get their books into libraries. Just because it’s arcane doesn’t mean there isn’t a way to make it happen!

Current Giveaways:

$10 Amazon or B&N Gift Card in the Stuck in a Good Book Blog Hop
$30 Amazon Gift Card from Jacquie Underdown

Winner Announcements:

The winner of Harbor Island by Carla Neggers is Vicki H.

liar temptress soldier spy by karen abbottBlog Recap:

B+ Review: Liar, Temptress, Soldier, Spy by Karen Abbott
B Review: Palmetto Moon by Kim Boykin
B- Review: Truth or Dare by Mira Lyn Kelly
B Review: Beyond Coincidence by Jacquie Underdown + Giveaway
B- Review: Must Love Fangs by Jessica Sims
Stuck in a Good Book Giveaway Hop

 

 

ReadPinkLogoComing Next Week:

High Moon by Jennifer Harlow (excerpt and giveaway)
Read Pink Blog Tour
Soulminder by Timothy Zahn (review)
Wanted: Wild Thing by Jessica Sims (review)
Butternut Summer by Mary McNear (review)

Review: Liar, Temptress, Soldier, Spy by Karen Abbott

liar temptress soldier spy by karen abbottFormat read: ebook provided by Edelweiss
Formats available: ebook, hardcover, audiobook
Genre: history
Length: 533 pages
Publisher: Harper
Date Released: September 2, 2014
Purchasing Info: Author’s Website, Publisher’s Website, Goodreads, Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Kobo, Book Depository

Karen Abbott illuminates one of the most fascinating yet little known aspects of the Civil War: the stories of four courageous women—a socialite, a farmgirl, an abolitionist, and a widow—who were spies.

After shooting a Union soldier in her front hall with a pocket pistol, Belle Boyd became a courier and spy for the Confederate army, using her charms to seduce men on both sides. Emma Edmonds cut off her hair and assumed the identity of a man to enlist as a Union private, witnessing the bloodiest battles of the Civil War. The beautiful widow, Rose O’Neale Greenhow, engaged in affairs with powerful Northern politicians to gather intelligence for the Confederacy, and used her young daughter to send information to Southern generals. Elizabeth Van Lew, a wealthy Richmond abolitionist, hid behind her proper Southern manners as she orchestrated a far-reaching espionage ring, right under the noses of suspicious rebel detectives.

Using a wealth of primary source material and interviews with the spies’ descendants, Abbott seamlessly weaves the adventures of these four heroines throughout the tumultuous years of the war. With a cast of real-life characters including Walt Whitman, Nathaniel Hawthorne, General Stonewall Jackson, detective Allan Pinkerton, Abraham and Mary Todd Lincoln, and Emperor Napoleon III, Liar, Temptress, Soldier, Spy draws you into the war as these daring women lived it.

My Review:

“Tinker, tailor, soldier, sailor” is the first line of a nursery rhyme that continues with “Rich man, poor man, beggar man, thief.”

Ironically, both the corruption of the rhyme, “Tinker, tailor, soldier, spy” and “Rich man, poor man” have been turned into novels. Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy being the well-known Cold War espionage thriller by John le Carré.

At the time of the U.S. Civil War, women weren’t supposed to be any of those things. But of course, women have often taken up occupations and professions that they were supposedly incapable or unqualified for.

So goes this historical account of four women who were not merely active, but in some cases famous (or infamous) for being spies, which necessitated them also being liars, temptresses and/or soldiers in order to fulfill their clandestine duties.

In this story, we see the Civil War through their eyes, and their documented records, instead of the usual historical accounts written by men. Two of these women operated for the Union, and two for the Confederacy. Everybody spied.

spymistress by jennifer chiaveriniElizabeth Van Lew was a Richmond abolitionist, but also a rich woman from a prominent family. She remained at her family home in Richmond throughout the War, spying assiduously for the Union. She often sent her dispatches north with escaped Union soldiers who she had helped free from the Richmond POW prisons. While her wartime services was recently fictionalized in The Spymistress (reviewed here) it is even more harrowing in this non-fictional version.

Rose_O'Neal_Greenhow-altThe picture of the war is also made much fuller by the account of Van Lew’s Confederate counterpart, Rose Greenhow. Greenhow was an ardent secessionist, but her family home was in Washington D.C. When the Union split, Rose saw her opportunity to use her knowledge of the insiders in Washington government to seduce and suborn as many high-ranking officials as possible, sending her dispatches south in the hands of young women and slaves. Her information was credited with helping the Confederacy win the first battle at Bull Run.
220px-Belle_BoydBelle Boyd is possibly the most infamous spy in the Civil War, to the point where Cherie Priest co-opted her identity for use in her Boneshaker series. But the real life Boyd was even more sensational than the fictional one. Boyd starts as a willful and completely uncooperative (and very young) woman in Martinsburg, Virginia. An ardent secessionist, she openly flirted and courted every Union officer who came within her orbit. Belle didn’t merely send dispatches, she also ran them herself. Martinsburg became part of the new state of West Virginia during the war, but she continued to spy on the Union.

220px-Sarah_Edmonds_lg_sepiaLast, but not least, Sarah Emma Edmonds serviced from 1861 until 1863 as Frank Thompson. Not, as the romantic literature often has it, because she was following a sweetheart, but simply as a way to escape her overbearing father. Because of her slight stature and small frame, she was frequently asked to spy on nearby Confederate regiments while dressed as a woman. It was a double disguise; a woman, pretending to be a man pretending to be a woman. It worked.

Their four stories interweave to form a fascinating narrative of the war. Emma tells the soldier’s story as she served at both battles of Bull Run, Antietam, Vicksburg and the Peninsula Campaign, some of the bloodiest battles of the war. Greenhow covers politics in Washington, and the Confederate campaign in Europe to achieve recognition. Both Boyd and Greenhow were imprisoned multiple times for treason to the Union, but their gender and their powerful friends protected them from execution.

Van Lew completes the picture; her insider’s guide to running a spy ring, and life in the Confederacy as the outlook changed from hope to despair.

In addition to their service, they all share surprisingly similar fates. The war turns out to have been each of their shining moments; their pinnacle of achievement. Greenhow did not survive, but the others all fell from places of high recognition to obscure deaths. Post-war life was not kind to any of them, whether they traded on their notoriety or tried to slip back into “normal” life.

220px-ElizabethVanLewReality Rating B+: I preferred this account of Van Lew’s life to the fictional one; while the outline was the same, this one felt like it contained less melodrama. In fiction, she came across as slightly wooden, but in a more factual account her achievements shone through.

Although there is a popular image of female spies as femme fatales (i.e. Mata Hari) by showing four different women spies, we see the myriad possibilities that women had for espionage at a time when women’s roles were so prescribed. Boyd and Greenhow both acted the seductress; in fact, Boyd was referred to as the “Secesh Cleopatra” for her exploits. But Edmonds pretended to be a man, and was a successful soldier to the point that she was able to get her comrades in arms to testify sufficiently in her defense that she was awarded a military pension. Van Lew relied on her intelligence, and occasionally on family influence or downright smuggling, to get the information she needed. She acted the part of a Southern lady when required, but the emphasis would be on the “lady” part of that description.

Except for Greenhow, who died near the end of the war, the others all descended into obscurity. Both Boyd and Van Lew were considered crazy, to the point where Boyd ended in an asylum and Van Lew retreated into her house and her stories and seldom emerged.

While the use of the four women as points-of-view covered much of the action of the war on both the political and military fronts, it did occasionally jar as the perspective switched from one to another. Although the author’s technique of extrapolating what these women thought and felt made their narratives flow more smoothly, it did make me wonder whether the book veered a bit into fiction at those points. But it did make each of them come alive for the reader.

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This post is part of a TLC book tour. Click on the logo for more reviews.
***FTC Disclaimer: Most books reviewed on this site have been provided free of charge by the publisher, author or publicist. Some books we have purchased with our own money or borrowed from a public library and will be noted as such. Any links to places to purchase books are provided as a convenience, and do not serve as an endorsement by this blog. All reviews are the true and honest opinion of the blogger reviewing the book. The method of acquiring the book does not have a bearing on the content of the review.

Review: The Spymistress by Jennifer Chiaverini + Giveaway

spymistress by jennifer chiaveriniFormat read: ebook borrowed from the library
Formats available: hardcover, paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genre: historical fiction
Length: 384 pages
Publisher: Dutton/Plume
Date Released: October 1, 2013
Purchasing Info: Author’s Website, Publisher’s Website, Goodreads, Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Kobo, Book Depository

Born to slave-holding aristocracy in Richmond, Virginia, and educated by Northern Quakers, Elizabeth Van Lew was a paradox of her time. When her native state seceded in April 1861, Van Lew’s convictions compelled her to defy the new Confederate regime. Pledging her loyalty to the Lincoln White House, her courage would never waver, even as her wartime actions threatened not only her reputation, but also her life.

Van Lew’s skills in gathering military intelligence were unparalleled. She helped to construct the Richmond Underground and orchestrated escapes from the infamous Confederate Libby Prison under the guise of humanitarian aid. Her spy ring’s reach was vast, from clerks in the Confederate War and Navy Departments to the very home of Confederate President Jefferson Davis.

Although Van Lew was inducted posthumously into the Military Intelligence Hall of Fame, the astonishing scope of her achievements has never been widely known. In Chiaverini’s riveting tale of high-stakes espionage, a great heroine of the Civil War finally gets her due.

My Review:

This is a quiet kind of story. While the U.S. Civil War that is the reason for the book contains myriad stories of blood, gore, guts and warfare, the story of Elizabeth Van Lew is about a much quieter kind of courage, and makes for a quiet book.

What do I mean by that? Elizabeth Van Lew was a real person, a woman who was born and raised in Richmond Virginia, and continued to live there throughout the Civil War, in spite of being a strong Union sympathizer caught in the capital of the Confederacy.

Lizzie decided that her duty as a loyal citizen of the United States, the entire United States and not just the South, was to provide as much aid and comfort as she could to Union prisoners of war, up to and including running a sort of underground railroad to help them escape across Union lines.

She also created an extremely effective spy ring, and found ways to get messages to Union generals. Lizzy knew her stuff, she had embedded a servant into the “Gray House” to spy on Jefferson Davis, and had inserted a Union sympathizer guard into the infamous Libby House prison.

Lizzie was effective. But while she was the spy ringleader, most of what kept me reading was her accounts of the Confederate strategy and her reports of battle-readiness (or the lack thereof) of the Confederate troops and the defenders of Richmond.

Because she is most effective as a reporter, we don’t see her act. While she does feel threatened, she doesn’t face much personal danger. Her co-conspirators are arrested, but she isn’t touched.

We also don’t see as much of her interior life as necessary to make her a sympathetic character. We don’t see her displaying her feelings, even in private, beyond her jubilation at Union victories and her dismay at Confederate winnings. She’s so busy trying to make sure that she manages everything and everyone she can, that we don’t get to know her as much as readers might want.

But the life of the city that she reports on is fascinating. We see the war from the other side, not just the Confederate propaganda to its own citizens but also the way that things were on the ground. The hunger, the desperation, the effect of the continuing war on regular citizens.

The battles are often far away, but the effects are felt at home. And then, Richmond falls and Lizzy is finally recognized for her true accomplishments.

Escape Rating C+: It took me about 100 pages to get into the book, but it got more interesting as the war progressed, even when the battles are far from Richmond. Lizzie’s eyes and ears in the Gray House gave her a view of what was really happening, as opposed to what was being reported in the press.

Because she so often worked from the shadows, we don’t see enough of her in action. While this is historically accurate, it also takes some drama away from the fiction.

As a character, Lizzie is a bit dry, but the events that she reports on keep the reader pushing on, even though we know the result. The last quarter of the book, when the Union troops are closing in and Lizzie and her friends aren’t sure whether to celebrate or lock themselves in, do an excellent job of portraying a city on the edge of collapse.

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This post is part of a TLC book tour. Click on the logo for more reviews.

~~~~~~GIVEAWAY~~~~~~

Jennifer is giving away a paperback copy of The Spymistress to one lucky (U.S.) commenter.
a Rafflecopter giveaway

***FTC Disclaimer: Most books reviewed on this site have been provided free of charge by the publisher, author or publicist. Some books we have purchased with our own money or borrowed from a public library and will be noted as such. Any links to places to purchase books are provided as a convenience, and do not serve as an endorsement by this blog. All reviews are the true and honest opinion of the blogger reviewing the book. The method of acquiring the book does not have a bearing on the content of the review.

What could Abraham Lincoln and Elizabeth Tudor possibly have in common?

Pride and Prejudice and Zombies coverThere has been a trend in pop literature in the past two years to re-write great works of literature to include horror elements, usually for comic or satiric effect. Some of the results are hilarious, some are fairly dreadful. Patient Zero in this trend (to mix metaphors in the extreme) was the strange, bizarre and absolutely screamingly funny in-joke that was Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, written by the great Jane Austen and edited or amalgamized (or whatever) by Seth Grahame-Smith. This crazy thing, I personally think at least partially on the strength of a truly fantastic cover, was a surprise commercial success. Therefore, it begat sequels, spinoffs and sideways imitations.

Now they have slipped sideways into a variation of alternate history where real historic figures were supposedly vampire slayers or vampire hunters. I kid you not. On the surface, two historic figures less likely to imagine as even having the spare time to stalk vampires during the night than either Abraham Lincoln or Queen Elizabeth I could hardly be found. Why pick them? What could they have in common to make them likely, or even compelling, targets for such a treatment.

There are so many differences. Male and female, obviously. An elected leader vs a queen by right of inheritance. They are separated, not just by an ocean of salt water, but by an ocean of three centuries of time. And yet, they are both figures that fascinate in history. They both led their nations during eras when those nations were on the cusp on becoming, but had not yet become world powers. Times when their people were under grave threat. From our modern viewpoint, they are seen as leaders in times and places where personal leadership particularly mattered, and that they rose to the challenges they faced.

Elizabeth Tudor, Vampire Slayer CoverThe Secret History of Elizabeth Tudor, Vampire Slayer, is written using a time-honored literary tradition. Elizabeth’s secret diaries were supposedly unearthed during the very real fire at Windsor castle in 1992 and the first volume is now being published, after the public events mentioned in the diary have been verified. The story is told in Elizabeth’s voice, her perspective on events in the very first weeks of her reign as she discovers that she is the heir, not just to the throne, but also to the powers of vampire slayer, the first in a millenium–the first since her ancestress, Morgaine, better known to history as Morgan le Fay.  And the King of the Vampires that Elizabeth must face is none other than Mordred, the illegitimate son of King Arthur.  Tying the vampires to the end of Camelot makes for masterful storytelling, and leaves the door open for a sequel.  Because there is a question that runs throughout the story.  Mordred may not be Elizabeth’s enemy.  Historically, England in Elizabeth’s time had many enemies, particularly Spain, as the attempted invasion by the Spanish Armada showed.  Those enemies are very much present, as are the foes she has within her court.

Lucy WestonHowever, as much as I enjoyed the story itself, and the melding of the real history with the supernatural elements, trying to sell the idea that the editor of the diaries was the Lucy Weston from Bram Stoker’s Dracula was just one stage too far.  There’s a concept called the “willing suspension of disbelief” and that just tore it.

Abraham Lincoln, Vampire Hunter coverAbraham Lincoln, Vampire Hunter, also pretends to be a publication of secret diaries.  But at least the “real” author (Seth Grahame-Smith again) isn’t claiming to be someone else fictional.  The author tries to make the diary entries sound like Lincoln, and to therefore sound like someone writing in the mid-19th century.  It’s a difficult trick to manage, and whether he completely succeeds, I’m not certain.

But the premise is compelling, if strange.  Abraham Lincoln experienced several deaths in his early years of the people surrounding him.  Deaths that contributed to the man he became.  Both his mother and his first love (if you subscribe to that belief in the first place).  In Grahame-Smith’s version, both of those deaths were caused by vampires.  And Lincoln becomes a vampire hunter out of a desire for revenge.  Unlike Elizabeth, he has no special talent for the work, he is simply big and strong and wants to kill as many as possible.

The Civil War, the defining event of the 19th century United States, is not left out.  In this version of both the War and Lincoln’s life, vampires control the Southern States, and are slave owners.  The vampires want to expand slavery, because slaves are not merely property, they are food.  No one questions what happens to someone else’s slaves.  Humans are always food to vampires, but this objectifies the practice even more.  Human slave owners are colluding with the vampires, either out of a desire to be on the winning side, out of a hope to be spared, or merely out of the knowledge that as collaborators, they will be taken last.  Discovering what vampires do to slaves makes Lincoln a firm abolitionist in addition to a vampire hunter.

But Lincoln has no particular talent for this work, he is just strong and vicious.  At the age of 16, he is nearly killed on a hunt.  He is saved by a vampire named Henry Sturgis, who, along with many of his fellow vampires, believes that slavery is wrong, that killing humans other than criminals for food is wrong, and that the slave holders and other “evil” vampires must be stopped at all costs.  Henry also declares that he has had glimpses of Lincoln’s destiny, and that Lincoln is “just too interesting to die.”

Martin Luther King Dream speechThis book was not about changing history.  Everything that needs to happen, does happen.  The world we know, does come to pass.  But history is viewed through a different lens.  “What if?” asks the author, and then views that “if” through Lincoln’s point of view.   The North still won the war.  Lincoln was still shot and killed at Ford’s Theatre.  The difference?  The vampires found the new Union without slavery inhospitable and fled the country.  John Wilkes Booth was a vampire.  But the image that sticks with me from the book is the ending.  Lincoln and Henry standing in the shadows of the Lincoln Memorial, watching Martin Luther King, Jr. deliver his “I Have a Dream” speech.