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.