3 stars. The use of an omniscient narrator was clumsy at times, but otherwise a well-crafted story.3½ stars. The use of an omniscient narrator was clumsy at times, but otherwise a well-crafted story....more
There really should be more books in which a descendent reconstructs reminiscences of an ancestor's life into a narrative. There can be a more personaThere really should be more books in which a descendent reconstructs reminiscences of an ancestor's life into a narrative. There can be a more personal feel than one might typically get than in most historical fiction. There might actually be a lot of this; the only thing similar that I've read is the excellent and award-winning Maus: A Survivor's Tale: My Father Bleeds History.
One Thousand Chestnut Trees: a Novel of Korea takes place before and during the Korean War. This was a little extra interesting to me because my father was one of the U.S. Navy pilots dropping bombs during that war, and I also studied the origins of the war a little in college (I remember being very interested in China Crosses the Yalu: The Decision to Enter the Korean War).
But getting the feel on the ground during the conflict is important. Few of us in the developed world have ever lived through a war, huddling in the basement as bombs fall, struggling to find food and avoid predatory humans when the bombs aren't falling.
Not a great book, but very good within its scope, especially since few other books are likely to explore this part of history in quite the same way....more
This is the first of a trilogy in a magnificent telling of the Arthurian legend. Yeah, that one: Arthur, Merlin, Uther Pendragon, Guinevere, Morgan, MThis is the first of a trilogy in a magnificent telling of the Arthurian legend. Yeah, that one: Arthur, Merlin, Uther Pendragon, Guinevere, Morgan, Mordred, Lancelot, Galahad — the whole cast, as far as I know (well, Morgause appears to be missing).
I haven’t read any of the others Arthurian books, so I can’t comment on any linkages between this and the agglomeration of other tellings. My knowledge of this history/legend/mythos comes mostly from what I’ve picked up here and there, with a heavy dose of Monty Python, Camelot (the musical) and fond-if-vague recollections of the dark 1981 movie, Excalibur.
Bernard Cornwell relies on the point that what is “known” about Arthur is microscopic compared to the stories that have been told, and that gives him the leeway to tweak the legend in ways that aren’t available to most “historical” fiction. In other words, there is so much fiction already in the mixture that he can transpose the historical portion to where he thinks he will have the most fun. In his afterword, he admits that his choices are “capricious at best and fortified by the certainty that no real answer exists”. In the end, he locates his story in the part of Britain he loves best.
The Wikipedia page on King Arthur tells us he was possibly a real human being around the early sixth century. This is long after the first Christian missionaries came to Wales and maybe after druidism was largely eliminated. But in Cornwell’s tale, druids play an important role, which distinguishes this from the heavily Christianized tales that dominate the most popular tellings of Arthur (e.g., the Holy Grail — although the Grail does make an appearance, sort of).
Many others parts of the story are also shifted a bit: the major characters don’t have the same relationships to one another — for example, Galahad is Lancelot’s illegitimate half-brother, not his illegitimate son. Mordred isn’t Arthur’s son, but nephew (and an infant in this first volume).
The very first portion — fifty, maybe sixty pages? — is a little slow. Derfel Cadarn, the narrator is an old monk, writing this history. (He is based on the historical Saint Derfel Gadarn; the book is written in the first person from his perspective). As his tale begins, he is a young man of Saxon ancestry who had been adopted as an orphan by Merlin. Merlin is absent, and no one knows where he is, when he might return, or even if he is alive. The High King, Uther Pendragon, has sent his heir and grandson, Mordred, to Merlin’s camp at Ynys Wydryn.
The barrage of Welsh (or Cornish, I’m not completely sure) words and names can be pretty overwhelming, and several times I was tempted to abandon the book and move on to something else. But eventually the situation becomes clear, and some action kicks in, and the for the rest of the book there is no question that we’re in the hands of a master storyteller.
As the chapters go by, more of the expected Arthurian characters are added to the mix. Cornwell does an excellent job at making Arthur a complex character (Merlin remains mostly an enigma), torn between his belief that he can forge Britain into a unified people, able to resist the despised Saxons, and his passions; chief among them, the femme fatale, Guinevere. The politics certainly seems accurate. Perhaps the real draw is the military aspect: Cornwell gives us a real feel for what spear-and-shield fighting was about. Maintaining the shield wall was paramount; as long as it stood your side would probably get by with few casualties, but woe to those facing the melee after it collapsed, especially if they had been flanked.
I suspect someone could spend many hours tracking Cornwell’s usage of actual historical names and places. For example, the final battle in this book is at “Lugg Vale”, which was actually the site of a very similar fight in the early fifteenth century, the Battle of Bryn Glas. Thus, the “historical” half of “historical fiction” is well rooted.
Since I’ve only read this first book in the trilogy, I can’t endorse the whole series, although I certainly plan on continuing into the next volume, and I can recommend The Winter King to anyone who enjoys a rousing good story. ...more
Nice little spy novel. Intelligent enough to satisfy, but not enough to win any real awards. Was made into a good movie, way back when, which I'm pretNice little spy novel. Intelligent enough to satisfy, but not enough to win any real awards. Was made into a good movie, way back when, which I'm pretty sure I saw and enjoyed. If you like espionage and/or historical fiction, read it....more
I’m a little surprised at my reaction to Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall. You see that I gave it a four-star rating, but that is, frankly, for you and notI’m a little surprised at my reaction to Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall. You see that I gave it a four-star rating, but that is, frankly, for you and not for me.
I don’t plan on reading any more of this series, and I’m probably going to be hesitant to read anything quite like this.
Because it turns out there are multiple definitions of the genre “historical fiction”.
Here we have a depiction of the intimate lives of actual historical people, and the author has — brilliantly, it must be acknowledged — made up the relationships and attitudes of those people.
In contrast, in two other historical fiction novels I’ve enjoyed, Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose and Alan Furst’s Night Soldiers, the main characters are purely fictional, even though the portrayal of the times in which they’re living provides a deeply nuanced view of the historical angle.
I’ve realized that I don’t really want an author tampering with real people. Mantel’s period here is the time of Henry VIII, with a specific focus on the life of Thomas Cromwell. Anyone with a passing familiarity with the House Tudor period of British royal history will know the outlines of the story; it is naturally riveting, and has been told many times. My strongest previous memory is actually from the 1966 movies A Man for All Seasons, which zeros in on Thomas More (one of four main Thomases in on the action, by the way).
The contrast between the two is what got me thinking. The movie (and the theatrical play it was based on) is a hagiography of Saint Thomas More, brilliantly played by Paul Scofield, and Thomas Cromwell is well off to the side, and portrayed as something of a thug, if I recall correctly (I’ve got the DVD sitting in front of me, but haven’t re-watched it yet, after thirty-plus years). In Mantel’s book Cromwell is portrayed with extraordinary sympathy, while More gets hacked up a bit (heh heh) as an sanctimonious hypocrite.
Which is correct? Careful examination of period diaries, etc., might shed quite a bit of light on that, and we can make some inferences based on what we know about the culture of the times, but ultimately we can’t know whether either of those two portrays is more accurate, or if they are both far from the mark.
For example, consider the relationship between Henry VIII and Thomas Cromwell.
Henry was turning his society upside down by pushing the Catholic Church away. His friends would be other members of the aristocracy, and they’d be naturally wary of undermining the established order, especially since the growing power of the merchant classes already had them on the back foot. Henry could easily find himself struggling to fill positions in his administration that normally would be populated by those friends, and turn to those of lower class.
Later, as his peers discovered the world wasn’t suddenly ending and that their absence from court was hurting their interests, they would return.
Mantel has Cromwell becoming something more than merely a trusted advisor of Henry VIII during this period. That is quite plausible; history tells us that he was very, very successful for many years, so he must have been an astonishing person.
But the alternative is also plausible.
Henry may have never felt comfortable with his obvious reliance on someone of such a low birth. He would never have any fear of betrayal, of course — Cromwell’s position and prestige would have made him Henry’s creature regardless of their mutual affection of lack thereof. (Even if, as the French ambassador asserted, Henry thought of Cromwell along the lines of his “the most faithful servant” he had ever had, there are many nuances to that phrase, not all of which require affection.)
It really shouldn’t matter which view is correct after almost five hundred years, should it?
But we still deeply care about whether Nixon was really a jerk or not, and if we were told that Abraham Lincoln was actually manipulative and amoral, we’d be very offended. How far back in history do people have to recede before we should cease to care whether they’ve been transformed by an author into someone to whom they bear no resemblance?
I’m reminded of the scenes from Tom Stoppard’s Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead in which Hamlet appears. His lines are the same as those in Hamlet, and played straight, but Shakespeare’s actual story is wondrously subverted by manipulations of those minor characters. Because Hamlet itself is fiction, that really doesn’t matter. But did Mantel do something similar in Wolf Hall? If not, then apparently Robert Bolt had done so in A Man for All Seasons, right?
If none of this quibbling is likely to bother you, then by all means read this book. Be prepared to have Wikipedia at the ready to remind yourself of who everyone is, however. These times were as convoluted as they were fascinating....more
Connie Willis brings us a deeply affecting story of time travel gone wrong. While the "time travel" element might sounds really geeky, in an importantConnie Willis brings us a deeply affecting story of time travel gone wrong. While the "time travel" element might sounds really geeky, in an important way this science fiction aspect really isn't central to the story. Christopher Booker'sThe Seven Basic Plots identifies the theme of "Voyage and Return" as one of the basic plots, and the fact that one of Willis' lead characters is traveling through time is merely a specific detail of interest. A similar story could be written of a traveler stranded on an island soon to be hit by a tsunami, for example.
The real focus of Willis' story is on the personal, which is rare enough in science fiction to be very welcome.
The basic story: time travel has fairly recently been invented, and university history departments are giddy with the new avenues of research thus opened. One incompetent professor sees an opportunity when his dean goes on vacation to exercise his temporary authority to send a willing graduate student back to the dark ages, a mission nominal deemed too perilous. Because his authority expires at the end of winter vacation, the job is rushed and the researcher is dumped in the past with inadequate diligence paid to the risks. This is compounded by a crisis in the contemporary time, making rescue impossible.
So the student is forced to survive on her own wits, while her would-be rescuers struggle against incompetence and catastrophe. Though te two plot arcs are separated by 700 years, Willis unspools them side by side, converging towards either rescue or tragedy, and she maintains the tense uncertainty to the final pages.
The only flaw in this book is that Willis permits too much amateurishness. Given its stupefying ramifications, it is implausible that time travel would be so completely unregulated. Willis includes organizational incompetence among the hurdles her procrastinators must overcome, but the fundamental cause of the problem is precisely the kind of personal incompetence that organizations are quite good at preventing with basic regulatory frameworks that require due diligence and consensual oversight. This is actually similar to the problem Mary Doria Russell presented in The Sparrow: the problems amateurs might face, but in situations where amateur initiative is almost incomprehensible.
Despite this flaw, Willis presents us with characters that are so real and situations so riveting that this quite long book remains a visceral adventure.
Fascinating concept; I really wanted to read this, but it was a little to dry for me. I couldn't see my interest being adequately sustained through thFascinating concept; I really wanted to read this, but it was a little to dry for me. I couldn't see my interest being adequately sustained through the whole thing, so walked away early....more
It took me a few pages to realize I knew the history that ends at Shrewsbury. Once the Prince of Wales was on the Welsh borderI gave up on this early.
It took me a few pages to realize I knew the history that ends at Shrewsbury. Once the Prince of Wales was on the Welsh border with Hotspur, I realized I knew what was coming.
And that was a problem: if I'm going to read historical fiction, it had either better be riveting or as accurate as a historian can manage. Making up the quotidian life and internal monologues of actual historic folk is an iffy affair. If it is boring, it better be footnoted with references to diaries, personal letters, etc.
And Pargeter did have a chance to write riveting stuff here. The tragedy that culminated at Shrewsbury is historical fact, and it would have been nice to have Shakespeare's version complemented by a deeper novel. To Pargeter's disadvantage, I'd just finished reading a much more engaging historical adventure — Dorothy Dunnett'sThe Game of Kings, and Bloody Field suffered in comparison. Pargeter spent too much time inside her character's heads and didn't bring out the drama.
P.S. If you do read this, I strongly recommend tracking down a genealogical chart of the Royal Family of England for the appropriate time. In this case, you'd want the descendants of King Edward III, r. 1327-1377. There's a good one in Churchill's excellent History of the English Speaking Peoples, Volume I. It'd also be nice to see the interrelations to the greater British aristocracy (showing the Percys, for example), as well as Welsh, Scottish and French nobility, but I don't know of a source. Wikipedia provides all the necessary information, of course, but not in an easy-to-absorb graphical format.
The Game of Kings is a long romp through embattled Scotland in the sixteenth century. James of Scotland is dead, leaving the child Queen Mary a pawn oThe Game of Kings is a long romp through embattled Scotland in the sixteenth century. James of Scotland is dead, leaving the child Queen Mary a pawn of court intrigue between England and France, and Scotland itself the target of the English army. Our hero, Francis Crawford of Lymond, is a renegade and scoundrel, widely believed to have betrayed Scottish forces at the Battle of Solway Moss, and worse.
But is he so vile, after all? He is the undisputed leader of a band of scurrilous outlaws in the south of Scotland and is hunted by his brother Lord Cutler, but seems to still draw the affections of some, including their mother and perhaps even his sister-in-law, Lord Cutler's young bride.
Joined by William Scott, the rebellious scion of Walter Scott, Lord of Branxholme and Buccleuch, the bandits increasingly skirmish at the feet of the Scottish and English forces raiding across the border. But is the game treachery, or something more complicated?
This book both a standalone tale and the first in a series of fourteen novels (split into two series: six volumes in the Lymond Chronicles, and then eight more in the prequel House of Niccolò series). It is riveting story of historical adventure illuminating the complexities of court life, espionage, betrayal and strange loyalties. The lead characters are clever, wily and well educated (it will sometimes help to have French, Spanish and Latin dictionaries by your side as you read), living through times and drama as wild as that in The Scarlet Pimpernel but with more depth and much more engaging and plausible.
Not a simple book: many readers will be bewildered by the large cast and sometimes strange vocabulary. But note that every book of the fourteen has a Goodreads rating greater than 4, with hundreds of ratings each. The lowest ratings are the first books from each series, with ratings of 4.34 and 4.20 respectively. Those readers that find the first chapters engaging will be rewarded.