I’m hard to please when it comes to historical fiction. Some novelists know their history inside and out, but aren’t the best storytellers (like Colleen McCullough and Gary Jennings), while others are able to write suspenseful narratives only by slaughtering history (like too many to name). Here’s my updated pick list of the true gems.
Shogun, by James Clavell. 1975. (Japan, 1600.) This is a novel that completely re-contextualizes you. You begin horrified by the Japanese and somewhere, somehow, become convinced they’re the civilized ones. By the end, you’re actually thinking like a samurai and endorsing ruthless codes against your integrity. Ritual suicide and honor killings — of which there are countless in Shogun — made complete sense to me; that’s how good Clavell is making you forget who you are. It’s probably the most didactic novel I’ve ever read (its message being that western people have much to learn from easterns) and yet it never feels preachy. Clavell is a storyteller whose priorities are action, romance, and political intrigue; endless backbiting; and cracking dialogue. He wants you to live and breathe the past, and to see feudal Japan through the eyes of the first Englishman to sail there. He reinvents historical figures like Will Adams and Ieyasu Tokugawa without sensationalism, knowing exactly when to loose the bounds of his imagination. Shogun taught me as much about thrilling fiction as it made me reflect on themes that were clearly important to Clavell — death (escaping from “the abyss of life”, as one samurai reflects), love (understood in terms of duty more than affection), and treachery (the other coin to honor-shame loyalty, and sometimes esteemed as a virtue). What can I say, Shogun is The Lord of the Rings of historical novels, and its influence as direct.
The King of Vinland’s Saga, by Stuart Mirsky. 1998. (Greenland & Maine, 1040s.) If Shogun is about the clash of east and west, this is of Viking and Indian, and the codes of honor just as deadly. Mirsky’s narrative is lyrically old-fashioned, but incredibly addictive once you get used to it. The dialogue sea-saws between descriptions of what is said and the actual quoted speech. For example: “Osvif said this was all very irregular and a serious matter, ‘or didn’t you know that it is a fatal flaw to bring charges against men, if you are equally guilty of them?'” Or this: “Arnliot laughed and promised to bring her back many fine gifts from the land of the Skraelings, ‘and not least of these, the heads of those who oppose me’.” I’ve never seen this style wielded with such rhythmic discipline, and it meshes perfectly with the gloom-and-doom tone of the Norse and Icelandic sagas. The story is about Leif Erickson’s grandson who sails to North America and reclaims the territory of Vinland, assimilates into a Skraeling (Indian) tribe and battles against another, and then finds himself in hot water when the enemies he left behind in Greenland come after him. Mirsky follows the idea that Vinland was in present-day Maine rather than Newfoundland (where most historians place it) and to convincing effect. This is a page-turner of family feuds, overseas conquests, hopeless battles, and doomed warriors. And there’s no Dances with Wolves political-correctness here; neither Vikings nor Skraelings are heroes or villains. Each is fluent in savagery — and each capable of the rare tender mercy.
Captain from Castile, by Samuel Shellabarger. 1945. (Spain & Mexico, 1518-1522.) It’s hard to believe that authors like Shellabarger were the John Grishams of their day, but this was the golden age of American fiction. The popular novels of the ’40s look like high-brow literature today, and Captain of Castile may as well be a classic. It throws you into the life of a young Spaniard who seeks honor and wealth in Aztec lands, after fleeing in terror from the Spanish Inquisition. The capture of his family and death of his sister at the Inquisitor’s hands drive incredibly powerful scenes, and Cortes’ conquest of Tenochtitlan (Mexico City) seems drawn from first-hand accounts. For a ’40s effort, the contrasts between the new world’s “pagan savages” and supposedly superior conquistadors is handled with surprising subtlety; Shellabarger’s decade was a politically incorrect one, to say the least. What politically incorrect elements do emerge are a strength in any case, for the same reason Clavell’s brand of multiculturalism is; respect for the Other doesn’t preclude judgments or even feelings of superiority, and there’s as much (if not more) to judge about the Aztecs as the Spaniards. There are dilemmas about friendship, racism, and religious tyranny. And a powerful love triangle: Pedro pines for an aristocrat beyond his reach, but is also madly in love with a tavern-wench beneath his station; it’s impossible to predict how that will end. Captain from Castile is focused abroad, but it’s the first part set in Spain, revolving around the fist of the Inquisition, that stays with me, more than even Aztec sacrifice.
The Fall of Empires
The Accursed Kings, 6 vols, by Maurice Druon. 1955-1960. (France, 1314-1336.) I can see how this series inspired Game of Thrones. There’s political corruption and vicious family quarrels; clashes between the church and throne; civil war; lust, adultery, backbiting, murder, regicide, baby-switching, baby-killing… the list goes on. The setting is France during the last years of the Capetian kings, and the drama turns particularly around the conflict between Robert III of Artrois and his aunt Mahaut. He constantly plots her ruin, first by engineering sex scandals with her daughters, who are imprisoned for life after their lovers are flayed and quartered. Robert’s relish as he’s about to break the news characterizes the tone of the series: “Listen, Lormet. I want this fat bitch to hear from me the extent of her disaster. Here begins one of the greatest and happiest days of my life. No beautiful girl in love with me could give me greater pleasure to see than the hideous phiz of my aunt when she hears what I have to tell her about her daughters. And I want her to accelerate her own ruin by braying to the king; I hope she dies of vexation.” Mahaut, for her part, completely deserves a nephew like this, as “murder was her favorite method; she enjoyed the memory of her murders, extracting from them all the excitements of fear, the pleasures of deception, and the joys of secret triumph.” Really the only likeable character is the young Sienese banker Guccio, who marries a poverty-stricken country girl, with tragic results. The Accursed Kings shows the downfall of a dynasty that deserves to fall amidst venal self-serving ambitions. I couldn’t put these books down.
The Camulod Chronicles, 6 vols, by Jack Whyte. 1992-1999. (England, 367-449.) There are plenty of novels about King Arthur, but this is the series to read. It starts with the fall of Hadrian’s Wall and spans eight decades, until on the last pages of the sixth volume, the young king pulls the sword from the stone with no magic involved. Whyte associates Arthur with the documented figure known as the Riothamus, “High King” of the Britons/Bretons in the fifth century, one of the more intriguing historical theories. Most interpretations of Arthur are set in the sixth century, and with a more Celtic and less Roman flavor. Here the legend falls into place without ever leaning on the supernatural, like Excalibur, the Round Council (“Round Table”), Avalon, and Merlyn’s sorcery. I especially like the way the Round Council harks back to the equality of the republican Roman Senate, established in Camulod to put an end to petty feuds over status. Merlyn’s metamorphosis into into a “sorcerer” — from Legate Commander of Camulod into a bitter, reclusive, and shadowy figure skilled with poisons — is handled brilliantly, not only for taking many volumes to get there, but because of what it finally takes to make him snap, guilt and self-recriminations over the horrible deaths of loved ones. There have been endless theories about the location of Camelot, and Whyte puts it around the Cadbury area. This series is a first-rate imagination of what happened to England when the Roman legions left.
The Lions of Al-Rassan, by Guy Gavriel Kay. 1995. (Spain, 1080s.) I consider this story inspired enough to constitute lasting literature, and it gets away with indulging certain myths about Islam’s “golden age” because the genre excuses it. It’s a fantasy, that reinvents 11th-century Spain beyond the constraints of standard fiction — with empowered women, sexually libertine carnivals, and heightened multiculturalism. It also telescopes historical events for better effect. For instance, the Reconquest of Spain was a proto-crusade which predated the first holy war to Palestine, but here they occur at the same time. For all the liberties taken, there is enough reality to justify the “historical” label. Kay doesn’t flinch from the ruthless Islamic pogroms inflicted on the Jews, nor the dynamics between the Umayyads and the invading Almoravids from Africa. The story shows the crusading reconquest of Spain through the eyes of a Christian warrior (El Cid), Jewish doctor, and Muslim assassin, who become allies in a mercenary band until the war divides them. It’s an epic about unlikely friendships in time of war, and the collapse of an age. Even if we like El Cid, we grieve for the fall of Al-Rassan. And if this version of Islamic Spain is too good to be true, our emotions don’t depend on that fantasy. When El Cid begs Ammar to join the Christian cause, and the Muslim replies that he would rather be “a camel herder in Africa than a shepherd in Spain”, his defiance rings true, even if he has far more reason to despise people of his own faith than the Christian crusaders.
Ironfire, by David Ball. 2004. (Malta, North Africa, & Turkey, 1552-1565.) The Siege of Malta was a repeat of Thermopylae. The crusaders were hopelessly outnumbered, and their victory just as miraculous. That victory kept the Ottomans from controlling the Mediterranean. Ball’s narrative moves like a juggernaut. It holds you in an emotional vise and makes you constantly fear for its characters. And it makes you reflect on what it really means to grow up in a world of brutality, indifference, and religious divides. I’d call it the most profound novel I’ve read dealing with the theme of individual powerlessness and the will to forge your fate despite it. It begins with two siblings playing on an abandoned coast, and they are surprised by corsairs; the nine-year old brother is captured, taken to Africa and enslaved; the thirteen-year old sister won’t see him for another thirteen years. In-between, the story moves back and forth between Maria’s peasant life on Malta, and Nico’s life as a slave in Algiers and then as a royal page at the court of Istanbul. His conversion to Islam starts out skin-deep, but then evolves into something quite real, while his sister grows up suffering guilt over losing him, joining an outcast Jewish community, and stalked by a local priest who eventually becomes the island’s Inquisitor. Their lives unfold with the sort of detail that makes you think this stuff is too real to be made up, and by the end you feel like they’re part of your family.
The Twelve Children of Paris, by Tim Willocks. 2013. (Paris, 1572.) Whether you love or hate this novel will depend on how flexible you are with genre. It’s the massacre of St. Bartholomew’s Day (1572) as Quentin Tarantino might envision it — pulp historical fiction at its most graphic and obscene. The violent content was judged so extreme that it couldn’t even be published in the U.S. The hero’s slaughter-fests make him as bad as the villains. Most of the opposition he faces are poorly trained city militia, everyday thugs, and politically appointed “knights” hardly worthy of the title. He kills out of simple revenge for his wife, hardly caring who. The St. Bartholomew’s Day massacre began as a royal stab against the Huguenot elite but degenerated into a full-blown extermination of unarmed Protestant civilians by the Paris militia. Tannhauser’s personal degeneration matches the city’s; there’s backstabbing everywhere, and a kingdom of beggars and thieves shunned by everyone. Those dark alleys are Tannhauser’s ultimate destination, and where an unexpected salvation is found. There, and in the souls of raped and dispossessed children he rescues along the way. The cloak-and-dagger intrigue is crisp, and the mystery of who wanted Tannhauser’s wife dead and why unfolds at the right moments. It’s an unusual novel that indulges hyper-elements to explore the consequences of hurt, and the inability to transcend monstrosity.
An Army of Children, by Evan Rhodes. 1978. (Germany & Italy, 1212.) The Children’s Crusade was a bizarre event, involving two boys who had independent visions of marching to Palestine with armies of pacifist children, and shaming the Muslims into giving up the holy lands. This march of peace would supposedly succeed where over a century’s worth of crusading warfare had failed, and the boys attracted huge followings for their outlandish fantasy, one in Paris, the other Cologne. When the French group came to Marseille — apparently expecting God to part the seas so they could continue — local merchants offered to transport the children in seven ships; two of these ships were lost at sea, while the others went to Africa, where the kids were sold into slavery. The German group made it as far as Rome (many having died en route in the Alps) but dispersed when the pope refused to see them. Some persisted in trying to secure passage to the holy lands, and, like the French children, were shipped to brothels and slave markets, this time in the Mediterranean. This novel follows the German kids (for which historical documentation is more reliable than the French), and if you want a heartbreaking look at one of the strangest mutations of medieval crusading, then An Army of Children will leave its mark on you.
Princes, Jarls, Tai-Pans
Prince of Foxes, by Samuel Shellabarger. 1947. (Italy, 1500-1502.) I consider every book on this list a page-turner, but Prince of Foxes is the page-turner’s prototype. It’s set in the Italian Renaissance, during Cesare Borgia’s conquest of the Romagna, and does a great job portraying the geographical politics. While other places in Europe (England, France, Spain) had become nations moving towards unity and strong central governments, Italy clung to its feudal states sniping at each other. Borgia’s attempt to subjugate all of central Italy was the right idea, but as a tyrant he was the wrong person for it. Andrea Orsini is a retainer of Borgia who finally leaves service when he can no longer stomach the man. He’s the story’s protagonist, a peasant upstart who has hidden his identity and pretends to be of the noble Orsini family. The novel brings to life the honor-shame codes of the Mediterranean region, where deceptions and betrayals are highly esteemed if you can win by them. Once Orsini is found out, even the real Orisini family doesn’t begrudge him wearing their coat of arms — they even admire it as it’s used against them — as he has “earned the right to it”. Throw in a saint (Lucy of Narni) and the most notorious pope in history (Alexander VI), and you’ve got a novel on fire.
Sword of the North, by Richard White. 1983. (Scotland & Massachusetts, 1356-1398.) How Columbus got the credit for discovering America I’ll never know. Leif Erickson beat him by five centuries, and Henry Sinclair probably beat him by one. This novel is Sinclair’s story. He was Baron of Rosslyn in southern Scotland and also Jarl of the Orkney Islands, and as White portrays him a fair but firm ruler who went at heads with corrupt bishops and venal noblemen. He got around plenty before embarking on his voyage to North America — to Norway, the Faroe Islands — and there’s even an amusing scene where visiting England he bumps into that father of literature, Geoffrey Chaucer. The dialogue is superb, lyrical and almost poetic without sounding aloof. There’s striking humor on display, and whether or not it represents 14th-century thought, it’s the book’s clear signature which sets it above the mainstream. It’s long out of print and almost unheard of, which is a shame. The author was a teacher at my high-school back in the ’80s, and he went on to write the smashing western Mister Grey; only three years ago he finally published his scholarly research on Sinclair’s expeditions, These Stones Bear Witness.
Tai-Pan, by James Clavell. 1966. (Hong Kong, 1841.) It may not be the jewel Shogun is, but it’s still a masterpiece, and it has the most colorful cast of characters in any novel I’ve read. We all know the cliches of characters so dynamic they “leap from the page”, but cliches were made for novels like Tai-Pan. The setting is the British occupation of Hong Kong and an empire built on opium smuggling; the hero a Scottish pirate who dreams of uniting the best traditions of China and Europe, as he also works to bring down a former shipmate who owns a rival trading company. The vicious conflict between these men and their families is the heart of the story, and every time you think a confrontation will go a certain way, it doesn’t. As in all of Clavell’s stories, the thrill of the plot dominates in a clash of cultures, with a deep respect for the east that doesn’t patronize. In fact, Clavell wasn’t very politically correct. Multiculturalism, for him, involved the cost of choice — recognizing this lifestyle as better, and that value as superior, so that something has to go. Dirk Struan (like Shogun’s Blackthorne) ultimately “chooses” the West for its democracy and free trade, and the East for its diet, cleanliness, sexual pleasures, and philosophy. This is the only novel on my list without battles or invasions: trade is the theater of war, and its castles are the opium, spices, teas, and silks so highly valued in an age of British colonialism. Trust Clavell to make stock prices so exciting.