Books which could be true-ish

Friday, 20 January 2012

I've been thinking a lot recently about historical fiction. Now this has always been a favourite genre of mine as it allows complelling storytelling in a believable, and sometimes familiar, setting. It is worth pointing out that my love of fantasy and Sci-Fi means that 'believable' takes on a whole new meaning for me. I think the other point about historical fiction is that it can teach us things about the past, as long as we have the wit to seperate fact from fiction. The oft-appended 'historical notes' section is often an invaluable inclusion for these books. I guess it could be argued that historical characters could be more relatable however I don't find this the case. A good author is able to make the reader relate to and care about his characters whether they are a complete work of fiction, or a figure from history. Indeed many historical characters appear to be larger than life, to the extent that they are almost unbelievable themselves.

This leads me neatly on to one of my favourite authors. Bernard Cornwell. I grew up on a diet of Sean Bean as Sharpe, and quickly grew to love the books. The Grail Quest series was superb and although his novels of Uhtred of Bebbanburg and Alfred the Great are far from his best work, they are still excellent. Agincourt was an unexpected delight from an author who almost seems to eschew the single-novel format. However I wish to briefly discuss what I believe to be his greatest work. The Warlord Trilogy (admittedly an odd place to start on this topic).

The Winter King is the first book of the Warlord Trilogy (followd by Enemy of God and Excalibur). The series is a dramatical interpretation of the arthurian legend but not as you may know it. No tale of virtuous maidens, gallant knights and round tables this, but a sombre yet exhilirating tale of Britain's Dark Ages following the end of the Roman occupation. It is narrated by Derfel, a saxon who finds himself following the chief enemy of his own people. Torn between duty, friendship, love and religion he attempts to weave a course through the twisted web of hope, deceit and betrayl that threatens to bring Britain to its knees. The only downside to this book is that I now have an extremely biaised view of Arthur, Lancelot et al.

Next up is Conn Iggulden. He seems to be a bit of a rising star in the genre. He first came to our attention with the excellent Emperor series, charting the rise and fall of Julius Ceasar and the Roman Republic. I really enjoyed Emperor however I must admit that this is an area where my knowledge is chiefly sourced from fictional literature (including HBO's brilliant series Rome and Rubicon by Tom Holland). In fact it has fulfilled on of the key elements of hisorical fiction in that it has encouraged me to read the non-fiction equivalents. Having said that, I believe his Conqueror series to be his masterpiece.

This series follows another of history's greatest military leaders. Genghis Kahn. I find it particularly fascinating as it is a topic that seems to have been rarely covered by popular literature and even more so given its relatively recent nature, most of the action revolves in the 13th century. The author does a fine job of allowing the reader to relate to, and respect a figure who has often been reviled by history. Epic battles, inevitable politics and a gripping pace make this a fine example of modern historical fiction.

My final mention for this post is possibly my favourite author. Guy Gavriel Kay. Kay's novels differ slightly from the others mentioned in that his works take place in fictional settings, heavily influenced by historical cultures. The central theme for many of his works are the religions of the Jaddites, Asharites and Kindath (the sun, stars and moon). These religions are roughly analagous to Christianity, Islam and Judaism. The Sarantine Mosaic is a duology set against the city of Byzantium as ruled by Emperor Justinian follows the exploits of a master mosaicist. The Last Light of the Sun is set against the viking invasions of Saxon England. The Lions of Al Rassan is set on the Iberian peninsula in the 7th century and follows the exploits of Rodrigo Belmonte the Cavalry Captain and Ammar Ibn Khairan, the assasin poet. They are both exiled for a year by their respective rulers and become mercenaries and then close friends. However, there is a war on the horizon when they will be on opposite sides. Believe me when I say these are two of the finest characters of any book I have read. Kay's latest effort is Under Heaven, set against his version of the Chinese Tang Dynasty. It has a wonderful premise. The most valuable commodity in the empire are the Heavenly Horses. Two make a man rich. The central character, Shen Tai is gifted 250 making him one of the richest and most threatened men alive.

Tigana. I think this is the saddest book I have ever read. Set in the Peninsula of the Palm, similar to Italy, it is a tale of subjugation and a struggle for identity and freedom. Two sorcerors have come from overseas bent on conquering the peninsula. After defeating three of the nine provinces, Brandin sends his son Stevan to conquer the next. However, Steven is killed by the stubborn defenders of this province. Stricken by grief, Brandin destroys their cities, scatters their armies and burns their books. Finally he unleashes a brutal retribution, meaning that no-one not born in the province of Tigana would ever be able to remember it or even hear its name. You must read this book!

Until next time. Adios.



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