Historical fiction always worries me. I love learning about different places, different times, different political systems, etc, but I don't like reading history disguised as fiction. Nor do I think fiction should be shackled by historical accuracy. Don't sacrifice a good scene because it didn't happen that way in real life. And don't excuse bad storytelling because that's how it DID happen.
Kathryn Kopple's forthcoming novel LITTLE VELÁSQUEZ never left me feeling like I picked up a book from the wrong section of the bookstore. Velasquillo, the heart of the novel (but certainly not the the only character we get to know intimately), emanates a charm and loneliness throughout the novel. These two qualities are not just interesting because of his character -- though he certainly crystalizes very quickly and remains true and real throughout -- they are qualities that tie the various people in the novel together.
This novel focuses on the court of Fernando and Queen Isabel of Castile (you know, the one that funded Columbus, expelled the Jews and Muslims, and probably yelled at adorable kittens in her free time). Velasquillo manages to trick his way into being the court fool and the novel happily doesn't stick only to his POV. We're inside the heads of Isabel, her Marquesa de Moya, her daughter Juana, and others. This is key, because it shows just how pervasive loneliness is. This novel isn't simply about the loneliness of power. It's human disconnection. It's an exploration of how, at various levels in society (perhaps today's, but at least in the society of the novel), people are disconnected, unable to communicate, easily fooled, and easily fail.
Constructed to cover the ten year siege of Grenada, one might feel like time moves a bit too brisky from section to section, but Velasquillo and, to my surprise, the Queen herself, keep things connected and clear.
One of the features I enjoyed most is Kopple's sentences. She's never dry, clearly knows her time period well, but doesn't twist her words around your neck.
I leave you with this excellent passage from the prologue as evidence of how much fun this book is to read:
"He didn't need a physician, didn't want one. He wanted only to be young again. How tired he was of hauling his old carcass about; so sick of the sight of wrinkles and spots. He wanted to frolic among the great, wise oaks, to urinate with glee, to feel some heat in his loins. What good did it do him to possess a body unlike any other body, one that amused and amazed, when, inside, he was no different at all--and perhaps worse off than many. He would die like any other man, in a heap of rotting teeth and flesh, with fetid breath, no less. No less.