Just how well do you know your American history? Not just the dry, factual kind found in history books, but the more obscure, hidden aspects brought to life only in the pages of historical fantasy?
For example, you may have heard about the heroic suffragists and strikers who helped win the vote for women and the 40-hour workweek for America, but were you aware of the pivotal role played by witchcraft in these valiant struggles? The great labor movement of the Progressive era was anticipated in the 1830s when textile workers in the mill town of Lowell, Massachusetts, formed the first women’s union in history. As is revealed in C. S. Malerich’s fantasy novella “The Factory Witches of Lowell,” read with folksy authenticity by Rachel Botchan, the solidarity of these pioneering women was strengthened by witchy doings more frequently associated with the nearby town of Salem, when Hannah Pickering reinforced the women’s common cause with a touch of white magic embodied by an unbreakable ring woven from the strikers’ hair. Alix E. Harrow’s “The Once and Future Witches” reveals how in the 1890s witchcraft once again played a role in (alternative) history when the enchanted Eastwood sisters join forces with the New Salem’s Women Association to secure not just universal suffrage, but to restore ancient magic to the world. Narrator Gabra Zackman weaves her own spell with her deft impersonations of each sister, by turns brainy, sober and ferocious.
The “great man” theory of history isn’t quite as revered as it once was, but there was a time early in our nation’s history when truly great men walked the Earth. Not George Washington, Daniel Boone, or other puny mortals; I’m talking about the likes of Paul Bunyan, Pecos Bill and John Henry. Pete Beatty’s rollicking “Cuyahoga” draws on this same tall tale tradition to relate the exploits of Big Son, a larger-than-life personage whose superhuman feats are beginning to lose their luster in a rapidly modernizing Ohio frontier, one that is eager to step away from folklore and enter the more prosaic pages of history. Despite his ability to drink whole lakes and fell forests, Big is frustrated in his desire to settle down with a wife and a job. His often hilarious struggles are related by Big’s little brother, Meed — short for “Medium Big” — with a marvelously rough-hewn quality that is perfectly captured through the halting grandiloquence of Feodor Chin’s inspired narration.
Several recent novels have explored the workings of the Underground Railroad during the Civil War, but Nicole Glover’s recent series debut, “The Conductors,” asks what became of this intrepid network at war’s end, and what role the pervasive occult abilities of the Reconstruction era played in all this. In Philadelphia’s Seventh Ward, where Black residents seek protection from, rather than by, the police — many of whom are recently retired slave hunters — Hetty and Benji Rhodes employ their blend of African and Indigenous celestial magic to help restore justice during a heady but lawless epoch. Veteran narrator Bahni Turpin has a great time bringing this intriguing, imaginative window into our checkered racial history to bustling life.
In the vividly depicted 1920s version of Manhattan conjured up in W.M. Akers’ fantasy mystery “Westside,” convincingly narrated by Bailey Carr, the island is split down the center by the great wall of Broadway. To the east, the Metropolis teeming with rich and poor, hot jazz and speak-easies. To the west, a much more “anything goes” realm of inexplicable happenings and shadowy, weirdly shifting landscapes. Gilda Carr plays both sides of the fence, solving merely “tiny mysteries” until the search for a missing glove draws her into a case with existential implications for life on both sides of the fence. Akers’ worldbuilding is ravishing, and Carr presents it all to us with breathless immediacy: I can’t wait to hear her readings of the sequels, “Westside Saints” and “Westside Lights.”
With its contortionists, fortune tellers, strong men and women, and various sideshow attractions, the G.B. Bacchanal Carnival would seem to be a welcoming place for Eliza Meeks, who swiftly proves the worth of her telepathic sway over animals by rescuing the alligator wrestler from a grisly death. Yet secreted in a forbidden red trailer lies something stranger and more menacing than all the rest: an ancient evil that uses the carnival as its toy. Veronica G. Henry’s “Bacchanal” takes circus fantasy into the menacing gothic environment of the Depression-era South, and narrator Robin Miles once again demonstrates her mastery by making every moment of this wildly outlandish world seem immediate and real.