What was it like to live in a world both more formal and more brutal than our own?

Lacing a corset is easy. Same with loading a musket or trimming a whale oil lamp. A determined historical novelist can furnish the physical trappings of any era. (Viking) Antique mental equipment, though, is tougher to acquire. Besides, it contradicts our egotistical sense that earlier people were pretty much like us, but in tunics and hoop skirts. And so all too often, we get medieval women espousing sexual liberation or spunky Roman slaves who speak like 21st-century comics. The best historical fiction knows better. Yes, there’s something eternal and universal about the human spirit, but let’s see those spirits living and moving and having their being in times that had little sense of, say, racial equality, social mobility or novocaine. What was it like to exist in a now-vanished world whose mores were both more formal and more brutal than our own? One that perceived no demarcation between science and magic? One that assumed the moral superiority of wealth? “The Maze at Windermere,” Gregory Blake Smith’s staggeringly brilliant new novel, luxuriates in those demarcations of time. It is an extraordinary demonstration of narrative dexterity. Moving up and down through the strata of history, Smith captures the ever-changing refractions of […]

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