Monday, 31 March 2008

Rules for Writing Arthurian Historical Fiction

Essential information for the aspiring author in this minefield of fictional contention.


by Vivien Tyler

1. ‘King’ Arthur definitely lived. No question about it. Myths always have something true at their heart, don’t they? Even if that truth has nothing to do with history, and everything to do with romantic or idealistic notions.

2. Arthur must be a noble, or at least charismatic, figure capable of uniting the whole island.

3. There must always be a ‘wise woman’ figure, preferably from Avalon, who will save the hero or shelter the heroine. She will provide amazing mystical advice and have wondrous visions (due to one too many a nip of expensive imported wine again, more like).

4. The Britons must be called ‘Celts’, must be virtuous (see Classical rule 6), and never portrayed as argumentative warmongers who could not present a united front against the invaders.

5. All Anglo-Saxons must be the baddies (see Medieval rule 1), and have seriously underwritten roles.

6. All Anglo-Saxons must have drawn their boat up on the beach and just set foot on the island - never mind that by the late 5th century a fair proportion of them would have been born in Britain. Well blimey, wouldn’t that make them…er, British…?
It’s all just too complicated to contemplate.

7. All inhabitants of Roman Britain must have suddenly reverted back to being ‘Celts’ as soon as the Roman army and administration withdrew from the island.

8. If there are any Romans in the story, they are as per Classical rules 2-4, and must work against ‘King Arthur’.

9. Invaders other than Anglo-Saxons must be ignored. Whatever happened to those marauding Picts and Scotti? Not to mention the British kingdoms that invaded and fought each other (ahem!).

10. Due attention must be paid to the stirrup problem: to stirrup or not to stirrup, that is the question by which the whole fate of Arthurian Britain hangs - didn’t you know?!

Saturday, 29 March 2008

Rules for Writing Medieval Fiction

Rules for Writing Medieval Fiction
By Elizabeth Chadwick

1. The Saxons who are the bad guys of the Arthurian stories magically turn into good guys in 1066 when the nasty Normans invade. Then they turn into the English and become bad guys again.

2. The Scots, kilted up as Mel Gibson lookalikes, can do no wrong.

3. King John is always a bad ruler.

4. In any novel prior to 1970, Richard III is an evil child-murdering hunchback. Post-1970, he turns into a wonderful guy, completely innocent of the murder of his nephews and with a back as straight as a ramrod. Henry VII takes over as the bad guy.

5. All heroines have thick waves of glorious hair that tumble to their hips. The more unruly they are, the curlier their tresses tend to be. Frequently those tresses will be
a stupendous shade of auburn.

6. At least once in any novel the hero will be wounded and the heroine, a skilled herbwife, will be called upon to tend him.

7. The villain of the piece or his henchman will frequently have disgusting table manners and disfiguring scars.

8. The hero is never bald or a serf – unless the novel is a work of literary fiction, in which case the latter is a necessity. The hero of the first statement is likely to parade around in his armour even when relaxing at home and will wear his sword as a matter of course.

9. In a certain type of novel of the period, the huge size of the hero’s sword is only outdone by the size of the object between his legs – his magnificent coal-black or pure white stallion (ahem!)

10. No hero is ever called Etheldred, Cuthbert, Archibald or Baldric. No heroine is ever called Hegelina, Frideswide, Euphemia or Hildegarde. In certain works aforementioned at point 9, the hero will be called Blade, Hawke, Addis or Bryce while the heroine will be named Adrienne, Rainna, Mellyora (I kid you not!) or Elissa. Authors will often have very similar stage names to those of the heroine and their work will be given 4 stars by Romantic Times.

A Place Beyond Courage

Elizabeth Chadwick is the author of many fine historical novels set in the Medieval era, the latest of which is A Place Beyond Courage (2007)which features John Marshal, father of William Marshal, about whom she has published two novels, The Greatest Knight and The Scarlet Lion. She says: “I put a brutal hunting scene in my first novel The Wild Hunt. I’ve not been as graphic since. My characters still go hunting, but in a more understated way. I have considered being subversive and writing an Arthurian novel from the poor, maligned Anglo-Saxons’ viewpoint, but that’s still on a back burner. At least these days the heroines DO get pregnant. When I was in my teens and early twenties, you’d have thought they were all on the Pill, the number of frolics they had without suffering the consequences!” Elizabeth Chadwick's blog is Living the History.

Tuesday, 25 March 2008

Book Review: Beatrix Potter: A Life in Nature by Linda Lear

If you loved Beatrix Potter's books as a child and if you saw the recent film Miss Potter and wondered about Beatrix Potter's life before and after the events in the film, Linda Lear's Beatrix Potter: A Life in Nature (in paperback Beatrix Potter: The Extraordinary Life of a Victorian Genius) is the book for you.

Beatrix Potter (1866-1943) was the only daughter of a wealthy family of north-country Dissenting stock. Her father was a London barrister of independent means and almost limitless leisure, her mother a rampant snob who didn't like to be reminded that her forebears made their fortune in what upper-class Victorians sniffily referred to as "trade". Beatrix grew up in a grand part of London but was happiest during the family's frequent country house holidays in Scotland, Wales and the Lake District. Awayfrom the stifling conventions of city life, she was able to indulge her love of nature, deepen her knowledge of it, whilst cultivating her artistic gifts. From an early age she drew detailed studies of plants and animals and she made pets of rabbits, mice, hedgehogs and other small creatures, which she loved to draw and paint (and dissect when dead, for she was no sentimentalist), thus acquiring the detailed botanical and anatomical knowledge that would not only save her later creations from Victorian tweeness, but would also lead her to make a serious study of botany, something her family did not encourage.

But Beatrix, outwardly ever the dutiful daughter, had a stubborn, determined streak. After she had failed on her own account to get a student ticket to the library of the Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew which would enable her to pursue her study of fungi reproduction, she persuaded her scientific uncle, Sir Henry Roscoe, to apply on her behalf in person to the Director, William Thiselton-Dyer. Linda Lear gives a vivid account of her visit to Kew in the company of her uncle. After casually authorising her ticket, Thiselton-Dyer proceeded to ignore her as he accompanied her and Uncle Henry across the Gardens to catch the train home. Beatrix, by then a woman of nearly thirty, later insisted she wasn't offended by Thiselton-Dyer's behaviour, but she took satisfaction in shooting in "one remark which made him jump, as if he had forgotten my presence". The eminent Director would probably not have appreciated knowing that Beatrix's fungi paintings are still consulted for their accuracy of detail and colour, or that her professional contemporaries were later found to have been wrong in dismissing her fungi reproduction research.

Beatrix's mother was extremely demanding, and at a age when most young women would have been married off to a suitable young man, Beatrix was still at her mother's beck and call. But in between her daughterly duties, Beatrix found fulfilment in her scientific studies and, increasingly, in paintings and drawings of animals in fantasy. It was in the illustrated story-letters she sent to various children of her acquaintance that the Peter Rabbit books had their origins.

The story of how she eventually found a publisher and fell in love with Norman Warne, one of the brothers who ran the company, is beautifully told here as is her grief at Norman's sudden death not long after her parents had given their grudging and belated consent to the marriage. One can't help but feel anger toward the selfish mother who denied her a happy courtship, and would have deprived her of a subsequent happy marriage as well, if Beatrix hadn't asserted the independence the success of her books gave her. But Beatrix herself, to her credit, never seemed bitter, probably because after Norman's death she made herself a new life in her beloved Lake District as Beatrix Heelis, wife of a Hawkshead solicitor and a prominent farmer and landowner in her own right. Long before conservation became the watchword it is today, she had the foresight to realise that the integrity of rural landcapes and ways of life needed protection, and she used much of her fortune, as well as her husband's local knowledge and legal expertise, to buy up Lakeland fell farms in order to keep them out of the hands of property developers and maintain them as working farms. The magnificently-named Canon Hardwicke Rawnsley, joint founder of The National Trust for the Places of Historic Interest or Natural Beauty, had been a longtime family friend and inspired by him, she intended all her Lake District property to go the Trust including, after her death, her principal homes, Hill Top Farm and Castle Cottage. She took up farming with gusto, aided by an unerring instinct for finding the right men for the jobs she couldn't do herself, and overcoming a good deal of local prejudice in the process; she was, after all, both an "off-comer" and a woman, and this was rural England between the wars.

Toward the end of her life, Beatrix Heelis wrote to a kindred spirit, Samuel Cunningham, summing up her philosophy of land preservation:
For years I have been gradually picking up land, chance bargains, and specializing on road frontages and the heads of valleys. I have a long way towards three thousand acres...It is an open secret it will go to the Trust eventually...I own two or three strikingly beautiful spots. The rest is pleasant peaceful country, foreground of the hills, I think more liable to be spoilt than the high fells themselves...I am sometimes surprised at myself, being contented. I lift my eyes to the hills, and am content to look at them from below.

Although she could be abrasive and didn't suffer fools gladly, Beatrix kept the robust sense of humour so evident in her books and she always had time for interested visitors, especially children. She continued to write and illustrate her animal stories until her eyesight and her inspiration began to fail, but she farmed until her health finally broke down. She was always happiest as a stout, rosy-cheeked figure tramping her fields and woods dressed in clogs and clothes of coarse wool from the unique Herdwick sheep she loved and championed.

In this beautifully-written biography, Linda Lear paints an honest, yet appealing portrait of a woman both ahead of her time and part of it, a woman who against the odds created a useful and fulfilling life for herself whilst giving pleasure to generations of children and preserving the fragile Lake District landscape and way of life for the benefit and enjoyment of all.

And because Linda Lear has given us the real-life contexts for the illustrations in Beatrix Potter's books, we can re-read these nursery classics and appreciate the exquisitely-detailed illustrations with a new depth of knowledge about their characters and settings.

In 1940, Lear tells us, Beatrix Potter wrote to a child who had asked her what happened to the fairy caravan after the book of that name ended:

When we grow old and wear spectacles, our eyes are not bright, like children's eyes, nor our ears so quick, to see and hear the fairies...where can the circus have wandered to? I believe I know! Right away amongst the fells - the green and blue hills above my sheep farm in Troutbeck. Such a lonely place, miles along a lovely green road. That was where I first saw the mark of little horse shoes. There is an old barn there we call High Buildings...and when I was younger and used to take long walks, I used to eat my bread and cheese at High Buildings, or shelter from the rain. That was where the Caravan sheltered in a very wild rainstorm, and Xarifa made acquaintance with the melancholy Mouse...

Saturday, 22 March 2008

Book Review: Of Merchants and Heroes by Paul Waters

We're in the third century BC. The Romans have at last driven Hannibal out of Italy and there's a plan to destroy Carthage once and for all. Against this background our young Roman hero, Marcus, is captured by pirates who attack the ship in which he's sailing to Greece with his father. The pirates kill all the passengers except Marcus, who manages to escape, vowing to hunt down and kill the pirate captain in revenge for his father's death. Once home, however, he finds he has a more pressing problem to deal with in the ample form of his Uncle Caecilius, who has decided to marry his mother. Marcus is a sensitive, intelligent lad, whilst horrid Uncle C. is a grasping philistine of a merchant with his greedy eye permanently on the main chance. Needless to say, they don't get on, but Marcus sweats it out for several years, farming and merchanting in his uncle's employ until the fates lead him to his destiny by way of love and war - for no sooner has he lost his heart to a beautiful Greek than a new threat to civilisation comes rampaging out of the East in the form of Philip V of Macedon, one of whose henchmen is the very pirate who murdered his father.

Of Merchants and Heroes is the first novel by Paul Waters, who ran away to sea at 17 and during his travels fell so much in love with the classical world that he went on to get a degree in classics. He certainly knows his stuff. His world-building is excellent, evocative and authentic. But this novel just didn't work for me. It's partly a problem of pacing. The story gets off to a cracking start with the ship's capture and Marcus's escape. Then it slows to an uphill crawl whilst other people are introduced and we follow Marcus's rather dull career in agriculture and trade. It doesn't pick up again until over halfway through when the love story takes off and the tale hurtles toward its denouement with tense and vivid action scenes worthy of Bernard Cornwell, Conn Iggulden or Simon Scarrow, interspersed with a little philosophy-lite.

The other problem lies in the characters, who never quite rise from the page. Marcus remains an annoyingly po-faced prig throughout, his lover a paragon of physical and intellectual perfection, whilst the venality of Uncle Caecilius is laid on with a trowel to the point of caricature. The rest of the cast - the wordly-wise courtesan, the straitlaced Roman official and his wastrel brother, etc, etc - never grow beyond stereotype.

Also rather heavy-handed are the clues the author strews about to indicate that Marcus isn't one for the girls, before finally producing the goods (so to speak). At which point it all seems rather an anti-climax (sorry). Oh, and there's one scene that did liven up the dull phase a bit - but for the wrong reason: young Marcus puts the wind up a bunch of battle-hardened Carthaginian soldiers attacking a detachment of Roman cavalry by running at them shouting a battle cry. With only a bit of DIY weapons training behind him, he kills their leader and the rest of them scuttle off. I just didn't believe it, even if Marcus does claim to have Mars on his side.

If Of Merchants and Heroes were a straight-up historical adventure yarn, none of this would matter particularly, but it comes garlanded with puffs likening it to Mary Renault's novels, which made me look forward to something more, or at least different. Not only does this sort of silly hype risk setting up the reader's expectations for possible disappointment, it's hardly fair to the author to deny him his own voice in this way. If I were Paul Waters, I'd rather be known as "the unique Paul Waters" than "a Mary Renault readalike". But I think the author needs to write a few more novels before that's likely to happen. On this showing, though, I wouldn't entirely rule it out.

For another opinion, see the Historical Novels Review's Editors' Choice for February 2008 (scroll down to end).

Friday, 21 March 2008

Ian Had a Little Lamb...

This one's for Alex. Lambsie-Pie was in a farmer's field. It must have decided Ian was its mother and it gambolled after him all the way to the field gate and stood with its little face at the fence, bleating in a heart-rending manner as it watched us walk away.

Monday, 17 March 2008

Market Day in Old London Town

On Saturday, I went with my friend Rosalind for what began as a food-lovers' day out in London. My better half came too and very kindly carried all our goodies home on the train when we'd finished so we could spend the rest of the day indulging ourselves in the out-of-this-world shopping experience that is central London.

Our first destination was Borough Market

Borough Market is the oldest wholesale fruit and vegetable market in London,

and now also a prime spot

for buying fine foods from all over the country: meat, fish, bread, cheeses,

preserves, coffee, cakes, and all manner of organic and ethnic food. This is a chocolate brownie mountain:

First, though, we fortified ourselves with a breakfast of coffee and wild boar sausage and onion sandwiches from a caff conveniently placed near the entrance.

Then we sallied forth to forage, buying pies from Pieminister and Mrs King's Melton Mowbray Pork Pies, smoked duck and goose from Rannoch Smokery, fresh pasta from La Tua Pasta, wild boar sausages* from the Sillfield Farm shop, artisan breads from De Gustibus and the Flour Power City Bakery:

and Easter eggs from Burnt Sugar which specialises in fudges, toffees and caramels made from unrefined sugar. The company also cleverly runs an online book club (just in case you thought there was nothing bookish in this post) in support of Book Aid International which sends books to libraries in the dveloping world. What better than to curl up on the sofa with a tub of delicious guilt- and additive-free fudge and a good book, all in an excellent cause?

I was especially delighted to find some best end of neck of mutton from a butcher's stall whose name I can't remember. I've never cooked mutton before so am looking forward to this as mutton is reputed to have a wondrous flavour and is impossible to find where we live.

On the streets bordering the market are several super shops, including Konditor and Cook
which sells divine cakes and pastries. For us this was a noses-pressed-up-against-the-window exercise as the cakey delicacies are both expensive, and calorie-laden to the extent that you can feel your waistband tightening even as you drool. Round the corner was

Neal's Yard Dairy which not only stocks a wondrous array of cheeses and other dairy produce

but also breads, chutneys, biscuits - and a hard-to-get-down-south favourite of mine: Staffordshire Oatcakes which are floppy discs of oatmeal, delicious not only with cheese but also with egg and/or bacon, and even jam and cream. You can grill or fry them, or you can stuff them, roll them up and pop them in the microwave.

Many of the market stallholders are real enthusiasts.They'll talk to you about their produce and offer free tastes of their wares. You'll certainly want to sample the many stalls selling all manner of street food from all over the world. And if, after all that tastebud overload you need to wet your whistle there's Vinopolis a few minutes' walk away, with its Brew Wharf bar/restaurant which has its own microbrewery.

Southwark Cathedral is worth a visit whilst you're in the area, a place of tranquility and spiritual refreshment between the bustling market on one side and the equally busy Square Mile financial district of the City on the other.

It was built on the site of a Roman villa, some of whose pavement was incorporated into the church floor. There's been a church on the site since the 11th century. First it was a priory church, St Mary Overie (over the river), then after the Reformation, it was reborn as the parish church of St Saviour. It only became a cathedral in 1905 when the Anglican Diocese of Southwark was created. Inside the Cathedral there's a Shakespeare memorial in the form of a stained-glass window depicting characters from his plays and a reclining statue of the Bard beneath. Shakespeare's brother Edmund, also an actor, is buried here in an unknown tomb. The Globe Theatre was (and is again) just a short walk along the South Bank of the Thames. So it's fitting that there's also a memorial here to Sam Wanamaker, the actor/director whose vision and energy fuelled the nearby reconstruction of Shakespeare's Globe. The tomb of John Gower, the poet and contemporary of Chaucer is here too, and there's a simple, moving memorial to the people who died in the Marchioness tragedy of 1989, when a pleasure cruiser sank nearby in the Thames, drowning 51 birthday partygoers.

*On Sunday I used the Sillfield Farm wild boar sausages to make a scrummy herby, garlicky cherry tomato and sausage bake from Jamie Oliver's latest book Jamie at Home. Delish, as the Essex lad would say.

Right. That's enough food. We parted with Ian and his enormous culinary swag bag at London Bridge Tube Station, he to go home and watch the rugby whilst we soldiered valiantly on to Portobello Road Antiques Market.

What a cornucopia! Everything from jewellery to silverware, clocks to antiquarian books to paintings, doll's house furniture and retro clothing. I was tempted by, but decided against, a Biba blouse in one of the retro shops. I never had anything from Biba when I was of that age, except the name which I borrowed for a cat we once had to rid our student flat of mice.

Except for the weekend hordes, Portobello Road is a pretty backwater, with little pastel-coloured terraced houses, hidden mews cottages and cherry trees just coming into blossom along the pavements.

In the market arcades and galleries we dithered over coffee spoons and silver-handled magnifying glasses, early editions of Beatrix Potter, Victorian necklaces and rosewood writing boxes. But in the end, Rosalind bought 2 pairs of earrings (one of oval turquoises and the one set with marcasites), and I bought this ring:

Next we ambled down Westbourne Grove, ogling longingly at the unaffordable (for me, at any rate) clobber in Joseph, Whistles, Ted Baker, Jigsaw and L K Bennett. And then, descending from the sublime to the ridiculous, we popped into an Oxfam shop across the road, hoping that some of the wealthy denizens of Kensington and Chelsea might have donated their last year's boutique clothes to it. To our delight, everything was £1. No clothes appealed to Rosalind but she bought a Trinny and Susannah book and Wicked!, the latest Jilly Cooper. I was thrilled to get an Agnes B cardigan and a collection of Milly Molly Mandy stories (the latter for my granddaughter in case you were worrying that I might be entering upon my second childhood).

Then we hopped on a bus to Oxford Street for a late lunch at Carluccio's in St Christopher's Place,

a little gem of a square hidden behind Oxford Street, before diving into Selfridges which was full of bizarre shoes, outre clothes and some of the most hideous furniture you've ever seen in your life

(so that's why they were selling it at 20% off). Still, the in-store Tiffany shop was interesting (no prices so if you needed to ask you couldn't afford it), and The White Company shop was selling something I never knew I needed: perfumed ironing spray! But that was nothing to The Wonder Room whose website is a splendid joke (at least I think it's a joke...).

Before leaving Selfridges, we had a merry time trying the Jo Malone scents and lotions and as usual the Selfridges windows were wonders of eye-catching artistry, all lit up as we left at dusk. The current mannequins all resembled Boadicea with long, fiery red hair and defiant, warlike postures. Some of them looked as if they'd just sacked Londinium.

And that was it, folks. We shopped till we dropped and returned home, tired but contented, to a snifter of

Oh, and just in case you're feeling peckish, here's a couple of the aforementioned Mrs King's Melton Mowbray Pork Pies:

Sunday, 16 March 2008

Rules for Writing Prehistoric Historical Fiction

And now, a vital set of rules for the Jean Auels de nos jours:


by Sarah L. Johnson

1. The good guys will always be members of Homo Sapiens or one of this species’ ancestors, while the bad guys will be ugly flat-headed Neanderthals.

2. During each novel at least one major historical accomplishment will be made, e.g., the discovery of fire, invention of the wheel, building of Stonehenge.

3. The males will be given easily pronounceable one-syllable names because, as we all know, language was more primitive back then. Female names will be similar to male names with the addition of the letter ‘a’ on the end All names should form part of the vocabulary of any normal 21st-century infant, e.g., Dog and Ooga.

4. At least one member of the tribe will correctly prophesy future events, such as the coming of a great wall of ice which will overwhelm the land, but nobody will believe him/her.

5. The heroine, despite having been betrothed since childhood to the most skilful hunter of her tribe, will choose instead to run away with the hero, a member of a despised rival tribe. Her original betrothed will turn out to be mean and cruel, justifying her decision.

6. In novels set in prehistoric Europe, the cave paintings at Lascaux will make at least one appearance in the story.

7. Most tribal members will be able to speak telepathically with animals, an ability that modern man has no doubt lost long since.

8. Tribal mythology will be built around worship of the sun, moon, and the correct balance of the four elements: earth, air, fire, and water.

9. For more advanced societies, religion will center around the worship of a great Mother Goddess, the progenitor of the goddess worshipped by the ancient Celts. The heroine will be the tribe’s priestess-in-training.

10. While prehistoric men will be permitted to have more than one wife, for women adultery is a charge punishable by death. The hero is the one male of the tribe who believes in monogamy.

Sarah Johnson is the Historical Novel Society’s book review editor. Her reference book Historical Fiction: A Guide to the Genre was recently named an Editors’ Choice title by Booklist. She lives in rural Charleston, Illinois, with one husband, three cats, and way too many books, mostly historical novels. Sarah's blog is Reading the Past.

Tuesday, 11 March 2008

Book Review: Paths of Exile by Carla Nayland

Why are so few novels about the so-called Dark Ages published nowadays? Alfred Duggan used to write them and Bernard Cornwell dabbles there occasionally with his Arthurian novels and his current series set in the time of King Alfred. It was a pivotal period in English history: the end of Roman Britain, and the beginning of the Anglo-Saxon age, an era of conflict and culture clash with shifting frontiers, divided loyalties, danger, idealism, heroics and high tragedy, far from the popular image of thud and blunder, mud and middens, as Carla Nayland shows us in her new novel, Paths of Exile. And on top of all that, so little is known of the period that the novelist has exhilarating scope for the imagination in the big gaps between the lines of the scant but often vivid sources.

Paths of Exile is set in what is now Northern England at the beginning of the 7th century AD. Aethelferth, king of Bernicia (roughly modern Northumberland) has invaded the neighbouring kingdom of Deira (approximately today's Yorkshire), and defeated its ruler Aelle and his son and heir Eadric. Eadric's devoted younger brother Eadwine comes too late to the rescue and believes Eadric has been treacherously murdered. Eadwine, homeless and lordless, the worst predicament for an Anglo-Saxon man, nevertheless vows to avenge his brother's death and sets out to find the mysterious assassin as well as rescuing his betrothed in the terrible knowledge that Aethelferth has sworn to kill him in thanks to the gods for victory.

Thus begins an exciting, tautly-plotted tale that's action-packed thriller, murder mystery, tragedy and romance all rolled into one and set in an authentic landscape I can see and touch and feel. But it's much more than that, mainly because the author has peopled her story with flesh-and-blood-characters who are both convincingly of their own time and yet, with all their fears and hopes, not at all alien to us. I still find myself thinking of them as if they were old friends just lately gone away and whom I hope to meet again*. Character is revealed mainly through dialogue which is often laced with humour, wry, dry and bawdy. No doubt the purists won't like it (too modern, too much swearing, tsk, tsk, yet it feels entirely right for Eadwine say "Bugger off" in moments of affectionate exasperation such as when he tries in vain to release his followers from their oath of loyalty - a telling, and touching, scene).

Oh, and I learned a lot without even realising it, for example from Eadwine in his moving exposition on the structure of Anglo-Saxon society, "A lord is the helmet of his people, Treowin, not their scourge."

The author has published Paths of Exile using Lulu. And a very good job they've made of it (I feared spine-cracking and pages falling out, but the book is a pleasure to handle). I wish a publisher would take the novel up and bring it to a wider readership. It's that good.

*A sequel is in the offing, hurrah! But will it reveal the words of that naughty ditty known as Attacotti Nell?

Sunday, 2 March 2008

Roman Novels

Here are some recent and forthcoming novels set in Roman times, my favourite period:

Counting the Stars by Helen Dunmore. This is novelist and poet Dunmore's take on the scandalous affair between the poet Catullus and a senator's wife, thought to be Clodia Metelli, whom he calls Lesbia in the series of passionately anguished poems he wrote about their relationship. You can download the first chapter here.
I found Catullus a more readable poet than Virgil or Horace at school and can still remember a few lines, like odi et amo and the beginning and end of the heartfelt and pious (in the Roman sense) poem he wrote about his visit to his dead brother's grave. But I won't admit to knowing any of that rude one. After all, my Latin teacher was a vicar's wife.

Of Merchants and Heroes is the first novel by Paul Waters. Extract
here. And this from the publisher's website:
A stunning historical fiction debut in the same vein as Robert Graves and Mary Renault...A consuming story of love, loss and redemption set in the classical world of Greece and Rome...This is a remarkable, beautifully written novel that explores political and philosophical questions that are timeless - democracy and tyranny, war and self-defence, right and duty - as well as questions of love, loyalty and betrayal.
No hyperbole there, then. Nevertheless, I've just bought a copy and will report back when I've read and inwardly digested.

The Uncertain Hour by Jesse Browner. This was published in May 2007 in the U.S. but not at all in the U.K. as far as I can tell. I just noticed it in the current issue of The Historical Novels Review. It doesn't seem to have been published in the UK. It's about T. Petronius Niger, the soldier, senator and courtier who became Nero's Arbiter of Elegance, eventually being ordered to fall on his sword for his trouble. In the novel he gives himself a rather elegant send-off (and a slow death) during a sumptuous banquet. Intriguing. Read an extract here. Apparently, there's lots of detail about the delectable grub on offer at the banquet, and it (hurrah!) passes the dormouse test (see Rules for Writing Historical Fiction set in Classical Times (Rule III)!

And after these literary heavyweights, how about some straightforward adventure:

Centurion by Simon Scarrow is the latest in the popular series about a pair of likely lads in the Roman Army in the first century AD. This episode finds our heroes, Macro and Cato, in the Middle East, where Rome is vying with Parthia for control of Palmyra which, if I remember, was on a vital trade route. The previous novels in the series have all been reissued in paperback with super new covers to match this one. Oh, and acording to the website, a Sharpe-style TV series of some of the books is in the offing. That should be good, if the script and production values are better than for some recent TV drama-docs, like the limp Spartacus that I dozed through the other night on BBC 2.

Sword of Revenge by Jack Ludlow, out now, is the second in a trilogy set in the late Republic by an author better known as David Donachie of the historical seafaring adventures. The first novel was called Pillars of Rome and both are set in the years before Julius Caesar, during the tumultuous years of The Social Wars. Acording to the publisher's website, Pillars of Rome is a Kane and Abel-type story of two boys born on the same day, one rich, one poor. Sword of Revenge takes up with the next generation.

Funny, the sword on the front cover looks medieval to me. But what do I know?

However, if it's detectives you want, Rome can do those too:

Ruso and the Demented Doctor by R S Downie (US: Terra Incognita by Ruth Downie). I'm looking forward to getting my mitts on this, the second of a series. I loved the first, Ruso and the Disappearing Dancing Girls, which introduced Ruso, a world-weary army surgeon based in the legionary fortress of Deva (Chester) who turns reluctant detective when he treats a native girl left for dead. He's a bit of a Philippus Marlo, with a nice line in dry humour. There's an article by the author on her publisher's website and her blog/website is here.

And, oh joy, there's to be another Gordianus the Finder a
dventure in May: The Triumph of Caesar by Steven Saylor. Good to see that the old chap is still going strong. He's getting on a bit now so maybe he needs longer rests between adventures. Anyway, this outing involves quite a lot for a geriatric gumsandal to contend with: Vercingetorix the Gaul, who's about to be executed, Cleopatra arriving in Rome, Caesar at odds with Marc Antony, and of course Caesar's wife and that soothsayer. Oh, and pompous old Cicero making a fool of himself with his teenage bride.

Last but not least, our old friend Marcus Corvinus has been up to his tricks again in his twelfth outing, Illegally Dead by David Wishart which came out in February. Corvinus is a Roman aristocrat whose sleuthing adventures take place in first-century Rome and Italy. He's another Chandleresque detective who sees the seamy side of things and the hallmark of the books are their racy humour and the highly colloquial dialogue which some historical fiction purists really don't approve of. Do they really think that all Romans spoke classical Latin all the time? But don't let them spoil the fun- these novels are great fun and you can learn a lot about ancient Rome without even realising it.

Finally, because I'm not quite sure where to put these, a couple of goodies by new (to me) authors:

The Forgotten Legion by Ben Kane (to be published in May).
This is the first in a trilogy set in the first century BC, following
the adventures of four characters (a brother and sister sold into slavery as gladiator and prostitute respectively), an Etruscan soothsayer and a Gaul whose family was killed by Romans. They all get involved in one way or another with Crassus and his Parthian war. Gosh, Etruscan soothsayers seem to be all the rage: Calpurnia's soothsayer in the new Gordianus is also of that ilk. I wonder what the Etruscan is for "Woe, woe and thrice woe"?

Gladiatrix by Russell Whitfield, out in March. Lysandra is a Spartan warrior priestess who becomes a female gladiator in the time of the Emperor Domitian. There's more about this novel here and you can read an extract here. I believe the author will be appearing at the Historical Novel Society's 2008 conference in York on 12 April. Gladiatrix is published by Myrmidon, a rather interesting new independent publisher based in Newcastle upon Tyne which features quite a few historical novels on its publications list, which is very fitting considering its name and Greek-helmet logo.

I'm planning to read and report on as many of these as I can, but if you read any of them in the meantime, please tell me what you think of them. I'd be interested to know!

By the way, I just found an article on the subject of fiction set in ancient times by Allan Massie (no mean historical novelist of that era himself) in Prospect magazine. It's a bit old (November 2006), but still relevant and interesting, I think.