Shelby Foote is the author of the magnificent three-volume The Civil War: A Narrative. He also wrote a historical novel about the Battle of Shiloh witShelby Foote is the author of the magnificent three-volume The Civil War: A Narrative. He also wrote a historical novel about the Battle of Shiloh with Shiloh. This is a pointillist work, looking at the battle from the point of view of four Confederate and three Union participants, based on actual historical records.
There are interesting portraits of Albert Sidney Johnston (killed early in the battle), Ulysses S. Grant, William Tecumseh Sherman, and -- most of all -- Nathan Bedford Forrest, the most brilliant cavalry commander on either side during the Civil War. ...more
It was in 2000 that I first read William Trevor. The book was Felicia's Journey, which I loved. Why did I not continue reading his work in the interveIt was in 2000 that I first read William Trevor. The book was Felicia's Journey, which I loved. Why did I not continue reading his work in the intervening years? I cannot answer that, except that now I think I will read more of his work, and soon, too.
Fools of Fortune is an earlier novel, one that, apparently, Graham Greene called his best novel. Trevor takes three lives, intertwines them, and stretches them out over many decades. It all begins in Ireland, where the Black and Tans take a gruesome vengeance upon William Quinton's family because one of their informers is killed on his land. His son, also called William, struggles on. He seems drawn to his cousin Marianne, who, feeling sorry for him, sleeps with one one night. Out of this coupling, a daughter, Imelda, is born. But by then, Willie is long gone.
Never before have I seen silence and indirectness exert such a powerful influence on a story. It has only been minutes since I read the last paragraph, and I am still struggling to find words to describe the novel's power.
Fire from Heaven is the first volume of a trilogy on the life of Alexander the Great by Mary Renault. Like all of her historical novels, this one wasFire from Heaven is the first volume of a trilogy on the life of Alexander the Great by Mary Renault. Like all of her historical novels, this one was a joy to read. It is also a remarkable act of reconstruction, considering that nothing was written about Alexander by any of his contemporaries -- at least anything that has come down to us.
The story of the emperor's early years is presented as a struggle between Philip and his wife Olympias, who have grown to hate each other. In many ways, the two compete for Alexander's loyalty. At the same time, it is broadly hinted that Philip is not really Alexander's father. (Whether this thread will be carried into either of the two succeeding novels will be interesting to see.)
My only complaint is the murkiness of the plot against Philip. Too many characters are brought in at the end of the novel, to the extent that it is difficult to sort them all out. That is, of course, only complicated by the fact that there are four Alexanders in the novel and a host of other frequently used Greek names, such as Pausanias.
Fire from Heaven takes to to the death by assassination of Philip at the betrothal ceremony of his daughter Kleopatra to King Alexander of Epirus.
Like anything I have read by Renault, it is an engrossing read, with a strong feeling for the main characters.
No, these are not the Eric Ambler Balkans, though both series of books are set around the same time, and both involve spying. Spies of the Balkans isNo, these are not the Eric Ambler Balkans, though both series of books are set around the same time, and both involve spying. Spies of the Balkans is another of Alan Furst's looks at the inevitable start of World War Two.
In this book, the hero is Constantine Zannis, a highly placed police officer in the Greek city of Salonika. He sees the storm clouds of war gather and make their way south to the Northern border of Greece. Early in the book, he finds one way of depriving the Nazis of their prey: "arresting" Jews, taking them back to Salonika, and forwarding them on to Turkey and other places. He even smuggles a fallen British pilot from Paris to Greece via Bulgaria.
I am amazed that Furst can produce such a coherent and atmospheric series of spy thrillers with all different characters and countries. The advantage, of course, is that one does not need to start with the first novel in the series and follow the main character's development across multiple books. No, indeed, one can start anywhere.
But above all, one should start. These are great books for summer reading. ...more
Bernard Cornwell is one of the three or four best historical novelists. From his prolific mind have sprung the Richard Sharpe novels set in the NapoleBernard Cornwell is one of the three or four best historical novelists. From his prolific mind have sprung the Richard Sharpe novels set in the Napoleonic Wars, the Starbuck Chronicles about the American Civil War, the King Arthur books, the Grail Quest, and finally the Warrior Chronicles, also referred to as the Saxon Stories. Set during the reign of Alfred the Great and his immediate successors, the real hero is Uhtred of Bebbanburg, a Northumbrian Saxon who is also a Pagan and a not-so-secret admirer of the Viking raiders he so often must fight.
The Empty Throne is set during the reign of Aethelred in Mercia and Edward I in Wessex, with most of the action taking place in Mercia. Aethelread sickens and dies, and his military chief, Eardwulf tries to take over. Uhtred's allegiance, however, is to Aethelflaed, Alfred's daughter and his sometime mistress.
I read this book slightly out of sequence, but enjoyed it no less for not having read The Pagan Lord first.
Cornwell's battle scenes are probably the best in all of historical fiction, with Nigel Tranter a distant second. Read Cornwell, and your blood will race....more
What Buddhist burst of contemplation led Julien Gracq to write this strangely atypical historical fantasy? The Opposing Shore is set in the Venice-likWhat Buddhist burst of contemplation led Julien Gracq to write this strangely atypical historical fantasy? The Opposing Shore is set in the Venice-like maritime state of Orsenna which faces, across a strait, the Muslim kingdom of Farghestan. We follow the young, ambitious Aldo, who signs up with the Signory to be sent to Syrtes, in the dour old Admiralty fortress which reminds Orsenna that, after three centuries, it is still technically at war with Farghestan.
Most of Aldo's colleagues at the Admiralty sleepwalk their way through life, living mainly for a weekend in the stews of nearby Maremma.
But Aldo reawakens the old conflict when he crosses the line and comes within range of Farghestan's shore batteries.
There are few novels like this one: slow, stately, but endlessly involving. This book is one of the major surprises of my reading over the last three months. Highly recommended....more
What does it truly mean to be primitive, like those now mostly vanished peoples of the Americas whom we displaced? I was greatly astonished by the acuWhat does it truly mean to be primitive, like those now mostly vanished peoples of the Americas whom we displaced? I was greatly astonished by the acuity of Juan José Saer who in The Witness creates a whole world beyond the delta of the Paraná in Argentina.
In the 16th century, an unnamed 15-year-old cabin boy is saved by savages who attack a Spanish landing party and kill everyone but him. He is carried along by the Indians, who also carry with them the bodies of the Spanish who had fallen. When they arrive at a village in the interior, the bodies of the Spanish are butchered and eaten, while the narrator watches in horror. What follows is a strange orgy in which the Indians go at one another, irrespective of age or kinship.
No one harms the narrator, who is treated rather indulgently for ten years. During this time, he sees the cannibalism and orgiastic frenzy ten times. When a larger party of Spanish is sighted, the Indians send the narrator down river in a canoe, where he is picked up by conquistadores and entrusted to a priest.
He is taken to Europe and taught to read and write. After several years of wandering around the continent, he tries to come to terms in describing his experience with the Colastiné tribe with whom he stayed. This analysis is among the most powerful sequences in 20th century literature. At one point, he describes the death of one of the tribe members:
And that morning I learned from the battered man, now scarcely breathing, that virtue cannot save us from the surrounding blackness. Even if we have the courage to find our way through one night, a little way of another longer night awaits us. In vain he had, in calmer days, striven to be good; the gaping mouth over which he danced, innocent and poised, devoured him anyway. Our lives are lived in a place of terrible indifference which recognizes neither virtue nor vice and annihilates us all without compunction, without apportioning good or evil.
Unforgettably, the novel ends with the memory of a lunar eclipse, which troubles the tribe until the light slowly returns and re-establishes the tenuous existence of their world.
Saer died in 2005 after having written many books that are largely unknown to the Anglo world. I think he is at the level of a Borges, Cortázar, Aira, or Bioy Casares as one of the giants of Argentinian literature, and perhaps even of world literature.
Over the years, I have read almost a dozen of Cecelia Holland's exquisite historical novels. By my reckoning, The High City is the eleventh -- all ofOver the years, I have read almost a dozen of Cecelia Holland's exquisite historical novels. By my reckoning, The High City is the eleventh -- all of which were worth reading and made me swear to read more of her work.
This is the 5th novel in the Raef Loosestrife series -- of which this is the only title I have read -- about a Varangian (Viking) who finds his way his the Constantinople of Basil II. That emperor is fighting off a pretender named Bardas Phocas. At several points, Raef has helped the emperor, but refuses to accede to his plans for him. He is shielded by other Vikings in Basil's service, and ultimately has to decide whether to follow his dream hawk and continue westward, or knuckle under to Basil and everything he stands for.
Cecelia Holland is probably one of the two or three best historical novelists who have ever lived. Her books range from ancient Egypt to the Viking World to the Middle Ages in Europe to 19th century California to the death of Attila to the fall of Hungary to the Turks.
As long as there are more books of hers that I haven't read, I know I have my work cut out for me. And even then, I know I can re-read them with as much pleasure....more
I have not read any Nigel Tranter since my last trip to Scot;and in 1998. I had forgotten how rich Scottish history is and how good Nigel Tranter wasI have not read any Nigel Tranter since my last trip to Scot;and in 1998. I had forgotten how rich Scottish history is and how good Nigel Tranter was in crafting historical novels that span the whole length of that history, from the Picts to the present day.
Highness in Hiding is about the aftermath of the Jacobite defeat at Culloden in 1746. Charles Edward Stuart -- better known to history as Bonnie Prince Charlie -- barely escaped with his loife, with the forces of the Duke of Cumberland in hot pursuit. This book is about his journey to safety by way of the Inner and Outer Hebrides, Skye, Raasay, and large portions of the Scots mainland. After many months impersonating a maid, a manservant, and anything but the Jacobite claimant to the throne of England and Scotland.
Eventually, Charles made his way to safety aboard French ships that were waiting for him at Loch nan Uamh. From there, he was spirited off to safety in France. For the young prince, it was the adventure of a lifetime. Sadly, many of those who had helped him were subsequently imprisoned and even tortured.
Imstead of returning to Scotland with a new army and a call to raise the Highland clans once again, Charles whiled his life away as a dependent of a French court that was reluctant to once again help him regain the throne for himself, or his father, James III, the "Old Pretender."
Like almost all of Tranter's books that I have read, this one is tightly narrated. I would have found a set of maps useful, what with Charles's wanderings around Scotland in search of safety, but it didn't make that much difference in my appreciation of what is an excellent historical novel....more
For some reason (probably because the subject had been dealt with by so many hacks), I had been uninterested in anything to do with Henry VIII and hisFor some reason (probably because the subject had been dealt with by so many hacks), I had been uninterested in anything to do with Henry VIII and his wives. But then my eyes were opened by the fact that two Hilary Mantel consecutive novels about the Tudor monarch won two consecutive Man Booker Prizes. So I downloaded the book onto my Kindle and took it with me to Iceland. To make a long story short, I loved Wolf Hall.
Wolf Hall is about Henry's dissatisfaction with Catherine of Aragon because of her "inability" to produce a mail heir. The story is seen from the point of view of Thomas Cromwell (no relation to Oliver), who starts out as principal aide to Cardinal Wolsey, and when that churchman is executed, as principal aide to Henry VIII. During Henry's long fight to put Catherine aside, we see Anne Boleyn as a cold-hearted schemer who has Henry wound around her finger.
There are several Icelands in history. Best known is the Iceland of the Vikings, roughly from the time of settlement in the 9th century to the transfeThere are several Icelands in history. Best known is the Iceland of the Vikings, roughly from the time of settlement in the 9th century to the transfer of the country to the Norwegian King Haakon in the 13th century. Then we skip the better part of a millennium to come to the hip modern Iceland, land of the runtur and of bankruptcy.
In between those two extremes was the Iceland of poverty and servitude. The Danes took over Iceland from the Norwegians and installed their merchants, gifting them with monopolies that made the merchants wealthy, but impoverished the natives. Halldór Laxness, the country's only winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature (in 1955), wrote Iceland's Bell to remind his countrymen of the utter waste and fecklessness of the Danish rule. (This theme is similar to the same author's World Light, which is set in a later period.)
Iceland's Bell is set early in the 18th century and is presented in three acts, each with a different hero. We begin with Jon Hreggvidsson of Skagi, who is arrested for stealing a length of cord. (Apparently, the Danes, not needing fish themselves, deliberately made it harder for the Icelanders to feed themselves with the piscine riches of their island.) Things go from bad to worse for Jon, who is then arrested for murdering the hangman who whipped him for his crime. But he is let loose on the night before his hanging by ...
Snaefridur Bjornsdottir, daughter of the magistrate who sentences Hreggvidsson, is a young beauty whose hand in marriage is sought by Icelanders of the best families. Unfortunately, the fair maiden weds a drunk, though really she loves the Icelander Arnas Arnaeus, a thinly disguised portrait of Arni Magnusson, famous for collecting texts of the old Icelandic sagas and advising the Danish king how to control his subjects.
Arnaeus is a patriot of sorts, but an unfaithful suitor to Saefridur. His belief is that the texts which he has collected, and which are almost burned in a massive fire in Copenhagen, are the source of his people's pride and fame. It is Arnaeus who says, "A fat servant is not much of a man. A beaten servant is a great man, because in his breast freedom has its home." On another occasion, he says, "I regret nothing that has happened, neither in words nor thoughts. It may be that thye most victorious race is the one that is exterminated."
And under Danish rule, Iceland did come close on several occasions to being utterly annihilated, from plague and smallpox; from the volcanic eruption at Lakagigur in the 1780s that led to an even more vicious plague; and starvation.
Laxness is not only a great Icelandic and Scandinavian author: He is perhaps one of the very best novelists of the Twentieth Century -- period! His love for Iceland and its sad plight shows itself frequently throughout the book:
Over verdant lowlands cut by the deep streamwaters of the south hangs a peculiar gloom. Every eye is stifled by clouds that block the sight of the sun, every voice is muffled like the chirps of fleeing birds, every quasi-movement sluggish. Children must not laugh, no attention must be drawn to the fact that a man exists, one must not provoke the powers with frivolity -- do nothing but prowl along, furtively, lowly. Maybe the Godhead had not yet struck its final blow, an unexpiated sin might still fester somewhere, perhaps there still lurked worms that needed to be crushed.
I have now read all but three novels by Laxness that have been translated into English. I intend to read them all, and to hope against hope that the novelist's other work finds a translator.
Another interesting mystery by a noted scholar of Ottoman history (he wrote Lords of the Horizons, perhaps the best introduction to the history of OsmAnother interesting mystery by a noted scholar of Ottoman history (he wrote Lords of the Horizons, perhaps the best introduction to the history of Osmanli dynasty from start to finish). Jason Goodwin's Investigator Yashim is a eunuch (a lala in Turkish) semi-involved with the Sultan's court who happens to act as a freelance investigator.
In The Snake Stone, a French archeologist gets involved with Yashim and his friend, the Polish consul (even though Poland does not exist as a country in the 1830s, when the story is set) Pawlewski. Neither of them really trust Maximilien Lefevre, who strikes them as too much of a sleazy operator. When, trusting Yashim to help him leave for France, he appears to have been murdered in a particularly grisly way, a Greek secret society called the Hetira is at first blamed.
But in the Constantinople of Sultan Mahmoud, nothing seems to be quite as it appears. Nothing!
I enjoyed both of the Yashim novels I've read. The only thing that keeps me from giving it five stars is that the author tends to bite off more than he can chew. In The Janissary Tree, he covered the so-called "auspicious event," the suppression of the Janissaries as a privileged military caste. In The Snake Stone, Goodwin tries to go into complicated action sequences, especially in the great underground water conduits of the city, but isn't quite able to carry it off.
No matter: I loved all the cooking sequences. As I tried to figure out what was going on, Goodwin made my mouth water. This is all to the good. ...more
**spoiler alert** In 1902, the volcano Mount Pelée in Martinique erupted. The pyroclastic flows from the volcano engulfed the town of St. Pierre and k**spoiler alert** In 1902, the volcano Mount Pelée in Martinique erupted. The pyroclastic flows from the volcano engulfed the town of St. Pierre and killed some 30,000 people.
Some seventy-five years later, Patrick Leigh Fermor wrote a short novel entitled The Violins Of Saint Jacques about a Creole society that mounted a huge Shrove Tuesday ball on the island of Saint-Jacques -- a ball that reached a crescendo just as the volcano Saltpetrière blew its stack, and the lovely island and all its people sank forever into the Caribbean.
Left alone to tell the tale was a young woman who happened to be aboard a sailing ship looking back at the island's demise.It is she, who from the Greek island of Mitylene recounts the tale of the years she spent on Saint-Jacques, and of the island's weird fate.
As with everything of Fermor's that I have read -- and I have to date read all but one of his books -- there is a singular gemlike beauty to his prose. He is the author of sentences whose end you never hope to arrive at. There are exotic lists, words of great rarity and beauty, all put together to form this picture of a society that vanishes in one night, just as a spectacular fireworks display is answered by rumbles from Saltpetrière. Berthe, the narrator, muses on the disaster:
I remember wondering, too, if there were any supernatural purpose in the island gathering its own together -- Sosthène, for instance, and Gentilien and the three Jacobean [that is to say, inhabitants of Saint-Jacques] sailors -- for this culminating holocaust; while the Caribs and I were allowed to escape.... In fact, there was no lesson, no consoling moral to be drawn. Except, perhaps, that although there may be a curious mutual magnetism between people and the things that happen to them in ordinary circumstances, these great tragedies (whether brought on by human agency or what is sometimes called the hand of God) spare and condemn with a lack of purpose that no law, divine, human or natural, can possibly rationalise. They are irrelevancies.
Within a page or two, the author/narrator -- presumably Fermor himself -- says that Saint-Jacques did not quite vanish without a trace:
Last year when I was in Dominica and Guadeloupe, fishermen told me that anyone, crossing the eastern channel between the islands in carnival time, can hear the sound of violins coming up through the water. As though a ball were in full swing at the bottom of the sea.
Berthe had never heard this and is curiously gratified by the anecdote.
Fermor has written so few books -- all of them great -- that I am delaying finishing reading his oeuvre for a while yet. Because, when I do finish, I know I will have to start all over again. He is perhaps the greatest unrecognized author writing in English in the Twentieth Century. ...more
The Hangman's Daughter by Oliver Pötzsch is set in Bavaria some time after the end of the Thirty Years War. The town of Schongau is facing a murder epThe Hangman's Daughter by Oliver Pötzsch is set in Bavaria some time after the end of the Thirty Years War. The town of Schongau is facing a murder epidemic of the town's orphan children; and the local midwife is accused of the crime. She is arrested and tortured by the local hangman, Jacob Kuizl, who is actually the book's hero, along with young doctor Simon Fromweisser, who is in love with the hangman's daughter Magdalena.
There are some nice scenes here, but the action is a little murky. While I enjoyed the characterizations, I felt that if a historical novel has action scenes, they must be credible -- if for no other reason that a historical novel without credibility is a poor thing indeed.
Also, the villain, who is casually referred to as "the devil" is one of those comic book villains who is 100% evil with seemingly superior powers and the unfortunate tendency to blab the crux of the tale when he feels he has the hangman by the throat. (But he really doesn't, nicht war, as there are at the time two sequels and a third in the works.)...more
The sixth installment in Bernard Cornwell's excellent Saxon Tales series, The Death of Kings takes up the story of Uhtred of Bebbanburg in the aftermaThe sixth installment in Bernard Cornwell's excellent Saxon Tales series, The Death of Kings takes up the story of Uhtred of Bebbanburg in the aftermath of the death of Alfred the Great. The Saxon and Viking worlds are in a turmoil to discover how to take advantage of the oddly effective king's death. But Uhtred is always there to pick up the pieces, having pledged his loyalty to Alfred's son Edward and his sister Aelflaed, with whom he has had a relationship these many years. By now, Uhtred is 45 years old. He seems to be no closer to winning back his family castle as Bebbanburg, but he manages to single-handedly save the Saxon kingdom(s) of England....more
This is another big-ass Russian novel, with close to 700 pages and a huge cast of characters spread across a good chunk of the old Soviet Union, fromThis is another big-ass Russian novel, with close to 700 pages and a huge cast of characters spread across a good chunk of the old Soviet Union, from Siberia to Moscow to Kaliningrad. It is the second novel of a trilogy, the first entitled Children of the Arbat, which I read in 2008 not even knowing it was part of a trilogy. Sequel or not, Fear is so good that I plan to move on to the third novel, Dust and Ashes, some time in the coming year.
Anataly Rybakov took his chances writing these works during the 1960s and 1970s, when Khrushchev and Brezhnev were still not ready to face the collective horror that was Josef Stalin's purges of the 1930s. For decades, the Arbat trilogy circulated in samizdat format until they finally reached the printers during the rule of Gorbachev.
There are numerous characters who narrate bits and pieces of the story, the two main ones being Sasha Pankratov, who has been exiled to a small Siberian village near Taishet for a implied slur on Stalin, and Stalin himself. Others include: Yuri Sharok, an interrogator for the NKVD (the forerunner of the KGB); Vadim and Vika, brother and sister, the former an informer for the NKVD and the other an escapee from Russia when she marries a French writer; and Varya and Nina, two sisters, one a devoted Stalinist who finds herself liable to arrest for associating with the wrong people, and the other a young divorcee who tries to get together with Sasha, but is flustered by his being forbidden to visit Moscow because he was a political prisoner.
Mind you, Rybakov's novels requi9re a great deal of attention, as -- typical with fat Russian novels -- every character has multiple names and nicknames. A familiarity with such conventions as Sasha being a nickname for Aleksander and Varya, for Varvara, will help.
The most frightening part of the books are the chapters seen from Stalin's point of view. As Rybakov sketches him, he is a frightening paranoid. Even a stray look askance from a subordinate sets him off, leading to the latter's execution after days of torture. Most of these chapters conclude with a "butcher's bill" summarizing the executions of the former leaders of the Russian Communist Party and the military.
The purges started with the assassination of Sergey Kirov, head of the Leningrad Party, in December 1934. This assassination is now thought to have been the work of Stalin, who was widely thought to be his best friend, but who was actually envious of his popularity. That theory is backed up by the mysterious disappearance of virtually the entire Leningrad Party security apparatus.
Once he got started, Stalin added other enemies, accusing them of being involved in the murder of Kirov -- and why not kill two birds with one stone? -- tools of the evil Trotsky, who by this time had left the country. First there were Kamenev and Zinoviev, who right after the October Revolution were among the most powerful leaders of the Party. Then Bukharin, Rykov, and scores of others. Then, just before World War II, he decided to purge most of the generals and admirals of his armed forces, starting with the Civil War hero Tukachevsky.
At one point, at a political denunciation meeting in Kaliningrad, Pankratov (who managed to leave Siberia as his 3-year term was up and the security organs had not yet tracked his peregrinations) has this thought:
They were all tied to the same rope. A country of many millions, singing, shouting, damning invented enemies, and glorifying their own executioners. The herd was rushing at wild speeds and whoever slowed would be trampled, whoever stopped would be crushed. You had to keep running and shouting at the top of your lungs, because the whip would hit whoever was silent. You couldn't stand out in any way. You had to trample the fallen ruthlessly and recoil from those who were hit with the guard's whip. And shout and shout to quell the fear within you. Victory marches and songs were that shouting.
At the end of Fear, Sasha is surprised to hear that Kaliningrad is declared off limits to all ex-Section 58 (Political) prisoners; and he is given 24 hours to leave. He sets his sights on Ufa in the Urals, where his fellow truck driver Gleb has gone with several other politicals to start a ballroom dancing act....more
I have read enough of Bernard Cornwell's historical novels to see how the formulas are made to click into place. What would have been sheer delight toI have read enough of Bernard Cornwell's historical novels to see how the formulas are made to click into place. What would have been sheer delight to me a few years back now strikes the more blasé reader that I've become as good, but no longer quite fresh.
With The Archer's Tale (published in England as Harlequin, a title which in the U.S. is redolent of bodice-ripping), Cornwell begins his Holy Grail trilogy, set in France during the Hundred Years War. The hero is a young Englishman named Thomas of Hookton, the son of a pariah parish priest who prizes a relic in his church which purports to be the lance that St. George used to slay the dragon. His seaside town is invaded by the French, who kill the priest and steal the relic. Thomas survives and kills several of the attackers, as he is an expert archer.
Cut to Brittany, where Thomas has joined the English forces. He makes a powerful enemy (as in every Cornwell novel) in a proud, but impoverished English knight named Sir Simon Jekyll. His allies (as always) include a warlike priest named Father Hobbe. And there are the usual beautiful women who swoon into his martial orbit.
All this works well. What does not quite work are the creaky Dan Brownish plot elements involving a group of surviving Cathar heretic knights who have the lance of St. George, and also the Holy Grail. They plan to use these relics to achieve some sort of arcane power. Thomas of Hookton is thought to be related to Sir Guy Vexille, a.k.a. Harlequin, who leads this faction.
The final set piece is the Battle of Crécy, at which the English slaughtered the flower of the French nobility with their longbows and, in general, superior strategy.
There are two other novels in this series as of now, and we shall see Thomas fight his way through the French lances to achieve his goals of nubile women, military rank, and revenge against the Vexilles.
After his series of Saxon novels about the England of Alfred the Great, Bernard Cornwell has continued his attack on organized religion. In the SaxonAfter his series of Saxon novels about the England of Alfred the Great, Bernard Cornwell has continued his attack on organized religion. In the Saxon novels, he opposed Christianity to Asatru -- the Viking religion -- in favor of the latter, which could be called a DISorganized religion. With Stonehenge, Cornwell shows us three brothers in a mythical kingdom called Ratharryn: Saban, the builder; Lengar, the cruel warrior; and Camaban, the mad priest of Slaol (sort of sounds like Slay-All, doesn't it?), the Sun God.
As Camaban forces Saban over the years to build the monstrous new temple to Slaol, he becomes progressively crazed and violent, and his expectations of the temple more outlandish:
"You still want to be chief?" Saban asked, still dazed by the night's events. "Yes," Camaban said, "Ido. I want other things as well. No more winter, no more sickness, no more children crying in the night. That is what I want." He had come close to Saban as he spoke. "I want union with the gods," he went on softly, "and endless summer."
It's safe to say that England has never yet enjoyed an endless summer, though, with Global Warming, who knows?
In my reading, Cornwell supplies my need for adventure porn. Having read all the Sharpe and Saxon novels, I see recurring motifs, many of them connected with the love interests, who seem to come and go. But then, the point could be made that long happy marriages were not a regular feature of life in past times, what with endless tribal wars or Viking raids or even the mass dislocations caused by something like the Napoleonic Wars.
There are still several Cornwell series I have yet to start. If I had world enough and time, I will continue to do so.
It is interesting to think that Alexandre Dumas Père's The Three Musketeers was written around the same time as Théophile Gautier's Captain Fracasse,It is interesting to think that Alexandre Dumas Père's The Three Musketeers was written around the same time as Théophile Gautier's Captain Fracasse, although the latter was not published until almost thirty years later. Both have as their hero an impoverished Gascon nobleman of good family. Dumas's D'Artagnan goes directly into the King's Musketeers, whereas the Baron de Sigognac joins a troupe of traveling players and adopts the stage name of Captain Fracasse.
Fracasse is nothing more or less than pure swashbuckling wish fulfillment. Sigognac/Fracasse falls in love with the lovely ingénue of the troupe, Isabelle. All seems to be going well until Isabelle attracts the attention of the unprincipled young rake, the Duc de Vallombreuse, who attempts to kidnap her. Here we see Signognac come into his own and show himself to be the best swordsman in all of France.
I don't want to give away the plot, because it is a dandy -- however improbable it may be. Gautier has given us as many memorable characters as Dumas has with his Musketeers, especially the actors. Mention must also be made of the rogues, including the highwayman Agostino, his little girl aide Chiquita, the quixotic Jacquemin Lampourde and his associate Malartic.
It is difficult for me to say which of the two swashbucklers is better. Both are equally improbable, and both are written to delight young hearts and minds. As I raced to the predictably happy ending, I felt like a boy of twelve again. This book, which is readily available free or at a nominal cost for e-readers, is highly recommended to readers who are young at heart. ...more
When asked what he had in mind writing his adventure novel The Long Ships, author Frans Gunnar Bengtsson answered, "I just wanted to write a story thaWhen asked what he had in mind writing his adventure novel The Long Ships, author Frans Gunnar Bengtsson answered, "I just wanted to write a story that people could enjoy reading, like The Three Musketeers or The Odyssey." In this, he succeeded beyond his wildest dreams. His work has been translated into 23 languages at last count.
I have always loved literature by and about the Vikings -- from the great Icelandic Sagas to the Saxon Tales of Bernard Cornwell -- and I have always felt that they have received short shrift from literary critics. So much the worse for them!
The only thing I could possibly complain about The Long Ships is that it's almost too much of a good thing. If it were written today instead of during the dark days of World War II, it would have been turned into a whole series of novels and made even more money and fame for its author. But during wartime, writers and other artists had to make do with what they could. (I remember, for instance, two wonderful films produced under the Nazis during the war, both of which are now available in DVD. One was Joszef von Baky's Baron von Munchhausen, and the other was Marcel Carné's great Children of Paradise.)
The Long Ships takes place all over the known Viking world, with the exception of Iceland, Greenland, and the struggling Vinland colony. Its hero, Red Orm Tostesson, sails to France, Spain (where he serves in the guard of the Moorish leader Almansur), Ireland, England, Denmark, Sweden, and even Russia. He marries the daughter of King Harald Bluetooth of Denmark, finds buried treasure in the lands of the Patzinaks (Pechenegs) in Russia, and conducts a war against brigands who raided and plundered his household while he was away.
The tale takes place in that strange period just before and after the year 1000 A.D. Christians were predicting the end of the world, which, of course, did not happen, but Red Orm himself converts to Christianity, as does most of his household, and he actively tries to convert other local Asatru-worshipers in his part of Southern Sweden. One of the best characters is Father Willibald, who builds a church on Orm's property. Historical characters who appear include, in addition to King Harald, King Sweyne Forkbeard, Erik the Victorious, Styrbjorn the Strong (the Jomsviking leader), Almansur, and King Ethelred the Unready of England....more
The Vikings are nobody's idea of "the good guys." Therefore it's interesting to read something from the Norsemen's point of view, such as the great IcThe Vikings are nobody's idea of "the good guys." Therefore it's interesting to read something from the Norsemen's point of view, such as the great Icelandic sagas of the 13th century (especially Njals Saga, Grettir's Saga, and Egils Saga), Cecelia Holland's Two Ravens, and the splendid Saxon Tales of Bernard Cornwell, of which The Burning Land is -- at least at this time -- the latest addition.
Uhtred of Bebbanburg is an Anglo-Saxon lord who had been captured and raised by Viking raiders. As a result, his ultimate sympathies lie with them rather than with his own people. And yet, in the five Saxon tales, he is fighting for Alfred the Great, to whom he is bound by oaths, but who constantly belittles him for believing in the Asatru gods and goddesses. Alfred constantly elevates unworthy and cowardly leaders to high position, judging, it seems, primarily on their adherence to the fusty religion of the inkstained clerics who surround him in droves.
In The Burning Land, Alfred goes too far. His recently deceased wife Gisela, whom he loved, and his Viking slave Skade are referred to as "whores" by the "saintly" monk Godwin, whose neck Uhtred breaks in front of Alfred and his court for his presumption. This earns him a sentence of outlawry from Alfred and his clerics, led by the Welsh bishop Asser, an avowed enemy. Uhtred promptly gathers up his followers and joins his Viking friend Ragnar at Dunholm.
As he turns his back on Alfred, Uhtred thinks:
I listened to the heavy outer door bang shut and the locking bar drop into place, and I remembered Ravn, the blind skald who had been Ragnar the Elder's father, telling me that our lives are like a voyage across an unknown sea, and sometimes, he said, we get tired of calm waters and gentle winds, and we have no choice but to slam the steering oar's loom hard over and head for the gray clouds and the whitecaps and the tumult of danger. "That is our tribute to the gods," he had told me, and I still do not know quite what he meant, but in that sound of the door closing I heard the echo of the steering oar slamming hard to one side.
At another time, he has a discussion with Ragnar's wife brida about the difference between the Christian God and the Norse gods:
"Our gods prefer feasting. They live, Uhtred. They live and laugh and enjoy, and what does their [Christian] god do? He broods, he's vengeful, he scowls, he plots. He is a dark and lonely god, Uhtred, and our gods ignore him. They're wrong."
It's also a good comparison of the Christian king Alfred and the various Viking chieftains aligned against him. Cornwell never denies Alfred's ultimate effectiveness: It is just that he seems to arrive there by belittling his friends and rewarding the wrong people. Bishop Asser and the Mercian Lord Aethelred are the two prime examples in his book.
The sympathetic side of Christianity is seen by the lower-level clergy such as Fathers Pyrsig, Heahberht, and Beocca are sympathetic characters to the young pagan general of the Anglo-Saxon forces. And Alfred's daughter Aethelflaed and son and heir Edward are genuinely good people.
At the end of The Burning Land, Uhtred is reconciled with Alfred's forces, but Alfred himself seems to be at death's door. My guess is that Cornwell will write at least one more novel in the series. Over the first five novels in the Saxon Tales hangs the specter of Uhtred's desire to take Bebbanburg, of which he is the rightful ruler. In this book, he got as far as the front gate, from which he taunted the usurper, his uncle, with a violent death -- but he never is able to collect the forces to overthrow the seemingly impregnable fortress.
Bernard Cornwell writes entertaining male wish-fulfillment novels set during interesting periods of history. Sword Song is the fourth novel in the SaxBernard Cornwell writes entertaining male wish-fulfillment novels set during interesting periods of history. Sword Song is the fourth novel in the Saxon Tales series, set during the reign of King Alfred the Great in 9th century England. All the tales in the series are recounted by the fictional Uhtred of Bebbanburg, a young Saxon noble who was raised by Viking raiders and whose knowledge of the Norse culture makes him feel contempt for the Christian Saxons. And yet -- and this is the theme in all the novels in the series thus far -- Alfred needs Uhtred because he is the only warrior general on his staff, though he constantly feels the need to tame and belittle him because he is not a proper Christian.
Thus you have the basic situation: a main character who is for all intents and purposes a Viking, and yet closely bound by oaths and obligations to a king who is talented, but who lacks good generals -- and, moreover, who does not entirely trust his best man.
In Sword Song, Uhtred wars against two Viking raider brothers, Erik and Sigefrid, who with another Norse lord called Haesten, attempt to put together an alliance to counteract the growing strength of the Saxons under Alfred. In the process, they even attempt to enlist the aid of Uhtred by some superstitious chicanery. For someone who is not entirely on Alfred's side, Uhtred manages to accomplish miracles. These include the capture of Lundene (London) from the Vikings with a small force, and also ... but I don't want to give away the ending.
Particularly interesting in this book is the character of Aethelflaed, Alfred's lovely young daughter, who is married to the egregious Aethelred, Uhtred's cousin.
If you are interested in reading the Saxon Tales, I suggest you start at the beginning with The Last Kingdom....more
Sometimes I wonder why I haven't read more Cecelia Holland lately. For me, she is the literary equivalent of a scrumptious box of chocolate truffles -Sometimes I wonder why I haven't read more Cecelia Holland lately. For me, she is the literary equivalent of a scrumptious box of chocolate truffles -- without yielding her well-deserved position as one of the world's great historical novelists. Perhaps I am trying to ration her works out so I don't finish them too quickly, as Ms. Holland isn't getting any younger either. No matter, I roared through The Earl in two sittings and resolved to read another of her gemlike novels as soon as possible.
There are few episodes in the history of Western Civilization that haven't been graced by Holland's practiced eye, from Byzantine Constantinople to Viking Iceland to the Middle Ages in England, Ireland, and France, to the Norman invasion of Italy to the Turkish invasion of Hungary to 19th century California.
In The Earl, we look at the conflict between Prince Henry of Anjou (later Henry II) and Stephen for the crown of Norman England. The point of view is the fascinating character of Fulk Bruyère, Earl of Stafford, who has pledged his loyalty to Henry. Holland shrewdly presents all the cross-currents affecting the nobility and their various treacheries; at the same time, she introduces some great female characters, most particularly Fulk's wife Margaret, the Lady Rohese, and her relative the fiery Alys.
Small touches, such as a troop of knights riding hell bent to escape an angry hive of bees and the delicate relationship between Fulk and his eldest son Rannulf.
I have never seen a bad historical novel by Cecelia Holland, and I hope to live long enough to read them all.
Lords of the North is the middle novel of Bernard Cornwell's excellent Saxon Tales series of five novels set in the 9th century. Alfred is King of WesLords of the North is the middle novel of Bernard Cornwell's excellent Saxon Tales series of five novels set in the 9th century. Alfred is King of Wessex, but the series' point of view character is Uhtred of Bebbanburg (Bamburg), a Saxon of noble birth who is brought up by Vikings. The central point of the whole series is the tug between a newly confident Christianity and the old gods of Asatru. As Uhtred says at one point:
I remember blind Ravn, Ragnar's grandfather, telling me that the gods like bravery, and they love defiance, and they hate cowardice and loathe uncertainty. "We are here to amuse them," Ravn had said, "that is all, and if we do it well then we feast with them till time ends."
Christianity, on the other hand, is presented as something slightly fusty and ludicrous, with its emphasis on holy relics and babbling priests (many of whom make excellent villains in the series).
Although I enjoyed The Last Kingdom and The Pale Horseman, I think that Cornwell really finds his voice in this novel. He surprised me in the Historical Note at the end by claiming to be descended from an 11th century resident of Bebbanburg named Uhtred.
I don't know if the remaining two novels in the series are as good as Lords of the North, but I'm willing to find out. I read the whole Sharpe series set during the Napoleonic Wars and found myself greatly admiring Cornwell's work. I like him even more for the Saxon Tales. ...more
We all have our little vices: Mine include historical adventure novels like Bernard Cornwell's The Pale Horseman. Set in 9th century England, at a timWe all have our little vices: Mine include historical adventure novels like Bernard Cornwell's The Pale Horseman. Set in 9th century England, at a time when most of Britain was under the control of the Danes, the second novel in the author's Saxon Tales series follows Uhtred of Bebbanburg, a Northumbrian who has lived among the Vikings and actually preferred them to the pious pantywaists of Alfred the Great and his churchmen. During much of the novel, the tension is between Uhtred's yearning to rejoin the Vikings and Alfred's various attempts to use the young Pagan warrior (okay, he was baptized a Christian, but wears the hammer of Thor into combat) for his own benefit.
To be perfectly honest, The Pale Horseman is my male version of a bodice-ripper. Beautiful women swoon over the handsome young warrior, most interestingly a Briton witch named (interestingly) Iseult. There is adventure, battle, blood, guts -- all the makings of a good adventure story, as Cornwell is so adept at delivering.
The Pale Horseman sees us through Alfred's defeat at Chippenham, his retreat to the swamps of Athelney, and the rebuilding of his broken army to defeat the Viking forces of Guthrum at Ethandun. (In fact, this is a good general summary of most Cornwell novels I have read; and I have read a goodly number of them.)
If this sort of thing interests you, I recommend you start with the first novel in the series, The Last Kingdom. ...more
**spoiler alert** This is a superb novel -- and a frequently misunderstood one. The Man in the Iron Mask is only tangentially about the mysterious mas**spoiler alert** This is a superb novel -- and a frequently misunderstood one. The Man in the Iron Mask is only tangentially about the mysterious masked figure. I have read this book so long ago, and in the interval I have seen several filmed version of the story which turned it into a novel of derring-do, as if it were a young man's book, like The Three Musketeers. No, Alexandre Dumas had other fish to fry. He had done adventure. Here, he writes about a most solemn subject: The end of life.
Athos, Porthos, Aramis, and D'Artagnan are not young men in any of the sequels to The Three Musketeers. In The Man in the Iron Mask, two of the Musketeers, Aramis and Porthos, commit an act of derring-do: They attempt to replace Louis XIV with his brother, a prisoner in the Bastille. But the whole plot backfires, and Louis undergoes a change of personality, becoming more decisive and powerful, partly thanks to his new Superintendent of Finances, Colbert. With this change, the Musketeers become relics in a time and place that they have ceased to understand.
Attending the double funeral of Athos and his son, the Vicomte de Bragelonne, d'Artagnan begins to muse about his own mortality:
The captain [d'Artagnan] watched the departure of the horses, horsemen, and carriage; then crossing his arms upon his swelling chest, "When will it be my turn to depart?" said he, in an agitated voice, "What is there left for man after youth, after love, after glory, after friendship, after strength, after riches? That rock, under which sleeps Porthos, who possessed all I have named; this moss, under which repose Athos and Raoul [de Bragelonne], who possessed still much more!"
He hesitated a moment with a dull eye; then, drawing himself up, "Forward! still forward!" said he. "When it shall be time, God will tell me, as he has told others."
And yet the book is crammed full of adventures. It is just that entropy has reared its ugly head, and the eternal youth and joy of the Four Musketeers does eventually come to an end. ...more