Historical Fiction Round-Up
Jerome de Groot wades through the swathes of warriors landing on his desk to give us a round-up of the best battle-laden historical fiction for this year.
As someone who teaches the period 1640-60 I am often struck by how irregularly the English Civil Wars/ English Revolution / Wars of the Three Kingdoms (however you wish to interpret them) are represented in historical fiction.
Scott of course wrote Woodstock and there are novels throughout the 19th century (from Harrison Ainsworth’s Boscobel to Alexandre Dumas’ Vicomte de Bragellone). Yet the period languishes at present. Of course there is the odd contemporary book – Iain Pears’ excellent An Instance of the Fingerpost (1997) is one for literary readers and Michael Arnold’s Civil War Chronicles (2010) have the makings of a fun, Sharpe-like series. Films are few and far between and TV costume drama – Channel Four’s over-complex but quite arresting The Devil’s Whore (2008) notwithstanding – pretty much non-existent. For such an originary, complex, fecund period (and one which lives vividly in the historical imagination of most people in the country, for better or for worse), we are ill-served on this topic.Perhaps you might suggest other novels to me on twitter (@deggy21).
Maybe the aforementioned complexity – demonstrated by the variety of names we might give the conflict – is a problem. Certainly this is a period where the historiography impacts upon everything and the interpretation of events, theology and persons is certainly not unproblematic. It is not simply novels, either – there are relatively few films and television series about the war, either.
Whatever the reasons, books about the period are innately interesting in the way they strive to engage with the contending passions, arguments and political identities suddenly available during this disruptive time of conflict. Stacia Brown’s The Glovemaker (Arrow Books, £6.99) has all the key ingredients – religious conflict, sensation, rebellion, political debate and hints of something very nasty at the centre of English life. Brown’s central character, Thomas Bartwain, has shades of C.J. Sansom’s Matthew Shardlake – he is a mildly rueful but quite chippy criminal investigator, not quite a lawyer but an official with some duty to look into dark matters. He is an interesting character and the book is diverting. The story also takes in the Levellers, female emancipation, murder and early modern inns, so communicating some of the rush and madness of the era.
Continuing on a warlike theme … I get sent an enormous number of combat books with stirring, one- or two-word titles and muscular warriors on the front. Generally they relate to what might be called pre-modern warfare, that is, Roman, Greek, Viking, Norman and the like. They are the most genre-like of all historical fiction, in some ways, cleaving to a very clear formula that combines the contemporary aggressive soldier-thriller style familiar from the work of Andy McNab et al with an older interest in historical warfare (which has ranged from Walter Scott to Robert Graves to Rosemary Sutcliff). The daddy of all of these writers is Bernard Cornwell, whom I have reviewed in these pages before, but unlike him these books are more interested in a time before ‘rules’ in warfare, in figures on the margins rather than in regiments and with the raw violence of the combat.
Given the evident popularity of these books, and of authors like Ben Kane, Harry Sidebottom and Simon Scarrow (audiences tend to read the works of each writer like fans), I thought I would round them up this month and give them a go. After reading several in a sitting I felt a bit punch drunk (literally) on their heady brew of stabbing, roaring, rebellion and heroism. That said, they are tremendous fun and great books to read on holiday or when ill. Ben Kane’s Spartacus: The Gladiator (Preface, £12.99) is a breathless romp through the early years of the rebellious Thracian (these books are always in series or trilogies; Spartacus: Rebellion is out soon). All the ingredients are there in the story of Spartacus – honour, blood, gladiatorial codes, sweaty training, man-love, and rebellion against tyranny. Kane’s novel shares with the brilliant television series Spartacus: Blood and Sand (and its prequels/ sequels) – worth seeking out, but not for the faint-hearted – a real feel for the grit and the mad excitement of fighting and a fascination with a culture, Rome, that was obsessed with blood-lust. Hawkquest (Sphere, £12.99), by Robert Lyndon, is an epic adventure that follows the Frank warrior Vallon on the trail of precious birds. Like Kane, Lyndon is keen on the detail of the fight, writing with relatively spare prose. Again the novel is on a grand, sprawling scale that encompasses most of Europe, sea and land. He is also interested in early knowledge, from Astrolabes to maps, and this leavens the journey and makes it a richer read. Anthony Riches’ Empire (Hodder & Stoughton, £12.99) – see what I mean about one- or two-word titles? – is the fourth novel to recount the adventures of Marcus Valerius Aquila, who travels to Britannia in disguise and ends up facing a native rebellion. Similarly muscular in prose and approach, the novel is riveting and direct. All these writers are incredibly good at writing sharp, suspenseful prose – the novels are lean and harsh, but well-crafted nonetheless. They are undemanding, but authentic and thoughtful in their rendering of a violent past where life was cheap.
Jerome de Groot is author of The Historical Novel (Routledge, 2009).
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