Historical fiction adventures

The authors of the five historical fiction novels below take high schoolers on inspiring worldwide journeys alongside female main characters who face enslavement, class disparity, disease, war, murder, and gender norms and limitations — and rise above them.

The Deep Blue Between
by Ayesha Harruna Attah
Middle School, High School    Carolrhoda Lab    256 pp.    g
3/22    978-1-7284-4288-4    $18.99

This novel (first published in the U.K. in 2020) offers a compelling view of West African history as a backdrop for a story of sibling bonding and coming of age. In 1892, ten-year-old twin sisters Hassana and Husseina are kidnapped and sold into slavery following a raid on their village. Hassana remains in what is now Ghana, and Husseina is taken to Lagos, in what is now Nigeria. Eventually, each attains freedom and transitions into young adulthood with purpose and conviction. Hassana moves to Accra and becomes a political and social activist. Husseina (now known as Vitória) resides in Salvador da Bahia, Brazil, where she is deeply involved in religion. They remain spiritually connected by their persistent desire to find each other and by shared dreams that include pervasive images of the ocean — but they come to realize that despite their bond, their ordeals have “shaped them into two different young women.” Attah’s accessible third-person narration, which alternates between the twins’ perspectives, effectively conveys the depth of their relationship and their evolving maturity; she also includes meticulously detailed descriptions of the story’s African and South American cultures and lifestyles. Themes such as enslavement, religion, diversity, feminism, colonization, and treatment of the mentally ill (a secondary character is held in an asylum) are candidly addressed and seamlessly woven into the complex, captivating story. PAULETTA BROWN BRACY

The Red Palace
by June Hur
High School    Feiwel    336 pp.    g
1/22    978-1-250-80055-8    $18.99
e-book ed.  978-1-250-80056-5    $10.99

In this historical novel set in eighteenth-century Korea, Baek-hyeon, despite her low social status, has recently attained the coveted position of palace nurse when she and a friend encounter a mass murder scene at the public medical office: four young nurses have been killed. Suspicion is cast upon the Crown Prince as the possible perpetrator, and the list of victims grows as the murderer runs free. Hyeon and handsome, stoic police inspector Eojin work together to catch the criminal, uncovering forbidden love and royal family secrets along the way. Exciting and fast-paced, this unusual detective story transports readers to Korea’s Joseon Dynasty, providing (per the author’s note) one version of the tragic true story of Crown Prince Jangheon. Though some readers may find the Korean vocabulary difficult to keep track of, its frequent use to set the cultural context is a testament to Hur’s dedication in researching Korea’s complex history. Romance, adventure, and mystery keep pages turning, and readers will undoubtedly find themselves drawn to Hyeon’s smarts, ambition, and strong will. GABI K. HUESCA

Daughters of a Dead Empire
by Carolyn Tara O’Neil
High School    Roaring Brook    336 pp.    g
2/22    978-1-25075-553-7    $18.99

This historical-fiction thriller creatively imagines how events might have played out had Anastasia Romanov actually survived the massacre of her royal family. After stumbling out of the woods into a village, Anna offers a jewel sewn into her corset to Evgenia, a poor peasant girl, if Evgenia will help her get to safety. It’s a deal that reluctant Evgenia cannot afford to turn down, but it will take lots of luck and skill to maneuver between the communist Red Army, the tsarist White Army, and the stranded Czechoslovak Legion. Anna and Evgenia eventually develop a strong bond of friendship, one that helps them arrive at a sense of healthy disillusionment as they grow to see the flaws of both the monarchy and the Bolsheviks. Their friendship is tested when Anna’s true identity comes to light just as the plot climaxes with a suspenseful game of cat-and-mouse against the sadistic officer of the Red Army’s secret police, a man hell-bent on tracking Anastasia down and completing the execution he had started. In her debut novel, O’Neil proves herself to be a capable storyteller with excellent command of her complex tale and its setting. An author’s note provides historical background; a bibliography and pronunciation guide are also appended. JONATHAN HUNT

Anatomy: A Love Story
by Dana Schwartz
High School    Wednesday/St. Martin’s    352 pp.    g
1/22    978-1-250-77415-6    $18.99
e-book ed.  978-1- 250- 77416- 3    $10.99

In 1817 Edinburgh (a city famous at the time for medical advancements), the fictional “Roman fever” is ripping through the population. This sickness has already taken Hazel Sinnett’s older brother, and she was lucky to survive it herself. Lady Sinnett, Hazel’s mother, does nothing but mourn and dote on her younger son, leaving Hazel with plenty of time to study anatomy on her own, in secret, for it would be most improper for a lady to be interested in medicine. When she meets Jack Currer, a “resurrection man” who steals bodies for medical students to practice on, it seems her dream career might be within reach. A boy’s disguise, a wager with a leading surgeon, and a conveniently empty estate all point to success, but deceit, murder, and vicious deeds in the darkness soon threaten her future, as does her growing fondness for Jack. The setting holds death around every corner, and both sinister and noble characters people the city. While a significant plot point feels abrupt, the (gory) tale is riveting, and Hazel and Jack are sympathetic characters. Visceral and full of sharp historical details as well as some fantastical elements, this is gothic fun for readers with strong stomachs. SARAH BERMAN

Ironhead, or, Once a Young Lady
by Jean-Claude van Rijckeghem; trans. from Dutch by Kristen Gehrman
Middle School, High School    Em Querido/Levine Querido    368 pp.    g
2/22    978-1-61614-048-0    $18.99

In this smoothly translated historical-fiction romp set in 1808, lively, propulsive storytelling whirls us through the countryside of what is now Belgium, France, and Germany with Constance, one of Napoleon’s more unusual soldiers. “Stance” has always been acerbic, rebellious, and capable. When her father marries her off to a middle-aged businessman, she sees only one way out: she puts on men’s clothes and joins the army. Stance’s defection from the marriage contract wreaks havoc on the family, especially on her hapless brother Pier, who, in the company of a corrupt customs officer, is sent to retrieve her. Van Rijckeghem evokes Napoleonic wartime chaos and the story’s fractious characters with colorful lucidity, comedy, and drama. Stance and Pier alternate as narrators; the tale swings between the former’s rash irreverence and boldness and the latter’s timidity and physical ineptitude. Throughout the story — with its hilarity and drastic eventfulness, its duels and battles, unexpected lovers, and lesson in how a girl can use a bellows to facilitate peeing while standing — Stance and Pier mature and become more resolutely themselves. Though the book ends as Stance sets off in quest of the woman she loves, the real heart here is the affection that grows between two very different siblings. DEIRDRE F. BAKER

From the February 2022 issue of Notes from the Horn Book.

Horn Book
Horn Book

Be the first reader to comment.

Comment Policy:
  • Be respectful, and do not attack the author, people mentioned in the article, or other commenters. Take on the idea, not the messenger.
  • Don't use obscene, profane, or vulgar language.
  • Stay on point. Comments that stray from the topic at hand may be deleted.
  • Comments may be republished in print, online, or other forms of media.
  • If you see something objectionable, please let us know. Once a comment has been flagged, a staff member will investigate.



We are currently offering this content for free. Sign up now to activate your personal profile, where you can save articles for future viewing.