So far I’ve written several essays explaining why I don’t like certain genres. I think it’s high time I wrote something about genres I actually like. 😉
I called my Internet persona ‘Anachronist’ for a reason. I can safely state that historical fiction was the genre which started my love for books and fully-fledged reading addiction. It is also a genre to which I return with pleasure as it is constantly able to surprise me. Why? You can safely assume that people have enjoyed historical fiction since 800 BC when Homer wrote about the Trojan War in the Iliad, making it one of the oldest genres around. If it’s been popular throughout centuries up to now, there must be something good in it, right? A hint – it features the best stories around. Really the best -only those have been preserved and borne repeating over and over again.
However, to my constant amazement, historical novels usually receive little critical attention. Even when there is an outstanding position published, different professional reviewers go like this: ‘Really? His-fic? AND it is good? Truh-ly A-mahhh-zing!” I’ve even met with an opinion that people who read historical novels do it because those books are easier than history or biography, less embarrassing than airport trash, yet still full of swashbuckling and swooning. According to some pundits the his-fic fans are the same kind of geeks who write sonnets for people they fancy and reenact medieval battles at the weekend. Such condescending opinions offend me on more than one level. Let me assure you that if I could write a good sonnet (I can’t) I would crow about it because it demands definitely more skill and talent than throwing scathing remarks; reenacting medieval battles for a turn takes more organizational effort and physical prowess than any critic might guess or understand. Ok, rant over, let me return to the topic at hand.
I admit that the historic surroundings are too often used to hide mediocre writing, with the kind of clunking references that you would expect in below-average fantasy. Yes, I am aware of the fact that there is a lot of pulp fiction with a historical setting being published. Worse, most of it seems to be written with a screenplay in mind, largely populated with vintage clichés and sell-out epics. Small wonder readers and critics stay away from it. Still it doesn’t mean there are no jewels among the dross. Let me explain why I keep looking for those jewels, undaunted by all the dross I happen to meet in the process.
We all know, of course, the old adage that those who fail to learn from history are doomed to repeat it. First of all, reading good historical fiction can give us a more balanced perspective on your own political and social context; overall it makes you a much happier individual. A deep understanding of the past can help you understand our own time and our own motivations better. By blending history and fiction, a novel lets us do more than simply read history: it lets us participate in the hopes, fears, passions, mistakes and triumphs of the people who lived it. There’s no questions that our world is far from perfect – the courts are frequently unfair, racism and sexism is still abound, children still go hungry or die prematurely- but if you think it’s terrible now, read about how much worse our society was, say, just a bit over a hundred years ago and you might find out that despite your personal difficulties you are a very fortunate human being indeed.
Secondly the patterns in what is going on right now should have occurred somewhere in the past. It is said that “there is nothing new under the sun” – so history can help us to understand better today’s issues. By learning the patterns of the events in the history, you can recognize the patterns in what is going on around you and then take the appropriate actions. Even if history won’t tell you where you are going, but it will help you understand how you got there. Some people’s attitude toward the protection of the natural environment and our habitat, for example, may resemble those of the inhabitants of the Easter Island/Rapa Nui in the past who cut all trees not even thinking about the consequences which, eventually, were disastrous, causing them to move or/and extinct. They were committing unconscious suicide by exhausting the island’s natural capacity. Recognizing patterns like that can help you avoid pitfalls and see new opportunities.
Thirdly, knowing more about history makes you understand other genres better – I think here mainly about fantasy novels, my other big love, and such sub-genres as steampunk and alternate history. Let’s face it, plenty of fantasy authors admit they are constructing some parts of their novels around famous historical events like Thirty Years War in central Europe, The Black Death pandemics which took place in the 14th century or the War of Roses on the British Isles. If you want to ‘get’ all these references and enjoy them some historical knowledge is a must.
Now, you might ask: why historical fiction, not proper historical textbooks/academic reads? Is it laziness? Michel de Montaigne in his essay “On Books” wrote:
“Most appropriate historians for me are those who write men’s lives, since they linger more over motives than events, over what comes from inside more than what happens outside.”
I happen to agree wholeheartedly with that statement. It is so easy to bore you to death with producing a constant string of events, dates, dry facts and even drier commentaries; it is far more difficult to interest a reader by presenting motives and consequences of concrete individuals. If you are not a professional historian I suppose a good historical fiction novel can teach you actually more, because you’ll remember it better.
What good historical fiction books I would recommend? Let me start my short, highly selective and rather personal list with the antiquity.
- Pauline Gedge wrote a short series about a bold political intrigue, involving one of the Egyptian pharaohs, a priest and his low-born concubine (House of Illusions and House of Dreams). I am yet to find better historical fiction novels set in ancient Egypt (but, of course, I keep looking).
- Memoirs of Hadrian by a French writer, Marguerite Yourcenar is my all-times favourite first-person narrative about the final years of that particular Roman Emperor. It’s been called a plotless masterpiece and I agree wholeheartedly with that description.
- The Rome series, penned by M.C. Scott (The Emperor’s Spy, The Coming of the King, The Eagle of the Twelfth) , presents the late years of the Roman Empire and the beginnings of the Christian Era from quite a different perspective – that of a Roman citizen, unwilling to accept the incoming changes and highly critical when it comes to the new faith started by a bunch of rebellious Jews somewhere in a dark corner of the Empire.
- If you prefer Middle Ages I would recommend The Name of the Rose by Umberto Eco. Set in a monastery plagued by a string of unexplained murders, it is called Eco’s least ambitious but, I would also say, most readable book. In fact it is a brilliant medieval ‘whodunnit’, full of surprises, twists of action and well, death – everything caused by one rare and incomplete manuscript by Aristotle. If you watched the movie then rest assured the book is 200% better even if it doesn’t feature Sean Connery. Really.
- Also be sure to check out A Vision of Light by Judith Merkle Riley. It shows a struggle of one incredibly gifted woman, supernaturally gifted so to speak, to survive in 14th century England – in times when women were accused of being witches and burned at the stake for as little as playing with a toad in their own garden or owning a black cat.
- If you like early Tudors you should read Wolf Hall, a fictional biography of Thomas Cromwell, and the sequel, Bring up the Bodies by Hillary Mantel. I don’t think I need to praise them at all as the first part won almost every literary prize on offer. It is not perhaps an easy book to read or a short one but definitely worth your effort.
- I am personally very partial to Benjamin Weaver series (A Conspiracy of Paper, A Spectacle of Corruption, The Devil’s Company) written by David Liss. The books are set in the early 18th century London, featuring a Jewish thief-taker who also tries to solve different murder mysteries.
- If you fancy something more exotic do check out The Rise of the Aztecs series (The Highlander, Crossing Worlds, The Emperor’s Second Wife, Currents of War) by Zoe Saadia, set in the Pre-Columbian America and narrated in a truly brilliant way. You’ll learn a lot and you’ll never notice!
- Finally if you like historical romances I recommend Courtney Milan who specializes in the 19th century England, no-nonsense heroines and original plots. HEA guaranteed!