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New Books Network Interview: A. Engels

A middle-aged woman in a crimson velvet robe, an embroidered white shawl covering her head and neck, stares angrily straight ahead while others cringe in fear or appear defiant; cover of A. Engels, A Fool for an Heir

As anyone knows who has listened to me or read my blog during the years I have hosted New Books in Historical Fiction, I am, first and foremost, a historian specializing in Russia before the time of Peter the Great (1682/89–1725). But I have not often encountered novels written about that time period—especially books that are explicitly historical rather than historical fantasy. A Fool for an Heir—anchored in the troubled relationship between Ivan III of Russia, known to later generations as Ivan the Great, and his eldest son—is one exception. Read on, and listen to my latest New Books Network interview with A. Engels, to find out more.

As usual, the rest of this post comes from New Books in Historical Fiction.

Few destinies are more challenging than life in the orbit of a man obsessed with expanding his power at all costs. Such is the fate endured by Ivan Ivanovich (Ivan the Younger), eldest son of Russia’s Ivan III (r. 1462–1505) and the narrator of A. Engels’s novel A Fool for an Heir.

While his father focuses on extending his reach into neighboring principalities and overcoming the legacy of a brutal civil war, little Ivan dreams of becoming a hero like those in the chronicles he reads with his tutor. The sudden, violent death of the boy’s mother forces him into the world of men, where he masters the skills of sword and bow, as well as the art of command. Yet even as Ivan marries and has children of his own, he remains in his father’s shadow.

A young man with light brown hair, dressed in a red coat and red leather boots, pulls at the tale of an exotic bird, Ivan Bilibin's illustration for "The Firebird"

Appalled by the older Ivan’s attacks against other lands—including some ruled by members of his own family—and by the cruel suppression of dissent both there and at home, Ivan the Younger increasingly feels driven to defend his father’s victims, especially one whom he sees as closer than a brother. He realizes only too late that his focus on the oppressed has blinded him to the presence of a deadlier, more determined enemy as ruthless as his sire.

Although set almost six hundred years ago, this novel derives an uncanny resonance from the war launched by Russia against Ukraine in 2022, where the justification of annexation and subjugation developed by Ivan III still play out in current events.

Image: Painting by the 19th-century artist and book illustrator Ivan Bilibin, Ivan Tsarevich and the Firebird (1899),” public domain via Wikimedia Commons. The character Ivan Tsarevich is believed to be based on Ivan the Younger,

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