Recently 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.
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 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.
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.
As 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.
Just a quick post on this one: It’s basically a fairly straight retelling of Norse myths, but with Loki as a cocky teenager. The underlying myths are fun, so there is a certain amount of enjoyment in reading them again, but I can’t really get past Asgard as the “popular crowd” or Fenris as a stroppy teenage son. It’s definitely a different take on it, and Harris does make the style just about fit, but it feels a bit half baked.
Compared to other modern takes on these myths and characters like AS Byatt’s Ragnarok or Neil Gaiman’s American Gods, the Gospel of Loki is very straightforward – it’s just the old narrative with a twist in perspective. Seeing the various legends worked in is nice, but the characters around it are one dimensional and the style quickly grates. It might work with more humour, but there isn’t much beyond Loki’s occasionally sarcasm. For me, it isn’t really enough to make it work.
Or a Beginner’s Guide to his books anyway! He has been releasing historical novels for a decade and a half now, and it seemed like a better idea to do a general overview than review a specific book. First the background – if you’re unfamiliar with him, Simon Scarrow is an English author of historical fiction with a style not too dissimilar to Bernard Cornwell. Before the writing took off, Scarrow was a teacher and he still works with schools to encourage pupils in creative writing. Teaching english and history contributed to his initial topic of Rome, once he had decided that the Napoleonic era was a little too overpopulated with heroes for now1.
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