The famous writer and aviator Antoine de Saint-Exupéry may be the title character in Antonio Iturbes THE PRINCE OF THE SKIES (Feiwel & Friends/Macmillan, 544 pp., $28.99), but his camaraderie with two other pioneering French pilots makes this novel take to the skies. That and the celebration of the pure joy of flying – of the raw adventure of living in an era where “aviation is not an industry; it’s just the guts of a few reckless entrepreneurs.”
The story of Iturbe, translated from Spanish by Lilit Zekulin Thwaites, takes us back to the 1920s and 1930s, when private postal air services recruited men to deliver the mail at an ever-faster pace and at ever greater distances: soaring over the Pyrenees and then north out of Western Sahara, plotting routes through the Andes and finally daring to span the Atlantic from Brazil to Senegal. These entrepreneurial exploits bring together an unlikely trio: Saint-Exupéry, an impoverished aristocrat with a growing literary reputation, a haunted home life and the “air of a fearful chameleon”; Jean Mermoz, a handsome, licentious daredevil who attracts the attention of many women, but whose easygoing contacts leave him unprepared for true love, which he initially confuses with the flu; and Henri Guillaumet, a humble man of few words and much courage, a devoted husband who, if not in his flying gear, could easily be mistaken for a grocer.
These three can only be in danger for so long, and the final installment of Iturbe’s fast-moving novel sends what appears to be an inevitable downward spiral as Europe spirals into World War II. However, what you remember, even if fate catches up with Saint-Exupéry and his comrades, is the excitement they experienced in the time spent in the air. Mermoz explains it best: “You’re on your plane and it’s like they’ve put the world below so you can fly over it.”
Meg Waite Clayton’s heroine THE POST MISTRESS OF PARIS (Harper, 416 pp., $27.99) is also a pilot, but her dangerous missions are carried out on solid ground – in the city streets and rural villages of France during the Second World War. In an author’s note, Clayton explains that her Nanée was inspired by real-life Chicago heiress Mary Jayne Gold, a devoted Francophile who used her money, her social contacts and her American passport to help Varian Fry, whose Center Américain de Secours thousands of refugees to safety.
Clayton’s title is somewhat misleading. As a ‘postmistress’, Nanée may deliver messages to those in hiding before the Nazis, but she also sets out on her own, plotting daring rescue attempts that will take her to an infamous internment camp, deep into occupied territory. And while Nanée has a swanky Parisian apartment, much of the novel’s action takes place in and around Marseille, where her rented villa is home to a cast of characters, including surreal icon André Breton and an entirely fictional photographer, Edouard Moss.
Edouard is a widower haunted by the violence he has witnessed in Germany and determined to protect his daughter Luki – a noble impulse that will inadvertently result in a long, terrifying divorce. The little girl seems to have disappeared while her father is imprisoned in a French prison camp. Already romantically attracted to Edouard, Nanée is equally attracted to his fierce devotion to his child, unlike what she experienced with her own parents. Would she be able to reunite Edouard and Luki and somehow get them to America? Awaiting the answer to that question, and curious about its impact on Nanée’s own future, Clayton’s already exciting plot enriches.
There are plenty of provocative questions in Oliver Clements’s THE QUEEN’S MEN (Atria, 416 pp., $27), the second in a lively series of Elizabethan thrillers. You don’t need to know his predecessor to enjoy this account of the efforts of Tudor court spy master Francis Walsingham to protect his monarch from a cunning band of assassins. But those who have already read “The Eyes of the Queen” will be ready for the return of Walsingham’s very reluctant (and very inept) agent – the astronomer, alchemist and bibliophile John Dee.
Dee, a sort of medieval MacGyver, is faced with a host of difficult tasks: not only track down the bloodthirsty members of the Guild of the Black Madonna, but also conduct experiments with an incendiary weapon called Greek Fire and run into the countryside for a potentially treacherous clandestine operation involving a woman who bears a striking resemblance to the queen. These activities will land him, at various inopportune times, in the damp cells of a debtor prison, the teeming wards of Bedlam and the rat-infested hold of an abandoned river barge.
Many of these exploits involve a high-ranking courtier, Lady Jane Frommond, whose efforts to track down her pregnant friend’s killer become entwined with Dee’s investigations. Just like the lady herself, in what – if the queen’s directive at the end of the novel is something to follow – will be a large number of joint foreign missions. Along the way, Clements will use what he calls “the bitparts” and “turning points” of 16th-century English history to anchor his playful speculations. “This Is The Kind Of Thing That” could be happened,” he writes, “given the place there and the time then. Perhaps.”