Fiction is fun, but don't mess with the history

Monday, December 12, 2016

The Last King (2004), by Michael Curtis Ford



The Last King, subtitled Rome's Greatest Enemy, is a clever bit of titling misdirection. This fictionalized biography of Mithridates VI, 6th King of Pontus by that name, is told from the viewpoint of his illegitimate son Pharnaces. Spoiler alert: the last King of Pontus was Pharnaces; not his father.

As noted in the review of Wrath of the Furies, by Steven Saylor, that book inspired me to read more about Mithridates and his multiple rebellions against Rome in the 1st century BC. This novel was a good find, and the first I've read by Michael Curtis Ford. Somewhat in the Bernard Cornwell school - heavy on battlefield gore and glory, Ford failed to match Cornwell's depth of research and historical detail but delivered a good read and a credible plot. The reader's feelings toward Mithridates evolve along with his son's - from absolute devotion to creeping doubt to recognition of the ultimate futility of 25 years of near continuous warfare against the Roman armies that never stopped coming.

The historical Pharnaces apparently failed to learn that lesson, however. Despite this novel's narrative of increasing disillusionment, the son led his own rebellion against Rome a few years later, only to meet Rome's greatest general - Julius Caesar. Caesar's crushing defeat of the last King of Pontus yielded his famously terse post-campaign report: "Veni, vidi, vici" (I came, I saw, I conquered).

The early sources for information on Mithridates VI are mostly Roman, and suffer from the normal cultural biases. When writing about formidable enemies, two standard slants were 1) the enemy's total barbarism and depravity (contrasted with the wholesome heroism of opposing Romans), and 2) his freakish physical abilities (how else could he have lasted so long against far-superior Romans?).

Ford chooses to split the difference in his portrait of Mithridates. While painting a more sympathetic picture of the King than Roman authors, he goes all in for the nearly superhuman abilities. For a heroic-protagonist sort of novel, that's standard stuff, so no discredit to the author.

The five criteria:
  1. Did the novel inspire me to further historical research?
Yes. In addition to the recent biography The Poison King, I picked up Mary Beard's SPQR, a concise and thoughful 1-volume history of ancient Rome (highly recommended).
Score = 5
  1. Did the novel include enough history to make it an interesting historical story?
Yes. Rather battle-heavy, as noted, and with little detail on anyone outside Mithridates' inner circle.
Score = 3
  1. Was the depiction of historical events accurate?
Basically. The names and dates are drawn mainly from early Roman writings, as noted in the author's Acknowledgements. More attention to archaeology could have improved the accuracy of many details. For instance, Ford commits the movie-Roman sin of depicting Republic-era soldiers as wearing "Imperial Gallic" helmets (with red horsehair crests), that weren't adopted until after Julius Caesar.
Score = 3
  1. Was the depiction of historical characters accurate?
Probably not, but who knows? Roman generals are universally depicted as sneering, insulting and cruel. Mithridates is caring and heroic. Standard 20th-century-Anglo novel types throughout.  
Score = 3
  1. Were the fictional or fictionalized plot and characters plausible?
Somewhat. Pharnaces is a credible son wanting to be like Dad. Motivations given are not improbable. Overall, not bad as Roman novels go (admittedly a low bar).
Score = 4

Saturday, November 5, 2016

Wrath of the Furies (2016), by Steven Saylor


The third novel in Steven Saylor's trilogy A Novel of the Ancient World is titled Wrath of the Furies. The earlier two, reviewed here previously, were The Seven Wonders (2012), and Raiders of the Nile (2014).

The end of book two left the young Gordianus living a low-key twenty-something life in Alexandria, in love with his beautiful slave Bethesda. Lured by a cryptic message hinting at danger to his old tutor Antipater, Gordianus and Bethesda set out on a ship to Ephesus (on the west coast of modern Turkey).

The ship makes a stop at the island of Rhodes, where Gordianus looks up a friend of Antipater who hosted the pair during their earlier adventures in The Seven Wonders. Here the stage is set for later skull-and-dagger work, as a fellow house-guest is revealed to be Gaius Cassius Longinus (later an assassin of Julius Caesar). Cassius is on a fact-finding mission from Rome, and wants to know what Mithridates is doing. He recruits Gordianus to be eyes-and-ears while in Ephesus.

So off they sail again, arriving at Ephesus just in time to become involved in one of the most dramatic and tragic incidents of the late Roman Republic. King Mithridates VI (the Great) of Pontus had recently rebelled against Roman control of Asia Minor, sweeping west and south through the Roman-controlled cities along the coast of modern-day Turkey.  On a single day, Mithridates orchestrated the slaughter of an estimated 80,000-150,000 Romans living in a number of those cities, including Ephesus. The incident is opaquely known as the Asiatic Vespers.

Redundancy in names and events make it difficult to keep the facts straight. The massacre occurred during the first of three wars between Rome and Mithridates VI, and many Kings of Pontus took the name Mithridates. The King's wife at this time was Monime, third of six wives (long before Henry VIII). There were also a number of royal concubines and a total of well over twenty children - including three named Mithridates.

In this climactic installment, Saylor includes all the history that was missing from Raiders of the Nile. That makes it - from a history geek's perspective - a much weightier and more satisfying read. I read the Kindle version, which was attractive and well produced.

The 5 criteria:
  1. Did the novel inspire me to further historical research?
Yes. First, by returning to Roman history, I was inspired to pick up a new one-volume history of ancient Rome, SPQR by Mary Beard. Second, Mithridates VI is such a fascinating character that I picked up a recent (2010) biography titled The Poison King, by Adrienne Mayor.
    Score = 5
  1. Did the novel include enough history to make it an interesting historical story?
Yes. Most of it is concentrated in the city of Ephesus, but is set within the larger story of Mithridates VI.
    Score = 5
  1. Was the depiction of historical events accurate?
Yes, at least in the big picture. It's a novel, so there's a lot of speculation and invention in descriptions of smaller-scale events. Saylor is always scrupulous to make sure artistic license doesn't get carried away. Also helpful (as always) is the Author's Note at the end, which lists a number of ancient sources.
    Score = 5
  1. Was the depiction of historical characters accurate?
Yes, as far as is known. None of the historical character are central except the poet Antipater of Sidon, who was also a main supporting character in The Seven Wonders. King Mithridates, his queen Monime, and the captive Egyptian prince Ptolemy all have speaking roles. Others are mere cameos, necessary to complete the historical record but remaining in the background.
    Score = 4 (it's nearly impossible to get a 5 here when the subject is ancient Rome)
  1. Were the fictional or fictionalized plot and characters plausible?
Barely. Plausible characters are not Saylor's strongest suit, especially his main protagonist Gordianus. He often seems unbelievably dense and gullible, especially in these novels of his younger days, but does provide occasional comic relief. The improbable plans and motivations of Gordianus give rise to implausible plot developments, but it's all in good fun, and Saylor doesn't mess with the history.
    Score = 3 


Sunday, August 7, 2016

A Place of Greater Safety, by Hilary Mantel (1992)

A common habit among fiction readers is, when impressed by one novel, to seek out others by the same author. That process, after greatly enjoying Wolf Hall and Bring Out the Bodies, led to A Place of Greater Safety, Hilary Mantel's earlier novel of the French Revolution. 

Seeking out earlier work can be a risky proposition; authors often need several tries before finding their mature voices. Such was not the case, however, with this novel. Mantel had already penned eight previous novels, and her character-focused style was already in full flower.

The French Revolution is a perfect subject for Mantel, who loves to develop characters. Indeed, there are so many varied and interesting characters that the reader can be overwhelmed. The extensive Cast Of Characters section at the end is very helpful in that regard. Also confusing is the way characters changed roles as the revolution progressed. One year's hero often became the next year's traitor and guillotine victim. Again, the Cast of Characters helps by noting these changing circumstances. Following that is a short list of characters who survived past 1794.

There was a point, about a quarter of the way in, when it seemed that Mantel's fictionalized French characters bordered on British caricature. I was reminded of the scene in Monty Python and the Holy Grail when the questing knights approach an unknown castle, to find it occupied by unknown defenders. Using their best parodies of French-accented English, the defenders challenge the approaching party. Puzzled, King Arthur asks "What are you, then?" To which the reply is "I'm French! Why do you think I have this outrageous accent, you silly king?"

Anyway, that impression soon passed as the characters' non-Anglo thinking and behavior settled into the rhythm of the story. And what a story it is! The bloody lunacy of the French Revolution was, in a way, a foreshadowing of the madness to come in the 20th century.

Note: this review is based on the Kindle version, which is nicely done and a bargain at $4.95.

The five criteria:
  1. Did the novel inspire me to further historical research?
Yes, especially the people. For starters, I sought out a biography (My Lady Scandalous, by Jo Manning) of the mysterious courtesan Grace Elliott, purported to be a British spy. The bio shed no light on the truth of that claim, but provided some interesting social history background. Many of the other characters merit similar exploration.

Mantel herself, in her Author's Note (a much-appreciated feature, as always), apologizes for the brevity of space devoted to Dr. Marat, who (she says) deserves his own novel (here's hoping that happens).

Score = 5
  1. Did the novel include enough history to make it an interesting historical story?
Yes, although the focus is necessarily very narrow, and events outside of Paris get mentioned only in passing, if at all. For example, the revolutionary/reactionary wars between France and its neighbors are simply topics discussed in Paris, usually less interesting to the principal characters than the day's debates in the Committees.

Score = 4
  1. Was the depiction of historical events accurate?
Yes, it seems so - as far as possible. The author notes the uncertainty surrounding those times, especially with regards to characters never prominent before the Revolution. Mantel's research is typically very thorough. and this novel is no exception.

Score = 5
  1. Was the depiction of historical characters accurate?
Yes - as far as possible. Even less is known about the historical characters than about the events. The author takes responsibility for her portrayals, made even more challenging by the lack of major fictional characters. Among historical novelists, I rate Hilary Mantel #1 in character development, and her Danton, Camille, Robespierre and many others (including many fascinating women) really come alive. If the real people weren't much like Mantel's characters, they should have been.

Update: this novel inspired me to re-read the grandfather of all French Revolution novels - Dickens' A Tale of Two Cities. Mantel pays homage to Dickens by including in her novel two of his famous fictional characters - Monsieur Defarge the wine-shop keeper, and his wife who non-stop knits into her never-finished work the names of those she judges worthy of death.

Score = 4
  1. Were the fictional or fictionalized plot and characters plausible?
There's so little of this that the question may not have much relevance. The one area where plausibility usually suffers in historical character portrayals is motivation. We know at least some of what they did, but very little of the why. Mantel always does a commendable job with characters, making them as complex, contradictory, and maddening as real people.

Score = 5

Saturday, June 18, 2016

The Master of Monterey, by Lawrence Coates (2003)


Not long ago, I was lamenting to a fellow local history buff the paucity of factually-accurate early-California historical novels. Good writing set in the 20th-century isn't hard to find (e.g. the ninety-year-old Oil!, by Upton Sinclair is still relevant today). However, novels set in the pre-U.S. period have tended toward overly romantic views of Spanish California.

"Have you read The Master of Monterey?", my acquaintance asked. Admitting that I had never heard of the 2003 novel by Lawrence Coates, I was happy to find it at my local public library, and am now happy to have read it. What fun!

The postmodern historical fiction of American writers including John Barth and Thomas Pynchon breathed new life and literary quality into the genre, and Coates' novel falls squarely into that tradition. One of the more absurd episodes in California history provides a perfect setting for an irreverent and humorous tale of frustrated idealism, oddball personalities and competing agendas.

In 1842 Commodore Thomas ap Catesby Jones sailed into Monterey, capital of Mexican Alta California. Mistakenly believing the United States and Mexico to be at war, Jones captured the defenseless port and ran up the stars and stripes. One day later, another U.S. ship arrived with dispatches proving that no state of war existed. Jones quietly took the flag back down and departed. Monterey returned to its somnambulant state for another four years, until it was once again seized without a struggle in the opening days of the Mexican-American War. Jones' navy career continued after this embarrassing fiasco, but he was never again trusted with a position of such responsibility.

Coates signals early-on his intention to treat the historical events as merely a jumping-off point into larger themes. The name of Jones' flagship is changed from United States to National Intention. A fictionalized unrequited love affair allows Jones to project a garbled idealism onto his mission, and so on. A postmodern approach also dictates healthy doses of absurdist humor, and Coates does not disappoint.

A Barthian touch is the idea that historical narrative not only influences later readers' understanding of events but, if written concurrently, may actually direct the course of those events. Coates creates two characters who record this historical episode, with very different ideas about its story line. The two gradually and independently conceive the notion that their writing has the power to influence the future course of events.

One writer is a teenage aspiring poet named William Waxdeck (with a wink, Coates introduces Waxdeck as "a fifteen-year-old who could trace his ancestry to the Pyncheons of Salem, Massachusetts") who Jones orders "to compose an epic poem in heroic couplets on the theme of a ship carrying out the intentions of a great nation to spread freedom to the very logical ends of the continent". Waxdeck, whose classical education taught him how these stories are supposed to go, proceeds at first with enthusiasm. As the adventure unfolds, however, he becomes less and less sure where it should end up.

The other writer is Jones' ex-slave steward Hannibal who, while creating fair copies of the chronically-seasick poet's scribbled pages, sees and doesn't like where this story is heading. Hannibal begins to insert subversive ideas into Waxdeck's narrative, while also starting his own prose narrative of a quest to find in California a haven of freedom and equality. Neither narrative matches up with reality, of course, and other characters attempt to impose their own visions on the course of events.

Jones himself is filled with self-doubts, growing increasingly conflicted and confused about his direction and purpose. He begins to depend on each daily dose of poetry for guidance in setting the day's agenda, and becomes ever more confused as the two narrators and others all compete to be masters of their own fates - perhaps even Master of Monterey.  

The standard five criteria don't really yield an accurate evaluation of this very enjoyable novel, but for what it's worth:
  1. Did the novel inspire me to further historical research?
Yes. Although the main events were familiar, this retelling brought up new questions and avenues to be researched.
Score = 4
  1. Did the novel include enough history to make it an interesting historical story?
Yes, just barely. History is used mainly as metaphor, and evidentiary detail is lacking. Still, there are events in the novel that actually happened, and I found no conflicts with verifiable history. The geography and topology of old Monterey are accurate.
Score = 3
  1. Was the depiction of historical events accurate?
Yes and No. Coates lets readers know early on that the novel's purpose is not to tell "what really happened". Indeed, one of the tenets of postmodern historical fiction is that attempts to present fiction as "elaborated" and/or "revealed" truth are inherently dishonest. Rather than aiming to induce in readers a "willing suspension of disbelief", Coates leaves the documented history in its natural sketchy state and uses it only to serve broader novelistic aims.

A couple of odd, unnecessary and seemingly incorrect California place names are included. At one point, a group of locals ride off into the "San Gabriel Mountains". At another point, reference is made to an Ohlone rancheria called "Temecula". Neither of those real places is anywhere near Monterey.
Score = 2
  1. Was the depiction of historical characters accurate?
No. Again, Coates is not trying for accurate characterization. A number of historical characters appear in the novel, but in highly fictionalized forms intended to convey some philosophical point of view, or to illustrate some particular aspect of the social realities existing in that time and place.

The reader may recognize other historical names in addition to Jones, but in heavy disguise. The fictional "Don Ignacio Castro" represents the California landed gentry - the rancheros, and the Castro family was indeed prominent in the Monterey area. The shadowy character of "Mr Lurkin" is an even-more fictionalized version of Thomas O. Larkin, an American merchant who, shortly after the events of 1842, was appointed the first and only U.S. consul to Alta California.
Score = 3
  1. Were the fictional or fictionalized plot and characters plausible?
No. Plausibility is not one of the goals in postmodern historical fiction, so this criterion has limited relevance to an evaluation of this enjoyable novel. The follies and foibles of the very-human characters were, however, all too plausible.
Score = 3

P.S. After complaining about the dearth of local history novels, I must give a shout-out to S. L. Hawke, whose historical mystery Ghosts in the Gulch (2014) is set in 1860s Santa Cruz County.

Sunday, May 15, 2016

Oil! by Upton Sinclair (1926)

The history of California is a particular interest of mine, and the shortage of good historical novels set in my native state is distressing. It was therefore a pleasant surprise to find this 1926 Upton Sinclair novel about early petroleum industry history.

Nearly everyone of a certain age read The Jungle during high school in California, but Sinclair's other novels are less well known. I suspect that Oil! was still a bit too left-ish for 1960s school curriculum, but well worth reading today. In fact, the topical relevance of a 100-year-old novel about near-contemporary events of that time is startling.

Of course, the history recounted in Oil! was very recent history in 1926. The tale begins early in the second decade of the 20th century, and ends with the 1924 presidential election that gave us Calvin Coolidge. The stock market crash, Great Depression and World War II were still in the future, although Sinclair's novel predicted with deadly accuracy how events following WWI would lead inevitably to another world war.

The fictional protagonist of Oil! is J. Arnold Ross, Jr., about 10 years old when we first meet him, and forever known to all by the strange-to-modern-ears nickname "Bunny". J. Arnold Ross senior is an oil man, one of a new breed who arose from hardscrabble beginnings to become titans in the new petroleum industry.

Bunny is like the stock cartoon character who has an angel sitting on one shoulder and a devil on the other, each giving contradictory advice. Except that, in Bunny's case, it's not so easy to tell which is angel and which is devil. Bunny grows up idolizing his father, a larger-than-life, take-charge entrepreneur who seems capable of surmounting any obstacle and overcoming any objection in pursuit of his business ambitions. As both get older, of course, Bunny learns that real life isn't black-and-white, and a boy's uncritical admiration for his father is gradually tempered by a man's understanding of the wider world.

The other angel/devil in Bunny's life is his unlikely friend Paul, rebelling against a poor rural upbringing to become a self-educated labor organizer; eventually a communist and defender of the Bolshevik revolution. Remember again that, in 1926, the dream of a "workers' paradise" in Russia was still very much alive - before the rise of Stalin.

Bunny's inner struggle between loyalty to his father and Paul's appeal to his youthful idealism create much of the dramatic tension in the novel. It also gave Sinclair plenty of opportunity to "compare and contrast" worker solidarity with unfettered capitalism. Another of Bunny's "radical" friends is the more moderate socialist Rachel, who shows him a middle way (think Bernie Sanders).

The few named historical characters are not part of the story except as a frame of reference. For instance, presidents Harding and Coolidge are named but have no actual scenes in the drama, while the oil tycoons who conspired in the Teapot Dome scandal are central characters and pseudonymous.

Many of the fictional characters, however, are very thinly disguised versions of historical counterparts. In that regard, Sinclair's historical fiction style was somewhat different from most novels today. Modern authors would probably be advised by their publishers to be careful of libel lawsuits when writing about still-living people and events.

The historical places of the southern California oil boom also get fictional names, for less apparent reasons. "Beach City" is obviously Long Beach, and "Angel City" is even more obviously Los Angeles.

There's also a lot of interesting social history in Bunny's coming-of-age story. During this period, straight-laced Victorian mores gave way to more independent and pleasure-centered ("decadent") upper class youth, WWI disillusionment, and the "lost generation" of the Roaring Twenties.

One other note: The 2007 feature film There Will Be Blood purported to be based on Oil!. Although it borrows some bits from the novel, however, it's an entirely different story.

The five criteria:
  1. Did the novel inspire me to further historical research?
Yes. Many historical parts of this story were unfamiliar to me. As a native Californian, I know where the oil fields are, but not much about how they got there. Also, Sinclair's account of the Allied Expeditionary Forces (including Paul's first-hand story) supporting the "Whites" in Russia after the 1917 revolution has inspired me to read more about that turbulent period. The crazy story of the Czech Legion would make a great novel on its own.
Score = 5
  1. Did the novel include enough history to make it an interesting historical story?
Yes. Major events of the time are followed closely and accurately. Readers' main disagreements will be with Sinclair's interpretations of those events.
Score = 5
  1. Was the depiction of historical events accurate?
Yes. Same as above. Take a point off for the subjective nature of "accurate".
Score = 4
  1. Was the depiction of historical characters accurate?
Hard to say, as always, but probably as much as in any historical fiction. Fictional naming of characters based on historical persons gives an author more-than-usually-wide latitude for embellishment. However, Sinclair's accounts of events and the people involved in them seem accurate and, as Jesus said, "By their deeds shall you know them".
Score = 4
  1. Were the fictional or fictionalized plot and characters plausible?
Mostly. The only part that Sinclair failed to explain to my satisfaction was Bunny's early and strong attraction to Paul. Not many 10-year-olds would feel such immediate affinity with another boy from a totally different economic and social world. Seen as a plot device to introduce Bunny's internal moral struggles, however, Paul makes perfect sense.
Score = 4 

Friday, March 18, 2016

The Mongoliad, by Neal Stephenson, Greg Bear et al (2012-2014)



Waiting to finish all five books in the Mongoliad series led to a longer-than-usual break between posts, but was a wise decision. Anytime Neal Stephenson is involved, it's best to wait and see how things tie together in the end. There are bound to be myriad unexpected plot twists and turns, and Mongoliad did not disappoint. The Mongoliad Cycle is just one part of an ambitious "transmedia" project called The Foreworld Saga. BTW - all five novels were read on the Kindle "Cloud Reader" platform.

Stephenson was just one member of an accomplished writing team assembled for this project, including Greg Bear and son Erik, Nicole Galland, Mark Teppo and others. Stephenson's past historical fiction accomplishments with Cryptonomicon and The Baroque Cycle had me eagerly anticipating the application of his talents to the medieval world of the Mongols, Kievan Rus and the Holy Roman Empire in the pivotal years 1241-1244

Digression: Stephenson's no slouch with science fiction, either. His latest, SEVENEVES, is a knockout.

Overall, the team writing approach produced a coherent and enjoyable tale, although marred by occasional jarring shifts in writing style that make switches between writers obvious. Various medieval mythical traditions were introduced along the way, serving as a "shadow" narrative that ties together all the historical events. Thus it becomes possible to enjoy The Mongoliad on two different levels. There's plenty of accurately reported history for me, and generous helpings of mythology, knightly chivalry and divine destiny for the King Arthur enthusiast.

A perhaps too-keen interest in medieval combat styles and weapons led to, in my opinion, overly detailed and hard-to-follow blow-by-blow descriptions of numerous single and group combat operations. Bernard Cornwell does that sort of writing more skillfully, though with less technical understanding.

It's impossible for a modern novelist to imagine the thinking of a person living eight hundred years ago, especially in relation to superstition and mythology. The authors take an interesting approach, creating some characters who are believers and are participants in various supernatural events. Other characters are skeptics who see none of the magical happenings witnessed and/or created by their compatriots.  

One extra fun thing: I always enjoy it when a historical character from one author's novel shows up in another's, especially more than one, and especially when the novels are not about the same events. In this case it was Raymond VII, Count of Toulouse. In Book 5 of The Mongoliad, Raymond is a Godot-like character who is expected but never arrives.

This same Raymond ("Raimond" in French) was a minor character in Bernard Cornwell's Grail Quest series, when the quest takes the fictional protagonist Thomas of Hookton to the south of France where he becomes embroiled in the Albigensian Crusade against Catharism.

Raymond's mother was a major character in Sharon Kay Penman's novel A King's Ransom - she was Joan (or Joanna), sister of king Richard I (Lionheart) of England.

See the Wikipedia article for a partial list of historical and mythical events and persons depicted in the ''Mongoliad'' series, along with a listing of the individual novels and authors.

The five criteria:
  1. Did the novel inspire me to further historical research?
Yes. I had not previously read much on this pivotal period in medieval history. A remarkable number of significant events happened in a short period of time, in widely separated locations.
Score = 5
  1. Did the novel include enough history to make it an interesting historical story?
Yes. The history was somewhat front-loaded - the first three novels included more than the last two - but all five had plenty of genuine historical interest.
Score = 5
  1. Was the depiction of historical events accurate?
Yes, and/or who knows? Events of eight hundred years ago are, at best, shrouded in a thick fog of time. Events happened when and where the novels place them; so, as far as can be ascertained, the history seems pretty accurate. It's overlaid, of course, with fictionalized and fictional characters, and with various mythical narratives.
Score = 5
  1. Was the depiction of historical characters accurate?
Again, who knows? Genghis Khan didn't have a Facebook page. All we can ask from historical fiction authors is that they don't mess with the history. Creating plausible and compelling fictionalized versions of historical characters is a bonus. The quality of the numerous characters in The Mongoliad was uneven, but pretty high overall.
Score = 4
  1. Were the fictional or fictionalized plot and characters plausible?
Depends. The plot tying all the history together involved heaping helpings of several different medieval mythical traditions. Do I believe that the Holy Grail is/was real? No. That doesn't prevent it from working as a plot device and as part of the metaphysical underpinnings.
Score = 4

Saturday, January 23, 2016

Raiders of the Nile, by Steven Saylor (2014)

Steven Saylor, creator of Gordianus the Finder, has written a trio of prequel novels that fill in some of the earlier adventures of a young Gordianus. The trilogy title is A Novel of the Ancient World, and the first of the three novels, titled The Seven Wonders, was reviewed previously.

The second book is Raiders of the Nile, and readers of The Seven Wonders will remember that Gordianus ends up in Alexandria (90 B.C.), where he decides to stay awhile in order to avoid the mayhem back home in Rome. Raiders of the Nile opens two years later with Gordianus still in Alexandria, situation unchanged.

Having read previously about the revolt against Rome by its neighboring Italian states, and the concurrent revolt led by Mithridates VI in faraway Pontus, readers might expect Gordianus to somehow become ensnared in one or both of those struggles. What we get instead is closer to an Indiana Jones romantic adventure, with exotic locations, fabulous treasures, bloodthirsty pirates, narrow escapes and improbable plot twists.

Which is all fine, unless you were expecting a historical novel containing lots of history - not just a historical setting. I confess to increasing disappointment as I read farther and farther without encountering either historical characters or events. It wasn't until the closing "Author's Note" that it became clear what Saylor was trying to accomplish. In researching ancient Alexandria, Saylor became interested in the novels written by the ancient Greeks - few of which survive today. Raiders of the Nile is Saylor's tribute to those Greek novels of old.

In the end, it's an entertaining story, featuring many of the same locations in ancient Alexandria that were introduced in The Seven Wonders, but the upcoming big events in Egypt's story are still just over the historical horizon. I assume Saylor doesn't intend to switch permanently to this history-lite style, so I'm going to give him a pass on the 5 criteria and move on the conclusion to the trilogy - Wrath of the Furies. Gordianus has to end up back in Rome by the end of this prequel, and I'm counting on Saylor to make that journey interesting.

Thursday, December 31, 2015

The Seven Wonders, by Steven Saylor (2012)


After the Wars of the Roses novel marathon, a little trip back to the Roman Empire is just the thing to clear the history palate. Steven Saylor's long-running series of historical-whodunnit novels starring Gordianus the Finder are great fun, and good history. Saylor has now penned a trio of prequel novels that fill in some of the earlier adventures of Gordianus. The first of the three is titled The Seven Wonders: A Novel of the Ancient World.

Gordianus fans will remember that his official detective career began in late-republican Rome in 80 B.C. with the novel Roman Blood. The Seven Wonders takes readers back twelve years to 92 B.C. Eighteen-year-old Gordianus sets out on a tour of the Greek world, tagging along with his father's old friend Antipater of Sidon, a celebrated poet whose bucket-list goal is to visit (or revisit) all Seven Wonders of the Ancient World.

The grand tour begins in Ephesus (now on the west coast of Turkey) with the:
  1. Temple of Artemis. A short boat ride from Ephesus got them to 
  2. Halicarnassus and the Mausoleum. Next it's back to Greece to see the
  3. Statue of Zeus at Olympia, just in time for the 172nd Olympiad. The travelers board ship again to the island of Rhodes, where they visit the wreckage of the
  4. Colossus of Rhodes, felled by an earthquake. Then it's on to Babylon and the
  5. Hanging Gardens, and also the Ishtar Gate, only remaining (at that time) section of the walls that enclosed the ancient city. Last stop is Egypt, to see the 
  6. Great Pyramid of Giza, only one of the seven wonders that is still standing. The tour ends in Alexandria, where once stood the 
  7. Pharos of Alexandria, the famous lighthouse that replaced the Ishtar Gate in later lists. 
Of course, young Gordianus gets plenty of chances to use his blossoming detective talents, and also has his first sexual adventures (in several flavors). Saylor doesn't neglect the political turmoils of the times, weaving in a subplot related to the uprising of Mithridates VI of Pontus. Remaining in Alexandria, Gordianus misses the bloody rise in Rome of the dictators Marius and Sulla, but Colleen McCulloch has covered those stories extremely well.

As always, Saylor's style includes a lot of historical detail without ever getting pedantic - the downfall of many a lesser historical novelist. Wry humor and a lighthearted approach also help to keep things from bogging down. It's not the breakneck do-or-die action pace of a Dan Brown, but a more relaxed and cerebral sort of storytelling - one reviewer described Gordianus as a "Roman Sherlock Holmes". That's a pretty good comparison, if you imagine a modern American novelist's version of Holmes.

We'll save the "five criteria" evaluation for the conclusion of the trilogy, but it's safe to say that Saylor's novels always get high marks.

BTW - I realize that not all of the Wikipedia articles these links take you to are of high quality. You can do something about that - become a Wikipedia editor!

Friday, December 4, 2015

Wars of the Roses: Margaret of Anjou, by Conn Iggulden (2015)

This second novel in Conn Iggulden's Wars of the Roses series brings this series of reviews up to date on recent historical fiction about this period of English history. Since this volume ends with a brief epilogue to the battle of Mortimer's Cross in 1461, we know there's at least one more book to come. The first volume, Stormbird, was the first Wars of the Roses novels reviewed here.

Since then, a number of interesting side notes have come to my attention. One is that the ancient battle over Richard III's reputation is still very much alive. Sharon Kay Penman, Philippa Gregory and the Richard III society have worked to rehabilitate the king Shakespeare destroyed, but the Tudor narrative that inspired the bard also lives on. A recent book review, titled Richard III: a bad man - and even worse king, heaps scorn on the efforts of the Richard III Society, while calling attention to a new biography that seems to hew closer to the Tudor line.

The most important recent Richard III event was, of course, the 2013 discovery of Richard's remains in Leicester. Subsequent study of the skeleton has cleared up at least one controversy - the exact nature of the king's spinal deformity. Forensic investigations identified the condition as adolescent-onset scoliosis.

Unfortunately, Conn Iggulden seems to have composed his brief portrayal of the child Richard in this novel without seeing the forensic results. The portrayal presented is of a young child wracked with pain and nearly crippled by his spinal deformity, which would not have been the case with adolescent-onset scoliosis.

That early picture of a suffering child Richard, added to the sympathetic portrayal of Margaret of Anjou, seem to indicate that Iggulden leans more toward the Tudor school of thought. It will be interesting to see how the fictional Richard York develops in the remainder of this series, and whether the questions about Henry Tudor's fatherhood are mentioned, even as slanders (some have speculated that Henry VI mental condition made fatherhood unlikely).

A judgment made in my earlier review of Stormbird needs re-examination. I stated that Iggulden's style in that first volume was "closer to Sharon Kay Penman than the more military-centric Bernard Cornwell". In Margaret of Anjou, the style has definitely shifted more toward Cornwell. That may simply be a consequence of the increased number of battles contained in the period 1454-61, or it may have been a conscious effort to inject more battlefield action.

Other than the inaccurate childhood picture of Richard, factual accuracy seemed to be on a high level. Iggulden has come a long way in that regard since the execrable Emperor series, possibly aided by the story's location on home turf. So far, this a well-written series, and I look forward to the next installment.

Wednesday, December 2, 2015

The Sunne in Splendour, by Sharon Kay Penman (1982)

As promised, this "Wars of the Roses" novel roundup now goes way back to 1982 for a reread of Sharon Kay Penman's The Sunne in Splendour. The central character of Penman's tale is Richard York, whose reign as King Richard III of England was the penultimate chapter in the "Roses" bloodbath - giving way on the battlefield of Bosworth Field to the Tudor dynasty.

Penman's aim was to undo the damage long done to Richard's reputation by Shakespeare's unflattering portrayal - which was based on writings of contemporaries bent on promulgating an unflattering portrayal. The recent discovery of Richard's remains in Leicester supports at least one of those reforms - we now know that he was short, partly because of adolescent-onset scoliosis (spine curvature), but not Shakespeare's "hunchback". This condition may have been progressive, which in turn may have contributed to a deterioration of his mental state as he aged.

While agreeing that Richard ordered the death of the captive Henry VI, Penman successfully (to my mind) refutes the claim that Richard murdered his two young nephews in the Tower of London (in agreement with Philippa Gregory). With somewhat less success, she also takes on the slander that Richard committed incest with his niece (who later became Elizabeth Tudor - The White Princess). The first acquittal is more convincing than the second, but there's really no way to know about either one - that's what makes this period so much fun for novelists.

Other than Richard and his wife Anne, the other main characters get more-or-less equitable treatment. With the exception of the inscrutable Henry VI, they all come across as supremely ambitious, charismatic, talented leaders but with feet containing large quantities of many varieties of clay.

Richard's depression and fatalism following the deaths of his son and wife Anne supply a plausible explanation for his reckless behavior leading up to that final battle. Such behavior could even explain the desertion of allies who might have begun to doubt Richard's capacity to lead. Again, we'll never know for sure, but it works in a novel.

The Sunne in Splendour is still my favorite of all the "Wars of the Roses" novels, and gets straight 5's on the criteria, except perhaps for the last - plausibility. It's rather unfair, however, to criticize any novelist for failure to come up with entirely plausible (to the modern mind) explanations for inexplicable actions that occurred 600 years ago.

Still, the goal of a good (as judged here) historical novel is to tell a ripping good yarn without obvious abuse of recorded facts. Sharon Kay Penman accomplishes that feat as well as anyone.