30 August, 2006

Style and story

The Language Log is a consistently erudite, witty and thought-provoking blog on the finer points of English usage. Sarah Johnson recently drew my attention to their post on possibly the most famous novel of recent years, Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code. Not surprisingly, the Language Log has little good to say of Dan Brown’s prose style.

Now, I come neither to praise Dan Brown nor to defend him. I’m in no position to do either, since I haven’t read The Da Vinci Code. The premise didn’t appeal to me, as I read The Holy Blood and the Holy Grail 20 years ago and was much more taken by the Merovingian kings and the mysterious murder of Dagobert II than by the Mary-Magdalene-and-Jesus-had-a-baby conspiracy theory. (Surely Dogbert, self-anointed saint plotting to take over the world, must be the secret descendant of Dagobert II? I think we should be told.) So I wasn’t attracted by a warmed-over version of the Mary Magdalene theory, and a flick through the first chapter of The Da Vinci Code at a station bookstall didn’t convince me otherwise.

Assuming that first chapter is a representative sample of the novel, I’m inclined to agree with the opinion of the Language Log on the prose style (though I personally would cut the author a little more slack in cases such as a single man falling in a heap or a voice speaking). So this raises an interesting question: what did the many readers and buyers of The Da Vinci Code like about the book, if not a scintillating prose style? My guess is that the main attraction would be that elusive quality called ‘story’. I gather the novel has a lot of plot, as thrillers usually do. Perhaps also the excitement of the occult and exotic. Perhaps the lure of the conspiracy theory - it is so comforting to imagine that somebody is running the world for A Purpose, even if it is a sinister secret society. Perhaps the vague idea that one is learning some, ahem, factual information about history and culture. Perhaps the warm glow of righteous indignation if one’s sensibilities - religious, literary or historical - have been offended. Perhaps none of the above. But evidently the novel must have something going for it beyond style.

Which led me to consider what I look for in a novel. Sure, I admire elegant prose. But looking over my favourite novels, the ones I read and reread, they all have more to them than style. Terry Pratchett’s facility with language is a delight, but even a simile like, “Lightning stabbed at the earth erratically, like an inefficient assassin,” isn’t going to make me buy 25 novels all by itself. “Last night I dreamed I went to Manderley again,” sends shivers down my spine every time, but Rebecca earned its place for its suspenseful story - are they going to get away (literally) with murder? Should they get away with it? - and for its unnamed narrator. The mysteries of Dorothy L. Sayers are there for their clever and satisfying plots and the irresistible Lord Peter Wimsey. The Candlemas Road because it made sense of the Border reivers for me. PG Wodehouse’s Blandings and Jeeves stories for their joie de vivre - was there ever anything closer to printed sunshine? - and the intricacy of their farcical plots. And so on. All the books I really like have some element of story, character or setting that draws me to them. Many of them have style as well. But books that have only style seem to find their way to the charity shop.

What about you? How important is style to you? What lifts a book onto your favourites list?

24 August, 2006

Archaic terminology in historical fiction

When writing a story set in the distant past, how should the writer deal with archaic words that have gone out of use and are no longer in a modern dictionary? On the one hand, period terminology can evoke a sense of entering a different world. If one opens a novel and encounters men wearing chausses and braies, women wearing wimples and bliauts, dinner menus featuring manchet loaves and angel bread, reeves collecting feorm, a fyrdman carrying a seax or a musician playing a rebec, it’s immediately apparent that the story is set in a world that is not the same as the modern world, where people dress and act and perhaps think differently.

On the other hand, archaic terms can act as a barrier. Too many words that are too unfamiliar can create the impression that this world is not so much different as incomprehensible. I knew someone who loved historical fiction but who gave up on Jean Plaidy’s novels because she didn’t know what a Huguenot was and therefore thought she wouldn’t understand any of the story. (She gave me her Jean Plaidy collection, so I did quite well out of the deal.) I didn’t know what a Huguenot was either, but from the context I could work out that it was a sort of Protestant religious sect, which was enough to follow the novel. But my acquaintance liked to feel she had her feet on firm ground at all times, so for her the unfamiliar terminology barred her from reading the books.

In Wolf Girl, set in 7th-century Whitby, the author comes up with a compromise solution to the problem, by using some archaic terms and explaining them at first use, e.g. “.....the short sword they called a seax....”. Which worked well in this case as the novel only used a few such terms, but it would rapidly become tiresome in a novel that used a lot.

Colleen McCullough, in her Masters of Rome series, takes a different approach, making liberal use of Roman terminology and providing a comprehensive glossary at the back of each book. But this means the reader has to stop reading, flip to the back, read the glossary entry, and then get back into the story again.

I prefer to err on the side of accessibility, given a choice. As I argued earlier in the context of place names, the terminology was familiar to the people who lived at the time. They didn’t need to stop and think when someone mentioned a bliaut or a seax, nor did they need it explained. For me, too many archaic terms have the effect of distancing me from the story. I like to ‘translate’ archaic terminology into a modern or near-modern equivalent whenever I can, in the hope that this makes it easier for a reader to conjure up the intended mental image. Some examples of 'translated' Old English terms:

  • feorm (goods, mostly foodstuffs, paid by an individual or estate to a lord at regular intervals, often annually) = food-rent

  • fyrd (fighting force composed of freemen doing obligatory military service for their lord) = militia

  • seax (single-bladed long knife) = fighting knife, or dagger

  • Witan (assembly of nobles who advise the king and choose his successor) = Council

Sometimes there doesn’t seem to be a satisfactory modern equivalent, so I stuck with the archaic term:

  • atheling (male member of royal dynasty, potential candidate for king). The element ‘athel, aethel’ literally translates as ‘noble’, so the term is often translated as ‘nobleman’, but that doesn’t carry the royal element of the original’s meaning. ‘Prince’ is the nearest modern equivalent, but for me it has connotations of a precisely defined royal succession with a clear order of precedence, which wasn’t the case among athelings. 'Atheling' was used as a title, e.g. Edgar Atheling in the 11th century, so a few readers may have heard of it in that context.

  • hide (area of land sufficient to support one family). The size of a hide depended on the land’s productivity, so there is no modern equivalent.

  • thane (man holding land from the king as condition of, or reward for, military service). ‘Nobleman’ doesn’t fit, because a thane was not necessarily of noble blood and the land was not necessarily hereditary. Sometimes translated as ‘minister’, but that sounds like a civil servant or a politician and doesn’t have the right military connotation. At least Shakespeare used 'thane', so anyone who has ever seen or read the Scottish Play may have come across it.

One term I found particularly difficult was scop, the poet or singer who was the composer and keeper of oral tradition. ‘Poet’ or ‘singer’ conjure up an image of an entertainer and lose the important role of the scop as the keeper of folk memory. ‘Minstrel’ is too tinselly. ‘Bard’ is the Welsh equivalent, but it carries clear connotations of Celtic culture and so doesn’t sound right in an Old English context - and besides, I need ‘bard’ for the same role in the Brittonic cultures of Britain. The literal translation of ‘scop’ is ‘shaper’ or ‘maker’, in the sense of one who shapes words, and Tolkien uses this sense when he refers to ‘a maker in Rohan’. But I thought ‘maker’ or ‘word-shaper’ sounded too obscure for my purposes. In the end I settled on ‘skald’, which is the Norse equivalent of ‘scop’. It’s an anachronism, as Norse words wouldn’t arrive in Britain for another two centuries, but at least ‘skald’ has the right meaning and is still in the Concise Oxford Dictionary, so it seemed the best of the alternatives.

Any comments? Does this annoy you as ‘dumbing down’, or losing the evocative colour of period terms? Is archaic terminology a barrier to you when reading? Is a glossary helpful? What do you do when you’re reading a historical novel and encounter a word you don’t know - put the book down and fetch a dictionary, plough on and hope it becomes clear from the context, give up, or what?

17 August, 2006

Sea Witch, by Helen Hollick. Book review

Edition reviewed, Discovered Authors, BookForce UK, 2006, ISBN 1-9051-0814-1

Sea Witch is set in 1716 in the Caribbean, Cape Town and on the high seas of the Atlantic Ocean. All the main characters are fictional. A few real historical figures, such as William Dampier and Henry Jennings, have cameo roles.

Jesamiah Acorne is a pirate, young, handsome, carefree and without ties, until a failed attack on a merchant ship brings him into a contact with a young girl, Tiola Oldstagh. Tiola is a witch and the connection between her soul and Jesamiah’s goes deeper than their romantic attraction. But Tethys, the goddess of the sea, wants Jesamiah for herself. The smooth, wealthy merchant Stefan van Overstratten wants Tiola as his wife. And Jesamiah’s vengeful half-brother Phillipe wants Jesamiah dead at any cost.

Sea Witch is an ebullient, colourful story packed with action. Hurricanes, shipwreck, earthquake, ingenious thefts, narrow escapes, sea battles, arrest, imprisonment, assassination attempts, kidnap, magic and torture - the plot never flags. Two love triangles, one human (Stefan and Jesamiah are rivals for Tiola’s hand) and one supernatural (Tethys and Tiola both claim Jesamiah), complicate matters further. The exotic settings are described with vivid clarity, from the sleazy pirate settlements of Madagascar to the alleys and taverns of Cape Town.

Both central characters are well-rounded and engaging. Jesamiah is boyish and charming, impulsive enough to get himself into trouble on a regular basis and quick-thinking enough (usually) to get himself out of it again. Tiola is intelligent, independent and courageous, with her supernatural powers adding an extra layer to her character. The secondary characters are also well drawn, such as Tiola’s well-meaning guardian Jenna Pendeen, Jesamiah’s capable second-in-command Rue, and the privateer-pirate Henry Jennings. Even the principal villain, Jesamiah’s cruel half-brother Phillipe, is given a story of his own and a reason for his malevolence. Occasional use of dialect words and accent helps to distinguish the characters and give them each an individual voice - so the Frenchman Rue drops his H’s, Tiola occasionally uses Cornish words, and Stefan van Overstratten speaks in formal stuffed-shirt tones.

The Author’s Note details historical events that were borrowed or adapted for the story, and confesses to taking liberties with some of the dates. For me, a book that features the sea goddess as an important character and involves magic that works has no need to apologise for having moved an event by five years, but it is always very welcome when the author sets out the limits of fact and fiction. There is also a helpful glossary of nautical terms and a diagram of a ship, invaluable for those like me who vaguely know that boats have a pointy end, a blunt end and a pole in the middle. I’m impressed with the author’s apparent knowledge of sailing ships, which I’m utterly unqualified to assess but which certainly feels authentic.

Some of the supernatural elements in the tale confused me. I had trouble understanding the limits of Tiola’s magical powers - for example, why the telepathy between her and Jesamiah works at some times but not at others. A conflict between Tiola’s good witchcraft, the White Craft, and a (presumably?) evil form of magic, the Dark Power, is mentioned in passing from time to time but not explored in detail. Tiola evidently has some power over Tethys, but Tethys does not seem to be part of the Dark Power - or is she? I confess to having got lost in this good magic versus evil magic theme, although as it seems to be peripheral to the main story I may be trying to read too much into it.

A rollicking swashbuckler on the high seas, part romance, part pirate adventure, part historical and part fantasy.

Has anyone else read it?

08 August, 2006

I, Claudius on BBC4

BBC4 is currently broadcasting the full series of I, Claudius, dramatised from the novels by Robert Graves and first broadcast in 1976. For one reason and another I've never seen the programmes, though the novels are among my favourites. I'm up to Episode 3 and immensely impressed. Some things that have struck me so far:

- the series easily stands comparison with any film or TV drama I've seen recently, and is much better than many. I had wondered if it might not live up to its stellar reputation when actually seen 'in the flesh' - it does.
- the series hasn't tried to 'simplify' the complex plot or reduce the number of characters. Hurrah!
- occasional voiceovers by Claudius, as the narrator, tell me who the various characters are and their relationships to each other, both familial and political. E.g., at a family dinner party, Claudius points out "my sister Livilla, teasing Postumus as usual". This is extremely effective in helping me recognise people and understand what is going on, avoiding confusion while taking up a minimum amount of screen time. I wish it was used more often.
- characters often address each other by name or mention their relationships, which also helps me keep everyone straight.
- the language is straightforwardly modern, e.g. "I've always been straight with you", "I'll tell what you line to take", "you fat drunken cow", "gets on my nerves", "slept with my daughter", "heaven help you if you don't!". I've no idea if there was an equivalent of 'heaven help you' in classical Latin, or if 'cow' was a widely used insult, but the phrases are effective for me.
- we got through the whole of the first two episodes, two and a half hours of screen time, without a single sex scene. Good heavens.
- the absence of spectacular location shots - e.g. the Forum, the Games, battlefield scenes - presumably reflects the technology and budget available at the time, but I'm finding it also increases the effectiveness. The series focuses all its energy on dramatic storytelling rather than spectacle.
- the opening titles feature a snake slithering across a mosaic. Now I know where Blackadder got the idea from!

Is anyone else watching? Or has already seen the series (I should think it's been exported all over the world by now)? What did you think?

03 August, 2006

Wolf Girl, by Theresa Tomlinson. Book review

Edition reviewed: Corgi, 2006, ISBN 0-552-55271-2

First, two disclaimers:
1) This is billed as a teenage/young adult novel. I haven’t read one of these before (no, not even Harry Potter) and I don’t know if they follow conventions of their own, so I’ve simply reviewed this as if it were general fiction.
2) I have a passion for seventh-century Britain, particularly Northumbria and its neighbouring territories, and one of my own novels is set there. I try to review objectively, but my fascination for the period may colour my reactions, so you might want to bear this in mind.

Wolf Girl is set in Northumbria in 663* AD. The central character and her family are fictional. Real historical figures also feature, including Abbess Hild, the poet Caedmon, several members of Northumbria’s royal family, and some who are little more than names in the surviving records but are fully-developed characters in the novel (e.g. the nuns Fridgyth and Begu).

The central character is Wulfrun, the fourteen-year-old daughter of Cwen, a weaver who works for Whitby Abbey. Wulfrun accidentally reveals that Cwen possesses a valuable gold and garnet necklace, as a result of which Cwen is accused of theft and possibly treason and imprisoned awaiting trial. Wulfrun sets out to clear her mother’s name, by finding out the history of the necklace and seeking proof that her mother owned it by right and had not stolen it. Wulfrun finds help from unexpected friends, but unknown enemies are working to prevent her finding out the truth. Soon Wulfrun and her friends find themselves drawn into dangerous political events that threaten to pitch the whole kingdom of Northumbria into civil war.

I liked a great many things about this novel. The setting is very well researched and Hild’s monastery at Whitby is brought to life as a self-sufficient community in a working economy. The political undercurrents are credible for the period and the geography is accurate. The old pagan gods are still very much part of the culture, which is very likely as Northumbria’s then king had been officially converted to Christianity less than 40 years before. In her historical note, the author says, “there is still much that is unknown about the period and acknowledged historians interpret the evidence in different ways. Because of that I decided to create a picture [...] that is really Anglo-Saxon Whitby as I would like it to have been, rather than an attempt at accuracy.” Given the patchy nature of the sources, I would say the novel achieves this admirably.

The characters are for the most part likeable and well-rounded, and include people from all walks of life. Wulfrun in particular is bright, resourceful and brave, a strong and capable heroine. Abbess Hild is as forceful as I have always imagined her from Bede’s account of her life. There are plenty of other strong-minded and independent female characters, yet the roles they play are credible in the context of the time. No misplaced feminism or Xena-type warrior princesses here, I am glad to say. If I have a complaint, it’s that all the really strong and well-developed characters are women. The men, by comparison, fade into the background and hardly get a look-in.

The story ticks along without ever dragging, and as everything Wulfrun learns about the necklace raises as many questions as it answers, the plot naturally expands beyond Wulfrun’s family. Since Wulfrun, daughter of a poor weaver, knows nothing about Northumbria’s political history, the reader learns about it along with her. This results in quite a lot of exposition as various people explain things to Wulfrun. One particularly interesting feature is an exploration of what it might be like for a child to be dedicated as a nun as a baby and brought up in a monastery.

There is a helpful plan of Whitby Abbey and a map of Northumbria, and a useful historical note listing the real and the invented characters. Modern place names are mostly used, except for kingdoms (e.g. Deira, Bernicia, Rheged). The Old English personal names have been simplified, e.g. Cadmon rather than Caedmon, Elfled rather than Aelfflaed, or modified to make them more easily distinguishable, e.g. Ianfleda rather than Eanflaed. However, they still retain the feel of the period; they still look like Old English names rather than modern ones. (By the way, am I the only person who has real trouble when an author converts a name like Aethelstan to ‘Stan’ or Aethelred to ‘Red’? Votes, please).

Was there anything I disliked? Well, I think Iurminburgh probably doesn’t deserve her portrayal, not least because if she had behaved as described here it is perhaps unlikely that she would have played her later, documented, role in Northumbrian history. But little is known of the historical Iurminburgh, so who’s to say? I also thought that the political sub-plot seemed rather too elaborate to have been initiated by a chance find, and yet it turns on the discovery of the necklace. I also have my doubts as to whether any commander of the time would have planned major military activity for November. But really, these are very minor, and could be explained as opportunism on the part of the plotters and inexperience on the part of the commander.

A rattling good yarn with a capable, determined heroine, in a splendidly authentic setting.

*The action takes place in spring, summer and autumn of one year, but I’m not quite sure which year it is. The date is variously given as the year before the Synod of Whitby, which would be 663, ten years after the Battle of Winwaed, which would be 665, and 25 years after King Edwin’s death, which would be 658. 663 fits most closely with the age of Ecgfrid as given in the novel. (Note that this chronological discrepancy, if such it is, doesn’t interfere at all with the story and only a pedant who’s spent far too long poring over the history of early Northumbria would even notice).

02 August, 2006

Ingeld's Daughter reviewed

My novel Ingeld's Daughter has been reviewed by Joy Calderwood, webmistress of www.reviewers-choice.com. She likes it. I am so pleased.

Some quotes:

The pace rarely slackens in this extended adventure. Whenever the action slows down, there are colorful, well-rounded characters to keep our attention glued with their personal desires. Gyrdan is an impressive hero with many secrets; Irinya is movingly vulnerable, yet responsible and intelligent. Colorful people gather around them. The gorgeous Fastred attracts women like a magnet; he finds a mate who will take readers’ breaths away. Fastred’s servants, the caretaking Rose and adolescent Corin, have satisfying stories. Radwulf’s lords (it would be too much to call some of them “nobles”) have serious decisions to make: each of the leaders we know best must decide according to his own distinct reasons.

INGELD’S DAUGHTER is laced with humor. It may be satire, or clever wording, or something incongruous that ambushes us. An example is the viewpoint of the prisoners after the Battle of Eagle Crag, which kept tickling me until I finally cracked up. Laughter leavens these serious adventures and keeps us from succumbing to adrenaline excess.

You can read the full review here.

And another satisfied reader has had some nice things to say elsewhere.

I'm especially happy that they both commented on the humour. I miss humour when it's absent, and it's often in short supply in historical fiction. Very pleased that at least a couple of people have thought that mine works!

(Should you be tempted to take a look at Ingeld's Daughter yourself, the e-book is available free of charge from my website. Those who don't like reading on screen or printing out a PDF will find the paperback a couple of clicks away on Lulu at $17.50 (about £10 or Euros 14) plus shipping, which, last time I looked, was $3 to the US, and about £5 or Euros 8 to Europe.)