Thursday, December 13, 2007
A Heaping Helping of Historical Fiction!
A list has been suggested, called for, even implored, and we here at Stevereads never turn away from a good juicy list. We consequently fired off the appropriate memos and admonitions to the pertinent research departments, telling them to postpone our upcoming Best and Worst Books of 2007 listings (and, it need hardly be added, cancel their own squalid Holiday plans, which were never all that important in the first place), and we've come up with a list - not a definitive list, since such a thing would be beyond the scope of even this site, but a meaty list all the same. Here are thirty-odd kick-ass historical novels, books which, should you encounter them on the bargain carts at the Strand, will suck you in and keep you enthralled from first page to last. These are some of the best books historical fiction has to offer, offered in no particular order:
1. Child of the Morning by Pauline Gedge - the evocative tale of the great Egyptian pharaoh Hatchepsut, a woman in the ultimate man's job.
2. Clodia by Robert DeMaria - a bouncy, chatty novel about Catullus in Republican Rome; the history here is rock-solid, and even the sensibilities are almost perfect.
3. The City of Libertines by W.G. Hardy - another great novel of Caesar and Catullus and the fall of the Roman Republic.
4. The Emperor's Virgin by Sylvia Fraser - a lively, literate look at the lamentable reign of the Roman emperor Domitian.
5. I, Claudius by Robert Graves - well of course this book had to appear on the list, even though it basically sucks as a work of fiction, because it's so successfully anecdotal and conversational - reading it feels like coming to some kind of historical-fiction home.
6. Gold for the Caesars by Florence Seward - chronicling the sad reign of the emperor Domitian - and the new dawn of the military emperor Trajan.
7. Mr. Midshipman Easy by Captain Frederick Marryat - a rattling good naval yarn set in the Napoleonic, although this place could equally be given to any of Captain Marryat's novels, all of which are as fine and stirring now as when they were written.
8. The Sot-Weed Factor by John Barth - set mostly in colonial America and featuring a wildly tangled plot and a hilarious, scandalous version of Captain John Smith.
9. Master and Commander by Patrick O'Brian - another novel set in the Napoleonic era, but this one is like nothing else on this list, as odd and scintillating historical novel as we here at Stevereads have read in many a year.
10. The Antagonists by Ernest Gann - the gritty, heavily detailed story of the first century Roman siege of the Jewish fortress Masada.
11. Entered from the Sun by George Garrett - the greatest of George Garrett's three great historical novels, and also the best novel about Christopher Marlowe (beating even Anthony Burgess' twilight work Dead Man in Deptford) ever written, even though Marlowe appears nowhere in it.
12. The Kingdom of the Wicked by Anthony Burgess - a panoramic view of the first century, centering on a fledgling Christianity and a fumbling, corrupt Roman Empire, this is basically the Acts of the Apostles as written by a chain-smoking drunken word-besotted genius.
13. The Right Line of Cerdric by Alfred Duggan - a richly realized novel of Alfred the Great, by far the best fictional treatment of that enigmatic figure - although all of Duggan's works could stand here with equal justification.
14. The Alexandrian by Martha Rofheart - of all the innumerable novels written about Cleopatra, this is the best, the one that comes closest to capturing accurately the characters of Julius Caesar, Cleopatra, and Marc Antony.
15. The Murder of Sir Edmund Godfrey by John Dickson Carr - the veteran mystery-writer turns his hand to historical fiction spread lightly on a bed of tightly-researched fact, all revolving around the mysterious death of Edmund Berry Godfrey, which was used by the odious authors of the so-called 'Popish Plot' to further their witch-hunt. Never was such a horrible disgrace so engagingly written-of.
16. Three Years to Play by Colin MacInnes - A really good, vigorously archaic novel of Shakespeare, full of 'thees' and 'thous' and enough no-longer-current contractions to satisfy the most romantic among you. Sorry, amongst ye.
17. Shakespeare by John Mortimer - Here is John Mortimer, creator of the immortal 'Rumpole of the Bailey,' writing the novel to a mini-series that never amounted to much despite starring Tim Curry and a roster of other notables. This is the best, most sensitive novel about Shakespeare ever written.
18. The Man on a Donkey by H.F.M. Prescott - Quite simply the greatest Tudor novel yet written. Not to be missed.
19. The Conspiracy by John Hersey and The Ides of March by Thornton Wilder - no sense dealing with these two books separately; they're both highly enjoyable, they're both epistolary, and they both deal with the people and the events leading up to the assassination of Caesar.
20. Imperial Governor by George Shipway - the feelingly-narrated story of the sorry folk who were unlucky enough to be in charge during Boadicea's ill-fated revolt against patriarchal Roman rule.
21. The Sheriff of Nottingham portrayed in 'Robin Hood Prince of Thieves' by a ham-on-wry Alan by Richard Kluger - a thoroughly unpretentious and involving look at the man most of you will know as the villain who plagues heroic Robin Hood (inimitablyRickman, gleefully snarling lines like "no more table scraps for widows and orphans - and Christmas is cancelled!") but who features in this book mainly as a good man with the singular misfortune of being an English official in the reign of King John.
22. Jem (& Sam) by Ferdinand Mount - a fun and frolicsome (and bounteously intelligent) Restoration romp starring Samuel Pepys and our main character Jem, an actual historical personage and lineal ancestor of our author, who is here utilizing a lifetime of learning to have his fun.
23. Lonesome Dove by Larry McMurtry - calling this magnificent work the best western ever written automatically demeans it, even though such a statement is nothing less than the truth. In fact, this story of two redoubtable Texas Rangers leading a cattle-drive from Texas to Montana is one of the most instructive and powerful novels written in America in the 20th century. Alone of all the books on this list, it's required reading for all Americans.
24. The Killer Angels by Michael Shaara - an electrifying, kinetic recreation of the Battle of Gettysburg, in which the entire cast North and South (all of whom, unprecedently for historical fiction, are actual historical figures) are brought completely to life.
25. Romola by George Eliot - the great novelist tries her hand at Renaissance historical fiction, with generally admirable results. The Italian Renaissance still hasn't received the great fictional epic it deserves, but Romola comes closer than any of the other contenders.
26. Salaambo by Gustave Flaubert - Another famous novelist trying his hand at historical fiction, in this case the theater of ancient Rome. Flaubert here is at his most gaudy and melodramatic - you'll feel guilty reading it, but you'll eat it up nonetheless.
27. Deus Lo Volt! by Evan S. Connell - Here one of America's greatest writers throws himself into the tone and mindframe of the great Crusade chroniclers - a supremely odd concoction that at first had its packagers calling it history and now has them styling it as fiction, although in reality this remarkable book isn't quite either. Connell has been subverting genres his entire career, and this amazing book is no different. Read it and be amazed.
28. The Winds of War/ War and Remembrance by Herman Wouk - this two-volume opus is the final word on the 20th century prewar era (with all of the war thrown in).
29. The Persian Boy by Mary Renault - Almost her best novel and certainly her longest, the heartfelt story of Bagoas, the Persian castrati who was captured into the train of Alexander the Great and, according to our lady
30. The Last of the Wine by Mary Renault - We end with Renault's best work, a thoroughly adult and intelligent love story between two men, taking place against the tumultuous backdrop of the Peloponnesian War. This is first-rate, beautiful writing combined with impeccable historical research to yield a book you won't want to end.