Byzantium by Stephen Lawhead

9780006482512-uk-300Usually a science fiction and fantasy author, Lawhead goes with a bit of straight historical fiction here.  The fantasy style still fits as we get an action adventure romp around the ninth century with a good dose of mystical Irish Christianity.  The plot is fairly ordinary for this sort of this: inexperienced monk travels, captured by and joins Vikings, then various bits of scheming in the east.  The settings are good though, although the action does tend to skip large distances, we get a reassuringly detailed description of life in an Irish monastery, life on a small Scandinavia homestead, visiting Byzantium, and so on.

The characters and dialogue too are above par for this sort of thing.  Or the main character anyway – there’s a side line throughout of the staunchly Christian hero Aidan struggling with his faith.  This may not be to everyone’s taste, but it does add another (moral) dimension to the book above and beyond what other historical fiction authors like Bernard Cornwell or Tim Severin have done with similar stories.  It kind of cool to have a hero who does actually change in outlook gradually throughout the book.

The ending was a little unsatisfying.  Aidan fighting with his sense of Christianity in the face of suffering and corruption.  It all gets tied up in the last few pages and the epilogue, but we don’t really get to see the new found contentment – it is rather briskly narrated to us.  It’s a shame after all that (slightly depressing) self-reflection to basically just tag on a happy ending in a page of epilogue.  Again the religious element may not be to everyone’s taste (or so it appears on Goodreads), but it does add some extra depth to the character that the book would be a bit flat without.

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True History Of The Kelly Gang by Peter Carey

s-l300I don’t know a huge amount about Australian history.  I do know about Ned Kelly and his suit of armour.  I’d reckon most people do – although I did see an amazon review where someone puzzled about the cold opening featuring a robot in 19th century Australia.  Parts of this book were eye opening – the poverty, the anti-catholic discrimination, the corruption, the petty criminals and pettier judges.  Mostly in the first half of the book; the better half of the book.  Carey is a good writer, and the offers a brilliantly grim and detailed look at Kelly’s childhood (if you can call it that).  Unfortunately, as the book approaches the climax Carey switches from Kelly’s view to newspaper excerpts, and the drama starts to have more gaps in it (understandably, as Kelly doesn’t have to sit and write).  It relegates what could be a very good book into merely quite good.  Carey’s writing is good throughout but it is strange (and disappointing) how the momentum actually drops as the story ramps up the stakes.

As a postscript – there is apparently a film of this coming out soon.  That could be actually be quite good.  Russell Crowe as the veteran bushranger Harry Power is potentially very good (I would actually pick the point that the book started declining as the point where Harry Power stopped being in it).

HHhH and Memoirs of Hadrian

220px-hhhh_bookcoverRecently I read two quite different works of historical fiction by French authors, both obsessed in their own way with a kind of authenticity.  In the post-modern HHhH (from 2010) the author Laurent Binet inserts himself and his writing process into a story about the assassination of Reinhardt Heydrich.  Uncomfortable about straying from historical fact or even inventing dialogue with real characters, Binet will intersperse the narrative with his thoughts on his own writing and his experiences researching the book.  I’m not sure whether this quirk is inventive or not; but it is wasn’t quite as well done as this the book would be unreadable.  The reticence against invention leads to the characters that a flat and, although the story still has its drama, it feels like Binet could have made more of it.  His interventions do add to the build up, but it’s a gimmick that I enjoyed but wouldn’t particularly care to see again.  In all, I enjoyed the book as a one off; and I’m tempted to break through my usual aversion to WW2 histories and find a real book on the assassination.

51fbcpndyjl-_sx323_bo1204203200_In 1951’s Memoirs of Hadrian, Margeurite Yourcenar tries to strip her own personality and touch away from the writing; through detailed research and critical editing (a number of earlier attempts were scrapped entirely) she produces what reads like a real set of memoirs.  This sometimes leaves the book more admirable than enjoyable but at it’s best it can be moving, especially as Hadrian deals with the death of his favourite Antinous.  His internal struggles show a character with real depth, as a man who fundamentally believes that peace is the best way forward but throws himself wholeheartedly into his military role.  Compared to another recent read, Julian by Gore Vidal, the emperor feels genuine and subtle; the themes seem to occur naturally from the story.  It’s a very gentle work, and you can feel the time and effort that have went into it.

As far as authenticity goes, Yourcenar definitely has the better balance of research and narrative; I could probably stand for a little less realism, but I think it’s a good model for fictionalised biography.  Binet self-reflects on his failure to do justice to the narrative, and in a way that deprecation makes the book work, gives it a source of humour on a grim topic.  I don’t think even close to a model of how to write, but it is however a very enjoyable book.

The Prague Cemetery by Umberto Eco

the-prague-cemetery-u-ecoIn the Prague Cemetery, Eco creates a rambling book of tangents and bluffs, with the slimy Italian Captain Simonini, who makes a living throughout the nineteenth century hoaxing and forging his way through political movements and intelligence agencies in the nineteenth century – eventually culminating in the anti-semitic Protocols of the Elders of Zion.  We learn all this from his diaries – confused and unreliable as they may be.

In research for the book Eco seems to have delved into all sorts of unsavoury sections of nineteenth century literature.  Some are obvious, some are more obscure, some are surprisingly mainstream (Alexandre Dumas, Disraeli).  He constantly seems to be saying “This actually happened.  Someone did this.  Someone wrote this.  People believed it.” and sometimes he lets his amazement overwhelm the story.  In this sense, he is at his best when he shows the borrowing, the twisting of old tropes for new audiences, the closed loops when a story is used to confirm itself.

He has covered conspiracies plenty of times before, but this does feel slightly different.  The stories feel grubbier.  The spectre of the Nazis, an eventually peak of anti-semitism, hangs over the book.  For me, it also called up Conrad’s Secret Agent with its murky world of spies, informers and anarchist bombs.  Fear of the Masons, Jesuits and satanists is there too.  All the lunatic fringes are present.  Although Eco does pull a surprise by largely steering away from The Dreyfus Affair.

At times the book can be funny, at times it can be interesting; but at other points it is difficult – it’s not just that it gets quite dry; but that it is an unpleasant read.  Some of these movements, some of these writings, feel lost in history and it’s easy to wish they would stay there.  Perhaps there’s a more general point than that, Eco’s russian agent Rachovsky (a real historical figure, most of them are in this book) sets out his case that his government don’t care for the truth of not of Simonini’s anti semitic rambling, they want to provide an enemy, a distraction.  People need someone to hate, and it is in the interests of the powerful to find groups to demonize.  Despite this gloom, I enjoyed it – it feels like one of Eco’s most purposeful books.

The Vegetable Lamb of Tartary

I recently read Wonders Will Never Cease by Robert Irwin and very much enjoyed it.  One of the most striking tales from it (possibly second only to the one about the housebreaker and the tortoise) is that of the Vegetable Lamb of Tartary.  I’m now reading Irwin’s history of Orientalist scholarship, The Lust of Knowing, and the story reoccurs.  Thus I feel compelled to share this strange idea with anyone who hasn’t heard it.

220px-vegetable_lamb_28lee2c_188729In medieval tales, the Vegetable Lamb or Scythian Lamb or Barometz is a plant-animal hybrid that lives in central Asia, or Russia, or perhaps the Black Sea area near Persia.  It consists of a lamb that is rooted to the earth by a umbilical cord like stem.  The lamb can flex this stem such that is can eat grass in the immediate circle around it, but is prevented from moving beyond that and must then either starve or drop off the plant as a ripened sheep (sources seem divided as to which one; or perhaps just generally confused).

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The story really came to public attention in the fourteenth century with the tales of Sir John Mandeville (whoever he may have actually been) and the travelogues of various friars.  As late as 1683, a German doctor called Engelbert Kaempfer would search for the lamb in Persia, before reasonably deciding that it was a myth, possibly due to some local farming practices.

Wikipedia quotes some priceless poetry on the topic:

E’en round the Pole the flames of love aspire,
And icy bosoms feel the secret fire,
Cradled in snow, and fanned by Arctic air,
Shines, gentle borametz, thy golden hair
Rooted in earth, each cloven foot descends,
And round and round her flexile neck she bends,
Crops the grey coral moss, and hoary thyme,
Or laps with rosy tongue the melting rime;
Eyes with mute tenderness her distant dam,
And seems to bleat – a vegetable lamb

Erasmus Darwin, The Botanic Garden

For in his path he sees a monstrous birth,
The Borametz arises from the earth
Upon a stalk is fixed a living brute,
A rooted plant bears quadruped for fruit,
…It is an animal that sleeps by day
And wakes at night, though rooted in the ground,
To feed on grass within its reach around

Demetrius De La Croix, Connubia Florum, Latino Carmine Demonstrata

Back in reality, the legend seems to be perhaps rooted (!) in an old Jewish text, or perhaps a misunderstanding of cotton fibres or even due to a furry looking Asian fern – Cibotium barometz.  Answers may also be available for the Barnacle Goose (or Bernacle), but there’s only so much of this I can take in one sitting.

Wonder Will Never Cease by Robert Irwin

32919654The quote from The Guardian on the back of the book compared it to a mix of AS Byatt and Terry Pratchett.  Perhaps, but I’d throw in Hilary Mantel and Umberto Eco.  There’s something in the mix of the realist portrayal of medieval life blending with constant surrealist tangents.  What they really meant though was that the book will reward multiple readings, it is enjoyable first time round but there are so many allusions and references that you can come back again and again.

Irwin starts his book with Anthony Woodville dying at the Battle of Towton before being resurrected with an unfortunate tendency to see the dead walking.  The book then follows the real life Anthony Woodville’s path through the Wars of the Roses: switching sides to the Yorkists, temporary exile, a court favourite under Edward IV, before quickly falling out of favour under Richard III.  Along the way, he battles the Bastard of Burgandy in a two day duel and delves into his literary interests – translating works into English and even having them printed by William Caxton.

As a bibliophile and as a medieval man, Woodville explores the world through stories and rumours.  And so Irwin uses these throughout – as characters meet they share stories, and these tales shift and change as their context changes.  Thus the tone of the book swings wildly: with a very funny story about housebreakers using  tortoises with candles mounted on their backs, alongside darker, almost tragic material.  Familiar stories like Appointment in Samarra show up too – I’m sure there would be even more, if my mythology knowledge was on a par with Irwin’s!

The characters in the book are fantastic too.  Not necessarily deep, but certainly memorable.  The scheming alchemist George Ripley, the Machiavellian constable John Tiptoft (known as “butcher of England”) and the mysterious writer Thomas Malory all particularly caught my imagination.  Irwin conjures a strange sort of world – rich and detailed yet shallow and mysterious; a last flourishing of romance before the modern world begins to kick in.  It’s imaginative, bizarre and (in truth) at points I wasn’t really sure what on earth was going on; but that just will just spur me to read it again – it’s that sort of book.

Latro in the Mist by Gene Wolfe

51-hmkcphel-_sx322_bo1204203200_Gene Wolfe is best known as an author of science fiction and fantasy, and there is an element of the fantastical to this set of novels set in ancient Greece.  The Latro of the title is a mercenary (probably Roman) who fought for the Persians at the Battle of Plataea, where he suffered a head wound and developed severe amnesia.  A helpful doctor gave him some scrolls and a writing implement and from there on he writes down his experiences, so that he can remind himself of them as the memory fades.  It is the story in these scrolls that we read.

If that isn’t enough of a gimmick, Latro also seems to have developed the ability to interact with gods and ghosts.  Thankfully the book is far more than this twist.  For me where the book shines is the feeling of being immersed into ancient greece – not so much the places (Latro tends not to get too descriptive in his writing) but the people, who they are, how they interact, what they believe.  From a historical perspective, it is great fun seeing Latro meet the likes of the poet Pindar, the Spartan general Pausanias and the Athenian politician Thermistocles.

As ever Wolfe loves playing with the concept of an unreliable narrator and there are some twists and turns that will have you leafing back through the book to check for any hints you missed.  Personally I’m very much looking forward to re-reading these soon.  For all that, it is far from a cartoonish book, the characters and the setting feel subtle and realistic.  It’s gentle, enjoyable, engrossing, confusing, shocking and challenging at the same time.  I can’t recommend it highly enough.

An Artist Of The Floating World

I read a set of books by David Peace a few months ago – Tokyo Year Zero and Occupied City.  Both set in Japan in the post war period.  Both were clearly well researched, by someone who is sympathetic to and at least tries to understand the Japanese experience of that era.  Although David Peace is British, he has lived in Tokyo for years and certainly did not seem to be ‘using’ the setting with consideration.  On the other hand, both books felt like writing exercises: the first a detective novel with traumatic flashes of memory and a twist; the second a book with many characters and sources providing their own take on events, each written in a unique style.  It all got a bit much in the end.  I actually laughed at John Crace’s Digested Read for once.

An Artist Of The Floating World by Kazuo Ishiguro isn’t like that at all.  Ishiguro moved from Japan to Britain when he was five, so he probably has similar reference points, but approached in a different direction.  Here, a retired artist deals with the consequences of his role in Japanese militarism.  The story feels like it has a greater purpose – there is style here: subdued tone, delicate description, unreliable narration (?) – but the theme of faxing up to misguided ideals is a strong one.  Perhaps though, Ishiguro plays things on the safe side: he raises questions and poses multiple answers but doesn’t come down one way or another.

I’m happy enough to have read David Peace and he has a third coming out next year, which I may read; but I’d be unlikely to return to them.  Ishiguro, I enjoyed and I’d happily read again.

Fire in the East by Harry Sidebottom

0718153294As far as historical fiction authors go, Harry Sidebottom has good credentials – DPhil in ancient history at Oxford, where he has continued on in a teaching role.  This knowledge definitely shows in this novel from 2008 (the first of a series called Warrior of Rome).  It is set in the 3rd century AD, not one of the most fashionable eras but a lively one nonetheless.  The empire is being (just about) ruled by a series of short-lived military emperors as pressure is put on it from both external and internal sources.  This story has an officer of barbarian/Angle origin in the Roman army, Ballista, sent east to defend a city against a huge Persian force.

The setting is very good, there’s a host of characters from various backgrounds and a ton of suitable classical references (Satyricon by Petronius is mentioned a lot).  Unfortunately for me, something doesn’t quite click – there’s plenty of plot but none of it really draws me in.  The barbarian background of Ballista feels a little unecessary.  The characters feel like they have a history, but you get the nagging feeling that that backstory might be more interesting.

Would I read more of the series?  Probably.  It did pick up as I got further into the book.  The setting and the detail that Sidebottom provides would allow be enough for me to give it another go.  One to check out from the library.

Q by Luther Blissett

51x8b2znkvl-_sx324_bo1204203200_I first heard of this book around fifteen years ago on Channel 4’s Football Italia.  It had nothing to do with the former Watford and A.C Milan striker, but in the UK that connection did get it in the media as a bizarre “and finally” style story.  This Luther Blissett is (or was) a collective of Italian anarchist writers who used the name as a anonymous group nom de plume for their works (“Anyone can be Luther Blissett simply by adopting the name Luther Blissett”).

The premise of the book, however, did interest me.  The Reformation.  Revolting Peasants.  Prophetic Anabaptist preachers.  Scheming bankers.  The intrigue of the medieval catholic church.  Much of this is not fiction – the book follows a character through the German Peasants’ War, the Munster Rebellion, and fringe groups of the reformation in Antwerp and Venice.  He changes his name several times and, perhaps, becomes harder and more cynical.

blisset

These changes do feel natural.  Although the chapters are short and the book skips quickly through its thirty year time span, the character and his path are shown, not told.  Life as a protestant radical is given the feeling of a left wing political movement, an anarchist protest, or occasionally a football crowd.  The atmosphere of the book throughout the Munster rebellion is fantastic with hope for a brighter future drifting into despair and terror as Jan Matthys finally arrives.

At times the blending of anti-capitalism and religion is a little heavy handed.  I felt that Imprimatur by Monaldi & Sorti (another Italian novel from the same time) featured the murky dealings of the church’s agents with more subtlety.  I wouldn’t hold that against it, it feels very suited to the radical hero of the book.  The final showdown with Q, a papal spy and the main antagonist, feels like a little bit of an anti-climax; but I suspect that was only because the journey to that point was so enjoyable.

The authors behind Luther Blissett have since changed their name to Wu Ming, and I look forward to reading more of their work!