History Boys and Girls – Noteworthy Historical Fiction

Ciaran Hinds as Gaius Julius Caesar in the TV series “Rome”

I talk a lot about science fiction books on here and I realise that despite posting quite a few book reviews on the genre, I’ve neglected discussion of novels set in the past. I have read quite a few set across a diverse range of periods with different approaches and ranging in quality.

Looking at my historical fiction reading, it seems my genre reading can be broken down into two sub-genres: war and crime. I have also read some novels that might be classified as fictionalised biographies (novels about real people but containing a degree of artistic license of fictional characters and events added). My first real introduction to historical novels began with Christian Jacq, a French author who writes about ancient Egypt. The superb Ramses series still stands as his best work for me, but I grew bored quickly with his formula and passionless style of writing.

A few years later I read Conn Iggulden’s Emperor series about the life of Gaius Julius Caesar. This was a different experience, well-researched, more substantial and slower paced. I have yet to read his current series on the life of Genghis Khan and last year I bought a long awaited conclusion to the Caesar series that focuses on his nephew Octavian Augustus.

After that, I started to read a lot more historical fiction. It was around this time that I was introduced to the work of Lindsey Davis. I’ve now read 14 (I think) of the Falco series (in a series 20 books long) and I cannot recommend them highly enough. The main character is Marcus Didius Falco, a private investigator who ends up the only person capable of investigating the crime of the moment. With a whole host of amusing characters, Davis’ writing works on three levels: as gripping crime thrillers, amusing and light-hearted reads and as educational. Each novel centres on one particular aspect of 1st century Roman life. For example, The Iron Hand of Mars is a fascinating look at typical military life on the German frontier, others look at the olive trade, the silver trade, theatre and so on. Falco is an amusing character. You laugh at him – a lot – and you laugh with him as he laments that Emperor Vespasian keeps asking him to do jobs but never quite gets around to settling the bill.

More substantial if you prefer a heavier read (though no less informative), C.J. Sansom might be for you. Set during the last ten years of Henry VIII’s life, the protagonist Matthew Shardlake is a lawyer investigating murders against the backdrop of this intense and tumultuous period of England’s history. Slower paced than Davis’ work, it is excellently researched with gripping plots and fascinating characters.

On the military side, I’m currently reading three series. Warrior of Rome by Harry Sidebottom. Long-time readers of this blog might remember me gushing over how amazing the first book in this series is. Set in The Third Century Crisis, it is about a (real life) German born Roman officer sent to defend the eastern frontier against the Sassanids. It is amazing for the detail which is even better for the excellent flow. Some of the characters are a little stereotypical. Rough rugged officer raised from the ranks, check. A surprisingly emancipated (and irresistibly attractive wannabe nymphomaniac) woman for the third century, check. Thuggish soldiers, check. A dastardly noble, check. Weasly officials, check.

Sticking with Rome, I’ve also read three of Simon Scarrow’s Eagle series. It’s ok so far but as I started reading it about the same time as Warrior of Rome, it has, perhaps unfairly, become quite forgettable in my mind. I know I will read more eventually.

The final series is Bernard Cornwell’s Saxon Stories, a period of England’s history with which I’m really fascinated It’s also a period I studied while at University. It’s a great series mostly because it dispels many myths about the Vikings. They have a bad press because of the Christian writers of the time painting them in the most negative light they could imagine but in reality they were no more or less brutal, no more or less likely to attack unarmed civilians than the Saxons. Uhtred is a fascinating character despite being similar to Sharpe. A Northumbrian pagan in Christian Wessex working for a pious Christian king (Alfred – interesting exploration of his character too) comes up against all sorts of problems as he seeks to reclaim his Northumbrian castle from the usurper.

I also read four books into the Earth’s Children series by Jean M. Auel but gave up with two books remaining. Each of the sequels failed to live up to the first superb entry in the series and the focus moved away from survival in the ice age and to soapy love triangles, non-stop sexual aerobics and the social anxieties of a girl genius single-handedly taking humanity toward industrialisation.

Aside from the above series, I have read numerous one-off novels and trilogies, some of which I have published book reviews for, some excellent, some mediocre and some just forgettable.

I’ve never read Sharpe but I have read some Patrick O’Brien. Generally the Napoleonic era is of little interest to me. Undoubtedly, I will read Sharpe at some point but I won’t be proceeding with O’Brien. I find it too dense and too slow moving though clearly meticulously researched.

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