1.Bring Up The Bodies
Jean Zimmerman’s The Orphanmaster is a rip-roaring read, packed with action and dark suspense. Like The Book of Madness and Cures, it features a strong and unusual female protagonist. Blandine van Couvering is a rising young merchant in 1663 New Amsterdam, now southern Manhattan. Women in Dutch culture enjoyed great economic liberties (as Zimmerman knows well, having written a biography — Women of the House — of just one such New Amsterdam “she merchant”) and Blandine is as much at home traveling to wilderness trading posts as she is drinking in the tavern across from her dwelling house. Her idyll is shattered when terror strikes her community. Orphans are disappearing. Later their corpses are found in bizarre ritualistic settings, suggesting the presence of the “witika,” an evil spirit in Native American lore who possesses people and forces them to commit acts of cannibalism. An orphan herself, Blandine is determined to unmask the culprit. Joining her investigation is handsome English spy Edward Drummond. Hysteria mounts with the rising death toll. Soon Blandine stands accused of witchcraft. Meanwhile war looms as the British seek to wrest away the colony from the Netherlands. This crime-driven novel with its grisly scenes of child murder may be too gruesome for some readers, but I was captivated by Zimmerman’s unforgettable evocation of New Amsterdam
Hillary Mantel made history this year when her Bring Up the Bodies became the first sequel to win the Man Booker Prize. Mantel’s Wolf Hall — the opening volume of a planned trilogy — won the prize in 2009. Amazingly, Bodies is even stronger than its predecessor. Faster paced and more tautly written, Bring Up the Bodies revels in its distinctly unromantic view of the Tudor court. Thomas Cromwell, Henry VIII’s master secretary and spin artist, must once more carry out the monarch’s dirty work. A commoner whose cunning and ruthless intelligence have made him the king’s most trusted adviser, Cromwell is the ultimate self-made Renaissance man, as inspired by Machiavelli as he is by the Scriptures. In Wolf Hall, Cromwell plotted the execution of statesman, author and Catholic loyalist Thomas More. Now Cromwell must help fickle Henry rid himself of his second wife, Anne Boleyn. This leaves Cromwell in a hopeless double bind: His survival hinges on ensuring the queen’s doom, yet his coldblooded machinations to bring this about plant the seeds of his own downfall. Although we know how Boleyn’s story ends, Mantel keeps the reader on tenterhooks in this sinister tale of power politics played for the highest stakes.
River of Smoke was actually published in late 2011, but it was just too good not to mention in this roundup; consider it a holiday bonus. By turns tragic and savagely funny, this sequel to the mesmerizing Sea of Poppies proves that the war on drugs and the dark side of globalization are nothing new. In the 19th century, Western opium merchants made a killing enslaving the Chinese to this highly addictive drug. In 1838, China succeeded very briefly in banishing foreign opium traders from the port of Canton (now Guangzhou). River of Smoke captures the mounting pressures and foment in the foreign trading community that lead up to the Opium Wars. At the center of a dazzlingly multicultural cast of characters is the Parsee merchant Bahram Modi, who has sailed from Bengal with his biggest opium shipment ever only to find that the Chinese have closed their ports. As the crisis deepens, his existence becomes as surreal as an opium dream. Stuck in Fanqui Town, the enclave for foreign traders, he is trapped between haunting memories of his dead Chinese mistress and his increasingly fraught negotiations with British and American magnates who are willing to sacrifice everything, even the lives of their Chinese business partners, to go on selling opium — all in the name of free trade. If you haven’t read Sea of Poppies, don’t worry; River of Smoke works brilliantly as a stand-alone novel.