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

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

'Absolute Friends' by John Le Carré

I picked this one up firstly because I couldn't decide which way to go in my historical reading and, secondly, because I've always enjoyed Le Carré's writing. By the time I reached the end of the book it occurred to me that this actually is a sort of historical novel. The time period begins in the mid-1960s and continues up to the present (or 2003 when the novel was written). The setting incorporates many historical events and places from those years. No historical persons appear as characters, which some will find disappointing but many others might consider a plus. The most interesting departure, however, from a "normal" historical is the author's invention of a hidden back story underlying the historical events. In this regard, Absolute Friends resembles Stone's Fall by Iain Pears - one of my favorites from 2009.

The climactic series of events in the story leads up to a fictional dénouement wherein the hero realizes how he and his absolute friend have been cleverly deceived and manipulated by the fiendish villains. At that point, the author strikes out into territory not unfamiliar to many historical novelists - the morality tale. Remember, this was written in 2003, the year of the Iraq invasion. In that and other events, Le Carré sees the work of a worldwide corporate/political conspiracy with the power to manipulate history to achieve its own nefarious ends. Had he waited a few years to see what an embarrassing botch Iraq became, Le Carré might have lowered his estimate of the omnipotence of those shadowy conspirators. To his credit, he doesn't pick sides like Tom Clancy or other flag-wavers. The bad guys are bad guys and the good guys are also bad guys.

Anyway, Absolute Friends was a good read. In future, I will continue to be tempted by post-WWII spy/crime novels, if they do a good job with the history. Are you listening, John Lawton?

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Lionheart, by Sharon Kay Penman

I suspect that most American readers of historical fiction share my incomplete and skewed knowledge of King Richard I. Before reading Sharon Kay Penman's "Angevin series" novels, I knew Richard mainly as the violent, angry, homosexual sociopath of The Lion in Winter, or as the beloved but absent English king championed by Robin Hood against the evil usurper, Prince John. Penman has done us all a great favor by filling out our picture of Richard as a complex and nuanced character in Devil's Brood, and now in Lionheart. Beyond Richard himself, the novel contributed greatly to my knowledge of the Crusades and the complex politics of those times.

Lionheart begins where Devil's Brood left off, following the death of King Henry in 1189. Richard's first task is to consolidate his rule of his father's empire and put loyal vassals in place to administer the widely-separated regions. The work takes on added urgency when Richard decides to "take the cross" and lead an army against the "Saracen" Moslems who have recaptured Jerusalem from the Christian forces under their charismatic Kurdish general, whose Arabic name is usually rendered as "Saladin". The remainder of Lionheart takes place during the so-called "Third Crusade", as Richard battles not only Saladin but also the schemes of his main "ally", King Philippe II of France. The novel ends as Richard, having failed to recapture Jerusalem and fearing for the survival of his kingdom at home, departs forever from Palestine in late 1192. Penman will complete the story of Richard's eventful homeward journey in the forthcoming A King's Ransom.

Thanks to Penman's conscientious historical research, the reader gains a historically-accurate picture of the Richard and his Crusaders during those turbulent two years. Modernizing distortions of the fictionalized historical characters are kept to an unobtrusive minimum - especially important when all of the main characters are historical. Exotic locations include the Kingdom of Sicily, where Richard's sister Joanna is Queen, and the Crusader kingdom known to the French-speakers as Outremer (which translates generally as "beyond the sea" or "overseas"). An entertaining (and fairly accurate as historical movies go) account of events leading up to Richard's arrival in "The Holy Land" can be found in Kingdom of Heaven (2005). Some of the movie characters have roles in Lionheart, including the hero Balian of Ibelin. As for Richard himself, Penman devoted considerable research to debunking the "homosexual" label as a slander circulated by his enemies. The violence and anger, however, of the Richard portrayed in James Goldman's famous play are also present in Penman's version. One interesting creative decision by Penman is to keep Saladin in the background. He appears in the story only through the words of his lieutenants and popular stories told about him.

As with Devil's Brood, Lionheart rates straight 5's in my criteria for historical novels. The genre is lucky to have a writer who is able to entertain while maintaining the utmost respect for history. Highly recommended.

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

'REAMDE' by Neal Stephenson

Anyone who has read Stephenson's latest knows it's not a historical novel. So, I'm straying somewhat from this blog's purported theme by writing about it. Stephenson has, however, written some of my favorite historical novels (The Baroque Trilogy, Cryptonomicron), so it's perhaps not that large of a departure. Without going into a plot summary, let's just stipulate that the novel is set in the very-near-future, containing nothing which can't become reality in the next few years. So, some of the same criteria normally used for historicals can be applied to REAMDE. Specifically, how accurate is the novel's portrayal of the current world?

Any story line that brings on-line fantasy gamers and hackers together with Russian mobsters and radical Islamic terrorists must be read with some suspension of disbelief. That is, however, part of the point of the novel. In an increasingly interconnected world, the strangest bedfellows are only separated by a few mouse-clicks. The cascade of unlikely events that bring all these characters together sometimes has a Keystone Cops air that can be humorous and horrific at the same time. Regular readers will, of course, recognize such deeply ironical juxtapositions as a Stephenson specialty. The factual basis underpinning the plausibility of the story is mostly very solid - another quality we've come to expect from Stephenson. The man does his research. I learned lots of new stuff about hacking, computer gaming, modern small-arms, China and the Pacific Northwest.

The one aspect of the plot that seemed like a big stretch was the idea that an Al Qaeda terrorist leader could unexpectedly arrive in a remote region of northern Idaho and, within a few days, find a dozen accomplices already living in the U.S. ready, willing and able to join him and become part of a terrorist/suicide operation. Maybe I'm not sufficiently pananoid, but I don't buy it. The 9-11 attacks, for instance, required years of careful planning and preparation. On the other hand, those late recruits were not essential to the story. The extra guns just allowed for a bigger shoot-out at the book's climax.

In the end, despite the abundant entertainment value, I found the novel mildly disappointing. That would not be true if the author were not Neal Stephenson. REAMDE lacks the really mind-bending ideas of his SF novels, or even of The Baroque Trilogy. In the end, it's a fairly standard modern techno-thriller with the requisite large doses of guns, explosions and chase scenes. Stephenson doesn't spend much time on sex scenes, so that guilty pleasure is missing. Still, it was a fun ride and I was sorry when I reached the last page.

Monday, October 17, 2011

'Devil's Brood' by Sharon Kay Penman

A recent review of Penman's newest novel, Lionheart, induced me to detour from my early-American reading path to catch up on Penman's explorations of Henry and Eleanor's 12th-century world. Penman really is, in my opinion, one of the best historical novelists writing today, and I can give Devil's Brood straight 5's on my five criteria without even thinking much about it. She's probably not for everyone - there are times when the reader wonders, "where's the fiction?". Penman is so scrupulous about adhering to historical sources that it sometimes seems like you're reading a family biography rather than a novel. The saving grace is the way she creates wonderfully complex and subtly-nuanced fictionalized historical characters that seem so authentic. Certainly there is some modern bias, which is unavoidable, but it never jumps up to slap you in the face. To the extent that it's possible to make the minds of a 12th-century French-speaking royal family accessible to a modern English-speaking reader - without romanticizing or condescending - Penman does.

Devil's Brood is subtitled, "The last days of the tempestuous marriage of Henry II and Eleanor of Aquitaine", and that sums it up pretty well. The story picks up where Time and Chance, the previous novel in Penman's "Plantagenet series", left off. It's April of 1172 and Henry is returning to Wales from Ireland, where he had gone to solidify his rule over the feuding Irish kings. Also, it was wise for Henry to be out of England following the death of Thomas Beckett, the climactic event of Time and Chance. The Devil's Brood referred to in the novel's title was Henry's four sons, who took turns scheming, defying and rebelling as they came of age and began to chafe under their father's authority. The novel concludes following the death of Henry in 1189. Lionheart will presumably take up the story at that point.

Friday, October 7, 2011

Follow-up to 'Lydia Bailey' review

As noted previously, when reading a historical novel I like to have one or more reliable works of straight history near to hand for fact-checking. I initially failed to do that while reading the Barbary War sections of Kenneth Roberts' Lydia Bailey (see 08-30 post). Since then, I found a very well-written history entitled Pirate Coast: Thomas Jefferson, the First Marines, and the Secret Mission of 1805, by Richard Zacks. Zacks' book confirms the general historical accuracy of Roberts' novel. It also confirms my comments about Roberts' tendency to polarize historical characters into good/evil extremes. Pirate Coast is highly recommended for fulfillment of my first criterium, "inspired me to further historical research".

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

'Washington and Caesar', by Christian Cameron (2004)

This novel took me completely by surprise - I'm not quite sure why. Maybe it was because I had never heard of author Christian Cameron or this novel until I found it listed on Historical (thanks once again, Margaret). Maybe it was the somewhat lurid (and ungrammatical) subtitle - Master and slave. Two heroes fighting for freedom. But on opposite sides. I was expecting lots of purple prose, but Washington and Caesar turned out to be a well-researched, well-written and thoroughly enjoyable read. My enjoyment was increased when I found a very inexpensive hardcover copy at an on-line clearance site. Now I can donate it to my local library and hope they shelve it.

As the subtitle explains, the novel features two very different main character viewpoints. The inherent contrasts between the Great Man and his African slave give the story plenty of tension. The Revolutionary War setting imparts life-and-death drama. Characters are believable and sympathetic. The history research is impressive. What more can a reader ask for?

The five criteria:
  1. Did the novel inspire me to further historical research?

Even though I've now read quite a few Revolutionary War-era novels, histories and biographies, this is the first that offered a look at the experiences of black slaves during the War. It's another side to the story, one that I'm sure a lot of folks would like to forget about. Score = 4

  1. Did the novel include enough history to make it an interesting historical story?

The coverage of Washington's life before and during the War was very complete. Likewise the history of the black Loyalist soldiers. Score = 4

  1. Was the depiction of historical events accurate?

The author acknowledges a few cases of dramatic license, such as creating a fictional black Loyalist unit that combines features of several different historical units. I found no obvious cases of historical error or distortion. Score = 4

  1. Was the depiction of historical characters accurate?

Washington's portrayal does not contradict his biographers in any major ways. None of the other historical characters get nearly as much depth, except for Mrs. Washington. Cameron gives Martha an intelligence and sharp wit that are missing from other descriptions I've read. Score = 4

  1. Would I read another novel by this author, continuing in this historical period, with these characters (or new ones)?

I would welcome a sequel that follows Caesar and other former slaves who decided to leave/not leave the new United States after the war. Their fates are left unexplored. Score = 4

Friday, September 2, 2011

'1812' by David Nevin (1996)

This is my second David Nevin novel, after Eagle's Cry (see June 22 review). 1812 skips over the years between the end of Eagle's Cry in 1804 and 1812, which included the second term of President Jefferson and the first term of President Madison. Madison, one of the fictionalized historical heroes of Eagle's Cry, returns as the President who presides over the 'second war of independence' against Great Britain. First lady Dolley Madison also plays a major role. A more mature Andrew Jackson returns, joined by youthful new hero Winfield Scott, whose battlefield prowess vaults him from Captain to General in two years of war. Jackson and Scott eventually reward Madison's frustrating search for able military commanders, strikingly similar to Lincoln's situation in the Civil War. Jackson's involvement in the Creek War of 1813-14 is also included in the narrative, prior to the climactic Battle of New Orleans. The fictional Sally McQuirk, daughter and heir of a newspaper publisher, provides a romantic interest for young Scott (Maria Mayo, the woman Scott married, makes an appearance later in the story).

A note about the Wikipedia links; I don't vouch for the quality and/or accuracy of all these articles, but they are handy for quick reference. I'm a WP editor myself and frequently expand, clarify and correct articles I read, especially when I've just finished a work of history or biography. I urge others with an interest in history to do the same. Wikipedia is a democratic collaboration, so the larger the number of editors involved, the better the article tends to be. For serious research, of course, full histories and biographies are necessary.

No need to reiterate Nevin's political slant; that's discussed in the Eagle's Cry review. Let's move on to the five criteria:
  1. Did the novel inspire me to further historical research?

Yes. I haven't read too much about the War of 1812 or about the Creek War. Score = 4

  1. Did the novel include enough history to make it an interesting historical story?

Nevin includes the main documented historical events, told with plenty of detail. Only a half-hearted attempt is made to explain the causes of the war, which is understandable since the novel focuses on the heroic, courageous soldiers, while President Madison fumes about his and his administration's shortcomings. Score = 4

  1. Was the depiction of historical events accurate?

Nevin adheres closely to the facts of documented historical events. Conspicuous omissions are absent as well, other than the lack of any in-depth British perspective. Unfortunately, no 'Author's Note' or list of sources is included this time. Score = 4

  1. Was the depiction of historical characters accurate?

Nevin, unlike many historical novelists, includes historical persons as major dramatic characters. Since the romanticization (is that a word?), simplification and polarization of characters is a feature of most historical novels, an experienced reader of the genre should not be surprised that Madison, Scott and Jackson come off better than they probably were. In like manner, the novel's historical villains, especially Secretary of War Armstrong, Senator Daniel Webster and British General Cockburn, probably come off worse. Creek leader William "Red Eagle" Weatherford gets a respectful, though brief treatment. Score = 3

  1. Would I read another novel by this author, continuing in this historical period, with these characters (or new ones)?

Yes; at some point Dream West will be read and reviewed. Score = 4.

Tuesday, August 30, 2011

'Lydia Bailey' by Kenneth Roberts (1947)

Lydia Bailey is the name of the fictional heroine of this later novel by Kenneth Roberts. The time period is 1798 to 1805, and encompasses several major events in US history. The same cautionary note applies to this novel as to Roberts' previous works - that is, his fictionalized historical character portrayals are very black-and-white, either much more heroic or villainous than they could possibly have been in real life. Also, government officials in general tend to be small-minded, conniving, dishonest and cowardly, among other faults. Their actions continually frustrate the patriotic and altruistic designs of Roberts' noble heroes. Given that large grain of salt, Roberts invented a clever and exciting plot that takes fictional hero Albion Hamlin on a wide-ranging journey from his home in Portland, Maine. Young attorney Hamlin first travels to Boston to defend a newspaper publisher on trial in 1798 for violations of the infamous Sedition Act. The judge turns out to be the Federalist Samuel Chase (future Supreme Court justice and enemy of President Jefferson), the novel's first black-hearted villain. While there, Hamlin falls in love with a portrait of Lydia Bailey and sets out to find her and save her inheritance from an unscrupulous cousin. This quest takes Hamlin first to Philadelphia (still the US capital in 1798), where he meets the novel's central villain, State Department functionary Tobias Lear. Nearby, Hamlin meets botanist John Bartram. Further plot twists take him into the middle of the Haitian Revolution and on to the Mediterranean, ending up in Tripoli on the eve of the first Barbary War. Along the way, he meets good guys Toussaint Louverture and William Eaton, along with bad guys Charles Leclerc, Yusuf Karamanli and William Bainbridge The five criteria:
  1. Did the novel inspire me to further historical research?

Yes. Many of these historical events were relatively unexplored by by historical reading, so the novel opened up some new vistas. Score = 4

  1. Did the novel include enough history to make it an interesting historical story?

Definitely. As noted above, Roberts' clever plot manages to bind many geographically remote historical events into one story. Score = 4

  1. Was the depiction of historical events accurate?

Pretty much. As with virtually all historical novels, there's a certain amount of exaggeration for dramatic effect. I found no outright fabrications or willful distortions. Score = 4

  1. Was the depiction of historical characters accurate?

Characters are always more subject to the novelist's manipulation than events. Roberts, as noted in the opening section above, uses that sort of artistic license to fit characters into his good vs. evil sort of historical outlook. He did plenty of research, however, and included a brief list of sources at the end - always a plus in my scoring system. Score = 4

  1. Would I read another novel by this author, continuing in this historical period, with these characters (or new ones)?

Unfortunately, I've just about reached the end of Roberts' novels, and he won't be writing any new ones. I wish there were more. Score = 4.

Monday, August 15, 2011

'Northwest Passage' by Kenneth Roberts (1936)

After finishing Rabble In Arms, I thought I was done with Kenneth Roberts for a while. Then I discovered that my local library had a copy of Northwest Passage. It's main historical character is Robert Rogers, creator of 'Rogers' Rangers'. This irregular force of colonial soldiers fought alongside the British army in the French and Indian War (1754-63). Rogers specialized in Indian-style forest tactics, as opposed to the strict British open-field formations that proved disastrous in the early stages of the war. In Rogers, novelist Roberts found another example of a brilliant leader and out-of-the-box thinker who was opposed and dragged down by the jealousy and envy of lesser men. Ayn Rand made her literary debut ten years later with another hero in this mold, in The Fountainhead. So, when reading Roberts, one should remember that the historical characters were almost certainly not as heroic or despicable as their fictionalized counterparts.

The novel's title was the quest undertaken by Rogers after the war. Thwarted by his enemies, Rogers got no further west than Fort Michilimackinac (at the strait between Lakes Huron and Michigan). His life after that was a series of ups and downs, ending in alcoholism and destitution. Roberts' fictional main character is another man from northern New England, named Langdon Towne. Towne is a relative of the fictional Nason family of Arundel, and shares a friendship with the irrepressible Cap Huff. Towne becomes one of Rogers' Rangers and an aide to Rogers himself. He is thus in a position to observe and comment on the leader's actions. The fictional Steven Nason had a similar relationship to Benedict Arnold in Arundel.

The five criteria:
  1. Did the novel inspire me to further historical research?

Yes. I haven't read much on the French and Indian War, so this novel opened up some new territory. Also, Roberts used some recently discovered (at that time) material about Rogers' career to flesh out his account. An author's note referred to a bibliography, which unfortunately was not included in the edition of the novel that I found. I always love it when historical novelists include bibliography. Score = 4

  1. Did the novel include enough history to make it an interesting historical story?

Yes. As usual, Roberts includes a wealth of historical detail. Score = 5

  1. Was the depiction of historical events accurate?

Yes. Roberts is always scrupulous in adhering to historical facts. Only his interpretation of those facts might be questioned. Score = 4

  1. Was the depiction of historical characters accurate?

As noted above, there is undoubtedly some exaggeration to make the 'good' characters better and the 'bad' characters worse. This tendency made me wonder, at times, whether a particular historical character really did something he does in the novel. These are, however, always minor actions that don't contradict known facts. As long as the reader keeps that in mind, it's not a big problem. Score = 3

  1. Would I read another novel by this author, continuing in this historical period, with these characters (or new ones)?

Definitely. I just found Lydia Bailey, and will read it soon. Score = 5.

Saturday, July 30, 2011

'Rabble In Arms' by Kenneth Roberts (1933)

Rabble In Arms is the second novel of a Revolutionary War trilogy by Kenneth Roberts, following Arundel. The two novels have the same publication date, but it's unclear whether they were written in the same year. They have very different first-person narrative styles. Steven Nason, the fictional woodsman of Arundel, has an archaic, plain-spoken manner meant to invoke that particular time and place. Nason returns as a character in Rabble In Arms but the narrator this time is another fictional resident of the little town of Arundel, Maine. Peter Merrill is the son of a shipbuilder and a fourth-generation native son. Peter uses none of the archaic terms, stilted speech and provincial attitudes of Steven Nason, making the Merrills seem both more contemporary and less authentic. Another returning character from Arundel is Nason's rough-and-ready friend Cap Huff, who has lost none of his fractured syntax, sideways reasoning and light-fingered ways. I did, however, miss Nason's commentary on his friend's idiosyncrasies.

As the novel opens in March 1776, Peter and his younger brother Nathaniel are in London on a mission to sell one of their father's ships. A letter from home tells of the hardships suffered by those in Arundel who seem to lack zeal in support of the Revolution. The elder Merrill asks his sons to return as soon as possible, as their stay in London has aroused the suspicions of the local Patriots. Upon their return, they are persuaded to join Nason and Huff in a company preparing to march from Arundel to reinforce General Benedict Arnold's little American army in resisting a British invasion from Canada.

The brothers are not entirely convinced that taking on the British army is a good idea, but realize that their family will be safe from patriotic persecution only if the Merrills join the cause. Their story joins with Arnold's from the strategic retreat from Canada through the climactic American victory at Saratoga, New York. In addition to the excitement of the historical story, Roberts adds romance, espionage and comic relief from the irrepressible Cap Huff. I felt that the fictional characters were not as well-drawn as in Arundel, but still engaging.

The five criteria:
  1. Did the novel inspire me to further historical research?

Not as much as Arundel, since I knew more about these events before reading the novel. Still, Roberts' portrayals of Arnold and other historical characters makes me want to read more about them, and about those world-changing years. Score = 4

  1. Did the novel include enough history to make it an interesting historical story?

Yes. The Saratoga campaign culminated in the victory that ended the British threat in the north. Roberts includes extensive historical detail; military, political and personal. Score = 5

  1. Was the depiction of historical events accurate?

Yes. Once again, Roberts is scrupulously faithful to historical sources. Details of battle scenes and military life are certainly somewhat fictionalized, but have an authentic feel. Score = 5

  1. Was the depiction of historical characters accurate?

Roberts casts most of the historical characters as heroes or villains, without much in between. Hero-in-chief is once again Benedict Arnold. Principal villains are Horatio Gates and James Wilkinson. Each of these men was certainly more complex than Roberts' fictionalized portrayals, but the novel does not attempt nuanced character studies of historicals. In the next to last chapter, Roberts (speaking through Peter Merrill) postulates a somewhat fantastical justification of Arnold's later treason. However, other than that speculative bit and the good-vs-evil simplification, the historical characters' actions seem to be accurately described. Score = 4

  1. Would I read another novel by this author, continuing in this historical period, with these characters (or new ones)?

Definitely. The third volume of the trilogy is The Lively Lady. My library doesn't have it, so I'll have to buy it at some point. Score = 4.

Thursday, July 14, 2011

'Arundel' by Kenneth Roberts (1933)

Yet again, the great historical novel site has facilitated my discovery of a very fine historical novel author, Kenneth Roberts. Arundel is the first in a Revolutionary War trilogy, following the adventures of several fictitious residents of what later became the state of Maine. The novel's first-person narrator Steven Nason and his family are traders and proprietors of an inn serving the little town of Arundel, later renamed Kennebunkport (today's Arundel lies further to the north). Steven has become an accomplished backwoodsman by the time he reaches adulthood, knowledge he gained by accompanying his father on trading trips among the Indians. Steven joins Colonel Benedict Arnold's small expeditionary force in the fall of 1775 to help guide him through the northern wilderness to attack British-held Quebec.

Being written in 1933, the writing style of Arundel sometimes seems quaint, but never dated. Steven's narration and private thoughts are related in a convincingly provincial and straightforward style, without condescension. I had fun finding definitions for some of the archaic words and activities.

The five criteria:
  1. Did the novel inspire me to further historical research?

Yes. For the first time since I began this blog, I had a straight history at hand to consult when in doubt about historical details. Willard Stern Randall's Benedict Arnold: Patriot and Traitor helped to provide context for the novel. Google Earth also came in handy for viewing the country described and the route of Arnold's expedition. As he notes following the end of the novel, Roberts' sources included several journals kept by officers in Arnold's little army. These first-person accounts supply many of the day-to-day details that make the story compelling. Plus, I always appreciate it when writers of historical fiction acknowledge their sources. The only shortcoming is that, because the events occur in such a short time period and are related so thoroughly in the novel, there's not that much research left to do. Score = 4

  1. Did the novel include enough history to make it an interesting historical story?

Yes. Arnold's expedition was probably the most amazing feat-of-arms performed by any military force during the Revolutionary War, even though it ended in failure. The story doesn't need much fictional 'spice' to make it a riveting tale. Score = 5

  1. Was the depiction of historical events accurate?

Yes. The novel is full of historical detail, much of it drawn from the journals and correspondence of the principal actors. Some of the details are still argued over by historians today, but nothing was intentionally altered. Roberts' faithfulness to historical sources contrasts with the liberties taken by most novelists for the sake of dramatic effect. Score=5

  1. Was the depiction of historical characters accurate?

Roberts' descriptions of Arnold's physical prowess are unlike anything I've read elsewhere, and are perhaps exaggerated. Likewise the other-worldly woodcraft of the Indians. The personalities and actions of the historical characters are consistent with what I've read elsewhere. Among the 'historicals', Arnold gets the largest role, but many others get significant dialog time, including Henry Dearborn, Reuben Colburn, Daniel Morgan and Aaron Burr. Score=4

  1. Would I read another novel by this author, continuing in this historical period, with these characters (or new ones)?

I have already begun Rabble In Arms, the sequel to Arundel. Can't wait to see what Steven and his friends do next. Score = 5.

Sunday, July 3, 2011

'City of Dreams' by William Martin (2010)

After a short detour to discover David Nevin, I returned to William Martin and his danger-is-my middle-name antiquarian Peter Fallon. This time, however, Fallon leaves his native Boston for the bright lights of New York City. City of Dreams follows Peter and fiancée Evangeline as they track down a long-lost stash of government scrip - called "New Emission Money" - from the Revolutionary War. Of course, a variety of other characters are also looking for the money; for reasons good, bad and ambiguous. This plot line gives City of Dreams an action-thriller movie feel, a bit like National Treasure, perhaps.

Where Cape Cod centered on a place and The Lost Constitution focused on a document, City of Dreams does both. A similarity with both earlier Martin novels is the way the story jumps back and forth from present to past, in alternating chapters. The action all takes place in NYC but skips through the city's history, stopping infrequently and briefly to follow the movements of the missing bills. A comparison with Edward Rutherfurd's beefy New York: A Novel finds very few historical events or characters in common. Indeed, there is much less history overall and much more action to be found in City of Dreams. Partly, that's because there's a substantial contemporary plotline running throughout - a commentary on the history and philosophy of the national debt. When Martin was planning this novel, one suspects that the national debt angle came first, followed by the historical story of the financial industry and the debt; which of course was and is centered in New York.

Historical characters chosen for inclusion in the story also tend to have something to do with that history: Alexander Hamilton and J. P. Morgan are the most prominent. The main fictional characters in the historical sections belong to several generations of the same family, imparting a little of the Michener/Rutherfurd feel.

So, on to the five criteria:
  1. Did the novel inspire me to further historical research?

Not so much this time, as I've already read several other books covering the same historical turf. The novel did, however, introduce me to Haym Solomon, a fascinating character who, along with Robert Morris, found the money to finance the American Revolution. Score = 3

  1. Did the novel include enough history to make it an interesting historical story?

Yes. In the end, however, I felt that the treatment of the country's financial history was pretty shallow. It is a novel, of course, but some of the later events seemed to be chosen more for dramatic effect than historical relevance. For instance, two of the modern fictional characters are inside one of the World Trade Center towers when the planes hit on September 11, 2001. They both survive, and the presumed death of one contributes to her role in the plot later on, but the incident has no relation to the story of the new Emission Money and/or the national debt. A talented writer like Martin could have made much more of the financial narrative by including a little history of the Federal Reserve or the Glass-Steagal Act. Score = 3

  1. Was the depiction of historical events accurate?

Once again, Martin gets high marks for historical accuracy. For instance, the novel's account of New York City events during 1775 and 1776 squares with the straight history of Divided Loyalties, by Richard M. Ketchum. As noted above, my quibbles have to do with quantity, not quality. Score = 3

  1. Was the depiction of historical characters accurate?

Yes - but there aren't many, and those who appear are just cameos, except for a bit of Hamilton and the remarkable Haym Solomon. Score = 3

  1. Would I read another novel by this author, continuing in this historical period, with these characters (or new ones)?

Definitely. I'm still planning to read Citizen Washington, as soon as the hardcover remainders show up at Amazon (my library doesn't have it yet, so I'll buy a discounted hardcover and donate it when I'm done - as I did with City of Dreams). Score = 4.

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

'Eagle's Cry', by David Nevin (2000)

Instead of another William Martin book, as promised last time, the subject of this critique will be Eagle's Cry, by David Nevin. This novel of early United States history concentrates on causes and effects of westward expansion in the opening years of the 19th century. Eagle's Cry opens with George Washington's death in 1799 and concludes in 1804, following the Louisiana Purchase. Most of the characters are historical figures, from Jefferson, Madison, Burr and John Quincy Adams to Meriwether Lewis, Andrew Jackson and (briefly) Napoleon Bonaparte. These characters' differing narrative viewpoints on the events of those fateful years are presented in alternating chapters. Historical names are supplemented by fictional characters Danny Mobry, the French Louisiana-born widow of an American trader, and her two married black slaves Tom and Millie. A brief 'Author's Note' following the novel explains some of Nevin's historical thinking, although the somewhat ambiguous title is not explained.

The five criteria:
  1. Did the novel inspire me to further historical research?

Yes; especially some events less familiar to me, such as the Haitian Revolution. Score = 4

  1. Did the novel include enough history to make it an interesting historical story?

This novel is composed almost entirely of documented historical events, told in a highly entertaining style. Score = 4

  1. Was the depiction of historical events accurate?

Quite accurate as far as it goes, though biased and not always complete. The 'Author's Note' confesses some of Nevin's sins, like referring to Jefferson's party as "Democrats". Some omissions, such as a failure to mention the Barbary Wars begun during Jefferson's presidency, were probably intentional, limiting the novel's scope to western-related events. Another major omission is the lack of any native American voice. Not surprising, perhaps, in a novel that lionizes Jefferson, Madison and Jackson. Score = 3

  1. Was the depiction of historical characters accurate?

As noted above, Jefferson, Madison and Jackson come off better than they probably were. As Nevin notes, "Burr apologists" will take issue with their man's portrayal. Lewis' character seems much more detailed than historical evidence allows. For instance, during a visit to Jefferson at Monticello, he meets Sally Hemings and speculates inwardly on the ambiguous nature of her behavior toward her master. I don't know enough about Jackson to comment on his fictionalized character; a good biography will be placed on my non-fiction reading list. Score = 3

  1. Would I read another novel by this author, continuing in this historical period, with these characters (or new ones)?

Yes; I plan to read 1812 sometime soon. Score = 4.

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

'The Lost Constitution' by William Martin (2007)

As promised before I got sidetracked with text searches in Google Books, the subject this time is The Lost Constitution, another New England historical by William Martin. The title gives away one big difference between this book and Cape Cod. The focus of this story is a document rather than a place. That difference releases the action from restriction to a small geographical area. Martin takes advantage of that release to let his story roam all over New England. Another thing the title tells you is that the earliest historical period in this novel will be close to 1787, when the Constitutional Convention met in Philadelphia to produce a new form of government for the United States. In fact, the historical story begins in 1786 with Shays' Rebellion. Martin describes those events as illustrating the need for a stronger national government to replace the weak Articles of Confederation.

The fictional element of the story takes the form of a quest for a semi-legendary 'lost' copy of the first draft of the Constitution belonging to Massachussets Convention delegate Rufus King. This plot line is similar to one in Cape Cod, which included a lost ship's log purportedly written by the captain of the Mayflower. The action shifts back and forth from the present to a sequence of historical periods and places, as a modern antiquities dealer attempts to trace the movements of the missing document through the years and generations. A collection of shady and/or dangerous characters are also pursuing the document, for a variety of reasons. This plot line gives The Lost Constitution a historical-thriller feel, a la Da Vinci Code. OK, no spoilers; let's move on to the five criteria:
  1. Did the novel inspire me to further historical research?

Yes. A large number of historical people are incorporated into the novel, from the aforementioned Daniel Shays and Rufus King to Harriet Beecher Stowe and Joshua Chamberlain. Interesting places too, such as Crawford Notch and Newport, R.I. during the Gilded Age. Plenty of inspiration here. Score = 4

  1. Did the novel include enough history to make it an interesting historical story?

Yes. The historical story traces the political, social and economic evolution of New England, including longer-term trends such as the rise and fall of the textile industry. Score = 4

  1. Was the depiction of historical events accurate?

As in Cape Cod, Martin seems to be very strong on historical accuracy. Score = 4

  1. Was the depiction of historical characters accurate?

Again similar to Cape Cod, historical characters are either mentioned only in passing or given small supporting roles. The biographical information given about these characters is accurate; there's just not much of it. Score = 3

  1. Would I read another novel by this author, continuing in this historical period, with these characters (or new ones)?

Definitely, although none of Martin's novels are written in series. I might give New England a break and read Citizen Washington next. Score = 4.

Wednesday, June 1, 2011

A tip for better Google Books text searches

I've been reading Champlain's Dream (not a novel, I know), by David Hackett Fischer, and was curious about a colorful character known as "Captain Provençal"; Champlain's swashbuckling uncle. I typed the name into the Google search box but was disappointed to get only two relevant hits. I looked again at the search box; oops, I had typed "captain provancal". Correcting my spelling yielded much better results. Even the misspelling, however, led me to Champlain's Dream in Google Books. I decided to do some search engine testing there, since I already knew that the Captain was mentioned many times.

In case you haven't used it, Google Books has a great search feature that will search within a book and show snippet views of passages containing your search terms. I was puzzled, though. A search usually highlights instances of the search words. My search showed only a page of the book, without any highlighted words. That was when I discovered my spelling error. Correcting the spelling improved my results in the regular Google Search, but still no highlights appeared in the Google Books text search results. Maybe capitalization is important? I tried searching on "Captain Provencal" - still no highlights. It was only when I replaced the regular "c" with the French "ç" that the search found and highlighted the name "Captain Provençal" inside Champlain's Dream. It seems that the search engine inside Google Books is much less "fuzzy" than regular Google Search. So, to find exactly what you're searching for, don't forget those diacritical marks.

Monday, May 23, 2011

'Cape Cod' (1991) by William Martin

Cape Cod is, on one level, a multi-generational study of the well-known historic place and several families that lived there, somewhat in the style of Michener or his younger admirer Edward Rutherfurd. On another level, it's a behind-the-history detective story, adding a present-day plot line featuring descendents of early families and a search for a legendary lost document. The mystery plot reminds me of Stone's Fall, by David Liss. Add the two together and you get a novel that's highly entertaining yet packed with historical detail.

The five criteria:
  1. Did the novel inspire me to further historical research?

Most definitely. From cryptic clues to past visits by Vikings of Vinland and early European explorers (Hudson and/or Champlain?) to the native American tribes awaiting the arrival of the Pilgrims, to fishermen, privateers, smugglers, whalers, runaway slaves and reclusive writers; Cape Cod is full of potential side trips into historical study. Score = 4

  1. Did the novel include enough history to make it an interesting historical story?

As noted above, the history content was high throughout the novel. Although there is some interesting historical speculation, I didn't find any distortions, errors or significant omissions. Recently, I've been searching out novels that include events leading up to and during the Revolutionary War, and was not surprised to find that it was a time when not too much happened on Cape Cod other than coastal smuggling. The major events occurred in nearby Boston and elsewhere, but one interesting event is included - the shipwreck of HMS Somerset in 1778. Score = 4

  1. Was the depiction of historical events accurate?

Judging from the follow-up study I've done, events and historical characters included in the novel seem to be presented accurately. The story includes some interesting fictional speculations, such as the story of what really caused the wreck of the Somerset. In future, I'm going to find one or more straight history texts and/or biographies to read in conjunction with historical novels, but Martin seems to be very good on historical accuracy. Score = 4

  1. Was the depiction of historical characters accurate?

Most historical characters are only mentioned in passing, but a few have a bit of dialog, including pre-Revolution era lawyer James Otis (born on Cape Cod) and a beach-wandering Henry David Thoreau. Young Senator Jack Kennedy does a cameo in a telephone conversation. Score = 3

  1. Would I read another novel by this author, continuing in this historical period, with these characters?

Definitely; in fact, I already have. Next post will be The Lost Constitution. Not a sequel, but set in New England. Score = 4.

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

'The Wind in the Forest' by Inglis Fletcher

The Wind in the Forest is a 'historical romance', written way back in 1957 by Inglis Fletcher. A search for pre-American Revolution settings at historical led me to this one (as with the Edward Cline Sparrowhawk series). Curiosity overcame 'historical romance' skepticism when I learned that Herman Husband and William Tryon appear as characters. Tryon was colonial governor of North Carolina from 1765 to 1771, then was promoted to become the last colonial governor of New York. Husband is both less well-known and more interesting. Labeled today as a 'populist', he became the main propagandist for the North Carolina Regulators. The Regulators were settlers in the western parts of the colony (Piedmont), who organized to oppose what they saw as unfair taxation and policies imposed on them by the eastern-dominated government. Against this backdrop of colonial politics, the fictional characters are primarily members of old planter families. As Fletcher describes it, these families were torn between loyalty to the colonial status-quo, sympathy for the injustices suffered by the westerners, and hunger for the latest London fashions. The struggle of opposing forces previews the revolutionary break with the mother country a few years later.

The 'romance' aspects of the novel were not overdone and, in fact, were no more prominent than in most historical novels. A different issue is likely to be more troubling to the modern reader; Fletcher's benign depiction of slavery. The novel is full of happy, hymn-singing, 'yes, Massa - no, Massa' slave characters. No whippings, runaways, horror stories of kidnapping and transport from Africa or fears of slave revolt disturb the idyllic tranquility of the plantations. Still, the story is not about them and doesn't try to promote slavery or demonize slave owners.

The five criteria:
  1. Did the novel inspire me to further historical research?

I picked up this novel because of its inclusion of Herman Husband. Although Fletcher claimed that his fictionalization was based on his own writings, he came off as ultimately less interesting than straight history would indicate. The same thing happened to Tryon and other historical characters. On the other hand, my interest in the east/west, rich/poor issues of the time were piqued. Score = 3

  1. Did the novel include enough history to make it an interesting historical story?

Most of the important events of the Regulator uprising are included (although lacking depth), and those events are integral to the story. Score = 3

  1. Was the depiction of historical events accurate?

The narrative follows historical events pretty faithfully, without obvious invention or distortion. Analysis of those events and the characters' motivations are, however, pretty shallow. Score = 3

  1. Was the depiction of historical characters accurate?

As noted in 1. above. Score = 3

  1. Would I read another novel by this author, continuing in this historical period, with these characters?

Possibly - this novel seems to be part of a series. They are mostly out-of-print, however, and not easily found. Score = 2.

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

'Outlander', by Diana Gabaldon

Normally, I stay away from the sub-genre known as 'historical romance', even though the more modern sort can be much more interesting than the bodice-rippers of the past. I made an exception for Outlander, first in the time-travel-to-the-past series by Diana Gabaldon, because later novels in the series are set in pre-revolution America. The period suffers from a dearth of novelists with significant interest in the history underlying the fictional story, so I went fishing. I hadn't previously read any of Ms. Gabaldon's novels, so I didn't know what to expect. Also, when choosing novels that are part of a series, I prefer to start with the first.

Outlander is set in the highlands of Scotland, beginning in 1945 and time-traveling back to 1743, just before the Jacobite Uprising of 1745. My historical accuracy antennae were aroused early in the opening section. The setting was September, 1945 - just a few months after the end of World War II. The novel's heroine, Claire, goes into a small highlands town and discovers that bare wartime shop shelves are now suddenly overflowing with goods. It doesn't take much study to conclude that, in reality, it's very unlikely anything like that happened. The UK was dead broke after the war, and stayed in a severe depression for a good many years. The 'Inspector Troy' series of historical-crime novels by John Lawton show a much more accurate picture of wartime and post-war Britain.

Following this opening section, I was prepared for the worst when Claire is magically transported back in time to 1743. However, apart from the usual difficulties involved in viewing the past through modern writing and the romanticizing of conditions in a remote, impoverished pre-industrial society, Ms. Gabaldon avoided issues of historical accuracy by the usual expedient of fuzzy details. Some actual place names are used (e.g. Loch Ness), and a few historical places (e.g. Fort William). The fictional Castle Leoch is identifiable as the historical Castle Leod, seat of Clan Mackenzie. The fictional castle is occupied by fictional Mackenzies (a real clan). The cast includes fictional members of several other actual highland clans, including Fraser, Grant, Munro and Ross. A few major political figures are mentioned in passing; the 'Old Pretender' James II, his son 'Bonnie Prince Charlie', King George II, but that's about it.

How does this novel rate on my five criteria? Let’s see:
  1. Did the novel inspire me to further historical research?

There wasn’t a whole lot of historical material to use as a jumping-off point for further investigation. Score = 2

  1. Did the novel include enough history to make it an interesting historical story?

No historical events or characters are included in the narrative, except where briefly mentioned as background. To be fair, the bulk of the action takes place in a short period of time, from autumn of 1743 into early winter of 1744. Thus, the novel has more of a setting than a story, in historical terms. Score = 2

  1. Was the depiction of historical events accurate?

Outlander is first and foremost a romance novel, so historical accuracy is bent to that task. That said, it’s perhaps not completely fair to criticize a lack of accuracy. Still, when I read a novel that includes ‘historical’ in its genre classification, I expect the author to make an effort. In some areas, such as folk medicine and Highlands geography, the author goes into great descriptive detail. History gets much less attention. Score = 1.

  1. Was the depiction of historical characters accurate?

There are no historical characters, so no score.

  1. Would I read another novel by this author, continuing in this historical period, with these characters?

Probably not. Score = 1.

Saturday, April 2, 2011

'Sparrowhawk, Book Two: Hugh Kenrick'

Sparrowhawk, Book Two: Hugh Kenrick, by Edward Cline, is the second novel in the Sparrowhawk series. It picks up the historical timeline in England right after the end of Book One (around 1750), with a new but familiar cast of characters. The main difference in the two stories arises from the differing social status of the titular characters. Where Jack Frake was a working class boy who became a smuggler, Hugh Kenrick is the only son of a wealthy aristocrat who becomes an intellectual radical. Hugh's father and uncle, in addition to their titles of Baron and Earl respectively, are secret investors in various smuggling operations, reaping the rewards of the illegal activity without any real risk. The story chronicles Hugh's coming of age much the way Book One did with young Jack.

The two main characters are also similar in sharing the moral outlook inspired in author Edward Cline by the novels of Ayn Rand. Thus, Hugh Kenrick and his actions suffer from the same plausibility issues that marred Jack's story. Hugh's very different social standing directs him through a very different set of circumstances, but the same moral challenges. Many of the supporting cast are also familiar from Book One. Instead of a band of philosophical smugglers, Hugh trades insights with a secret society of London free-thinkers. Instead of a villainous step-father, family resistance comes this time from Hugh's class-conscious, vindictive uncle. Henoch Pannell, bane of the smugglers in Book One, shows up again to personify the amoral social climber. An African former slave with the colorful name of Glorious Swain, also a member of the secret group, becomes Hugh's friend and mentor following a chance meeting, much as Jack Frake was befriended by one of the smugglers.

Despite the predictability of the fictional story and characters, Cline has studied his history and doesn't take obvious liberties with it. The novel includes many interesting details of life among 18th century British gentry. How does it score on my five criteria? See the post on Book One. All the scores are identical, and the accompanying comments very similar. I'm still interested in reading more of the Sparrowhawk series, but perhaps a bit less so this time.

It's time to try something different, so my next historical novel read will be Outlander, first in the time-travel-to-the-past series by Diana Gabaldon.

Monday, March 28, 2011

Oh no, not another history movie!

I promised myself to stay away from these things, but somehow it seemed this one might be different - alas, fooled again. I'm referring to Amazing Grace, a big-budget 2006 British film (yes, I know it's five years old - this review is for the NetFlix crowd) about 18th century MP William Wilberforce and his campaign to outlaw the slave trade. A worthy subject for a historical costume drama, certainly, but don't expect historical accuracy in this version. Why is it that a compelling true story about a remarkable man (really a group of remarkable people) is not good enough? It has to be adjusted, fudged, altered, exaggerated, simplified, romanticized and otherwise messed with until some really interesting (and really real) historical characters are transformed into standard Hollywood (or London) good v evil stereotypes? It would take me all night to list all the historical inaccuracies. The Wikipedia article barely scratches the surface.

In spite of all that, I liked the film because it got me interested enough in the history to want to find out more. It scores a 4 (of a possible 5) on my first criterion. Plus, maybe the opportunity to rant about the faults appeals to my curmudgeonly side. And, to be fair, the film's heart is in the right place. If the real Wilberforce didn't quite live up to Saint Wilbur of the film, why quibble? It's intended to be a feel-good story and I felt good at the end. Who needs credibility, subtlety, nuance and complex characters?

Monday, March 21, 2011

'Redcoat', by Bernard Cornwell

Bernard Cornwell was already well known for his Sharpe series of historical novels, but in 1988 he decided to do something a little different. The result was Redcoat, whose main protagonist is a British infantryman named Sam Gilpin, serving in the army of General William Howe during the capture and subsequent occupation of Philadelphia in 1777-78, critical years in the American Revolutionary War. While many historical novels include accounts of the American army's brutal winter at Valley Forge, fans of historical fiction set in this period should appreciate that Cornwell chooses to tell this story mostly from the perspective of the British soldiers and the civilians, both rebel and loyalist, who chose to remain in the occupied city. In the course of his duties, Sam gets to know several of the rebel sympathizers and falls in love with one, the beautiful and courageous (of course) Caroline Fisher. Also compelling is the detailed view of life within the city during the occupation. How does this novel rate on the five criteria? They are:
  1. Did the novel inspire me to further historical research?
  2. Did the novel include enough history to make it an interesting historical story?
  3. Was the depiction of historical events accurate?
  4. Was the depiction of historical characters accurate?
  5. Would I read another novel by this author, continuing in this historical period, with these characters?
Here are the ratings for Redcoat.
  1. Score = 4. The rating would have been a '3', but I bumped it up one because of the unusual perspective. This novel should inspire readers, especially Americans, to read more about the British side of the Revolution - on both sides of the Atlantic. American fiction writers tend to present the war as a one-dimensional heroic struggle by freedom-loving rebels against the brutal and merciless tyranny and aggression of the British (think Mel Gibson in The Patriot). Redcoat provides some much-needed balance.
  2. Score = 3. The historical story of the Philadelphia Campaign and occupation is related in some detail, and is intertwined with the fictional story, which is otherwise an interestingly complex but fairly conventional boy-meets-girl romance. The story lacks much reference to events outside of Philadelphia, but that contributes to the sense of isolation felt by the occupying army.
  3. Score = 4. In the 'Acknowledgements', Cornwell credits his grasp of the details of day-to-day life in occupied Philadelphia mainly to one book: With the British Army in Philadelphia, by John W. Jackson. Those details contribute greatly to the realistic feel of the narrative. Cornwell introduces one fictional variation to the historical account of the Battle of Red Bank, in which a detachment of Hessian mercenary troops attempted to capture the rebels' Fort Mercer, located on the New Jersey side of the Delaware River, south of the city. In Cornwell's story, rebel spies betray the British plans for a surprise attack, allowing the defenders time to prepare and repulse the assault. Although I've found no evidence that this actually happened, it very well could have, given the situation.
  4. Score = 3. Principal British commanders, while not main characters, do get some dialog which helps to give historical context. The fictional British Captain Vane becomes an aide to General Howe, which makes him privy to goings-on at headquarters. He meets fellow aide Captain John Andre, General Henry Clinton, General Howe's brother Admiral Lord Howe, The Hessian commander Colonel von Donop, General Corwallis and others. The portrayals of these characters seem to stay within the bounds of historical accuracy, and General Howe especially is presented in greater depth. Historical civilian characters, on the other hand, are in short supply. Prominent Philadelphians, especially traders and civic leaders like Edward Shippen and David Franks, should have shown up somewhere in the story.
  5. Score = 4. I would gladly read a continuation of the story of Sam and Caroline, the fictional boy and girl involved in the novel's romance plot. Unfortunately, Cornwell has written only one other novel set in the Revolutionary War, entitled The Fort (2010). It's not a sequel, or connected in any way with this book, but sounds interesting.

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

'Sparrowhawk, Book One: Jack Frake' (2001) by Edward Cline

Sparrowhawk, Book One: Jack Frake, by Edward Cline, is the first of a series, and an interesting novel for a couple of reasons. The first one is history-related: the protagonists are members of a band of smugglers, operating in the south-western English county of Cornwall. No dates are mentioned in the text, but a brief discussion among the well-informed and politically astute smugglers indicates that the action begins during the years of the War of the Austrian Succession; after the 1743 Battle of Dettingen and before the 1745 Battle of Fontenoy. You won't find many other specific historical events embedded in the fictional story, so one suspects that this one bit was inserted just to establish a time and place. The historical interest lies rather in the descriptions of the machinations of English justice and government at that time, the attitudes of various sorts of Englishmen toward their government, and the way some of those attitudes were evolving toward the principles embodied in the founding of the United States.

The second interesting thing, or group of things, about this novel are the personalities of the main protagonists. While reading, there seemed to be something familiar in the characters of young Jack Frake, his mentor John Smith, and especially the smuggler chief Augustus Skelly. It wasn't until I got to the end and read the author's 'Acknowledgements' that I realized what made them seem so familiar. I learned that the author is a great admirer of the novels of Ayn Rand. That's it, I thought - the three all share character traits with the hero of The Fountainhead, the iconoclast architect Howard Rourk. These three all possess Rourk's rugged individualism, innate and unshakable personal convictions, the lack of any moral ambiguity or hypocrisy, and an unfailingly clear discernment of truth and falsehood, strength and weakness. Having even one, let alone three such characters in one novel can seem a bit over-the-top at times, but didn't detract too much from my enjoyment of the story. Plausibility suffered, at times, from the unrelenting heroism, but maybe I'm just a cynic. Anyway, let's move on to the historical-novel critique. Remember the five criteria:
  1. Did the novel inspire me to further historical research?
  2. Did the novel include enough history to make it an interesting historical story?
  3. Was the depiction of historical events accurate?
  4. Was the depiction of historical characters accurate?
  5. Would I read another novel by this author, continuing in this historical period, with these characters?
How does Sparrowhawk, Book One: Jack Frake rate?
  1. Score = 3. Because much of my current historical reading is about the period leading up to the American Revolution, this novel's discussion of conditions in England was interesting. The protagonists struggle with the inequities of the legal system in England at that time. Their objections dovetail neatly into the arguments soon to come in the American colonies. Indeed, I'm sure that's exactly the course the author intends to pursue in the rest of the series. The end of Sparrowhawk, Book One (spoiler alert!) finds young Jack Frake headed for America aboard the good ship 'Sparrowhawk'.
  2. Score = 2. Pending further research on 18th century British smuggling and legal procedures, I suspect that historical fact has been somewhat shaped in pursuit of a clean ideological arc. That pursuit required no falsehoods, merely selective inclusion of historical data. Nothing wrong with that, of course. The reader of historical fiction can never forget that the purpose of a novel is to tell a story, not necessarily to present an accurate historical narrative.
  3. Score = 2. As noted above, there are no easily identifiable historical events that are part of the story in this novel so it's hard to judge accuracy. That was probably another intentional move by the author.
  4. Score = 2. I detected no historical characters, other than those distant figures connected with the events mentioned above, though there may be some modeling. The smugglers' Rourk-ish willingness to face punishment rather than back down or run away reminded me somewhat of the career of English 'radical' John Wilkes. It seems highly unlikely that any actual band of smugglers ever resembled Skelly's gang, but I'll reserve final judgment until I do a search to see if any smuggler-penned novels or memoirs exist.
  5. Answer = yes. Not right away, perhaps, but I am curious to see what becomes of young Jack Frake in America.
Next time: Redcoat by Bernard Cornwell. Thanks again to Margaret Donsbach at Historical for categorizing historical novels by period and location, making it much easier for me to locate novels with similar settings.

Monday, March 7, 2011

'Dissolution' by C. J. Sansom (2004)

Taking a break from more recent history, I picked up Dissolution, by C. J. Sansom. Intrigued by a positive review of Sansom's most recent novel in this series, entitled Heartstone, I decided (as I usually do) to start with the first in the series. Before even cracking the cover, however, the novel had one strike against it in my personal historical-novel rating system. The setting is England during the reign of King Henry VIII. This blog's very first post noted a problem shared by all novels using older historical settings: Accurate depiction of historical characters. More than the more-or-less contemporaneous Wolf Hall, Dissolution suffers from characters that feel too modern. The author obviously put a lot of thought and research into avoiding that pitfall, but the result is not entirely convincing. Happily, the novel novel is entertaining enough to overcome that handicap.

Maybe now is a good time to institute a rating system, based on the four ingredients I consider important in a historical novel. A 1 to 5 range should be sufficient, where 1 is so bad that I couldn't finish the book and 5 is 'practically perfect in every way' (I don't expect to award many 1s or 5s). A more detailed discussion of these criteria can be found in the Jan. 13 post. Briefly, they are:
  1. The ability to inspire me to further research a historical topic,
  2. Inclusion of enough history to make the novel an interesting historical story,
  3. Accurate depiction of historical events,
  4. Accurate depiction of historical characters.
Note that these criteria apply only to historical novels. Things like interesting characters, descriptions, plots and dialog are essential to any well-written novel. So, how does Dissolution rate?

  1. Score = 2. Because...
  2. Score = 3. There's some history, but not enough. The action takes place almost exclusively at a remote fictional monastery, far from all but the most general current events. This was the time of Henry's attack on the Catholic monastic orders, beginning in 1536, which by 1540 brought about the dissolution of nearly all of the old monasteries and convents in England. There is some interesting historical background on the methods used, by Henry's chief minister Thomas Cromwell, to bring this about. Still, there's not much historical meat to chew on. Perhaps later novels in this series will offer more.
  3. Score = 3. What history there is seems accurate; there's just not much of it. Sansom earns a gold star for including a 'Historical Note' at the end.
  4. Score = 2. Apart from the inherent problem caused by the antiquity of the setting, the problem here is the same as for #2; there are too few historical characters. Thomas Cromwell is the most prominent, and he appears only very briefly.
  5. I'll add a fifth item to the original four. This one asks the question, 'Would I read another novel by this author, continuing in this historical period, with these characters? For Dissolution and Cromwell's hunchback investigator Matthew Shardlake, the answer is yes.
Next post will discuss Sparrowhawk, Book One: Jack Frake.