Two must-read historical novels, and a few more

Oh, covid, what have you done to me? I have a lot of catching up to do in this blog. I promised reviews of two important new historical novels, and here they finally are. I couldn’t resist reviewing two others I’ve recently read, as well.

Two historical novels, both published in 2019, take a speculative look backward at classical times just as remote from us as science fiction: Madeline Miller’s Circe and Pat Barker’s The Silence of the Girls.

Circe

This novel is actually a kind of hybrid: a novel that combines historically imagined archaic Greece with fantasty elements incorporating Greek mythology, especially the sorceress Circe who plays such a prominent role in Homer’s Odyssey. It’s a fascinating character study of a woman torn between her divine origins and her all-too-human emotions and roles: as woman, lover, parent. Miller is a wonderful and accessible writer who makes this very ancient story come alive. She is an acclaimed historical novelist with a degree in classics. Her novel, The Song of Achilles (2012) was also a New York Times best-seller.

The Silence of the Girls

Barker’s novel, too, begins with one of Homer’s two classic epics–in this case, The Iliad. Unlike Miller, Barker’s novel doesn’t have any magic in it; it’s the all-too-human story of what happens to women during the savagery of war. That the woman in question is Briseis, the queen captured and sulked over by the Greek hero Achilles, doesn’t prevent this book from being as contemporary as any novel set in any war-torn region. Barker is an amazing novelist. Some of her novels are set in contemporary times, and others are historical novels. I especially admire her Regeneration trilogy, about the World War I poet Siegfried Sassoon. Whatever books she writes, whenever she sets them, she has to be considered one of our era’s best novelists.

In a category by itself: The Mirror and the Light

This blog entry wouldn’t be complete without another quick review of another recent historical novel (2020), the third in Hilary Mantel’s trilogy about England during the reign of Henry VIII and the life of his most important minister, Thomas Cromwell. Cromwell, often maligned in history and fiction (A Man For All Seasons, for example, where he is the villain), rose from humble origins to the office of Lord Privy Seal, the most powerful man in England short of the king himself. If you love fluffy “historical” novels that are little more than dressed-up romance fiction, or even well-meant but rather dumbed-down historical fiction like Phillipa Gregory’s (which I do enjoy–and as a writer of fairly fluffy novels myself, who am I to complain?), Hilary Mantel’s books may not be for you. They are huge. The Mirror and the Light clocks in at over 800 pages, and the first two in the trilogy, Wolf Hall (2009) and Bring Up the Bodies (2012) are almost equally hefty. When you read them, though, you will enter the world of Thomas Cromwell and Tudor England as if you lived in it. The novels are meticulously researched, but you don’t even think about that as you are swept into a world so far removed from your own, yet in its realpolitik, its family joys and problems, its unbearable personal betrayals, so very close. Some have said this third novel is not as good as the first two. I beg to differ. I could hardly bear to read the last hundred pages, and when I finished, I have to admit I was devastated. Absolutely, completely devastated. I was also absolutely struck dumb with admiration. This is how big a nut-case I am. I know. . .I know. . .”so many books, so little time.” Nevertheless. I got out my copy of Wolf Hall, re-read it, kept on going through Bring Up the Bodies, and finished with a re-reading of The Mirror and the Light. The ending of The Mirror and the Light circles right back to the beginning of Wolf Hall. In the very best sense, Mantel’s trilogy is one enormous super-novel. I was on fire to see how she brought it off. The answer? Brilliantly. If you have the attention and the patience for a long and very involved series of novels, read these. They are masterpieces.

Hild

Let me mention one more very long and involved historical novel, Nicola Griffith’s Hild (2013, a bit less recent than the others I’ve reviewed in this post). The politics of Hild are just as convoluted as anything in Hilary Mantel’s novels, and the world Giffith conjures up is even more remote from us than Tudor England. Hild is a young girl from Anglo-Saxon England who grows up to be St. Hilda of Whitby, but you’d never know it from this novel. There are other novels about St. Hilda. I haven’t read them and don’t know if they take any kind of reverent tone toward their subject. Griffith’s novel is having none of that. It shows us what it’s like to be a pagan seeress at a moment in English history where Christianity is on the verge of pushing out the old religions of the land–and where Roman Christianity is on the verge of pushing out an earlier, more indigenous brand of Christianity. As far as Hild is concerned, though, all that Christian stuff is alien and strange. As she and the people in her world come to terms with the passing of the old ways, including the old religion, their decisions are driven more by politics and expediency than anything else. This novel is an amazing coming-of-age story for a young woman caught between two worlds. It is beautifully written, supposedly the first book in a trilogy, although I haven’t seen any news of the next two. This book is long, complex, and not pretty. It creates a gritty reality, right down to details about the landscape, and the way people dress, and the way people love, and the way people talk and think. I’m afraid to say it takes an anthropologist’s eye to its subject, because that makes it sound dry. It’s passionate and real. I loved it. I’m eagerly waiting for the next two!

Are historical novels “speculative fiction”?

I’m finally posting more on this blog. What with all the moving around I’ve been doing, and the insane times we now inhabit, I haven’t posted lately.

So. Historical fiction. I’ve read some interesting historical novels lately, and I’m wondering. Speculative fiction or not? In the interest of readability, I’m going to divide this into two posts, one about the genre itself and one giving reviews of the two historical novels that made me start reading the genre voraciously again.

We play these defnition games with fictional artifacts of all types, and sometimes I wonder whether such definitions do much good. Insofar as ALL fiction, by its very nature, is speculative fiction, and the very term “speculative fiction” is therefore a tautology, I suppose that yes, historical novels are speculative fiction. But if we are using the usual fuzzy criteria–well? are they?

I maintain they are as speculative as science fiction. If science fiction projects us into a future or some alternate reality governed by the laws of science extrapolated into that future or alternate world, historical fiction projects us into a past we can never actually recover but, through speculative manipulation of historical documents and discoveries, builds a world just as compelling as the future or alternate world of the science fiction writer.

And just as speculative.

Back a bit. We cannot recover the past. We no doubt have a false sense of security that we can, but a lot of historical theory maintains we can’t. We can speculate about it, and speculate reasonably and responsibly, but we can’t ultimately know. (Not even, weirdly, our own personal past–see all the fascinating stuff about the dangers of writing memoir, for example.)

So what is historical fiction, anyway? If we zip off to that reliable (yes–really–pretty reliable) source of all information, Wikipedia, we see this: “Historical fiction is a literary genre in which the plot takes place in a setting located in the past. . . . An essential element of historical fiction is that it is set in the past and pays attention to the manners, social conditions and other details of the depicted period. Authors [of historical fiction] also frequently choose to explore notable historical figures in these settings, allowing readers to better understand how these individuals might have responded to their environments.” https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Historical_fiction

The Wikipedia article goes on to extend its definition to more than literary fiction: to opera, stage plays, movies, comic books, and on and on. The article also describes a number of subgenres, including historical fantasy, which really does count in anyone’s understanding of speculative fiction. It’s the kind of fantasy I’ve been writing lately, which may be why the topic interests me so much.

Moving a little deeper, I found this fascinating article by Sarah Johnson on the web site of the Historical Novel Society. The article, “Defining the Genre: What are the rules for historical fiction?” originated as a paper delivered at the 2002 conference of the Associated Writing Programs. She begins by pointing out that everyone–readers, publishers, writers, book sellers–has a different idea of what “historical fiction” means.

Fiction set in the past. Sure. How far in the past? Ten years? Twenty-five? Fifty and older? (All of those have been used as defining criteria.) What about fiction written by an author who lived through that past time and place and is writing about it now? She gives the example of a writer born during the World War II era who writes a novel about the war years, and a reader born during the sixties who sees that world and those events as firmly part of the past.

Johnson also deplores the snobbery swirling about the historical novel. Many writers of books set in the past don’t think of their novels as “historical novels,” many publishers don’t pitch or promote such novels as “historical novels,” and critiques of the genre often teeter between those who regard such novels as cardboard tales merely tarted up with a few “thees” and “thous,” and those who comb through such novels for historical inaccuracies as if they are Ph.D. theses.

We can all think of interesting examples of the problems plaguing the genre. Mildred Taylor’s acclaimed Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry, her Newbery Award winning children’s novel about the lives of black families in the Deep South, was published in 1976, and Taylor was born in 1943. According to Taylor, some of the incidents in that novel and the two others in the trilogy were based on the recollections of her own childhood, some on family stories, and some on research. Should it be called an historical novel? Would that be how it is perceived by a sixth-grader reading it today? A sixth-grader reading it in 1976?

What about Edith Wharton’s classic The Age of Innocence? Wharton, born in 1862, wrote the novel in 1920. It won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction in 1921. The events of the novel are set in the Gilded Age New York of Wharton’s childhood, beginning in the 1870s. Historical novel or not? Several students of mine, reading the novel, simply assumed Wharton wrote it in the 1870s. Another great novel of  the era, F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, was written in 1925 about events roughly contemporary with 1925–not an historical novel, then. But readers today often see the book through an historical haze, and the several recent attempts to film the novel take an approach roughly the same as would be taken with the film of an historical novel. The films are historical fiction; the novel is not.

Everyone can agree, presumably, that Sir Walter Scott’s Ivanhoe, one of the books that made historical novels a genre to be reckoned with, is a no-doubter example of the category. Scott wrote the novel in 1819; it depicts a highly romanticized England of the 12th century. The big first American example is James Fenimore Cooper’s The Deerslayer, the first of his very popular novels about the American colonial period. He wrote it in 1841 in imitation of Scott.

A more recent example would be Toni Morrison’s matchless Beloved, a kind of anti-Uncle Tom’s Cabin based on a real instance of an escaped slave, Margaret Garner, who killed her own daughter in 1856 rather than let her grow up in slavery. Morrison wrote the novel in 1987; it won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction in 1988.

How about Patrick O’Brian’s Aubrey/Maturin series? Rollicking sea stories? Serious literary novels? Among the most carefully researched historical fiction ever penned? All of the above. And Hilary Mantel’s trilogy! Wolf Hall is the first; don’t miss it. The second, Bring Up the Bodies, is great, too, and the third of these superb novels of Tudor England, The Mirror and the Light, has just been published.

If we turn to other media, we might immediately think of Ridley Scott’s film, Gladiator, or Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk. But what about Breaking Bad? What about Better Call Saul? Look at the phones all the characters carry. Look at the fax machines. These long-form television series are not about contemporary life. They take a look back–maybe not very far back, but . . .historical.

I’m going to claim historical fiction for my blog. That’s my story, and I’m sticking to it.

My 9-book fantasy series is finished!

The nine books actually comprise three interlocking series: a dark fantasy prequel series (Stormclouds), a series that is more YA/NA (Harbingers), and the companion series Betwixt & Between.

The sweep of the nine novels in both main series and the Betwixt & Between novels begins with the sighting of the comet of 976 (A Gyrfalcon for a King). Except that it was recorded in the British Isles, we know almost nothing about this hyperbolic comet designated by astronomers as x976.

The saga ends with the famous sighting of Halley’s Comet in 1066 (Ghost Bird). Halley’s is one of the most-studied and closely observed comets in human history; its appearance in 1066 over the British Isles seemed to the people of that day to presage the regime change ushered in by the Norman Conquest, and it was observed in the Americas, too. My comets somehow appear in the skies over the fantasy-verse as well as in real-life history!

TRIGGER WARNING:

These novels are works of fiction and fantasy, but some include graphic violence and some reflect harsh realities about sexual abuse. Please take care of yourself if such references cause you distress.

The books in the three interlocking series:

Stormclouds: dark fantasy about a dark world of treachery and rebellion.
Book I, A Gyrfalcon for a King

Find it at amazon.com

 

 

 

 

 

 

Book II, The Call of the Shrike

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Book III, Stormbird

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Harbingers: fantasy with a young adult/new adult flavor.

Book I, Blackbird Rising

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Book II, Halcyon

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Book III, Firebird

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Book IV, Ghost Bird

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Betwixt & Between: companions to the Stormclouds/Harbingers novels. There are realms and situations underneath the Spheres that don’t fit into the world of men and women. They exist in some ghostly place betwixt and between.

Book I, The Martlet is a Wanderer

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Book II, The Nightingale Holds Up the Sky

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These books are all available in print or for Kindle and Kindle-enabled devices and apps through http://www.amazon.com. For more information about the series, and for a playlist that includes many of the songs the characters play and sing, go to my author web site, http://www.janemwiseman.com (ugh, right now it is under construction and not in the best shape–but if you click on the link that says “playlist,” you’ll find the songs).

To see the way people, places, and things may have looked in the Stormclouds and Harbingers worlds, go to my nine Pinterest boards, one for each novel:

for the Stormclouds series

Medieval Life—Gyrfalcon

Medieval Life—Shrike

Medieval Life—Stormbird

for the Harbingers series

Medieval Life—10th Century (about Blackbird Rising)

Medieval Life—Halcyon

Medieval Life—Firebird

Medieval Life—Ghost Bird

for the Betwixt & Between companion series

Medieval Life—Martlet

Medieval Life—Nightingale

Then I shamelessly promote all nine on my “Books Worth Reading” board.

As always, I welcome reviews posted on amazon.com, goodreads.com, and other web sites for book lovers, and on my author web site (better to make comments on this blog for now, until I can get my author web site working again).