Historical fiction is not my thing and neither is historical fantasy but, then Jo Graham’s books are not simply tales set in ancient times, they’re something more. I first came across her debut novel, a retelling of the Aeneid called Black Ships that Orbit kindly sent me to take a peak at several years ago. I remember thinking it was an odd thing for them to publish, after all they’re known as a scifi/fantasy imprint, not as one for the more historical stuff. Then Hand of Isis came out and I devoured it in one sitting.
I did Classics at college and uni and loved it, the mix of history, mythology with culture and faith but this wasn’t why I like the books. No, Jo Graham’s novels are the best kind because they take a story we already know and weave in a little mysticism. Gull, the heroine of Black Ships, appears as the narrator of each of Graham’s books. In the first one she is a seer and servant to the Lady of the Dead, then she is reborn as the male soldier Lydias of Miletus, Companion to Alexander the Great, in Stealing Fire. Then we get to meet her as Charmian, sister of Cleopatra the Seventh, in Hand of Isis. Most recently though, Graham’s books have shifted to post-revolutionary France where we follow the footsteps of Elza, more popularly known as Ida St. Elme.
What makes these books magical is they’re not just the journey of one soul, oh no, every book has cameos from folks wearing new masks, new physical disguises. So complex is the cast that I asked Graham for a cheat-sheet which covers characters across her anthology, her Numinous World novels and the odd cameo in her other series. There are great souls, whose lives tell Great Stories … tales like Caesar, Alexander, Aeneas, Queen Elizabeth I and Napoleon. The books also include a cast of gods and angels, inhabiting their own courts who don’t seem bothered in the least by the human habit of fighting for the name of religion.
When I read Hand of Isis, I was amazed by the amount of technology in it. Surely this was the USP, some tangent universe? Nope. Now published by Crossroads Press, Graham’s books are carefully researched and yet – in Elza’s series – magic continues to pervade the world. In last year’s The General’s Mistress, she discovered her heritage as a Dove – an oracle – for men wanting news of things no humans could know. In between a delicious induction to post-revolution BDSM, Elza meets an old friend, the archangel Michael, and takes the first steps on the path to learning how to use her gifts.
Elza – along with Gull, Charmian, Kadis and her modern incarnation, Beatrice, (who appears in Graham’s Order of the Air series, co-written with Melissa Scott and also published by Crossroads) – also offer something different: strong female leads who empower through going against the grain. But none of Gull’s incarnations, male or female, can be tied down to categories that we deem important and that is the beauty of them, they are numinous, a little bit magical and as ageless as the world they inhabit.
The second book in Elza’s series, The Emperor’s Agent, was released last week in e-book with print copies hitting stores in September. Now the stage has been set, Elza finds herself being blackmailed by her past. Facing a bleak future and the promise of extradition to Holland and a madhouse if she fails, Elza has to find a spy and help win a war against the British which isn’t just being fought on land and sea. Using her oracular talents, she has to harness magic to beat magic whilst also learning the art of war and revisiting old battles she once fought as Lydias.
Even better, this is just the second book in the series with at least four more Elza books on the cards, as well as the promise of more tales set in the ancient world. If you’re looking for something different, something historical and just a little bit magical, why not give the Numinous World a try?