28 July, 2006

Five favourite historical novels

In response to a plea from Ali, who posted her own list of favourite historical novels and asked if anyone would like to join in. Here are five suggestions from me, in no particular order:

1. Jamaica Inn, by Daphne du Maurier.
Set in Cornwall around 1800.
I like this for its capable, independent heroine, Mary Yellan, its suspenseful and adventurous plot featuring smugglers and wreckers, and the superbly described Cornish landscapes, from brooding Bodmin Moor to the softness of the south coast and the savage beauty of the north.

2. The Candlemas Road, by George MacDonald Fraser.
Set in Cumbria on the Anglo-Scottish border, 1590s.
This short novel brings the strange and violent world of the Border Reivers vividly to life. Read history books, such as George MacDonald Fraser’s masterly The Steel Bonnets, and you might - after much study - get some idea of the events that happened along the Anglo-Scottish border and in the Debateable Lands. But read The Candlemas Road and you will understand. Also memorable for its powerful characters: headstrong Lady Dacre, newly arrived from London and finding Border ways incomprehensible; Archie Waitabout, the irrepressible reiver with his pride and his unconventional but curiously compelling moral code; and the narrator, a good and bewildered Jesuit priest whose conventional faith is sorely shaken by the Border’s strange code of honour.

3. King Hereafter, by Dorothy Dunnett.
Set in Scotland and Orkney, 11th century.
An unusual theory about the identity of the historical Macbeth, and a convincing portrayal of 11th-century Scotland with its dual Norse and Celtic heritage. Battles, intrigues, family rivalries, betrayals and fate, all told with a laconic wit reminiscent of the Norse sagas. The love story between Thorfinn/Macbeth and his wife Groa/Gruoch, which begins as a political marriage to secure the spoils of war and is forged into a relationship of enduring love and trust, is one of my favourites in fiction.

4. The Once and Future King, by TH White.
Retelling of the Arthur legend, set in a sort of fictional/fantasy High Middle Ages.
Strictly speaking, this isn’t historical fiction because there is absolutely no pretence of historical accuracy - if there was a ‘real King Arthur’ (would candidates please form an orderly queue?), he lived in the unrecorded history of the fifth or sixth century, not in the time of castles and tourneys and knights in shining armour. But that didn’t worry Geoffrey of Monmouth or Thomas Malory, and it didn’t worry TH White either. Rarely has the legend been told with such power. It starts with the sparkling adventures of young Arthur (Wart) being educated by Merlin and a variety of magical animals (my favourite is the badger), and then grows and darkens as Arthur grows into an adult and his father’s sins come to haunt him. This retelling is unusual in that it has little or nothing to do with the Saxons. Arthur’s enemies here are his closest friends and family, and it is their character flaws and his that conspire to destroy his kingdom. Which in my view makes for a much more compelling tale than an ethnic conflict. It is also unusual in that it is richly leavened with humour among all the drama and tragedy - the farce of Sir Grummore and Sir Palomides seducing the Questing Beast while dressed as an exotic pantomime horse and then having to psychoanalyse her out of her crush is worthy of PG Wodehouse or Terry Pratchett.

5. The Song of Troy, by Colleen McCullough.
Retelling of the Trojan War, Late Bronze Age Eastern Mediterranean.
One of the best treatments of the Trojan War I’ve read. It is told by multiple first-person narrators and recounts the Trojan War all the way from its semi-legendary roots and Helen’s marriage to Menelaos up to the final sack of Troy. Minor characters such as Briseis get to tell their own stories and the quarrel between Achilles and Agamemnon is given an ingenious interpretation, all in a convincing Late Bronze Age setting.

5a. Two series.
5a because it feels like cheating to include a whole series, but I can’t choose just one book from either. So, two of my favourite series. Sharon Penman’s Welsh trilogy (Here Be Dragons, Falls the Shadow, The Reckoning), set in the last decades of independent Wales, and Colleen McCullough’s Masters of Rome series covering the end of the Roman Republic. Both series are first-rate, with complex plots, a host of well-rounded main and secondary characters, authentic settings, a light touch with a little humour, and a profound respect for the underlying history.

Honourable Mention. Sea Witch, by Helen Hollick.
Honourable Mention because I haven’t finished reading it yet, but so far it’s shaping up to be a fun swashbuckler, part historical, part fantasy and part romance, featuring a sexy pirate captain (if you have a crush on Captain Jack Sparrow this summer, please take note), a Cornish witch, a vengeful brother and at least two love triangles, one of which involves the goddess of the sea. Published in May this year, so even if you’ve already read all the others I’ve mentioned, you likely haven’t read this one yet. Review forthcoming in due course.

Would anyone else like to play?

25 July, 2006

Deja vu - locations and place names

Sometimes location and landscape can be a vital part of a story, almost as if the setting temporarily becomes a character in its own right. Would Jamaica Inn have its atmosphere of brooding evil without the bleak and barren landscape of Bodmin Moor looming on every page? Wouldn’t Wuthering Heights lose some of its primeval passion if Heathcliff lived in a neat manor house with roses round the door?

I like to use real places for the locations in my fiction. Even in the invented world of Ingeld’s Daughter, all the places are based on real locations (yes, even the underground sequence; I don’t go caving but I know people who do). In historical fiction, I try to use real places wherever possible, though quite often they are now buried under housing estates or later medieval buildings and a lot of artistic license is needed to imagine what they might have been like 1400 years ago. Quite often I find the location first and then set a scene there to make use of it - how could anyone resist the dramatic cliffs between Whitby and Robin Hood’s Bay, or the strange rock formations on Derbyshire's Derwent Edge (see photo)? And just occasionally, there’s a remarkable coincidence that sends shivers down my spine.

I once wrote a scene involving a moorland fire at an army camp beside a Roman road. I picked the location from the topography, the known route of the road, the distance the marching army could have travelled before dark and a logical place to camp. I wrote the scene. Then I bought a larger-scale map - and found the exact spot is called Cinder Hill.

Even more creepily, I wrote a scene where a royal fugitive has to follow a stream through a snowstorm to find shelter. Again, I picked the location by walking his route and finding a beck that he would have had time to reach and that was big enough to be followed in bad weather conditions. Back at home, having written the scene, I traced the route of the stream on the map and found it had a name. What do you know? It’s called King’s Beck.

Creepy, or what?

Does this sort of thing happen to anyone else?

18 July, 2006

Viking: Odinn’s Child, by Tim Severin. Book review

Edition reviewed: Pan, 2005, ISBN 0-330-42673-7

Odinn’s Child is the first in a trilogy, set in 11th-century Iceland, Greenland, Vinland (the Norse name for North America) and Ireland. The central character, Thorgils, is mentioned in the Norse sagas but little is recorded about him, so he is probably best described as a real but shadowy historical figure. Many of the other figures in the book are also recognisable from the sagas and/or from history, such as Freydis daughter of Eirik the Red, Kari Solmandarson the peerless hero from Njal’s Saga, King Sigtrigg of Norse Dublin, etc.

The novel is framed as Thorgils’ autobiography, supposedly written in extreme old age in a Christian monastery. Thorgils is part Norse, part Irish, and his wanderings take him over much of the 11th-century Norse world, from the Norse settlement in Vinland (North America) to slavery in an Irish monastery.

Odinn’s Child is a smorgasbord* of incidents taken from the Norse sagas and/or from history. The first 130 pages are a faithful retelling of the Vinland Sagas - so faithful, in fact, that I found myself wondering at times if it was a translation rather than a retelling. After that, the scene shifts to Iceland and then Ireland, where I recognised snippets from Njal’s Saga and Orkneyinga Saga. There is little in the way of a plot, more of a series of events that happen to Thorgils and that are recounted in roughly chronological order. Though as this is Volume 1 of a trilogy, it is possible that it represents a lengthy scene-setting and that a story will get going in Volume 2.

The pace rarely varies, jogging along at a steady tempo whether the subject is a single combat at the Battle of Clontarf, a haunting or a description of the finer points of ship design. There is little action and less dialogue. Thorgils is a passive narrator, a spectator at great events rather than a participant. Try to disregard the ridiculously misleading cover, which promises a Viking military epic and really should be actionable under the Trade Descriptions Act - this is a cross between a travelogue and a memoir.

As such, it has considerable charm, as period journals and memoirs do, where unconnected incidents and mundane details of everyday life are rendered fascinating because they speak of another time and place. And there are a great many delightful details of 11th-century life in Odinn’s Child. Prepare to be told about sailing routes and prevailing weather conditions in the North Atlantic; pagan Norse baby naming traditions; Icelandic domestic life, including details of clothes, furniture, diet and agriculture; Norse witchcraft (seidr) and prophetesses (volva); Norse ship design; Irish social structure, monastic organisation, medicine and law. And that isn’t a comprehensive list. Of course, as this is fiction and not a genuine contemporary account, it shouldn't be automatically accepted as authentic. However, with that caveat in mind, I can say that I know something about Norse history and culture, and I recognised many details that matched the historical sources. This tends to increase my confidence in the likely veracity of the material that was unfamiliar to me, though of course readers who want to know the facts should verify the details for themselves. Readers who are prepared to take the novel on trust, on the other hand, will find it a pleasant and painless way of obtaining a picture of Norse and Irish life in the 11th century that is certainly a great deal more realistic than the stereotype of hairy savages in horned helmets and probably more accessible than reading the original sagas.

A meandering memoir, rich in period detail but short on plot.

*For once, this over-used term seems quite appropriate. What else would you call a collection of Scandinavian titbits?

12 July, 2006


Every bookish household has such a place. It may be a spare bedroom, the garage, the attic, a dry cellar or the cupboard under the stairs. A place where dog-eared paperbacks and dusty hardbacks are stacked three deep and two high, where a vicus of collapsing cardboard boxes and teetering stacks sprawls out from the foot of the shelves, where the spiders have evolved into new life forms. Where books no longer in regular use go to spend a peaceful retirement doing the book equivalent of dozing in rocking chairs, reminiscing about the good old days and complaining that the comic books are rowdy and that paperbacks these days don’t know they’re born.

But life in the Overflow Library may not be as uneventful as it seems. When the owner - books are generous souls and will humour people with the title, if they are in a good mood - ventures in, in search of a book that she knows is in here somewhere and that is suddenly needed again, she is liable to find the place strangely unfamiliar. For a start, there are far more books than she remembers. Do they reproduce at night? Invite their friends to stay? For another, the book she is in search of is nowhere to be found, though she definitely remembers unpacking it the last time she moved house. And there are books that she cannot remember - or even imagine - ever buying. Twenty paranormal romances. The Ballybunion Railway. Croquet Tactics for the Mid- to High-Handicap Player. A History of Spoons Volume 1: Use in Warfare Through the Ages. Where did those come from? Do books have exceptionally labile genomes, with genes that fracture and mutate and jump species and produce sports and freaks with no discernible resemblance to either parent? Or perhaps the Overflow Library is so congenial a habitat that it’s experiencing an evolutionary explosion, like the fossils of the Burgess Shales, with strange new species colonising every available niche? (Literally). Or perhaps - and this may be the most likely explanation - these books have not been born and bred here at all but are merely passing through, travellers on the multidimensional pathways of L-space. Never heard of L-space? Let Terry Pratchett explain:

The truth is that big collections of ordinary books distort space, as can readily be proved by anyone who has been around a really old-fashioned secondhand bookshop, one of those that look as though they were designed by M. Escher on a bad day and has more staircases than storeys and those rows of shelves which end in little doors that are surely too small for a full-sized human to enter. The relevant equation is: Knowledge = power = energy = matter = mass; a good bookshop is just a genteel Black Hole that knows how to read.


Books bend space and time. One reason the owners of those aforesaid little rambling, poky secondhand bookshops always seem slightly unearthly is that many of them really are, having strayed into this world after taking wrong turnings in their own bookshops in worlds where it is considered commendable business practice to wear carpet slippers all the time and open your shop only when you feel like it. You stray into L-space at your peril. [...] All libraries everywhere are connected in L-space. All libraries. Everywhere. And the Librarian, navigating by booksign carved on shelves by past explorers, was heading purposely for one very special one.


The Librarian swung* on. It was slow progress, because there were things he wasn’t keen on meeting. Creatures evolve to fill every niche in the environment, and some of those in the dusty immensity of L-space were best avoided. They were much more unusual than ordinary unusual creatures.

Usually he could forewarn himself by keeping a careful eye on the kickstool crabs that grazed harmlessly on the dust. When they were spooked, it was time to hide. Several times he had to flatten himself against the shelves as a thesaurus thundered by. He waited patiently as a herd of Critters crawled past, grazing on the contents of the choicer books and leaving behind them piles of small slim volumes of literary criticism. And there were other things, things which he hurried away from and tried not to look hard at..... And you had to avoid cliches at all costs. [...] Ah. Now he knew where he was.

He was home. He was home a week ago.
--Guards! Guards!, by Terry Pratchett

* The Librarian of Unseen University is an orang-utan. It’s a long story.

It is not known how large a concentration of books is required to distort the fabric of space-time sufficiently to generate a connection into L-space. But your Overflow Library may well qualify. And that could explain a lot, couldn’t it?

(Talking of libraries, I was emailed yesterday by a researcher from the BBC wanting to know if I could help her find an illustration of the 10th-century manuscript The Leech Book of Bald. While answering her question, I came across this image. Note the library stamp on the front page. Analysis using cutting-edge image enhancement technology from NASA has revealed that the book was loaned to one Harold, who was due to return it some time in 1066....)

05 July, 2006

The Green Branch, by Edith Pargeter. Book review

First published 1962. Edition reviewed: Warner Futura, 1993, ISBN 0-7515-0474-2. Sequel to The Heaven Tree.

Edith Pargeter also writes as Ellis Peters.

The Green Branch is set in Wales and the Welsh Marches in 1228-1231, when Henry III was King of England and Llewellyn ap Iorwerth (also known as Llewellyn Fawr, or Llewellyn the Great) ruled Gwynedd and most of the rest of Wales. The central characters are fictional. Historical figures including Llewellyn, his Norman wife Joan, their son David and the Norman lord William de Breos play significant secondary roles.

The novel continues the story of the master-mason Harry Talvace and his patron Ralf Isambard that was begun in The Heaven Tree.

Harry Talvace the younger, born within a few days of his father’s death, has been raised at the court of Llewellyn Fawr in Gwynedd. His father was the Harry Talvace of The Heaven Tree, master mason and creator of a magnificent church under Isambard’s patronage, who was brutally slain on Isambard’s orders over a point of honour. The younger Harry harbours a compulsive desire for blood-vengeance against Isambard, and worships both Llewellyn Fawr and Llewellyn’s wife Joan. When Harry becomes unwittingly embroiled in the personal and political fallout resulting from Joan’s extramarital affair, he sets off to challenge Isambard in a confused attempt to regain what he sees as his lost honour.

As with The Heaven Tree, the pace of the book is unhurried and the language is rich and evocative. The characters are complex and multifaceted; Harry, ardent, impulsive, adolescent, gradually learning that the world is not centred on him; William de Breos with his charm and vivacity; Joan facing middle age and making a doomed bid to cling to her lost youth. Isambard is perhaps the most complex, still consumed by his hatred for the elder Harry Talvace and taking out his malice on the son with terrifying psychological refinement.

Real historical figures mingle with the fictional characters and events to a far greater extent than in The Heaven Tree. Harry’s actions are inextricably bound up with the disaster of Joan’s adultery and with Llewellyn’s wars. As far as I can tell, the fictional events fit into the gaps between the documented ones, and the fictional characters are influenced by the historical figures rather than the other way round. So, for example, it is a tongue-lashing from Llewellyn that precipitates Harry’s ill-fated attempt at revenge, but I noticed no example where Harry’s actions significantly influenced Llewellyn’s behaviour. I don’t have a problem with the mingling of real and fictional characters in these circumstances, but readers who do may like to take note. However, I did find that the two storylines - Llewellyn’s marriage and Harry’s conflict with Isambard - each distracted me from the other. Although Harry’s attempt to avenge his father is the central plot, I found Joan and Llewellyn at least as interesting and was frustrated to leave them for hundreds of pages*. (This is a personal preference and one I often encounter with novels that feature both real and fictional characters; for me, the real characters often overshadow the fictional, even if they are supposed to be secondary).

I found the plot a little disappointing. This may reflect the novel’s position as the second in a trilogy. Although the back story is woven in, I think it would be hard to comprehend the depth of Isambard’s malice towards the two Harry Talvaces without having read The Heaven Tree. Moreover, the end makes no pretence of ending the story and is clearly only a pause. So The Green Branch is very much the middle book of a trilogy rather than a stand-alone novel. Easily frustrated readers would be well advised to read it in its place, and particularly to have the concluding volume (The Scarlet Seed) to hand before starting this one.

Has anyone else read it?

*Readers who share my interest may like to know that the story of Joan and Llewellyn is told in much greater detail, mainly from Joan’s point of view, in Sharon Kay Penman’s novel Here Be Dragons.