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

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.

Update: May 6, 2017. My library only had the audiobook version of War of the Roses: Bloodline, third novel in the series. It worked well in passing the time of a long car trip, but only got me halfway through. Back home, frankly, I lost interest (never a big audiobook fan). Iggulden's writing is fine, but not as good as either Cornwell or Penman. There wasn't enough difference in historical interpretation to make it work another trip across those years. Time for a change of scenery.

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.

Saturday, November 28, 2015

Stone's Fall, by Iain Pears

Stone's Fall is a 2009 historical-mystery novel by [[Iain Pears]]. The following was originally written in 2011 as a Wikipedia article - the first WP article I ever attempted. The double brackets around  around some words were "wikilinks" - hyperlinks to other articles. I left them in the text in case anyone wants to read more on Wikipedia (as I did) about any of these people, places, and events.

The level of historical detail in Stone's Fall is remarkable, and inspired me to compose the "historical references" sections. This novel remains the gold standard for the first of the five criteria: "Did the novel inspire me to further historical research?".

I now understand that such material is not really appropriate for a Wikipedia article about a novel, and it was finally deleted by another editor (November, 2015). Someone commented that the material was more appropriate for a blog. So it is, so here it is.


An aging BBC reporter approaching retirement in 1953, Matthew Braddock is on a farewell tour, visiting the old Paris bureau. Chancing upon a familiar name in the obituary notices, he decides to attend the funeral of an acquaintance he has not seen for many years. 

After the service, he is approached by a stranger who introduces himself as the deceased woman's solicitor. He surprises Braddock with the information that the firm has been holding a package for many years, addressed to him, with instructions to deliver it only after this woman's death. 

Later, on his trip back to London, Braddock reminisces about those days of his youth in 1909, when he met the beautiful and mysterious Elizabeth. Equally mysterious was the death (and life) of her husband, Baron Ravenscliff, born John William Stone. 

Later, Braddock opens the long-delayed package to find a pair of extraordinary manuscripts. These two documents, written accounts of events occurring in 1890 and 1867 respectively, follow Braddock's recollections to form the three-part structure of the historical-mystery novel ''Stone's Fall''.

The next article section, '''Historical references''', lists existing and/or historical persons, places, and events mentioned in quotations from ''Stone's Fall'', with citations or internal links to other Wikipedia articles. Page numbers are from the hardcover edition.

The final section, '''Historical liberties''', includes a listing of inconsistencies found between historical facts and the same "facts" as presented in ''Stone's Fall.''

Historical References (direct and indirect)

Prologue - Paris, 1953

  • p.3 [[Abbey of Saint-Germain-des-Prés|Church of Saint-Germain-des-Prés]] - site of Elizabeth's funeral 

Part One - London, 1909 – Matthew Braddock's story: London

  • p.11 "[[St. James's Square]] impressive townhouse" – Ravenscliff's residence. 
  • p.25 "[[Mornington Crescent (street)|Mornington Crescent]] trial" – the name given to a fictional(?) murder trial. The name suggests a reference to the "[[Camden Town murder]]" of 1907. Painter [[Walter Sickert]] lived on Mornington Crescent at the time, and later renamed a group of his paintings ''[[The Camden Town Murder]]''. 
  • p.32 "[[Bow Street Magistrates Court]] or the [[Old Bailey]]" – two primary sources for Braddock's crime reporting 
  • p.33 "[[Wilhelm II, German Emperor|Kaiser Wilhelm]]", "[[King Edward VII|King Edward]]". Wilhelm II was the last German Kaiser, 1888-1918. Edward VII became king after the death of [[Queen Victoria]], reigning from 1901 to 1910 (see also the p.306 reference below, where Edward visits Biarritz before he was king). 
  • p.34 "The Prime Minister, [[H. H. Asquith|Asquith]], and his chancellor, [[Lloyd George]]" - leaders of the Liberal government from 1908 to 1916.
  • p.37 "[[Chelsea, London|Chelsea]]...Paradise Walk...[[Tite Street]]" - Paradise Walk runs parallel to [[Tite Street]]. 
  • p.38 "Sargent" - The American painter [[John Singer Sargent]] lived on [[Tite Street]]. :: "Henry MacAlpine" - a little joke here; MacAlpine is a fictional painter in [[Iain Pears|Pears’]] novel ''The Portrait''. 
  • p.41 "Chelsea Library" - the old library was on Manresa Road. In 1980, it was acquired by [[Chelsea College of Art and Design]]. 
  • p.42 "[[Fleet Street]]" – synonymous with London journalism in the 20th century. :: "[[Reform Club]]" - a gentlemen's club "for [[Liberal Party (UK)|Liberal]] grandees", still in existence 
  • p.50 "...[[Carlos I of Portugal#Assassination|King of Portugal]] was assassinated..." - refers to King Carlos I, assassinated in 1908 
  • p.54 "at the Exchange" - refers to the [[London Stock Exchange]], located (in 1909) in Capel Court, off Bartholomew Lane across from the [[Bank of England]]. Capel Court is now gone, along with the rest of the block. 
  • p.57 "[[Cazenove (stock broker)|Cazenove]]…acting for [[Barings Bank|Barings]]" - two of the leading London [[merchant bank]]s at that time.
  • p.64 "[[Jean-Jacques Henner]]" - Elizabeth volunteers the artist's name after observing Braddock's admiration of a portrait of her, dressed in "a golden red dress". Henner was a prominent French painter in Paris when Elizabeth lived there in the 1880s. 
  • p.75 "[[The Ritz London Hotel|Ritz Hotel]]" - The famous [[Piccadilly]] hotel, still in existence at the north-east corner of [[Green Park]], was the upscale residence of the fictional Theodore Xanthos. Note: the fictional Xanthos bears some resemblance to real-life arms dealer [[Basil Zaharoff]].
  • p.83 "...out of the Ritz and up [[Bond Street]]" - Braddock catches a bus (horse-drawn) and makes his way to his former editor's home in [[Camden Town|Camden]]. On the way, he passes the "great houses of Portman Place" (not found, but maybe part of the [[Portman Estate]]? Or did the author mean [[Portland Place]]?) Later, Braddock passes the "even greater establishments of [[Regent's Park]]". 
  • p.83 "furniture from [[Heal's]]" - a venerable department store on [[Tottenham Court Road]] 
  • p.90 "The [[Hotel Russell|Russell Hotel]] in [[Bloomsbury]] was a fairly new building"(completed in 1898, still in existence) 
  • p.138 " agent for the [[Dual Alliance, 1879|Dual Alliance]]...the thanks of the [[Wilhelm II|Kaiser]]...". Elizabeth jokes about being a spy for Britain's current continental rivals, the alliance between Germany and Austria-Hungary, negotiated in 1879 by [[Otto von Bismarck|Bismarck]]. 
  • p.149 "The Anarchist Club, 165 Jubilee Street". Apparently fictional, but similar to historical places and events. For example, see: [[Walsall Anarchists]]. Jubilee Street, Commercial Road, Turner Street,and Newark Street are all located in the old [[East End of London]] (now part of the [[London Borough of Tower Hamlets|Tower Hamlets]] district) 
  • p.151 "[[Prince Kropotkin|Comrade Kropotkin]]" - refers to Peter Kropotkin, the exiled Russian anarchist 
  • p.160 "Wine Office Court, past the Cheshire Cheese". The venerable pub ''[[Ye Olde Cheshire Cheese]]'' is still open for business, just off [[Fleet Street]]. 
  • p.170 "[[Rothschild family|Rothschild's]] at Waddesdon". [[Waddesdon Manor]] was the Rothschild family seat in England, and the most opulent of the many [[Rothschild properties in England]]. 
  • p.170 "Natty Rothschild". A nickname for [[Nathan Rothschild, 1st Baron Rothschild|Nathaniel Mayer Rothschild, 1st Baron Rothschild]], head of [[N M Rothschild & Sons]], principal rivals to Barings in London [[merchant bank]]ing. 
  • p.172 "{{Citation/make link||Royal Station Hotel}}". Braddock takes a train to [[Newcastle upon Tyne|Newcastle]] and checks into this Victorian hotel, still in business opposite the main station. 
  • p.174 "...the Beswick Shipyard..." - fictional name, but similar to an historical shipbuilding yard at [[Elswick, Tyne and Wear|Elswick]] (a ward of the city of [[Newcastle upon Tyne]]). The facility (no longer in existence) was part of [[Armstrong Whitworth]], the manufacturing company founded by [[William Armstrong, 1st Baron Armstrong]]. 
  • p.175 "HMS Anson, a dreadnought, 23,000 tons." The {{HMS|Monarch|1911|6}}, built in Armstrong's shipyard, is a close match for the fictional HMS ''Anson''. There was a real {{HMS|Anson|1886|6}}, but it was an older and smaller (10,600 tons) battleship that was sold in 1909. 
  • p.177 "When we launched ''Intrepid'' last year..." - there were eight versions of {{HMS|Intrepid}}, but this one is fictional. 
  • p.194 "Tom Baring himself..." - refers to [[Thomas "Tom" Baring (1839-1923)]], brought in as one of the Managing Directors of [[Barings Bank|Baring Brothers and Company, Ltd.]] after the [[Panic of 1890]]. Tom was, in 1909, the eldest of the Barings in the banking partnership, but his nephew {{Citation/make link||John}}, 2nd [[Baron Revelstoke]], was senior partner. 
  • p.195 "...the disaster twenty years ago..." - refers to the [[Panic of 1890]] 
  • p.204 "to Cowes…for the week" – refers to the annual [[Cowes Week]] regatta 
  • p.208 "[[Whiteleys]] department store in [[Bayswater]]..." The site is now Whiteleys Shopping Centre, on [[Queensway (London)|Queensway]]. The building existing in 1909 is gone. 
  • p.208 " [[Waterloo Station]] and caught the 1:45 to [[Southampton]]". The station was completely demolished and rebuilt starting in 1904, but never completely closed. The official reopening was not until 1922. 
  • p.208 "Henley and Ascot" "Henley" refers to the [[Henley Royal Regatta]]. "Ascot" refers to Royal Ascot, the famous thoroughbred race meeting held annually since 1711 at [[Ascot Racecourse]] in [[Berkshire]]. 

Cowes, Isle of Wight

  • p.211 "Mrs. [[Sir Godfrey Baring, 1st Baronet|Godfrey Baring]]'s bal masque". Godfrey Baring was soon to be a Baronet and MP for the Isle of Wight (1911). 
  • p.211 "the [[Solent]]". The body of water separating the Isle of Wight from the main island of Great Britain. 
  • p.212 "up the Esplanade to Egypt House..." The Esplanade is a long, paved waterfront footpath, paralleling Queen's Road and running west ("up") from Cowes. "{{Citation/make link||Egypt House}}" was built c.1880. 
  • p.212 "the ''[[HMY Victoria and Albert III|Victoria and Albert]]''". HMY Victoria and Albert III, the Royal Yacht, entered service in 1901. 
  • p.212 "There is no bridge, just a strange contraption which looks like a floating wooden shed that is pulled this way and that across the water by chains…", The [[Cowes Floating Bridge]] is still in daily operation, connecting [[Cowes]] and [[East Cowes]]. Nowadays, it resembles an ordinary ferry, but in period photos it does indeed look like a "floating wooden shed". 
  • p.215 "...up Egypt Hill, a road that...skirted the gardens of the Baring house". The house (now demolished) was known as Nubia House; residence of [[Sir Godfrey Baring, 1st Baronet|Godfrey Baring]]. 
  • p.221 "The Tsar of all the Russias. [[Nicholas II of Russia|Nicholas II]]". The last Tsar, as it turned out. 
  • p.221 "the imperial yacht, the ''Sandrart''". This is a misspelling; the correct name is ''[[Standart (yacht)|Standart]]''. 
  • p.222 "Osborne...up York Avenue to the main gate." Prince Albert designed [[Osborne House]] as a summer home and rural retreat for himself and Queen Victoria. There are two entrances off York Avenue. The Royal Entrance has a gated archway.  

Part Two – Paris 1890

Henry Cort's story: London

  • p.242 "a lovely [[Adam style|Adam]] house in [[Scottish borders|the Borders]] in the summer." - refers to the areas along the border between England and Scotland. :
  • p.244 "[[Balliol College, Oxford|Balliol]]..." - Balliol College is at Oxford. :p.244 "... a Fellow of [[Trinity College, Oxford|Trinity]]..." - refers to Trinity College, Oxford. 
  • p.245 "[[Athenaeum Club, London|the Athenaeum]]". Another distinguished "gentlemen's club", still in existence. 


  • p.250 "train to [[Dover]]...crossed the [[English Channel|Channel]] by steamer to [[Calais]]...arrived at the [[Gare du Nord]]...". Cort travels to Paris in the days before the Chunnel, or even the [[Golden Arrow (train)|Golden Arrow]]. 
  • p.251 "Fifteen rue Poulletier...[[Île Saint-Louis]]" Just upstream from, and connected by bridge to the famous [[Île de la Cité]], is the less well-known Île Saint Louis. 
  • p.263 "the [[Vickers]], the [[Krupp]]s and the [[Schneider Electric|Schneiders]]" - a trio of families; British, German and French respectively, that made their fortunes in arms manufacturing. 
  • p.265 "[[Nancy, France|Nancy]]...much closer to the German border than it wanted to be." This refers to the post-[[Franco-Prussian War]] border. After World War I, Nancy ceased to be a border town (see also p.267 in the 'Historical Liberties' section below). 
  • p.284 "Lord Revelstoke, the chairman of Barings…" - refers to [[Edward Baring, 1st Baron Revelstoke]]. 
  • p.291 "Theatre only if Bernhardt is involved" - refers to [[Sarah Bernhardt]], the French actress. 


  • p.292 [[Biarritz]] "…Hotel du Palais to the north…" - refers to the [[Hotel du Palais]], built in 1854 by [[Napoleon III]], as a beach palace for his Empress, [[Eugénie de Montijo|Eugénie]] 
  • p.292 "Princess Natalie of Romania" [historical or fictional?] :p.296 "[[Maurice Rouvier]]". Rouvier was Finance Minister from 1889 to 1892.
  • p.306 "Prince of Wales" - before he became [[King Edward VII]]. :p.307 ''"[[Almanach de Gotha]]"''. A respected directory of Europe's highest nobility and royalty. 


  • p.313 "facade of the [[Crédit Lyonnais]], just visible on the boulevard beyond.". The bank's headquarters was on [[Boulevard des Italiens]]. 
  • p.318 "[[Chamber of Deputies of France|Chambre des Députés]]". The lower house of parliament from 1875 to 1940, during the [[French Third Republic]].
  • p.318 "England...bought the [[Suez Canal]] strangle France's Empire". Great Britain bought the Egyptian share of Canal ownership in 1888. Prior to this, British troops occupied the Canal following the [[1882 Anglo-Egyptian War]]. 
  • p.319 "the Banque de Paris et des Pays-Bas" This was an important French [[merchant bank]] in 1890; now part of [[BNP Paribas]]. 
  • p.327 "Hotel du Louvre" - this Paris hotel fills a prominent block between the [[Palais Royal]] and the [[Louvre Palace]]. 
  • p.330 "Lapérouse" - the [[Left Bank]] restaurant. 
  • p.337 "all the way up to [[Belleville, Paris|Belleville]]" - Belleville was annexed by the City of Paris in 1860. 
  • p.343 "[[Longchamp Racecourse|Longchamp]]". Longchamp Racecourse is a horse-racing facility located in the western end of the [[Bois de Boulogne]], which is also the western edge of Paris. 
  • p.348 "the American railroad collapse" - probably refers to the [[Panic of 1873]]. 
  • p.349 "back across the [[Bois de Boulogne]] to Paris". One of two huge urban parks in Paris, part of the 19th century redesign of Paris by [[Baron Haussmann]]. 
  • p.350 "Avenue de la Grande Armée". One of the twelve grand avenues radiating away from the [[Arc de Triomphe]]; also part of Haussmann's design. 
  • p.355 "[[Bank of England]] wouldn't have enough gold..." - these were the days of the "[[gold standard]]". 
  • p.359 "No market [for automobiles in Britain] until the government allows them to go more than four miles an hour." This situation finally changed with the [[Locomotives on Highways Act 1896]]. 
  • p.366 "a [[Mayer Alphonse James Rothschild|Rothschild]] or a [[Jacques de Reinach|Reinach]] or a [[Barings Bank|Baring]]". Three of the top families in European banking at the time. 
  • p.368 "British Embassy". Then and now, located at 35 [[Rue du Faubourg Saint Honoré]]. 
  • p.368 "Next came the Russian Embassy". A bit of a walk to Rue de Grenelle, across the [[Seine]] in the [[7th arrondissement of Paris|7th arrondissement]]; now part of the [[Minister of National Education (France)|Ministry of National Education]] complex. 
  • p.392 "nearby English church" - refers to St. Michael's. The "{{Citation/make link||imitation of an English Gothic building}}" has been replaced. 


  • p.394 "arrived at [[London Victoria station|Victoria]]...then drove directly to the [[Foreign Office]]" - refers to the building on [[Whitehall]], constructed in 1868. 
  • p.395 "[[Williams & Glyn's Bank|Glyn Mills]]". A private London bank, established in 1753; it is part of [[RBS Group]] today. 
  • p.395 "[[Argentina]] is in a virtual state of war." The [[Revolución del Parque]] began in July, 1890. 
  • p.396 "Just round the corner was Downing Street...past the [[10 Downing Street|Prime Minister's house]]...knocked on the door of [[11 Downing Street|Number 11]]" 
  • p.396 "Three men were already there: [[Edward Baring, 1st Baron Revelstoke|Lord Revelstoke]]; [[William Lidderdale]], Governor of the [[Bank of England|Bank]]; and [[George Goschen]], the [[Chancellor of the Exchequer]]." The purpose of this meeting was to attempt to avert the financial disaster that later came to be known as "The [[Panic of 1890]]". 
  • p.400 "head of the English branch at this time was Natty Rothschild". His full name was [[Nathan Rothschild, 1st Baron Rothschild|Nathaniel Mayer de Rothschild]]. 


  • p.403 "the Rothschild mansion in the Eighth Arrondissemant" - refers to the {{Citation/make link||Hotel de Saint-Florentin}}, Paris residence of [[Édouard Alphonse James de Rothschild|Alphonse de Rothschild]], Natty's cousin and head of the French branch of the family business. 
  • p.404 "M. Magnin...[[Bank of France]]". Pierre Magnin was [[Governor of the Bank de France|Governor of the Bank of France]] from 1881 to 1897. 
  • p.406 "rue Daru...[[Patriarchal Exarchate for Orthodox Parishes of Russian Tradition in Western Europe|Alexander Nevski Cathedral]]". The cathedral was and is the headquarters of the Russian Orthodox church in western Europe. 
  • p.410 "Bismarck has gone. The [[Reinsurance Treaty|treaty]] you [Russia] had with Germany went with him." German Chancellor [[Otto von Bismarck]] was forced to resign in March 1890, some months before the events against which this chapter is set. 
  • p.432 "construction of the port of Nicolaieff [sic] on the Black Sea". The [[Black Sea Shipyard]] was established at [[Mykolaiv|Nikolaev]] in 1897.

Part Three – Venice 1867 – John Stone's story

  • p.435 "Hotel Europa". The hotel was later the location of the original [[Harry's Bar (Venice)|Harry's Bar]]. 
  • p.444 "Macintyre". The British expat engineer (no first name given) is a fictional character; perhaps loosely based on [[Robert Whitehead]], inventor of the self-propelled (or "automobile") [[torpedo]]. 
  • p.444 "Sottini's in [[Mestre]]". Mestre is near Venice, on the mainland. 
  • p.446 "as the Venetians themselves abandoned [[Torcello]]". The natural island of [[Torcello]] was the oldest and once the most populous area of Venice. Today it is almost deserted except for tourists. 
  • p.473 Dunbury scandal: "a foolishly conceived scheme…railway built across a two-hundred-mile swamp in Russia" – historical or fictional? This incident is mentioned twice in the novel. 
  • p.485 "Laird's in Liverpool" Technically, the British ship builder was located in Birkenhead, across the [[River Mersey|Mersey]] from [[Liverpool]]. Laird's later became part of [[Cammell Laird]]. 
  • p.536 "you remember the [[CSS Alabama|Alabama]]?" The infamous Confederate raider was built by Laird's during the [[American Civil War]]. 
  • p.545 "[[San Servolo]]. The island lies between San Marco and the Lido". - An early Benedictine monastery was established on the island, which later became a psychiatric hospital. 

Historical liberties

  • p.33 Kaiser Wilhelm is mentioned as being the grand-nephew of Queen Victoria. He was, in fact, her grandson. 
  • p.267 "the occupied part of Alsace...". The author probably meant [[Lorraine (region)|Lorraine]] rather than [[Alsace]]. The [[Treaty of Frankfurt (1871)]] ending the [[Franco-Prussian War]] ceded all of Alsace and northern parts of Lorraine to Germany, forming the new German imperial territory of [[Alsace-Lorraine]]. [[Nancy, France|Nancy]], the capital of Lorraine, was close to the border between the two sections of divided Lorraine. Nancy is not so close to any part of Alsace. 

Possible plot holes

In the opening chapters, the actual business of the administration of estates, obtaining probate of a will, the publication at the Principal Probate Registry of wills that are so proved, and the ability of executors to set aside funds for missing beneficiaries, are completely ignored. In this novel, the supposed inability of the executor to administer the estate (as long as there is a missing beneficiary) is no inability at all; it seems to have been portrayed as such for plotting.
 :p.240 "Your account of the events you took part in was impeccable ..." A curious statement, written by Cort in 1943; the evidence in the novel is that Braddock's "account" existed before 1953 only in the form of private notes, which Braddock "digs out" after Elizabeth's funeral. This is not a problem related to any historical information - only a lack of internal consistency in the fictional history. However, Cort might be referring to Braddock's ''oral'' account that he offers to Cort during their one meeting in the hospital of 1910, not to the ''written'' account. Alternatively, as Cort is a very skilful spy, he may have gained access to Braddock's notes secretly around that time.

Saturday, November 14, 2015

The Cousins' War: "The White Princess" (book 5), by Philippa Gregory

This is a continuation of earlier reviews of books 1-4 in Philippa Gregory's six-novel series known as The Cousins' War. As noted in the review of book 4 of this series, The Kingmaker's Daughter, novelist Philippa Gregory used the contrasting personalities and viewpoints of prominent female members of the competing Plantagenet family lines to illustrate the rivalries that produced the "War of the Roses". And, as promised, book 5 converges those lines in the story of Elizabeth Tudor - The White Princess.

Elizabeth's conflicting loyalties and emotions mirror those of the rival families as she goes from princess to outcast to political pawn and finally to Queen of England, but with a crown never allowed to sit comfortably. Because of the tortuous path to the crown, Henry Tudor - King Henry VII of England - never felt secure wearing that crown. But he survived all challenges, as did his queen. The resulting Tudor dynasty utterly failed to smooth the troubled royal waters, but produced much more great material for historical novelists. Henry VIII gets all the attention, but The Cousins' War is a worthy prolog.

Out of all the dynastic furor, Philippa Gregory reserves greatest sympathy for the three generations of Woodville women - Jacquetta, Elizabeth, and Elizabeth again. In these novels, they lack the arrogance and ambition of the noble families, perhaps owing to their more humble English lineage coupled with descent from a French goddess. It makes for a good theme to tie the series together.

The mother of all "War of the Roses" novelists, Sharon Kay Penman, presented yet another very different picture of the Woodvilles, Yorks, Lancasters and Tudors. Next - a look at The Sunne in Splendour 

Sunday, October 11, 2015

The Cousins' War: The Kingmaker's Daughter (book 4), by Philippa Gregory

This is a continuation of an earlier review of books 1-3 in Philippa Gregory's six-novel series known as The Cousins' War. As explained before:

"Cousins" refers to the fact that the rival royal claimants involved in England's War of the Roses were great-great-grandsons of King Edward III. The rival families of Lancaster and York were branches of the Plantagenet line that produced all of England's monarchs from 1154 to 1485. This series covers the end of the Plantagenets and the beginning of the Tudor dynasty. 
Philippa Gregory's approach to historical fiction in these novels, each one a first-person account of a female "insider" in one of the royal families, yields a unique perspective on the events of the day.
While reading The Kingmaker's Daughter, I realized that what Gregory has done is to narrate the same span of years and events from at least three completely different perspectives. Margaret of Anjou, born in 1430 and queen of Henry VI, Elizabeth Woodville, born in 1437 and queen of Edward IV (The White Queen), and Margaret Beaufort, born in 1443 and mother of Henry VII (The Red Queen) were contemporaries and competitors for the throne of England.

The Kingmaker's Daughter introduces yet another competitor - Richard Neville, Earl Of Warwick - sometimes called "The Kingmaker" because of his power to favor first one claimant, then another. In keeping with her focus on female lead characters, Gregory shows Warwick to us through the eyes of his younger daughter Anne, only fourteen years old when the story begins. Gradually, we come to understand that Warwick's ultimate aim is to gain the throne for his own family. Having no sons but two daughters, his ever-shifting plans involve marrying one or the other of the daughters to the most likely royal contender, then promoting that man's campaign to become king.

Although the three queens and The Kingmaker lived through most of the same troubled times, their viewpoints could not be more different. Gregory showed readers what she was up to in Lady of the Rivers, when Elizabeth Woodville's grandmother introduced her daughter Jacquetta to the concept of the "wheel of fortune". The wheel never stops turning, and we are all fixed to a point on it, so at any given time our fortunes may be rising or falling. Whether rising or falling now, a wise person remembers that what rises on the wheel now can later fall, and those who fall may yet rise again.

When one of the three queens rises to the top, another falls, while a third may be holding steady - not knowing whether the next motion will be a rise or a fall. That's the whole dramatic arc of The Cousins' War in a nutshell.

It might be fun to attempt a reading of these novels in parallel, switching between them to follow a chronological narrative. Or maybe it would just be a lot of unnecessary work that would ruin Gregory's clever setup.

Scores for the 5 Criteria remain consistent with books 1-3, but I should add a point somewhere in appreciation of Gregory's overall series concept in The Cousins' War. Next - all the threads finally come together in The White Princess.

Saturday, September 5, 2015

Unlikely Allies, by Joel Richard Paul (2009)

Every so often, there's a straight history book written in such compelling style that it reads like fiction, and thereby earns a mention in this blog. Such a book is Unlikely Allies: How a Merchant, a Playwright, and a Spy Saved the American Revolution, by Joel Richard Paul. Once the reader gets past the overly wordy subtitle, this book is indeed "wildly entertaining", as proclaimed in the book review quote featured on the cover.

The factual story related in Unlikely Allies is itself so unlikely that it probably would never work as fiction, except perhaps in the hands of someone like Gore Vidal - a black humor genius who understood all too well the darkest corners of human nature. To get an idea how outlandish this tale really is, consider the cast, who at the beginning of this book knew nothing of each other:

  • The Merchant: Silas Deane, self-made successful merchant in pre-Revolution Connecticut. His fatal flaw - an idealistic faith in the concept of an independent America. Again and again, he found those ideals sorely lacking in most of his fellow revolutionaries.
  • The Playwright: Pierre-Augustin Caron de Beaumarchais, a successful French inventor and playwright who wanted to be an international statesman.
  • The Spy: One of the most fantastic characters of the time, the Chevalier d'Eon was a cross-dressing social climber fascinated with the hidden world of political intrigue.  
Unlikely Allies tells the unlikely story of how these three stumbled and bumbled together to create a convoluted Rube Goldberg-esque (or maybe Jacques Tati-esque, since two of the three were French) scheme whereby France supplied arms, supplies and ammunition to the fledgling American Revolution - at the critical moment just before the tide-turning rebel victory at Saratoga. Paul makes a compelling case that, without that French aid, the outcome of British General Burgoyne's campaign would have been reversed. No Saratoga victory; no French alliance; and much less likelihood of American independence.

In addition to the three main characters, there's a large supporting cast. The well-known names are there: Franklin, Adams, Lee; but also some fascinating lesser lights. British radical John Wilkes deserves to be better known among Americans. Arthur Lee, Edward Bancroft and Charles Wentworth probably deserve to be forgotten (except as moral lessons), but play crucial roles in this story. Lots of names for future reading!

I can't recommend this book highly enough. Joel Richard Paul joins David Hackett Fischer on my short list of historians whose writing is better than fiction.

Monday, August 24, 2015

The Cousins' War (books 1-3), by Philippa Gregory

The White Queen (2009), The Red Queen (2010), and The Lady of the Rivers (2011) are the first three of a six-novel series known as The Cousins' War. "Cousins" refers to the fact that the rival royal claimants involved in England's War of the Roses were great-great-grandsons of King Edward III. The rival families of Lancaster and York were branches of the Plantagenet line that produced all of England's monarchs from 1154 to 1485. This series covers the end of the Plantagenets and the beginning of the Tudor dynasty. Chronologically, The Lady of the Rivers should be read before the two "Queens".

Philippa Gregory's approach to historical fiction in these novels, each one a first-person account of a female "insider" in one of the royal families, yields a unique perspective on the events of the day. Interjection of modern ideas leads these ladies, at times, to some contemporary-sounding feminist protests against their patriarchal society, but it would be surprising if the historical characters did not occasionally have similar thoughts.

Those readers who prefer a blood-and-guts focus on warfare and battle descriptions may be tempted to skip over some of the lengthy interior dialogs and emotional struggles of Gregory's protagonists, but the feminine viewpoint is a nice counterpoint to male-centric writers. Also, because the women usually stayed behind when the men went to war, they were privy to all of the behind-the-scenes court politics and juicy gossip.

The Wars of the Roses is fertile ground for historical fiction writers. The Edward III deathbed scene in Conn Iggulden's War of the Roses: Stormbird makes a good lead-in to The Cousins' War, then jumps forward (as the title indicates) to cover the same "Roses" years from the male perspective. Bernard Cornwell's Agincourt is set during the French campaigns of Henry V, father of the unfortunate Henry VI, whose incompetence as a monarch set off the "Roses" conflict.

Also deserving mention and, in my estimation, the best of all the "Roses" novels, is The Sunne In Splendour: A Novel of Richard III (2008), by Sharon Kay Penman.

The five criteria:
  1. Did the novel inspire me to further historical research?
Yes. The Woodville family, in particular, had an interesting history.
Score = 4
  1. Did the novel include enough history to make it an interesting historical story?
Yes. As noted above, there may not be enough of the preferred history subjects for some readers, but the royal court politics is also interesting. Unfortunately, because documentary evidence is less abundant, that focus requires more guesswork and speculation. So it's "reader beware".
Score = 3
  1. Was the depiction of historical events accurate?
Yes. In this female-character, first-person-narrative style, much of the historical action happens in other places, so events are related second-hand to the protagonists. While that detracts from the immediacy of the narrative,  I found no instance where Gregory alters history in any major way merely to serve the story arc.
Score = 3
  1. Was the depiction of historical characters accurate?
Who knows? For many of these characters, the historical record contains only a few names and dates, so a novelist must invent personalities for them, and narratives to connect them. A good example of how this can lead to very different characterizations is to compare the treatment given to Margaret of Anjou in The Red Queen and in War of the Roses: Stormbird, respectively. Character invention should be a familiar hazard to hist-fict readers, however, and doesn't detract from our enjoyment unless obvious (and unexplained) conflicts with recorded history arise.
Score = 3
  1. Were the fictional or fictionalized plot and characters plausible?
Yes/No. Earthy and perceptive Elizabeth Woodville in The White Queen was much more plausible than the hyper-religious hypocrisy of Margaret of Anjou in The Red Queen. I suspect that some of the author's personal history underlies that characterization.

On the other hand, the plot with its cut-throat ambition, treachery, mendacity and family rivalries was all too believable. I look forward to following this history through the remaining three novels in The Cousins' War.
Score = 3

Tuesday, July 28, 2015

The Day of Atonement, by David Liss (2014)

Each new novel by David Liss is eagerly anticipated by fans of clever and fast-paced plotting that nevertheless refuses to sacrifice historical accuracy. The Day of Atonement is their reward. This tale continues the Liss mastery of creatively-evolving plots with surprising twists and turns, even when readers already know the historical climax.

Set mostly in Lisbon, Portugal, in the year 1755, the curtain opens as our protagonist flashes back ten years to when, as 13-year-old Lisbon-born "New Christian" Sebastiao Raposa, he was smuggled to London to escape the Inquisition that took his parents. He returns as English merchant-adventurer Sebastian Foxx, bent on revenge.    

The five criteria:
  1. Did the novel inspire me to further historical research?
Yes. I hadn't realized that the terrors of the Inquisition lasted so much longer in Portugal than in neighboring Spain. Neither had I heard of the devastating 1755 earthquake and tsunami that destroyed Lisbon.

Liss once again does a nice job of connecting Jewish religious beliefs and practices to the plot. The observance referred to in the title, The Day of Atonement, is known more commonly by Americans as Yom Kippur. The meaning of the central concept, in Foxx's mind, evolves during the story along with his self-discovery and maturing understanding of what seemed at first to be a straightforward mission.
   Score = 5
  1. Did the novel include enough history to make it an interesting historical story?
Yes, although not as much as it might have. Although the setting was historical, along with some general activities like the Inquisition and the England-Portugal trade, more specific historical events and characters were in short supply.

That's not always a bad thing, however. Many historical novels are dragged down by the author's noble attempt to cram in a lot of history. A recent lesson to me on how that can happen was Master and God, by Lindsey Davis.
   Score = 4
  1. Was the depiction of historical events accurate?
Yes, as far as I can tell. Descriptions of historical settings are generally consistent with what I've read elsewhere. An accurate picture of pre-earthquake Lisbon is problematic, but Liss seems to have put a lot of research into that area. One thing I really missed was a map of the city which, even if partly fictional, would have helped the reader to follow the movements that are so important to the story.
   Score = 4
  1. Was the depiction of historical characters accurate?
There aren't many, so accuracy is not much of a concern. For example, the historical "Count of Oeiras" is not actually a character but is mentioned in passing toward the end of the story. Liss doesn't try, however, to be biographical, so the lack of historical characters is not a criticism. Accuracy is the criterion: is it more accurate to fictionalize historical individuals or to leave them out altogether? Still, inclusion of a few historical names is fun, even if only in non-speaking roles.
   Score = 4
  1. Were the fictional or fictionalized plot and characters plausible?
Mostly. Some of the characters' dialog and/or inner soliloquy, along with some of the actions those thoughts led to, made me ask: "Seriously?" Although it's common novelistic practice to imbue archaic characters with modern ideas, historical novelists can also get away with a lot of questionable thinking by characters. Would you expect the rantings of an 18th-century priest of the Inquisition to make sense?
   Score = 4

Thursday, July 9, 2015

Master and God, by Lindsey Davis (2012)

Fans of "light" historical fiction will recognize the name Lindsey Davis as the British author of the "Falco" series of historical murder mysteries set in ancient Rome. The adventures of protagonist Marcus Didius Falco are always entertaining and absorbing.

Master and God is a more ambitious effort, though sharing some character and plot elements with the Falco novels. Set in the time of the Emperor Domitian (81-96 AD), the protagonist is a fictional ex-legionary named Gaius Vinius Clodianus. His fortunes rise along with those of the younger brother of the Emperor Titus, who became the third and last of the Flavian emperors.   

As the novel opens, Clodianus is a non-com in the vigiles: the loosely-organized neighborhood police force of Rome. Through skill and luck, he rises to become a trusted officer of the Praetorian Guard, charged with accompanying and protecting the Emperor. As such, Clodianus is well-placed to witness and participate in the rise and fall of Domitian. 

The complicated and egalitarian relationship between Clodianus, the stereotypical clueless male, and Lucilla, the self-made successful hairdresser to the imperial family, is a lot of fun - similar to that of Falco and Helena.

The five criteria:
  1. Did the novel inspire me to further historical research?
Yes. Historians, both contemporary and modern, have had mixed opinions about Domitian. In many ways, his reign was a very successful one for the Roman Empire, yet his cautious foreign policy and heavy-handed domestic policies earned him few admirers. As a result, historical novelists have been drawn to the more flamboyant figures of the late Republic and first Emperors. With this novel, Davis filled a gap in ancient Roman fiction. The Dacian campaigns, in particular, were an interesting and previously unfamiliar subject to me.   
Score = 5
  1. Did the novel include enough history to make it an interesting historical story?
Yes. I hesitate to say this but, if anything, there's too much history. Davis seemed to sense that many readers would be unfamiliar with Domitian's reign and the historical figures of the time, and therefore perhaps tried too hard to include lots of historical background setup and detail. That effort results - especially early on -  in a tone that sometimes borders on pedantic. Missing is the easy familiarity of the Falco novels, where the history seems less forced. The story flows better as it progresses, once the stage is set.
Score = 4
  1. Was the depiction of historical events accurate?
Mostly. Davis is a thorough researcher and scrupulous about accuracy. Chronology and descriptions of events never departed from authoritative sources. Inclusion of a closing "Author's Note" is always a nice touch.

One large quibble: Davis departs from most sources in her explanation of Roman names. The "praenomen, nomen, cognomen" convention is fairly well understood, but Davis invented a different rationale in Master and God.
Score = 3
  1. Was the depiction of historical characters accurate?
Yes. As noted, contemporary sources varied widely in their assessments of Domitian, and his alienation of the Senate resulted in derogatory biographies by Tacitus and Suetonius. Davis used those portrayals to construct her fictionalized Domitian as insecure and suspicious, tending toward paranoia later on. She resisted the temptation, however, to paint a one-dimensional negative portrait of a deranged evil tyrant. Other historical characters of the time are known largely through their own writings, which can be problematic. The satirical poets Juvenal and Martial have cameos, but could perhaps have been used to greater effect.

A number of those involved in Domitian's assassination are included as characters (thanks to the detailed account of Suetonius). A number of the imperial women also have roles, because of Lucilla's contact with them.
Score = 4
  1. Were the fictional or fictionalized plot and characters plausible?
Yes. Like Falco, Clodianus hovers near the boundaries of stereotype, but Davis resists the temptation to ever let him become a total macho jerk and/or a total blockhead. Lucilla is perhaps more thoroughly liberated than is plausible for that time, but it works. Her thinking certainly confounds Clodianus, who is easily confused anyway where women are concerned.

Davis' fictionalized historical Romans lack the devious depth of Graves - mainly because they're not central characters - but come across as plausibly real people.
Score = 4

Wednesday, July 8, 2015

Emperor (series), by Conn Iggulden

As mentioned in my review of Conn Iggulden's Wars of the Roses: Stormbird, it was the first of his many novels I've read. Having enjoyed Stormbird, I looked for other books by Iggulden and found the Emperor series, based on the life of Julius Caesar. Always up for novels based in ancient Rome, I was pleased to discover a series not yet read. First in the series is The Gates of Rome (2003), followed by four sequels.

Unfortunately, I was hugely disappointed. I found it impossible to enjoy novels filled with familiar historical characters and events, yet exhibiting such blatant disregard for historical accuracy. Even the author's concluding "Historical Note" section, where novelists usually confess their sins regarding historical accuracy, was a letdown. No mention is made of any of the many, obvious, egregious departures from known history.

No thorough fact-check will be attempted here, but one example will serve to illustrate the level of historical abuse. Dates are well documented for the major events in the life both of Julius Caesar and his great-nephew Octavian, who eventually succeeded him as Caesar Augustus. Julius was praetor in Spain just before his first election as Consul in 60 BC. Only three years old in Caesar's consular year, the "young man" Octavian of these novels becomes one of Caesar's trusted lieutenants during the Spanish military campaigns.

These were Iggulden's first efforts at historical fiction, so I can at least say that he's come a long way since then, and Stormbird was a tremendous improvement.
If you're at all interested in historically-accurate fictionalized treatments of Julius Caesar and his times, stay far away from these novels. Read Colleen McCullough instead.

Sunday, May 31, 2015

Lone Star Rising: The Texas Rangers Trilogy (2003), by Elmer Kelton

In general, "western" novels tend to be light on actual history, so I haven't read many. I made an exception for Lone Star Rising: The Texas Rangers Trilogy (2003), by Elmer Kelton, after reading a very interesting straight history work called Empire of the Summer Moon : Quanah Parker and the Rise and Fall of the Comanches, by S. C. Gwynne (2011).

As expected, Kelton's novels contain few historical events or characters, although he does attempt to be even-handed in characterizations of the different peoples involved: Texans, Comanches, Spanish-speaking New Mexicans. Critical historical factors are underplayed or ignored entirely - particularly the role of European diseases in the catastrophic destruction of all Native American tribes. In my 5 criteria, I'd give the novels 2s or maybe 3s across the board. It was a fun read, however, and Kelton is a skillful teller of tales.

For a good account of west Texas history in the middle 1800s, get Gwynne's book instead. Readers might question the characterization of the Comanche as "the most powerful Indian tribe in American history", but Gwynne makes a strong case.

P.S. A few more thoughts about why this novel didn't mention smallpox or cholera. "Western" novels have some archetypical characteristics. One of those is anthropocentrism: the view that "man is the measure of all things". That viewpoint can't stand up to the fact that disease had far more to do with the near-extinction of native Americans than any deliberate actions by humans.

 A dualistic good-evil morality is another staple of western novels. The "good" people struggle to meet and overcome challenges, while the "evil" people act badly. Smallpox and cholera, however, don't care who's good and bad. The universe doesn't care about humans. That point of view doesn't work in a western novel.

Sunday, May 3, 2015

The Sot Weed Factor, by John Barth

No one failing to read The Sot Weed Factor until 2015 can claim to be among the cognoscenti of historical fiction. So be it. It's still a great post-modern American novel - not just a great hist-fict novel, and still merits commentary 55 years after its publication. Lacking the qualifications for a more general review, the focus here will be on the historical aspects of the novel. For more, a Google search will lead to numerous reviews, discussions, plot summaries, etc.

Barth's historical jumping-off point was a satirical poem published in London in January of 1708, attributed to one "Eben. Cook, Gent.". The complete title is The Sot Weed Factor: Or, a Voyage to Maryland. A Satyr. In which is described, The Laws, Government, Courts and Constitutions of the Country; and also the Buildings, Feasts, Frolicks, Entertainments and Drunken Humours of the Inhabitants of that Part of America. In Burlesque Verse. 

I found a copy (literally - photocopied pages of the original) of this composition at my local Santa Cruz Public Library, and read it along with Barth's extrapolation. I recommend the exercise, despite the archaic language and spellings (e.g. "alfo" rather than "also") It's truly impossible to imagine any other author composing such a fantastical fictional framework for Cook's "satyr", and yet one which is plausible (barely) and remains true to the paucity of known historical facts. Highly entertaining, hilarious, iconoclastic, raunchy, cynical - in other words, a John Barth novel.

The five criteria:
  1. Did the novel inspire me to further historical research?
Yes. Readers of Barth will know that he hails from the Chesapeake Bay's Eastern Shore region, so it's no surprise that he took an interest in Cook's narrative, which was set largely in that remote and lightly-populated part of Maryland. The colony of Maryland experienced great turmoil in the later 1600s, mirroring the final stages of Catholic-Protestant strife in the home country. Barth introduces the reader to many of the historical events and personalities of those times, although none of them are central to the story. For that reason, in order to more fully understand the historical context, I was inspired to learn more from other sources.
Score = 5
  1. Did the novel include enough history to make it an interesting historical story?
Yes. As noted above, the major political events of late 1600s Maryland are a backdrop rather than central to the novel's story. A point is subtracted for that reason, but the fictional action has numerous intimate connections to its historical context. Barth's complex plot even manages to encompass the John Smith-Pocahontas story - irreverently, of course.
Score = 4
  1. Was the depiction of historical events accurate?
Hard to say. The only accounts of most of these events were written by participants, and usually by only one participant. Knowing the tendency for first-person accounts to be highly colored - if not outright falsehood, it's just barely plausible that these events happened exactly as described in The Sot Weed Factor. Let's just say that no blatant and obvious contradictions were found.

At the end, Barth included a sort of Historical Notes epilogue, titled The Author Apologizes to His Readers. Some of the historical (and novelistic) loose ends get wrapped up, and I always appreciate that sort of effort by historical novelists.
Score = 3
  1. Was the depiction of historical characters accurate?
Again, hard to say. Similar to criterion 3, the novel's primary goal was not to investigate and accurately describe historical events and characters. There's no contradiction with the little we know for sure, but that left Barth vast spaces to fill with fiction.

Most of the major historical characters remain offscreen throughout the story, spoken of in the third person. One who has a brief spoken part is Francis Nicholson - at that time Governor of Maryland.

For the 1987 Anchor Books (Random House) edition, Barth composed a Foreword containing much more historical background on Ebenezer Cooke (spelled with an "e" at the end, despite the original printing) and the historical research underlying the fiction. That inclusion raises the score from 3 to 4.
Score = 4
  1. Were the fictional or fictionalized plot and characters plausible?
Yes - from a modern perspective. Really, though? - probably not. But the same can be said of any historical novel, so that's not a criticism. Maybe the best approach is to say is that the novel challenged a lot of conventional narratives, causing the reader to devote serious thought to those long-ago happenings rather than simply accepting the standard stories as backdrops to the fictional action.
Score = 4

Friday, March 20, 2015

Wars of the Roses: Stormbird, by Conn Iggulden (2014)

Conn Iggulden is not a new face in historical fiction, but Wars of the Roses: Stormbird, is the first of his many novels I've read. Looking for something with an approximate historical relationship to my recent reading of English medieval royalty tales, I found this first volume of Iggulden's newest series. As the title makes clear, the historical setting is England's civil war fought to decide the successor to King Edward VI.

Stormbird begins with a prologue scene at the death of Edward III in 1377. The characters present at that drama foreshadow the later conflict between the two noble houses: Lancaster and York (Iggulden includes a helpful family tree).

Then the date jumps to 1443, 21 years after the death of the legendary warrior Edward V, hero of Agincourt and a Lancaster. The young son surviving Edward's premature death is now grown, but has not shown the leadership qualities of his father. English possessions on the continent are threatened by Philip II of France, and Edward's advisors attempt to buy peace with that tried-and-true royal strategy - marriage.

 The peace treaty that comes with the wedding vows fails, however, to stop the erosion of English fortunes, and dissatisfaction grows with the king's lack of martial and political prowess. Leader of the opposing royal faction is Richard, Duke of York - also a great-grandson of Edward III. But rebellion rises first from a more humble level, led by a Kentish commoner named Jack Cade, whose peasant army threatens London itself.

It was a turbulent time in merrie olde England, and Conn Iggulden tells the story well.  

The five criteria:
  1. Did the novel inspire me to further historical research?
Yes. Much of this history was only vaguely familiar to me. Everyone has heard of the "War of the Roses", probably because of the poetic-sounding name, but the gory details make great historical-novel fodder.
Score = 5
  1. Did the novel include enough history to make it an interesting historical story?
Yes. Iggulden obviously enjoys the twists and turns and details of political intrigue, and this slice of English history contains an extra-large helping of those elements. That emphasis puts his style closer to Sharon Kay Penman than the more military-centric Bernard Cornwell.
Score = 5
  1. Was the depiction of historical events accurate?
Yes. The historical research seems to be thorough and on a par with other hist-fict writers I like. Inclusion of a "Historical Note" section at the end raises the score from 4 to 5.
Score = 5
  1. Was the depiction of historical characters accurate?
As with most novels employing fictionalized historical characters, the most you can usually say is that the characters' actions are consistent with historical records of those actions. The real fun of this type of historical novel, however, is the examination of personalities, motivations, influences and - in the case of Henry VI - even medical histories. Iggulden seems to consider all of the historical evidence available before going on to fill in the blanks with informed fiction. The question becomes, then: "Don't fictionalized historical characters, by definition, have to be less "accurate" than ones who only do and say the things history has recorded? So as a rule, although I often enjoy them more, I'm going to take a point away (from now on) from any novel that fictionalizes historical characters.
Score = 4
  1. Were the fictional or fictionalized plot and characters plausible?
Yes - from a modern perspective. Another unavoidable problem with historical fiction is the impossibility of understanding a lot of what people were thinking 600 years ago, but within that context I found Iggulden's storytelling to be excellent. He avoids the extreme stereotype heroes and villains, and the plot moves always make sense.
Score = 5

Saturday, March 7, 2015

A King's Ransom, by Sharon Kay Penman (2014)

A King's Ransom is the long awaited sequel to 2011's Lionheart, by the extraordinary Sharon Kay Penman - and a rare opportunity for me to review a book less than a year old! This novel spans the last years in the life of King Richard I, 1192-1199, and is also the end of Penman's Angevin series (she has already written about Richard's brother and successor John I in Here Be Dragons).

The central thesis of this story is that Richard's capture and nearly-15-month imprisonment in Austria and Germany profoundly affected his mental state for the rest of his life. Richard's all-consuming hatred of his captor Holy Roman Emperor Henry VI, along with co-conspirator King Philip of France, completely determined the English king's agenda during the final five years of his reign. His incessant war against Philip and his allies impoverished England and devastated large swathes of France.

The life spans of the Angevin dynasty enabled a neat summing up of Penman's narrative. Richard died in warfare, as he had lived, and his sister Joanna died shortly after. Eleanor of Aquitaine outlived most of her children and saw her lifelong dedication to her family's fortunes descend finally onto the untrustworthy shoulders of her youngest son. John's inability to command the loyalty of the great lords who had supported Henry and Richard led to the rapid loss of much of the Angevin lands in France, but A King's Ransom ends shortly after Richard's death - before Eleanor's final years were spent watching that slow-motion disaster.    

As with Lionheart, this novel earns straight 5's on my 5 criteria. My only regret, really, is that four years elapsed between publication of the two novels. I can forget an awful lot of what I've read in four years, and found myself constantly having to review events briefly mentioned in A King's Ransom, which were dealt with thoroughly in Lionheart. Maybe that was a blessing in disguise, reinforcing through repetition my knowledge of that turbulent and fascinating historical period.

Sunday, March 1, 2015

To The Ends Of The Earth, by Frances Hunter (2006)

To The Ends Of The Earth: The Last Journey Of Lewis & Clark is the well-conceived and written first historical novel of Frances Hunter, which turns out to be a pen name belonging to a pair of sisters named Mary and Liz Clare. They have since published one other historical, which I have yet to read - but plan to.

In the early-U.S. history sub-genre, it's hard to find novels so free of hagiography except for the lone voice in the wilderness of Gore Vidal, and among the post-moderns like Barth and Pinchon. Much as I enjoyed Mason & Dixon, however, the literary gimmickry (just my opinion) gets in the way of my desire to become immersed in a good story.

To The Ends Of The Earth spins a marvelous tale of intrigue, mystery, suspense - and yes, history - including the kind of intelligent historical speculation I enjoy so much in Iain Pears novels like Stone's Fall. And such a motley crew of early Americans! I feel much better about the 21st century after getting to know the collection of cutthroats, thieves, liars, bigots, hypocrites, racists and substance abusers inhabiting this novel. Not all that different from Mark Twain, actually.

Everyone knows the names Lewis & Clark from their famous 1803-4 expedition to the Pacific Coast, but few are familiar with "the last journey" of 1809. There's a good reason for that. After the triumphant return in 1804, Lewis and Clark were "rewarded" with diplomatic appointments in the new Louisiana Territory. Neither man was suited to such a life, and Governor Lewis soon found himself embroiled in political and financial difficulties.

The last straw was when the War Department in Washington D.C. refused to pay some drafts he had issued in the name of the territorial government. Lewis resolved to travel in person, mostly overland, from St. Louis to the Capitol to straighten things out. He never got there - Lewis died in mysterious circumstances on the trail, in what is now Tennessee. Worried about his friend, William Clark had set out after him but caught up too late, either to prevent or observe the death of his friend.

Frances Hunter found many aspects of this story to be very odd, and set out to construct a plausible fictional narrative that could explain all. The result is highly entertaining, full of skullduggery and moral dissolution while remaining faithful to history. In a stroke of genius, the authors pull in one of the most remarkably scandalous figures in all of U.S. history - General James Wilkinson - as chief villain.  

Wilkinson holds the dubious distinction of appearing in several historical novels, filling the standard role of "the bad guy who always gets away with it by shifting blame onto the innocent hero". Perhaps the earliest of those is Rabble in Arms, by Kenneth Roberts (1933). Someone should make "Jamie" the hero of his own novel, bringing some balance to his fictional reputation, as Gore Vidal did with Aaron Burr (by blaming Wilkinson!)

The five criteria:
  1. Did the novel inspire me to further historical research?
Yes. As mentioned above, I knew very little about the later careers of Lewis & Clark. Always a rich trove of character study - what famous people do with the rest of their lives after the thing that made them famous.
Score = 5
  1. Did the novel include enough history to make it an interesting historical story?
Yes. The events that occur within the novel's time/space frame are fairly restricted, but a skillful use of flashbacks brings a much wider historical scope to the novel.
Score = 5
  1. Was the depiction of historical events accurate?
Yes and maybe? As is necessary in this style of novel, there's a fair amount of speculation regarding the thinking behind the characters' actions, but Hunter freely acknowledges that in an excellent concluding "Author's Note". In addition, Hunter adds a number of fascinating but obscure facts gleaned from primary sources not generally well known. Since the climactic action - the death of Lewis - is itself shrouded in mystery, the "real" history in this tale is somewhat slippery. Mainly for that reason, I'm awarding less than the highest score, but that should not be taken as criticism.
Score = 4
  1. Was the depiction of historical characters accurate?
It's hard to know. Despite the detailed journals Lewis & Clark kept during their eponymous expedition, they were "men of few words" about themselves. Their contemporaries were mostly of the same ilk, describing events in as few words as possible and giving few clues to their emotional states. Suffice it to say, then, that Hunter stays faithful to the things we do know about the historical characters (who are also most of the main characters). Again, a "4" here is not a criticism.
Score = 4
  1. Were the fictional or fictionalized plot and character motivations plausible?
Yes. The most fun thing about this novel was the clever plausibility of its plot. This is my favorite style of historical novel - one that includes an entirely plausible but historically unknown fictional plot that doesn't bend any known historical facts along the way.
Score = 5

Thursday, February 12, 2015

Grail Quest series, by Bernard Cornwell

Previously, writing about the Cornwell novel 1356, I admitted to not realizing until later that it was the fourth book in Cornwell's Grail Quest series - and I hadn't yet read the earlier three. That totally screwed up my main pleasure in reading a series of novels so long after the first was published - going from one to the next without waiting years for its publication.

Water under the bridge - despite knowing the end of the story (never a major concern with historical novels), I did go back and read the earlier installments in the Thomas of Hookton saga: The Archer's Tale (aka Harlequin in some editions), Vagabond, and Heretic. These three suffer from the same fictional strengths and historical weaknesses as 1356 - they're generally lighter on recorded historical events and persons than many other Cornwell novels.

For that reason, the 5 criteria will look pretty similar. More significant at this time is a change to the criteria themselves. It has occurred to me that many historical novels do a fine job of presenting historical events and characters, but fail to create believable personalities for the fictionalized versions of those characters , or to give them plausible motivations for their actions.

Creating believable characters is probably the hardest thing to do in any form of fiction, so I can't be too hard on historical novelists. In one way, they get a head start - historical characters have at least some events of their lives recorded. The novelist can approach the character's personality as a detective might, construction plausible motivation from a series of actions.

Other novelists take a different approach, creating entirely fictional characters like Thomas of Hookton, who inhabit the chosen historical setting. Fictional characters can run in well-greased fiction personality grooves, making them instantly familiar to readers but ultimately less satisfying. So, for instance, we know Thomas of Hookton will never give up The Quest, because he's a man of honor, and men of honor never give up (in novels).

These thought about believable characters and plausible plots led me to revise the 5 criteria. I dropped #5 - "Would I read another novel by this author, continuing in this historical period, with these characters (or new ones)?" I don't bother to write about a book if I didn't enjoy it enough to read another by the same author, so the question answers itself.

The new #5 is "Were the fictional or fictionalized plot and character motivations plausible?" Plausible is perhaps a lower bar than believable but is, I think, the minimum standard necessary to ensure reader satisfaction. As indicated above, although I enjoyed Thomas as a character, some of his characteristics and actions are plausible only within the well-known and established framework of  "man of honor" and "mythic hero" archetypes.

So, the revised 5 criteria will debut next time, and we'll see how it works out.    

Saturday, January 17, 2015

The Nathaniel Starbuck Chronicles, by Bernard Cornwell (1992-96)

Perhaps it takes a Brit to write good historical fiction about the American Civil War. It seems difficult for Americans to gain perspective on the way that, for all its savagery and horror, the Civil War began as a series of small skirmishes that most people expected would soon end. The leaders of North and South would come to their senses, sit down together and work things out. Yet the skirmishes got steadily larger and bloodier, the voices of reason and restraint grew fainter, and the United States stumbled into full-fledged civil war.

Bernard Cornwell captures that sense of war momentum building until it became unstoppable in his tetralogy of novels under the overall title of The Nathaniel Starbuck Chronicles. The action is set mostly in Virginia, during the period from the war’s beginning to the Battle of Antietam on Spetmeber , 1862 (known to southerners as the Battle of Sharpsburg, as noted by Cornwell) - still the bloodiest single day in all of American history.

To help give a sense of the way the Civil War tore apart families and states as well as a nation, Cornwell created two protagonists who break with their families, friends and neighbors to fight on the opposing side. The titular Nathaniel Starbuck is the son of a fire-breathing northern protestant preacher who has nothing but contempt for the southern states and their people. Nathaniel finds himself in Virginia when war breaks out, having run away from home and college in an act of impulsive youthful rebellion. He is visiting a friend from college, Adam Faulconer, son of a wealthy Virginia planter.

Somewhat implausibly, but lending great forward impetus to the story line, Nathaniel finds himself more and more determined to maintain what began as a shallow rebellious gesture. He joins the rebel army in Virginia and finds, for the first time in his life, a place where he feels he belongs.

Meanwhile, Adam Faulconer is struggling with his conscience. He is a unionist, pacifist and abolitionist at heart, and sees his hopes of national reconciliation fading month by month, battle by battle. In desperation, he concludes that only a quick northern victory can save the south from total annihilation, and resolves to help bring that about by becoming a Union spy in his native Virginia.

The titles of the four novels follow Nathaniel’s and Adam’s respective journeys of self-discovery: Rebel (1993), Copperhead (1994 - a pejorative nickname for the peace movement in the North), Battle Flag (1995), and The Bloody Ground (1996 – a description of the Antietam/Sharpsburg battlefield).

As with all Cornwell’s wartime novels, those who are disturbed by graphic descriptions of horrific violence, killing, maiming, suffering and all the other evils of war should probably avoid The Starbuck Chronicles.

The five criteria:
1.     Did the novel inspire me to further historical research?
Yes. It’s been a while since I’ve done much Civil War reading, but these novels made me want to revisit that era. There wasn’t, however, that thrill of discovering historical events I’d never heard of before.
Score = 4
2.     Did the novel include enough history to make it an interesting historical story?
Yes. Taking four novels to cover the events of less than two years in just one theater of the Civil War allowed a wealth of historical detail.  
Score = 5
3.     Was the depiction of historical events accurate?
Yes. Cornwell’s usual meticulous research was on full display. And, as always, the Historical Notes at the end explain any deviations from strict historical fact and/or chronology.
Score = 5
4.     Was the depiction of historical characters accurate?
Yes. Always a tricky question for novels where historical characters interact with fictional ones. Cornwell resists the too-common tendency (among American novelists)  toward hagiography in fictionalized versions of such legendary figures as Robert E. Lee and “Stonewall” Jackson. Maybe it’s that British perspective, but Cornwell feels free to present Lee, and especially Jackson, as very human.
Score = 5
5.     Would I read another novel by this author, continuing in this historical period, with these characters (or new ones)?
Yes. I fear that, since the last of these four novels was published in 1996, Cornwell will not return to the Civil War, but one can always hope. 

Score = 5