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’s, 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 bring myself to read the last hundred pages–I did know what happened to Cromwell–no spoilers here. If you’re reading this book, you probably know, too. But by the time I came close to finishing the novel, he was real to me, and even thinking of his fate had me shaking, not just over the brutality but the injustice and the terrible sense of loss. 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 Griffith 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.

I just finished devouring two important fantasy series!

I recently reported reading Book One of Joe Abercrombie’s First Law trilogy, and I reported that I had started Book One of Daniel Abraham’s Long Price Quartet. Now I have finished both series, and I find they make an interesting contrast. They are very differently-conceived, differently-written fantasy series. But both have one very interesting point in common. Each envisions a world-wide cataclysm precipitated by hubris and misuse of knowledge.

Back in 1982, anti-nuclear activist Jonathan Schell wrote a series of articles for New Yorker magazine. These articles subsequently became the basis for his acclaimed book The Fate of the Earth.

Find the book on Amazon and other bookstores and sites.

Schell made a telling comment about the threat of nuclear holocaust, which will surely be an extinction event, at least where humanity is concerned (among many other species caught up in the collateral damage): “We live, then, in a universe whose fundamental substance contains a supply of energy with which we can extinguish ourselves. We shall never live in any other. We now know that we live in such a universe, and we shall never stop knowing it” (p. 106). To use a cliché or two, the genie is out of the bottle, the cow is out of the barn. We may be able to restrain ourselves from using this knowledge for a while, or even suppress the knowledge, but over the course of human history it will eventually come back at us, and eventually it will get us, because no control system is perfect and no society, growing and changing for good or ill as it does and will, can ensure perfect restraint.

Both of these fantasy series play with such an idea–not nuclear war, but a fantasy equivalent, and in the case of Abercrombie’s fantasy world, a pretty close equivalent. In other aspects, the two series couldn’t be more different.

Abraham’s Long Price Quartet presents a unique fantasy world and a unique take on fantasy.

Find the books on Amazon or other bookstores and sites.

This extended four-book saga (A Shadow in Summer, A Betrayal in Winter, The Autumn War, The Price of Spring) portrays the life of a reluctant hero, Otah, born into royalty, sent away from his family in childhood to become a poet. He rejects both roles and chooses anonymity in a variety of menial jobs: dock worker, fisherman, courier and member of the “gentleman’s profession” of low-level espionage, among others. Throughout the course of the saga, his background catches up with him. He is a compelling character, and the other major characters in the novels are equally well-drawn. For interesting characters alone, this series has much to offer the reader of fantasy.

The premise of these novels is one of the most fascinating I’ve ever encountered in the genre: what if the creations of poets control the political and economic fate of societies? What if a society weaponizes the handiwork of its official poet to use against another society? What if such a poet goes rogue? What if the misuse of the poet’s creation results in widespread havoc and damage?

The creations of the poets in Abraham’s world begin, as poems do, in carefully considered language. But then they come alive in the form of andats, the embodied spirits of the creations. So, for example, Seedless the andat is the carefully controlled work of a poet who has employed language to explore the idea of generation and germination–the idea of the seed, and how to manipulate it. Using Seedless, the poet is able to remove the seeds from cotton fibers, an arduous, labor-intensive task. The society controlling Seedless thus controls cotton production for the entire world, and has grown prosperous. But Seedless’s removal of the generating principle, the seed, might extend to other, more sinister uses.

In addition, controlling Seedless–or any other andat–becomes the life’s work of the poet who has evoked him. This task takes tremendous concentration and tremendous effort of will, not least because the poet, as creator of the andat, has inevitably incorporated his own weaknesses and fears into his creation. Seedless (a fascinating character in his own right, if you can call him a “he,” eerie and beautiful) becomes the tool of sinister forces. And Seedless, like any other andat, yearns to be free of his creator–in other words, he yearns not to be at all.

The struggle of Seedless for his freedom, and of sinister conspirators to misappropriate his powers, are just the beginning of the long price humanity must pay for relying on such creatures and foregoing the chance to use other kinds of ingenuity to solve problems. A society that understands how to train poets to create and control the andats possesses a huge advantage over those who do not, and Otah’s society, comprised of prosperous city-states with a sort of Southeast Asian and Asian flavor, is the one that wields such a powerful weapon. (The setting, especially in A Shadow in Summer, reminds me a lot of Abraham’s amazing short story, “The Meaning of Love,” anthologized in Rogues–the story that led me to his novels.)

Meanwhile, a warlike neighboring society that does not possess the secret of the poets and andats conspires to gain the closely-held knowledge of its rich rivals and overturn the dominant city-states. This economically and politically lesser society has its own powerful weapon: deprived of the shortcuts that the andats can grant, the other society has developed ingenious machines that provide their own, different type of power.

And so the conflict builds, with Otah caught in the middle of it all.

What a premise. Be warned. If you think these fine points of economics and political in-fighting sound drab, they are anything but. Put aside any prejudices you might have about them, but prepare yourself for some quite intricate plot twists and turns. They are well-worth your concentrated attention as a reader, at least in my opinion. Something else is going on here, too. These books acknowledge the deep and powerful way that words shape us, and maybe a caution about losing control of words; about the inherent danger in words, especially words misused; about words dissolving into airy nothings.

For me as a fantasy reader, a fascinating premise and fascinating world-building are great but not enough. They must be matched by great characterization and great writing. These books have all those qualities. And, of course, the requisite fascinating little map at the front of the volume!

 The other series I read, equally absorbing but in entirely different ways, is Joe Abercrombie’s First Law trilogy. The three books of the trilogy, The Blade Itself, Before They Are Hanged, and The Last Argument of Kings, gives the reader an extended view into a violent and pretty terrifying society. This is grimdark fantasy at its best, and is it grim. If you don’t like such stuff, beware. It is bloody, it is morally troubling, it is dark, dark, dark. I loved it.

Find all three on amazon.com or other bookstores and sites.

Each title has a sinister meaning. “The blade itself” (Book I) is a quotation from Homer, Book 16 of the Odyssey, when the hero Odysseus advises his son Telemachus that weapons themselves, if they are left lying around, are a powerful inducement to violent acts. There are plenty of blades lying around in Abercrombie’s Book I to do exactly that, especially in the hands of Logen the Northman when his usually philosophical temperament escalates into terrible irrational rage, striking friend and foe alike, sometimes–not just here but throughout the trilogy–with tragic results. (Think Lancelot killing Gareth and Gaheris in Malory’s Morte Darthur, and the bloody consequences.)

“Before they are hanged” (Book II) comes from a cynical statement by the German poet Heinrich Heine: “We should forgive our enemies, but not before they are hanged.”  Apparently Heine said this, or something like it, in Gedanken und Einfälle (sometimes translated Thoughts and Ideas or Aphorisms and Fragments), maybe in 1848, but these aphorisms are apparently difficult to date. The real quotation says something like, “I’m a peaceful man, but God would make me really happy if He could show me six or seven of my enemies hanging from those trees over there.” Heine’s quotations all over the internet have become something like Mark Twain’s–maybe he said it, maybe he didn’t, and if he did, maybe not exactly that way. But no matter. The quotation as it stands at the beginning of Abercrombie’s novel sums up its attitude perfectly, especially the attitude of the twisted and horribly damaged Inspector Glotka, one of the most intriguing, unpleasant, fascinating, and endearing (yes! he is! I stand by that!) characters in all fantasy literature.

“Last argument of kings” (Book III) was apparently engraved on Louis XIV’s cannons, might making right and all that. Interestingly, the reader doesn’t see the quotation until part II of this novel. Part I begins with an equally apt quotation from Paul Gauguin, “Life being what it is, one dreams of revenge.” Abercrombie’s vision is, at least here, of a dog-eat-dog, nature red in tooth and claw kind of world, and we shudder at it.

But it doesn’t appear to me to be violence for the sake of violence. Abercrombie seems to have a somber view of human nature, but it’s a human nature shaped by the long-ago actions of the mages, and now these terrible actions have come home to roost. One of the most sympathetic of all the characters (no spoilers here) is left in a dreadful state because of the hubris of these powerful sorcerers. Bayaz the mage, who begins the series fairly sympathetically, grows into a kind of monster, by the end. He strives to unleash mighty powers that might best be left alone.

Many of the characters are monstrous, in fact: Logen, Bayaz, Ferro, Glotka. But they are real. They suffer and bleed. They have horrifying scars and injuries. They are imperfect. They grow and change. What, in a novel, is better than that? Some characters aren’t as successfully drawn, though–the hapless, vain young noble Jezel, for example. But the kick-ass female characters, and the general kick-assity of the entire trilogy, more than make up for a few pallid Jezels in the mix.

I must admit, I struggled at the beginning of the trilogy to feel much interest in any of the characters, except probably Logen. That’s because the first book hops so abruptly from character to character. Just as we got to know one character, we suddenly found ourselves having to get to know a new one.

But the sweep of the fantasy world Abercrombie builds is pretty vast, so we need to be introduced to the main characters fairly rapidly. As the series went on, I settled into an absorbing involvement with each of the main characters (well, except for Jezel).

One of the great joys of this trilogy is its action scenes. Abercrombie’s pacing is superb. The scenes come across as near-cinematic (not in that bad way some authors have), yet they have all of the advantages that a print medium gives, as well. Wow.

The writing is very good, although too full of comic-book-style aarghs and ooofs and urks–for my taste, anyway. But the writing made the violence feel real, never soft-pedaled, never romanticized. Abercrombie never lets us look away.

The characters are real, too. How did I feel during the few moments when Inspector Glokta reveals a softer side, though? Maybe a bit uneasy. Then again, that’s what he does. Makes us feel uneasy.

So do these books. They do, and they should. The world they depict, like the world of Daniel Abraham’s Long Price Quartet, is an uneasy place, poised on the brink of destruction. That’s our world. Fantasy at its best uses strange, dangerous worlds to reveal our familiar world to us in all its underlying strangeness and danger, and that’s what I think both of these authors do for us.

Thanks again for the great recommendation, Feenix!