Posts from December 2009

December 11th, 2009

God Knows

Our book today is Joseph Heller’s 1984 novel about the Biblical King David, God Knows – and it serves as yet another illustration of one of literature’s odd quirks: how often writers are best known and longest remembered for books other than their masterpieces. Examples multiply like toadstools, especially in the undiscriminating 20th century, where Anthony Burgess is linked instantly to A Clockwork Orange but not Earthly Powers, William Golding is known for Lord of the Flies and not The Spire, and Joseph Heller’s Catch-22 is so well known its title is a term in dictionaries, while God Knows languishes in comparative obscurity. You can never tell what will catch the zeitgeist, but once it’s caught, it sticks like fly paper.

And of course it’s a shame in this case. God Knows is David’s life story narrated by himself, and throughout Heller uses a historical novel trick that originated in the 20th century heyday of historical fiction: piercing the novel’s equivalent of TV’s ‘fourth wall’ – David knows he’s writing a book for the 20th century, knows all about his enormous statue in Florence (and doesn’t approve of it), knows the contents of the Bible and is cockily certain he has the best story in the Table of Contents – it’s a story that has everything, including the bitter dispute at the heart of the book:

I’ve got a love story and a sex story, with the same woman no less, and both are great, and I’ve got this ongoing, open-ended Mexican standoff with God, even though He might now be dead.Whether God is dead or not hardly matters, for we would use Him no differently anyway. He owes me an apology, but God won’t budge so I won’t budge. I have my faults, God knows, and I may even be among the first to admit them,but to this very day I know in my bones that I’m a much better person than He is.

David isn’t speaking to God (and vice versa) because as punishment for David’s transgression with the wife of Uriah the Hittite, God kills the baby Bathsheba had just borne to David – and David can’t reconcile the wanton, capricious, nonsensical cruelty of it. God Knows is a very funny book, fast-paced and firmly tongue-in-cheek most of the time; but it has a tragedy of stunning simplicity threading through its entire length, as David grapples with the weird nature of the God he used to consider a friend:

I know if I were God and possessed His powers, I would sooner obliterate the world I had created than allow any child of mine to be killed in it, for any reason whatsoever. I would have given my own life to save my baby’s, or even to spare Absalom. But maybe that’s because I am Jewish, and God is not.

All the familiar stories of King David are here, and all the familiar characters, from Goliath to Saul to Bathsheba to Jonathan to Solomon, all rendered with sharp sardonic humor and a depth of insight that exceeds anything else Heller ever wrote. There are wisecracks everywhere, of course – most of them deadpanning on Jewish culture:

Boy, did we have laws – laws governing everything. Before I gave up, I counted six hundred and thirteen commandments, which I found a remarkably large number for a society with a language that had no written vowels and a total vocabulary of only eighty-eight words, of which seventeen can be defined as synonyms for God.

And through David, we get fast-paced and delightfully demystified scenes from all over the Hebrew Bible, including several featuring the guy who really does have the best story in the book:

“I’ll kill them all,” He roared to Moses. “You think I’m joking? How much more do you think I’m going to be provoked by these people and do nothing? How many more signs do I have to show them before they begin to believe? I did it before, once with flood and once with fire and brimstone. Stand back, Moses.”

“Can’t we reason together?” Moses began trying earnestly to deter Him, emphasizing that God would become a laughingstock to the Egyptians for destroying His chosen people after taking them so far and promising them so much. “… they will say we were killed because You were unable to lead us in, not because we were unable to follow. They will believe You failed, not us.”

“All right,” relented God, who did not want to become a laughingstock in Egypt. But He aimed His thumb over His shoulder in a jerking motion and commanded, “Start walking. Hit the road.”

This is a far more powerful, mature, and questing novel than the somewhat slight farces that make up so much of Heller’s work, and at the heart of its many inquiries is an unflinching study of the many ways the father-son relationship can turn tragic. Of David’s own father we hear almost nothing, but the book probes the depths of his bonds with his two great father-figures, King Saul and God, both of which present almost bewildering complexities (David’s own sons fare no better – the book’s characterization of Solomon is very funny and not very nice). And likewise Heller’s facility with giving his novel’s great endings (a skill that has all but vanished from practitioners of the craft in the 21st century) is at its strongest here – the final paragraph of God Knows will knock you flat, and the book’s final sentence is quietly stunning.

I’m pretty sure you can walk into your nearest Barnes & Noble and buy a new copy of God Knows (the high tide of Catch-22 floats almost all the rest of Heller’s boats), and you should. And of course if you’d rather not, I’m happy to send you a copy, with my whole-hearted recommendation.

September 26th, 2009

tamburlaine must die!

Our book today is Louise Welsh’s 2004 novella Tamburlaine Must Die, which takes the form of a frenzied account of Christopher Marlowe’s last few days on Earth, as narrated by the famous playwright himself in an easy quasi-modern idiom Welsh has here perfected. The book is as beautiful and intense as a snow-squall, and in that it joins its only two competitors for the title of the best Christopher Marlowe novel of them all – those being Anthony Burgess’ A Dead Man in Deptford and George Garrett’s Entered from the Sun.

When this novella opens, Marlowe is spending his days at the country estate of his patron, Francis Walsingham (plague has shut the theaters in London and driven away everyone who can get away), when word comes from London that somebody has posted a scurrilous attack on recent Dutch immigrants and signed it with the name of Marlowe’s most famous stage-creation, Tamburlaine. Suspicion naturally falls on Marlowe himself, and a messenger is sent to fetch him before Queen Elizabeth’s Privy Council. Such a meeting is no minor thing, as Marlowe knows quite well:

This was the Privy Council. Ministers who cared enough for high office to profit from death. Who had committed men they knew well and men they had met only once to torture and death. Dangerous men, each with a ruthless core, who had played chess with their own lives and still lived, though some had sat in prison cells and listened to the hollow sound of nails splitting wood as their own gallows grew in the yard.

They don’t arrest him, but they do require that he present himself to them every day while they decide his fate – in the troubled final years of Elizabeth’s reign, that was as close as you could come to walking around with a death sentence hanging over you, and Marlowe knows this too. Welsh’s Marlowe is made of all the familiar, comfortable conjectures about him, including the two most popular ones: that he was happy to roger men, and that he was from an early age involved in the cloak-and-dagger world of Elizabethan spying and counter-spying. Her Marlowe has seen it all and is no stranger to life and death situations and the odd things they do to your mind:

Death makes the world a brighter place. I’ve seen the shape danger gives to things, an edge so sharp that if you like your head atop your shoulders and your entrails tucked safe in your belly it’s best not to stop and admire the view. Yet the prospect of death renders everything lovely. Colours shine stronger. Strangers’ faces fascinate and your sex calls you to business you must not attend.

Tamburlaine Must Die is constructed around the tried and true ‘secret memoir’ ‘I’m writing this down and hiding it away for future generations to find’ formula (a formula given its apotheosis in Robert Graves’ I, Claudius), and it works perfectly. This skinny little book came and went in 2004 with barely a ripple, but it’s vivid and fast-paced and entirely worth your time, should you ever run across it. I ordered a copy from London back then, read it and loved it, then somehow lost track of it (I’m convinced a mysterious stranger periodically enters my apartment, somehow bypasses the razor-sharp vigilance of my basset hound, bags up books at random, and sells them to faraway bookstores). I recently found a copy and re-read it – and I’m glad I did. Marlowe still hasn’t had his ultimate novel … but Tamburlaine Must Die joins the ranks of great partial versions!

September 13th, 2009

Big Fat Historical Novels – A Dozen from the 1980s!

It’s a damn lonely business, writing a novel, and that loneliness only increases the longer the novel is – this (and the ironclad guarantee of poverty) is the best-known deterrent to the writing life. But there’s one kind of novel that’s even lonelier than all the rest, one kind where the length is virtually required, the subject matter is virtually certain to be obscure, and the attendant research is even more crushingly isolating than the act of writing itself. Underneath their brittle bon vivant mannerisms, all novelists are wretched outcasts from normal human society (because you can’t 100 percent enjoy something if you’re watching yourself enjoy it)(and because the very idea of attempting to write a novel is pretty much inherently delusional, like deciding one morning that you were going to lay out a gridwork in your back yard and actually count every blade of grass in it … anyone hearing the plan would first ask ‘why’ and then immediately ask ‘what the hell is wrong with you for even thinking it?’), but can there be a more wretched wretch than the writer of an 800-page historical novel? Their research has made them incomprehensible to their fellow novelists, most of whom are content to do coke, stare at their navels, and write about that. But they’re also incomprehensible to the actual historians of their period, who, being historians, have never even considered making their learning accessible to the public. It’s no wonder Margaret Mitchell was as crazy as a March hare.

There are exceptions, of course. Writers of Tudor historical novels are enjoying a vogue right now – a vogue that’s lasted 400 years and shows no signs of ending. They can get invited to parties, and they’ve had enough predecessors so that the burden of their necessary research is comparatively light. And certainly the same holds true for writers of Roman historical novels – hell, you can buy a kit at Walco that’ll let you slap one of those together in about a week, with no muss, no agony, and a decent shot at attaching Willem Dafoe to the finished product. These kinds of products are exceptions because, due to unpredictable quirks of the American educational system (and thanks to all those predecessors), most Americans believe they know something about the time periods involved, and the familiar is always more acceptable (this also applies to novels set in the Old West, naturally).

But oh, the poor writer of the fat historical novel set in some less-paddled historical backwater! These books appear in their serried legions, some burn brightly for a season, most fade into obscurity almost instantly, and all the work, care, and bitter isolation that went into creating them goes for nothing at all. You can find these fat old novels moldering in boxes at flea markets and on the shelves of the more lowbrow used bookstores, but without a knowing heads-up to distinguish the good ones from the dross, what reader can’t be forgiven for ignoring them all, life being short and reading time even shorter?

So here’s a dozen good ones! To emphasize just how many of these worthy items are published and then forgotten every year, we’ll concentrate this time around only one books from one decade, the best damn decade of the 20th century, the glorious ’80s. If you should happen to spot one of these titles cobwebbing away somewhere and the time period at all interests you, spend the $1 and buy the book! In each case, I can guarantee you three things: 1) the research is sound and pleasantly presented, 2) the atmosphere of the work will work on you, carrying you away, at least temporarily, from your debit-card world, and 3) like so many books mentioned here at Stevereads, none of these books actually deserves the obscurity to which merciless bookstore economics and lack of library shelf-space have consigned them.

So! In no particular order, first up is Malcolm Bosse’s 1983 novel The War Lord, a panoramic view of dramatization of 1927 China, with bloodthirsty warlords ramping the country from end to end. Bosse’s story has a huge cast, although we see a great deal of the action through the viewpoint of feckless everyman missionary (from Connecticut!) Philip Embree (most of these books sport at least one feckless everyman – it’s a characteristic of the breed), not that this is a necessarily a bad thing. Bosse’s prose can be very gripping, aided by his decision to tell the whole story in the immediate present tense:

Next morning the monsoon intensifies. Thunder squalls alternate with steady downpours that either lash the countryside brutally or monotonously hammer water into every depression of the land. Gray silt spreads like mush across the leachy soil and oozes into every hollow of it, making eroded meadows as smooth as butter. Tang drives the men without rest and for good reason: another few days of such flooding will mire the horses belly-deep in the muck of Shansi, like flies caught in amber.

Real historical figures like Chiang Kai-Shek mingle freely with Bosse’s avatars, and the many reviewers who liked the book all agreed that it would cost you time to read – not just because of how big it is, but because it would absorb you – and the same holds true today.

Next is John Barchilon’s 1984 novel The Crown Prince, which has as its central character a happy (though not quite feckless) young man named Paul Wittgenstein, a piano prodigy in Vienna on the eve of the First World War. He’s a happy young man, sure of his own talent and vigorously attracted to – and attractive to – the opposite sex (indeed, the book’s most interesting character is his lover Countess Marlene von Hess), but his world is shattered when he loses his right arm in the war (Barchilon archly assures his readers that while his book is based on authentic characters, it’s not meant to be an authorized biography)(hee), and he has to figure out all over again how to live – and perhaps embrace his talent again. The book is very good at portraying its cast of historical figures (Ravel is a standout there), and its musical passages are among the best ever written on the virtuosity of performance.

Rosalind Laker’s 1989 To Dance with Kings is next, a gay and playful fat novel about a lovely and lusty peasant girl in 17th century Versailles who manages to sleep, laugh, intrigue, and yes, dance her way into the world of nobles and kings at the Royal Court. The book follows the tempestuous lives and love affairs of three generations of these women, and Laker – a practiced hand at the meatier, brainier historical romances have have all but vanished from bookstore shelves these days (although not entirely! I’m happy to report that To Dance with Kings is now available at your local Barnes & Noble in a very pretty trade paperback) – keeps things simmering with her opulently borderline-purple prose, so joyous to read in long stretches:

“Did you set a spy on my in your absence?”

“No!” He leapt out of the chair with such abruptness that it toppled and fell backwards. “I was told in my father’s house by someone who came to me there from the highest motives.”

Putting her fingers to her temples, she rocked in her anguish. There was only one person who would have gone running to him. Hadn’t Susanne warned that she would take up cudgels on his behalf? “It’s true that I spent a night away from my bed when you were away and Stefane brought me home. But nothing is as it must have appeared. I had met him shortly before in the Court Royale when he was going for a morning ride.”

“In the Court Royale? Where had you been there?”

“Lost in the corridors of Versailles. After I had spurned the King!”


For a far more somber turn we have Jessie Ford’s The Burning Woman from 1985, the story of 1687 Venetian foundling Cathryn Godwyne and Father Vittorio, whose mutual love of the glorious music that fills the city eventually leads them to love of each other (although Cathryn will in the course of the novel come to love another far more disastrously). The book is essentially the story of Cathryn’s awakening – as an independent person and as a sexual being – and it’s also got a bit of the feminist political tract about it (you’d expect nothing less, what with it sporting both an acknowledgment to Erica Jong and a good deal of her poetry at the beginning of chapters), since Cathryn is eventually accused of being a witch and put on trial in one of the book’s most harrowing scenes. It can be preachy, yes, but it can also be powerful stuff.

A Pride of Royals is next, Justin Scott’s hyperactive 1983 novel, a two-fisted non-stop action-packed blockbuster of a novel set in … well, the whole world just on the brink of the First World War. With unapologetic gusto, Scott puts the welfare of that entire world in the hands of one man: American naval officer Kenneth Ash, who’s a crack shot, a dab hand with mechanics, a gifted linguist, a fiery lover, and a “secret courier for presidents and kings.” He takes on a mission on behalf of the British and the Americans to whisk Czar Nicholas out of Russia, and along the way he must face hostile borders, bloodthirsty assassins, and, of course, uppity women:

“Commander,” she said with a quick smile, “the Irish side of my family bequeathed to me red hair and a fine ear for blarney.”

“I have a drop or two of French blood on my mother’s side,” Ash said. “It left me with a taste for claret and an eye for beauty.”

Lady Exeter turned to her butler. “Graham, bring this gentleman a whiskey. And please tell His Lordship that I am growing impatient.”

“Have I offended you?” Ash asked her when the butler had left.

“I imagine you can’t help yourself, but I find your proprietary attitude toward women not overly flattering – one feels like a candidate for a very large club with an undiscriminating membership committee.”

“I’m sorry – “

“Good God, you meant it … forgive me, a friend was killed in France today. I’m in no mood to entertain. I was against the war in the beginning and now I find myself praying for total victory … Where the hell are the Americans?”

They sat in stiff silence until the whiskey came.

A Pride of Royals is one of the best-researched books in our present dozen and certainly the one with the fastest pace, if you’re in the mood for that sort of thing.

Next is 1979’s Sacajawea by Anna Lee Waldo, and if A Pride of Royals is the highest octane offering on our list this time around, Sacajawea is the most absorbing book here, an enormous novel telling the story of Lewis and Clark’s fabled young Shoshoni guide and interpreter. She’s been the subject of many novels (including one published recently with the single worst title any book has ever had, in any age, in any language), but this one beats them all hands-down for its engrossing portraits of all involved – especially stalwart Lewis and pathetic Charbonneau – but it’s her well-researched glimpses into the American Indian world (a world whose destruction came at the end of the road Lewis and Clark paved) that form the book’s many highlights:

“Are you something special to these white men that they cannot powwow without a woman sitting among them?” asked Willow Bud. Again the squaws tittered.

Sacajawea folded the precious robe over her arm and tried to explain. “It is not because I am a squaw and they are braves. It is because I can speak the Shoshoni tongue and the white men cannot. I can speak for you to them.”

The women slowly nodded. “Ai, ai, we understand that.” And with a clucking noise made with their teeth and tongue they showed that they approved of this and she should go at once.

Willow Bud followed at a distance, then, getting up the courage, asked, “May I care for him?” She held her arms out for Pomp.

Sacajawea handed the sleeping baby to her girlhood friend, kissing him first.

“What is that?” asked Willow Bud, making a smacking noise with her lips.

“It is a sign for love,” Sacajawea crossed her arms over her breast in the manner of a woman greeting her man when he returns from a hunt or war. “See?” And then Sacajawea kissed the startled Willow Bud on her cheek.

That slim glint of humor flickers throughout Sacajawea, but it’s entirely absent from Larry Collins’ Fall From Grace, written in 1985. Instead, this is an intelligent and somber espionage story, as you’d expect from one-half of the century’s finest reporting team – and if you’d also expect lots of snappy dialogue and a penchant for pith, you’d find lots of that here too. The book is chock-full of spies and counter-spies and spy-masters, and one of them at one point says, “There’s a fundamental rule to apply when you are appraising a double-agent situation: Who is getting more out of him, you or the other side? If the answer is you, keep him going. If it’s them, kill him.” – and virtually every character talks like that; it becomes a very naughty delight. The plot revolves around all sorts of feverish backstabbings in the days leading up to Operation Overlord (which, we’re amusingly told, was originally going to be called “Operation Mothball” because, in true British fashion, that was ‘the only name left’ – an enraged Winston Churchill renames it), and things culminate in one of the most satisfying triple-crosses ever put on paper. Collins, needless to say, packs his novel with accurately-researched historical data, and that keeps things moving briskly even when his newsman’s ear for human drama (i.e. tone deaf) momentarily lets things flag a little.

We follow this one with The Court of the Lion, written in 1989 by Eleanor Cooney and Daniel Altieri. It’s a whopping thousand-page novel about the 8th Century T’ang dynasty (yep, we’re back in China), and despite its length and requisite enormous cast, it’s a nimble dance of a book, as smart and funny and sharp as any historical fiction you’ll ever read (Cooney and Altieri also collaborated on a much slimmer – and almost equally good – historical novel called Deception, also well worth your time to hunt down and read). The story centers on the revered emperor Hsuan-tsung, a strong and mostly good man surrounded by scheming viziers, power-mad generals, obsequious eunuchs, and beautiful courtesans, and our authors pepper their narrative with the fabled poetry of the era, extracts from the fabled philosophy of the era, and their own easy natural feel for the flow of a scene:

Love. It brings them back from the edge of death, from what I have heard. It makes them whole again. Songs and poetry were rife with testimonials to its healing power. But the Emperor seems to be beyond its reach; he has no interest at all in any of the harem women – says his “old man” is as limp as a drowned snake. Who, then? What woman is going to come and work this miracle and wake him up before it is too late? Kao Li-shih was interrupted by Lu Pei quietly opening the door and entering the room. In the moment that his eyes met the apprentice’s, inspiration hit.

“Grand Verity,” he said aloud.

“Pardon me?” said Lu Pei politely as he shut the door behind him.

“That is her name.”

Her name?”

“It has been two years. I had nearly forgotten!” Kao Li-shih leaned forward as the apprentice lifted his eyebrows appreciatively. “Lu Pei, we are going to try to wake the dead.”

I can’t recommend The Court of the Lion enthusiastically enough – it’s got everything a great big fat historical novel should have, in even greater helpings than most of these dozen books are lucky enough to have.

We follow it with Emily Hanlon’s 1988 Petersburg, a tightly-woven family novel set in Russia on the eve of the revolution that toppled the Czar. The plot turns around the family of self-made businessman Alexei Kalinin, whose various children and their various friends and lovers manage to find themselves at the center of all the action in that sprawling, troubled land. The author writes, “Historical fiction, I discovered, is a rather amazing mix of reality and fiction, so much so that I soon found myself slipping around corners into turn-of-the-century Russia, hardly feeling the time warp. Imagination was reality for so long; yet, oddly, now that I read what I have written, like a traveler recalling a trip, scenes have become remembrances of the people I met along the way.” And judging from Petersburg, this familiar mixing certainly happened to Hanlon – you’ll put down her book feeling like you’ve actually met the Kalinin family.

Then we have Judith Merkle Riley’s A Vision of Light from 1989, which tells the life story of Margaret Ashbury as she makes her way through the pitfalls and glories of 14th century England. She marries a couple of times, she gets accused of witchcraft (she fares rather better with it than poor Cathryn), loves two very different men, and in the process shows Riley’s readers the time and its beliefs more congenially and thoroughly than half a dozen textbooks could have done. Riley has a distinct knack for making the archeological and sociological data of the period come alive – when she describes a humble cottage’s single room in winter, you feel the description, as you do her evocations of clerical life. There’s a love story woven throughout the proceedings, but it’s almost touching how thoroughly it gets shoved into the background by Riley’s boisterous portrait of her chosen age.

Such things achieve a better balance – but only slightly better – in Graham Masterson’s 1984 novel Maiden Voyage, which tells the story of the maiden 1924 launch of the luxury liner Arcadia, which Masterson populates with the usual assortment of characters from all walks – and classes – of life. There’s the main character, Catriona Keys, who life goes through seven or eight upheavals during the voyage across the ocean to New York, and there’s the brutal George Welterman (if the Arcadia had gone the way of the Titanic, he’d have been first in line for a very poetic-justice style drowning; this book climaxes instead in fire), and a haughty countess (I’m pretty sure she’s meant to be that weird anti-anatomical alien creature on the paperback’s cover, but it could just be a space monster), and even, in the best tradition of Herman Melville, a confidence man:

Mark looked up at him for a moment or two, and then pointed a finger at him. “I know you, don’t I?” he said.

Maurice shrugged. “No reason why you should.”

“I’ve seen you before, I’m sure of it. Did you ever travel on the Melusine, of the American TransAtlantic line?”

“I know the Melusine,” said Maurice ambiguously.

“Well, I think I know you,” replied Mark. “You’re a gambling man, aren’t you? One of our professional passengers, to put it politely.”

“You’re not obliged to bet with me, Mr. Beeney,” said Maurice affably.

“I’m sure I saw you aboard the Melusine the last time I sailed on her to Rio de Janeiro,” Mark told him. “A great many of our passengers lost a great deal of money on the gaming tables on that trip; and it wouldn’t surprise me at all if most of it as lost on your account.”

“You know how it is,” Maurice smiled. “Memory sometimes plays odd tricks on you.”

“Not half so odd as some of the tricks that you play, I’ll bet.”

By the time Maiden Voyage reaches Coney Island, you’ll be rooting for Catriona – and, most winningly of all, for the ship’s captain, whose quiet personal drama very nearly steals the show and entirely commands it in the climactic final scenes. You’ll find this book in the library of virtually every cruise ship in the world, but you don’t need to sink the $10,000 and risk the food poisoning to enjoy it yourself – a library card should get the job done.

Last but not least (since we’re not, remember, ranking these dozen books), Noel Barber’s 1983 novel A Farewell to France, a leisurely and lavishly detailed World War Two narrative starring two war-tossed young lovers, the heir to the fabulous Chateau Douzy champagne vineyards, and his fiery Italian heiress girlfriend. The novel opens in 1931, when the sleepy paradise of their French valley is hardly troubled by the sight of German tanks filing along the road at the edge of the horizon. But the war grows closer and closer, and Barber does a very good job of intertwining that approach with the deepening of our young lovers’ feelings for each other. By the time you’re 200 pages in, you’re thoroughly invested in all the characters (her Nazis start off curiously indifferent, but they work themselves up to some fine moments of evil as things heat up) – and thoroughly steeped in the feel and nuance of the German occupation of France. That occupation is also a much-storied subject, but A Farewell to France manages it with singular and memorable intensity.

But then, all of these dozen titles are richly memorable, and they’re just the tip of the iceberg! There are roughly a dozen more big fat historical novels from the 1980s that could just as easily be assembled and praised (I’m sure I’ve given more than one of you a copy of Flanagan’s Run, for instance)(it would have been on this list, but a certain basset hound got in the way)(sigh), and the same thing is true for every decade (although all the others must limp along without Ronnie Reagan in the Oval Office). Somewhere out there right now, there are dozens of hopeful writers scribbling away, stack of note cards by their legal pads, laboring to get every detail of weather and topography just right for 10th century Byzantium, or 15th century Provencal, or 2nd century Britain, and plenty of those writers, if you asked them, would tell you that yes, they know that all the great parts of any novel – including any historical novel – aren’t connected with accurate meteorology or metallurgy. But these same writers, toiling on the next crop of big fat historical novels, would immediately add that it’s still important to get all those details right anyway.

And we shouldn’t complain! They’re doing a lot of work on our behalf, after all.

May 29th, 2009


Our books today form the “Emperor” series written by Conn Iggulden – all the paperbacks of which bear the same ominous blurb, “If you liked Gladiator, you’ll love Emperor!”

I liked Gladiator, but a blurb such as that on a piece of Roman historical fiction is indeed ominous – because Gladiator was almost pure fantasy, playing almost as fast and loose with the facts of Roman history as the HBO series “Rome” did … and seemingly advertising a similarly cavalier attitude toward facts is a mighty odd way of praising a historical novel.

Or maybe it isn’t. Why do we read historical fiction, anyway? Since it’s not solely to bone up on the facts of history (for which, er, boning we have many first-rate history books, including many that’ve had their day in the sun here at Stevereads), it stands to reason we come to this type of fiction for more – we want the writer to take all that historical research and do what the historian can’t: neaten it, sharpen it, use it, in a way the ordinary sprawl of daily life would make impossible.

Virtually everybody who’s ever written historical fiction quickly comes to this realization, and then they start doing things with the facts (scholars for the last four hundred years have been saying this very quality makes ancient writers like Livy – who liberally sprinkle their allegedly historical accounts with long speeches and long interior monologues that can’t possibly be accurate – the forefathers not of history but of historical fiction)(which is mighty condescending thing to say, but I can’t help but wonder how Livy would have responded to it). They start shaping the facts to fit the stories they want to tell. This is a very different thing from simply making mistakes about the facts.

It can be a maddeningly fine line. In the first half of The Alienist, Caleb Carr draws a vivid, memorable portrait of Theodore Roosevelt – but he’s constrained by the historical record of Roosevelt’s days as New York Police Commissioner. But in the second half of The List of 7, Mark Frost hauls Roosevelt onstage and has him chomping on a cigar, something the real Roosevelt never did – and Frost does this because he wanted to stress the ‘big and bluff’ side of Roosevelt’s personality, in one scene. Same man, same facts, two different writers going to two different lengths to make their stories work.

Clearly, Carr’s method is better. To the fullest extent possible, the facts you read in historical fiction should correspond reliably to the facts you’d find in Gibbon or Parkman. Custer shouldn’t be described as tall if he was short; Jugurtha shouldn’t be described as black if he was only swarthy; Cleopatra shouldn’t be described as beautiful, period, since every ancient source and her own coins agree she wasn’t. It might look as though that places intolerable restrictions on responsible historical fiction, but that’s the wrong way of seeing it: think of it instead as a test for the cleverness of the author. The trick is to come up with ways to let the ‘fiction’ trump the ‘historical’ without doing it irreparable violence.

There are some tried-and-true methods for doing this, the easiest and most popular of which is to cast the whole of your story into some setting, some special circumstance, that you can come right and say would never, of course, find its way into the historical record (usually, books like this feature a scene toward the end in which one character stands up the table and says, “Gentlemen, we must never speak of this to anyone”). In Goodnight, Sweet Prince, David Dickinson wants his main character to solve the murder of Queen Victoria’s grandson Prince Eddy – but Prince Eddy died of pneumonia, which is unhelpful. So Dickinson links Prince Eddy and his murderer with a scandal and has the Royals cloaking the whole thing in obfuscation – which is not only plausible but gives him an entirely free hand. I, Claudius, The Sword of Pleasure, and countless other novels give us the creaky-but-effective gimmick of the lost or doomed-to-be-lost secret manuscript (emboldened, no doubt, by the fact that such manuscripts have always, in fact, existed in real life – by happy chance, we have not only the official, public things Procopius wrote, for instance, but also the secret account he couldn’t stop himself from writing, even though its discovery would have meant his very messy execution).

Another reliable way to write such books is to find some blank space in the historical record – and then swarm in to fill it. Iggulden does exactly this in his “Emperor” books, because despite the fact that Julius Caesar is one of the most famous individuals in the history of the world, we don’t really know all that many details about his boyhood and youth. Iggulden knows this and freely admits in his Author’s Notes that he’s made liberal use of his imagination – a canny move that both exonerates him from anything readers might dislike and effectively de-emphasizes the very large amount of research that went into these books.

He’s clearly angling for a wide popular audience, and there’s nothing wrong with that. He almost always refers to his characters by one name only (and what he considers ‘first’ names – Agrippa is ‘Marcus,’ for instance, and of course Caesar himself is ‘Gaius’), he centers everything on the vicissitudes of one boy growing up into a man, and he loads the books with action sequences – and he’s quite good at writing action sequences.

He keeps everything small-focus and personal, as when our young heroes are enlisted in the army of General and Dictator Marius:

At first, the main roads emptied as the early-rising workers stood well back for the soldiers. Gaius could feel their eyes on them and heard angry mutters. One word was repeated from hard faces: “Scelus!” – a crime for soldiers to be on the streets. The dawn was damp and cold and he shivered slightly. Marcus too looked grim in the grey light and he nodded as their eyes met, his hand on the hilt of his gladius. The tension was heightened by the clatter and crash as the men moved. Gaius had not realised how noisy fifty soldiers could be, but in the narrow streets the clank of iron-shod sandals echoed back and forth. Windows opened in the high apartments as they passed, and someone shouted angrily, but they marched on.

“Sully will cut your eyes out!” one man howled before slamming his door shut.

The books follow Caesar from his young boyhood to the edge of world-domination, and they’ve taken their share of lumps from critical readers (who were no doubt primed by that Gladiator tag … future editions of the books really ought to drop it), but this is partly because the books are Roman historical novels, a particular sub-genre that tends to bring out the petty-ass factchecker in otherwise easygoing readers. Such readers are unlikely to be satisfied by anything less than notarized videotape.

The rest of you might want to give the “Emperor” books a try. They’re quite entertaining.

June 9th, 2008

The Floating Book

Our book today is Michelle Lovric’s lush and utterly confident first novel The Floating Book, which takes its readers to the very beginnings of print culture by taking them to 1468 Venice, where Wendelin von Speyer and his assistants Bruno Uguccione and Felice Feliciano have just set up the city’s first printing press – which is revolutionary enough, but their choice of printing matter only increases the tension between themselves and the city’s ruling councils: they’ve chosen a first edition of Catullus, whose Lesbia poems, some of you may recall from school, are raw and scandalous. As the inevitable controversy erupts, so too does an intense love triangle between Bruno, Felice, and a mysterious woman named Sosia.

Lovric interweaves this story with the story of Catullus himself (printed in a different font; as befits a book about the birth of Venetian printing, The Floating Book is gorgeously and variedly assembled), and it’s impossible to judge which portions of the book are better: both 15th century Venice and 1st century b.c. Rome come marvelously alive through Lovric’s talent. In the case of the former, tossed-off descriptions are brought home with one or two perfectly chosen adjectives:

The clouds had parted in front of them all the way back to Venice. By the time Lussietta and Wendelin set foot in Mestre, the warm rain had evaporated, leaving the streets shining with puddles dizzy as shaken mirrors.

And in the case of the latter, Catullus’ tortured love for Clodia, his ‘Lesbia,’ is followed through all its painful stages, as is his terror that all the poems into which he’s poured his heartache, all the work he’s created in his short life, might one day amount to nothing:

I know all too well the way these things go. Ignominious destinies meet some of the best books … after languishing overlong in the storerooms of the booksellers they’re sold off by weight to the grocers and bakers to wrap pastries and spices or to line barrels in which cereals are stored, or theyre sent to the butchers where they’re wadded around sanguineous cuts of veal and the lolling heads of tiny songbirds impaled on sticks. There are so many ways for a poet and his poems to lose their immortality – even while he’s still alive! I walk past the butchers and bakers, whistling, but in my heart I dread to see my own work embrace their wares one day. Yesterday I saw one of Caelius’s poems flapping like a tunic round a fine mackerel, and smiled for the first time in weeks.

Of course, to those modern-day readers familiar with Catullus’ textual history, his worry in this passage is only the more ironic, for we have him today through the survival of only one manuscript – he came that close to being fish-wrapping and only fish-wrapping.

Lovric’s book has everything in it for the reader tired of thin, jaded prose and flimsy plots. The old Venice and much older Rome it evokes are each perfectly rendered, and the storylines in each are very satisfyingly intertwined and counterbalanced. And as an added little bonus, each chapter is headed by an English rendering from Catullus. Since the book nowhere attributes them, we have to assume they’re Lovric’s own, and some of them are quite good:

You have forgotten.
But the Gods remember
and so does the Truth.
It’s the truth that will make you sorry
one day
for everything you did, and everything you do.

We here at Stevereads whole-heartedly endorse The Floating Book; it’s an extravagant example of historical fiction done right.

May 8th, 2008

The Serpent’s Tale

Our book today is The Serpent’s Tale by Ariana Franklin, her follow-up to 2006’s Mistress of the Arts of Death, one of the best historical novels we here at Stevereads have read in many, many years. You’d think that fact would have made us eager to read The Serpent’s Tale, but truth be told, it initially had the opposite effect.

Our esteemed colleague the Empress put it best: when a book grabs you the way Mistress of the Arts of Death does, you dread the follow-up because you’re worried it won’t – worried not only about a limp reading experience in the sequel, but worried that it’ll lower your opinion of the original, which will now seem like a random fluke, unworthy of all the admiration you thought it deserved.

Fortunately, such doubts are dispelled about five minutes into reading The Serpent’s Tale. It’s every bit as perfectly plotted, every bit as beautifully written, and every bit as refreshingly intelligent as its predecessor. It’s a marvel, and one we can’t recommend strongly enough.

The scene is medieval England under the mostly-benevolent rule of Henry II, and the story features the return of one of the greatest detective-story protagonists of them all, Vesuvia Adelia Rachel Ortese Aguilar, our Mistress Adelia, who was trained at the School of Medicine at Salerno and so has little patience for the primitive witch-doctoring that passes for medical science in the rest of the West. She has little patience for that world’s treatment of women, either, but to forestall accusations of witchcraft (or simple, sexist assault) while in England, she must pretend to be the assistant to her bodyguard Mansur, who must pose as the actual doctor in the duo.

(Setting her story in an age of such brutal and universal misogyny might have prompted Franklin to get up on her soap box about women’s rights, but she’s too smart for that. Mistress Adelia is all the more perfect a focal point for thinking about such issues specifically because she’s so humanly less than perfect, and that in itself is quite a feat: Franklin has created a character the reader must get to know, and the process is infinitely rewarding)

Mistress Adelia, accompanied by her steadfast friend Gyltha, by Ward, her malodorous dog, by Mansur, and by her infant daughter Allie, is called upon by Henry to probe into the death of Rosamund Clifford, Henry’s mistress. Almost immediately, this mission brings Adelia and her friends into contact with Rowley Picot, little Allie’s father, now made a bishop by his friend and patron Henry, and this increases the tension: Rowley would have stayed with Adelia, but she insisted that he leave her to serve his king, and he let himself be convinced. It’s a sign of Adelia’s wonderfully believable complexity that she’s both grateful that Rowley is helping a mostly-worthy king and resentful that he would leave her, even at her own insistence.

The scene where now-Bishop Rowley first lays eyes on his tiny daughter shows with rapid-fire ease a great many of the writerly things Franklin does perfectly:

There was a sudden shout from the bedroom. “It’s here? She’s brought it here?” Now down to his tunic, a man who looked younger and thinner but still very large stood in the doorway, staring around him. He loped to the basket on the table. “My God,” he said. “My God.”

You dare, Adelia thought. You dare ask whose it is.

But the bishop was staring downward with the awe of Pharaoh’s daughter glimpsing baby Moses in the reeds. “Is this him? My God, he looks just like me.”

“She,” Gyltha said. “She looks just like you.”

How typical of church gossips, Adelia thought viciously, that they would be quick to tell him she’d had his baby without mentioning its sex.

“A daughter.” Rowley scooped up the child and held her high. The baby blinked with sleep and then crowed with him. “Any fool can have a son,” he said. “It takes a man to conceive a daughter.”

That’s why I loved him.

Who’s her daddy’s little moppet, then,” he was saying, “who’s got eyes like cornflowers, so she has – yes, she has – just like her daddy’s. And teeny-weeny toes. Yumm, yumm, yumm. Does she like that? Yes she does.”

Adelia was helplessly aware of Father Paton regarding the scene. She wanted to tell Rowley he was giving himself away; this delight was not episcopal. But presumably a secretary was privy to all his master’s secrets – and it was too late now, anyway.

The bishop looked up. “Is she going to be bald? Or will this fuzz on her head grow? What’s her name?”

“Allie,” Gyltha said.


“Almeisan.” Adelia spoke for the first time, reluctantly. “Mansur named her. Almeisan is a star.”

Naturally, as the king’s man, Rowley wants the question of who killed Rosamund cleared up as soon as possible. And as an Englishman – one of countless whose lives were torn apart by the civil war fought between King Stephen and the Empress Maud – he’d like a solution that doesn’t plunge the country into civil war again. But such a solution at first seems unlikely in the extreme, since the prime suspect is none other than Henry’s estranged wife, Eleanor of Acquitaine.

Franklin’s chosen a perfect backdrop against which to set her independent-minded female doctor; English history would have to wait five more centuries before its affairs would be so deeply marked by the destinies of great women; Empress Maud, Rosamund Clifford, Eleanor of Acquitaine .. Adelia belongs in such company, and Franklin expertly extends this awareness everywhere, including her description of the nuns who tend to Godstow Abbey, where pivotal pieces of the action unfold:

If asked, its twenty-four nuns and their female pensioners would have insisted that it was the Lord God who had called them to abandon the world, but their air of contentment suggested that the Lord’s wish had coincided exactly with their own. Some were widows with money who’d heard God’s call at their husbands’ graveside and hurried to answer it at Godstow before they could be married off again. Some were maidens who, glimpsing the husbands selected for them, had been overwhelmed by a sudden vocation for chastity and had taken their dowries with them into the convent instead. Here they could administer a sizable, growing fiefdom efficiently and with a liberal hand – and they could do it without male interference.

The Serpent’s Tale is an utterly engrossing book, the kind of novel-reading experience you hope for always but so seldom actually get. You’ll miss subway stops, you’ll sit in parked cars, and you’ll put off TV and the like, as it weaves its spell and draws you deeper and deeper into the mystery of who poisoned fair Rosamund. And when you’re done, just as in Mistress of the Arts of Death, you’ll feel like you lived the book’s events, instead of merely reading them. We here at Stevereads urge you to put both books at the top of your list and waste no time in reading them.

December 13th, 2007

A Heaping Helping of Historical Fiction!

A list has been suggested, called for, even implored, and we here at Stevereads never turn away from a good juicy list. We consequently fired off the appropriate memos and admonitions to the pertinent research departments, telling them to postpone our upcoming Best and Worst Books of 2007 listings (and, it need hardly be added, cancel their own squalid Holiday plans, which were never all that important in the first place), and we’ve come up with a list – not a definitive list, since such a thing would be beyond the scope of even this site, but a meaty list all the same. Here are thirty-odd kick-ass historical novels, books which, should you encounter them on the bargain carts at the Strand, will suck you in and keep you enthralled from first page to last. These are some of the best books historical fiction has to offer, offered in no particular order:

1. Child of the Morning by Pauline Gedge – the evocative tale of the great Egyptian pharaoh Hatchepsut, a woman in the ultimate man’s job.

2. Clodia by Robert DeMaria – a bouncy, chatty novel about Catullus in Republican Rome; the history here is rock-solid, and even the sensibilities are almost perfect.

3. The City of Libertines by W.G. Hardy – another great novel of Caesar and Catullus and the fall of the Roman Republic.

4. The Emperor’s Virgin by Sylvia Fraser – a lively, literate look at the lamentable reign of the Roman emperor Domitian.

5. I, Claudius by Robert Graves – well of course this book had to appear on the list, even though it basically sucks as a work of fiction, because it’s so successfully anecdotal and conversational – reading it feels like coming to some kind of historical-fiction home.

6. Gold for the Caesars by Florence Seward – chronicling the sad reign of the emperor Domitian – and the new dawn of the military emperor Trajan.

7. Mr. Midshipman Easy by Captain Frederick Marryat – a rattling good naval yarn set in the Napoleonic, although this place could equally be given to any of Captain Marryat’s novels, all of which are as fine and stirring now as when they were written.

8. The Sot-Weed Factor by John Barth – set mostly in colonial America and featuring a wildly tangled plot and a hilarious, scandalous version of Captain John Smith.

9. Master and Commander by Patrick O’Brian – another novel set in the Napoleonic era, but this one is like nothing else on this list, as odd and scintillating historical novel as we here at Stevereads have read in many a year.

10. The Antagonists by Ernest Gann – the gritty, heavily detailed story of the first century Roman siege of the Jewish fortress Masada.

11. Entered from the Sun by George Garrett – the greatest of George Garrett’s three great historical novels, and also the best novel about Christopher Marlowe (beating even Anthony Burgess’ twilight work Dead Man in Deptford) ever written, even though Marlowe appears nowhere in it.

12. The Kingdom of the Wicked by Anthony Burgess – a panoramic view of the first century, centering on a fledgling Christianity and a fumbling, corrupt Roman Empire, this is basically the Acts of the Apostles as written by a chain-smoking drunken word-besotted genius.

13. The Right Line of Cerdric by Alfred Duggan – a richly realized novel of Alfred the Great, by far the best fictional treatment of that enigmatic figure – although all of Duggan’s works could stand here with equal justification.

14. The Alexandrian by Martha Rofheart – of all the innumerable novels written about Cleopatra, this is the best, the one that comes closest to capturing accurately the characters of Julius Caesar, Cleopatra, and Marc Antony.

15. The Murder of Sir Edmund Godfrey by John Dickson Carr – the veteran mystery-writer turns his hand to historical fiction spread lightly on a bed of tightly-researched fact, all revolving around the mysterious death of Edmund Berry Godfrey, which was used by the odious authors of the so-called ‘Popish Plot’ to further their witch-hunt. Never was such a horrible disgrace so engagingly written-of.

16. Three Years to Play by Colin MacInnes – A really good, vigorously archaic novel of Shakespeare, full of ‘thees’ and ‘thous’ and enough no-longer-current contractions to satisfy the most romantic among you. Sorry, amongst ye.

17. Shakespeare by John Mortimer – Here is John Mortimer, creator of the immortal ‘Rumpole of the Bailey,’ writing the novel to a mini-series that never amounted to much despite starring Tim Curry and a roster of other notables. This is the best, most sensitive novel about Shakespeare ever written.

18. The Man on a Donkey by H.F.M. Prescott – Quite simply the greatest Tudor novel yet written. Not to be missed.

19. The Conspiracy by John Hersey and The Ides of March by Thornton Wilder – no sense dealing with these two books separately; they’re both highly enjoyable, they’re both epistolary, and they both deal with the people and the events leading up to the assassination of Caesar.

20. Imperial Governor by George Shipway – the feelingly-narrated story of the sorry folk who were unlucky enough to be in charge during Boadicea’s ill-fated revolt against patriarchal Roman rule.

21. The Sheriff of Nottingham portrayed in ‘Robin Hood Prince of Thieves’ by a ham-on-wry Alan by Richard Kluger – a thoroughly unpretentious and involving look at the man most of you will know as the villain who plagues heroic Robin Hood (inimitablyRickman, gleefully snarling lines like “no more table scraps for widows and orphans – and Christmas is cancelled!”) but who features in this book mainly as a good man with the singular misfortune of being an English official in the reign of King John.

22. Jem (& Sam) by Ferdinand Mount – a fun and frolicsome (and bounteously intelligent) Restoration romp starring Samuel Pepys and our main character Jem, an actual historical personage and lineal ancestor of our author, who is here utilizing a lifetime of learning to have his fun.

23. Lonesome Dove by Larry McMurtry – calling this magnificent work the best western ever written automatically demeans it, even though such a statement is nothing less than the truth. In fact, this story of two redoubtable Texas Rangers leading a cattle-drive from Texas to Montana is one of the most instructive and powerful novels written in America in the 20th century. Alone of all the books on this list, it’s required reading for all Americans.

24. The Killer Angels by Michael Shaara – an electrifying, kinetic recreation of the Battle of Gettysburg, in which the entire cast North and South (all of whom, unprecedently for historical fiction, are actual historical figures) are brought completely to life.

25. Romola by George Eliot – the great novelist tries her hand at Renaissance historical fiction, with generally admirable results. The Italian Renaissance still hasn’t received the great fictional epic it deserves, but Romola comes closer than any of the other contenders.

26. Salaambo by Gustave Flaubert – Another famous novelist trying his hand at historical fiction, in this case the theater of ancient Rome. Flaubert here is at his most gaudy and melodramatic – you’ll feel guilty reading it, but you’ll eat it up nonetheless.

27. Deus Lo Volt! by Evan S. Connell – Here one of America’s greatest writers throws himself into the tone and mindframe of the great Crusade chroniclers – a supremely odd concoction that at first had its packagers calling it history and now has them styling it as fiction, although in reality this remarkable book isn’t quite either. Connell has been subverting genres his entire career, and this amazing book is no different. Read it and be amazed.

28. The Winds of War/ War and Remembrance by Herman Wouk – this two-volume opus is the final word on the 20th century prewar era (with all of the war thrown in).

29. The Persian Boy by Mary Renault – Almost her best novel and certainly her longest, the heartfelt story of Bagoas, the Persian castrati who was captured into the train of Alexander the Great and, according to our lady

30. The Last of the Wine by Mary Renault – We end with Renault’s best work, a thoroughly adult and intelligent love story between two men, taking place against the tumultuous backdrop of the Peloponnesian War. This is first-rate, beautiful writing combined with impeccable historical research to yield a book you won’t want to end.

December 6th, 2007

Daughter of York

Our book today is Daughter of York by Anne Easter Smith, whose previous historical novel was A Rose for the Crown. That previous book handily embodied every single thing historical fiction can do wrong: creaky dialogue, anachronisms on every page, escapism offered in the place of fact. The past was in many, many respects a better place than the present – and in a greater number of ways not so. Then, everything tasted better and privacy was possible; now, people (including, needless to say, people you love) don’t die from stepping on a nail, and anyone who wants to (as opposed to anyone who can afford to go there) can see pictures and videos of the Holy Land, or the Ganges river, or Victoria Falls.

In either case, both the historian and the historical novelist must be true to what was true at the time about which they’re writing. Characters must not speak in B-movie dialogue (or if they do, it must be part of your conceit that they do, not an obvious accident). 14th century characters must not have 21st century reactions. The past must be allowed to be the past, or the whole exercise of writing about it is rendered redundant.

With that in mind, we present Daughter of York, a long historical novel about Margaret Plantagenet, King Edward IV’s idiot sister, who – since she was vain, stupid, eloquent, and strong – deserves a book of her own. She was nervy, but she wasn’t brilliant; she was no Eleanor of Acquitaine, much less an Anne Boleyn or a Barbara Villiers. It would take a subtle hand to bring her to life.

Whether or not Anne Easter Smith possesses that hand would ordinarily be our job her at Stevereads to tell you. But we are not excessively cruel (not excessively; just to the level required) – we shall here, without comment, simply append the first page of Miss Easter Smith’s new novel. As to the rest of a critic’s portfolio – well, on this rare occasion we’re prepared to let you all sample the goods on display and make the determination on your own. Here’s that first page:

“The Micklegate towered above her, seeming to touch the lowering sky, as she knelt in the mud and stared at the gruesome objects decorating the battlement. Rudely thrust on spikes, several human heads kept watch from the crenellations, wisps of hair stirring in the breeze. A paper crown sat askew on one of the bloodied skulls and drooped over a socket now empty of the owner’s dark gray eye. The flesh on the cheeks had been picked clean by birds, and there was no nose. Yet still Margaret recognized her father. She could not tear her eyes from him even as his lifeless lips began to stretch over his teeth into a hideous smile.
It was then Margaret screamed.
‘Margaret! Wake up! ‘Tis but a dream, my child.’ Cecily shook her daughter awake. She watched anxiously as Margaret’s eyes flew open and looked around her with relief.
‘Oh, Mother, dear Mother, I dreamed of Micklegate again! A terrible, ghastly dream. Why does it not go away? I cannot bear to imagine Father and Edmund like that!’ Margaret sat up, threw her arms around her mother’s neck and sobbed. ‘Oh, why did they have to die?’

June 10th, 2007

Duchess of Aquitaine!

Our book today is Margaret Ball’s historical novel Duchess of Aquitaine, with its charmingly chummy subtitle, ‘A Novel of Eleanor’ (brave, foolhardy Ball, trusting that none of her prospective readers will read the book’s title, then read the subtitle and say ‘who’s this Eleanor chick?’).

The book’s heroine is, of course, Eleanor of Aquitaine, one of those figures from history about whom it can be said with certainty that if she’d never existed, historical novelists would have had to invent her. Rumored to be shapely, beautiful, forceful, and intelligent, she was also certainly immensely rich, which allowed her to live her life on a scale and with an intensity undreamt of by all but a handful of women anywhere in the world of the 12th century.

She owned and ruled large territories; she composed poetry and patronized love poets; she traveled to exotic locales such as Jerusalem and Constantinople; she grew into a consummate political strategist, but she also felt and often acted on strong passions. She was the daughter and neice of great lords. She was the wife of two kings. She was the mother of four kings. No wonder writers have been drawn to her like vultures to blooded meat.

A long line of historical novelists have tried their hands at Eleanor, with varying degrees of success. To Norah Lofts she was pliant and yearning. To Jean Plaidy she was flinty and shrill. To Sharon Penman she was wise and compassionate.

And of course one dramatist was drawn to her – James Goldman created an immortal portrait in his play “The Lion in Winter,” in which Eleanor’s unique upbringing and vast intelligence have combined to make her a sardonic force of nature, easily the equal of the men around her:

“I even made poor Louis [her hapless royal French husband] take me on crusade. How’s that for blasphemy? I dressed my maids as amazons and rode bare-breasted half way to Damascus. Louis had a seizure, and I damn near died of windburn – but the troops were dazzled.”

Ball couldn’t possibly match the pitch-perfect sophistication of this, and she doesn’t try. Her Eleanor is above all things young Duchess of Aquitaine is accurately titled: our heroine is a young woman throughout its length. The formidable, world-weary queen of the novelists is still a decade away when Ball’s novel ends. As far as I can recall, nobody’s ever written a novel about this Eleanor before.

The book is light and elegant but not lightweight and certainly not precious. Ball’s extensive research is nowhere done for display – rather, it’s visible only in the tone accurately portrayed, the essential little detail got right every single time. The reader is not belabored with great chunks of undigested exposition. Instead, the narrative moves deftly along, full of dialogue and the play of personalities.

Indeed, one of the nicest touches Ball brings to her story is the consistent, buzzing, quarrelling humanity of her characters, led by Eleanor herself. Maids, stableboys, grooms, dukes, prelates – all at some point or other scratch themselves, or eat something disagreeable, or smell of horse sweat. The overall effect is of making her characters vividly, even redolently, real in a way seldom done by other writers perhaps more enamored of glamor.

Still, Ball’s approach is daring enough. This is, after all, an Eleanor story unfamiliar to readers who’ll come to the book looking for civil wars and a tempestuous marriage. This is the story of a young woman, smarter than virtually everyone around her but still feeling her way in the realms of politics and intrigue (and, only embryonically, war).

Readers will naturally be curious about Henry. That’s young Count Henry of Anjou, the future King Henry II of England, the great love, great foil, and great nemesis of the adult Eleanor’s life. Even across eight centuries, the chemistry between these two shines – it informs every novel, every history, and of course it’s the heart and soul of Goldman’s play (he came to Paris with ‘a mind like Aristotle’s and a form like mortal sin,’ Eleanor says. ‘We shattered the commandments on the spot’).

The measure of Ball’s courage is that this Henry is hardly on her stage at all; she simply refuses to tell that story, having faith instead in her own. This faith is well-founded: she carries off her task with aplomb, without the slightest trace of the anxiety she must certainly have been feeling. Her book is the better for it, since Eleanor’s young life makes for fascinating reading even in the dry historical documents that register it. In the hands of a skilled novelist with an ear for dialogue, it becomes a gold mine.

So: virtually no Henry, but we do get (in an oddly oedipal eventuality) an absolutely vibrant, utterly living portrait of Geoffrey of Anjou, Henry’s indominable father. He stalks across these pages alternating between serpentine calibration and blood-curdling rage – he’s easily Ball’s most memorable male character. He’s the type of ferally smart, instinctively bloodthirsty figure who makes you wonder how on Earth the generations continued. He’s not a monster like his son was, a monster with a higher purpose – he’s just a monster, with a hard army and some cold cash at his back.

Still, Henry is here, a little grubby, a little desperate, but present nonetheless, as testimony to Ball’s awareness that she’s only telling part of an entirely remarkable story. She concludes her story with her young Eleanor in the passionate embrace of this vulpine young man, and those readers familiar with their history will feel exactly the heart-pang Ball intends, as her young Eleanor senses that this is the beginning of everything good in her life.

“Shadowy figures passed before her eyes,” Ball writes, “not the army of skeletons that had tortured her dreams before Outremer but tall, proud men whose features mingled the Plantagenet fairness with the height and dignity of Aquitaine. Sons. I will have sons, and they will live.”

Well, yes. But we all know (at least, we hope) the horrible realities that followed from those dreams: the dead young king, the sundered country, the civil wars, the fretful reconciliations, the terrible deals with all posterities. Ball knows them as well as we do, and yet she tells her more innocent tale in the full sunshine of its own merits.

Still, the fact that she ends this novel at such a moment tempts the reader to think she might move on to write of stormier times for her heroine. That would be bad news for Eleanor, but good news for us.

September 11th, 2006

a book-list!

Sooner or later, I’ll get around to posting a sooper-dooper ultra-definitive historical fiction list, one that will guide you all in every time-period and every seeking mood. But in the meantime, I thought I’d fire off a quick sub-list of baubles to tempt the mind’s eye!

1. Fire from Heaven by Mary Renault – certainly all her historical novels (except Funeral Games alas) would be on my sooper-dooper list, but I thought I’d plug this particular book, about the pre-Great years of Alexander … it’s crammed with very fine, very delicate, very KNOWING prose that only gets deeper the more you know about Alexander.

2. Clodia by Robert DeMaria – a very good evocation of Republican Rome and the passions of young love-smitten Catullus.

3. The Right Line of Cerdic by Alfred Duggan – a meticulous and ultimately stirring novel of Alfred the Great (the only British monarch to retain that ‘the Great,’ although I can think of four others who deserved it entirely more)

4. The Physician by Noah Gordon – a rattling good yarn about a boy who grows into the medical profession (such as it was) in 11th century England … no great writing, but enough potboilery to fill the rainiest afternoon

5. The Emperor’s Virgin by Sylvia Fraser – a surprisingly deep and well-written book set against the backdrop of the reign of Domitian, a genuine little find of a book (the operative word being ‘find’ in the verbal sense, since even the Internet has its limits)

6. The Floating Book by Michelle Lovric – set in 15th century Venice (which is VERY accurately evoked, wonderfully so – when I get around to it, I’ll also be posting a ‘Venetian fiction’ list too), but revolving around a precious manuscript of the aforementioned Catullus. The prose is a little on the purple side, but the book is a delight.

7. Bloody Season by Loren Estleman – here we have writing of the very first order, in a novel about the OK Corral gunfight and its aftermath. Estleman is fantastic, most of his book are hugely worth reading, but this one just might be the best one.

8. Germanicus by David Wishart – a smart, sassy take on the events surrounding the death of Germanicus – events so well covered in Robert Graves’ I, Claudius that you’d think the mine was played out … and you’d be wrong! Wishart is funny and gleefully anachronistic, and somehow it all works … snap him up before his American importer loses heart and decides to pull him from your Barnes & Noble shelves.

9. Sacajawea by Anna Lee Waldo – a huge, ample historical novel about the title character that manages to be hugely moving if you stick it out to the end …

10. Well, I started with a book that needs no trumping, one that would be on my sooper-dooper list anyway, and I’ll end with one the same: George Garrett’s Entered from the Sun, which desperate publisher flacks have always said is a novel about Christopher Marlowe. In reality the novel – stirring, intelligent, hugely beautiful – is about a handful of lives for one reason or another torn apart by the DEATH of Marlowe (who never appears in the book). It’s (of course) out of print, but it’s well worth your attention.

And there you have it! A quick run-down of 10 really good historical novels! I WILL write up the sooper-dooper list sometime soon, but in the meantime, these will have to satisfy you, thou legion of hungry jackals!

More lists to follow!