A couple of recent reads, both children's books, both in historical settings. The covers make good use of old-style ornateness.
The Diamond of Drury Lane, by Julia Golding, Egmont 2008. Set in 1790 London, this is narrated by young Catherine (Cat) Royal, a foundling taken in by Sheridan and reared as the errand-girl of the Drury Lane Theatre. Her already eventful life becomes more exciting still with the addition to the company of Johnny, the mysterious new Prompt; Pedro, the young African violinist; and rumours of a diamond hidden somewhere in the theatre. Outside the theatre she is mixed up in (or mixes herself up in) boxing matches, street brawls, an ill-fated love, and risky political satire. Hair's-breadth escapes, sneering villains both high and low, balloon ascents, and more.
The Star of Kazan, by Eva Ibbotson, Macmillan 2005. In Vienna, in 1908, Annika, a foundling girl raised in a professorial household, is almost entirely happy helping her foster-mother (the servant who found her) cope with the eccentric professors, playing with her friends in the streets and gardens, listening to the stories of the old lady who was once the celebrated performer La Rondine, and admiring the breathtaking Lipizzaner horses. She only dreams a little of her birth-mother appearing and sweeping her away--until the day her mother does. Annika is swept away to her aristocratic, ancestral home. But why does her noble family live such an austere, scrimping life? Why is the gypsy boy Zed so angry at them? And why are they so interested in the costume jewelry that La Rondine left to her?
Both books are quite consciously period pieces, and make good use of the themes and tropes of older children's books and of melodrama: lost heirs, orphans, wicked aristocrats, noble-hearted poor folk, twists of fate and revelations. The wicked and the virtuous are pretty easy for the reader to spot and to either hiss or cheer. In short, both are thrilling yarns and good reads.
Both have foundling heroines with generous and impulsive hearts, whose friends and neighbours rally to help them when things get dangerous. Both feature a young boy who might not have been included in the source fiction (at least, not as the heroine's equal): Pedro the former slave and Zed the Romany boy, one a talented violinist, the other a natural horse-trainer. Both manage to avoid turning their characters into modern North Americans with modern attitudes, while still keeping them sympathetic for a young reader. The period and settings are well-evoked, including smells and tastes, and based on strong research. Golding uses Cat to explain anything unfamiliar, and Ibbotson uses direct address, an old convention in children's literature. I didn't myself spot anything jarring, and I'm fairly picky.
The two heroines are different, though I'd agree with those reviewers who suggested that each was surprisingly slow to catch on to the big revelation. This is more believable in Annika's case, since she's presented as good-hearted and inclined to believe everyone else is as well, where Cat is (or believes herself to be) quite shrewd.
Politics... Diamond makes use of the political ferment of the 1790s, the pamphlets and political cartoons, the crime, poverty, and corruption. Star presents a tidier, cleaner world, though poverty and class barriers are real enough. And hanging over all the action of Star of Kazan, for an adult reader, is the awareness that dear old Franz Joseph will not die peacefully in his bed, Stefan's dream of training to be an engineer may be twisted, and soon the Spanish Riding School will be evacuated and broken up.