The Voyage of the Short Serpent: Bernard du Boucheron

★★½

Literary prizes are strange things. This novel won the Grand Prix du roman de l’Académie française in 2004, which led me to expect something rather brilliant, but it fell gloomily short of expectations. Austere, cold and brutal, it tells the story of the medieval Catholic priest Insulomontanus, who is dispatched to New Thule (Greenland) to minister to the faithful. The New York Times regarded the book (translated by Hester Velmans) as a tour-de-force of black humour, but I found it an increasing slog of horrific cruelty and almost unbearable suffering. Framed as Insulomontanus’s grovelling report back to his master, it plays deftly with notions of the unreliable narrator – but that in itself isn’t enough to transform this monotonously miserable story into an engaging read.

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Hereward: James Wilde

★★★

Hereward: Book I

It’s been a while since I spent some quality time with a murderous early medieval Englishman. Unfortunately I don’t have any more Uhtred books lying around just at the moment, so I’ve had to transfer my allegiance to an equally bloodthirsty kinsman of his: Hereward. In this first volume of a series, James Wilde tells the story of the legendary Saxon warrior who became the figurehead of rebellions against the Normans after the Battle of Hastings in 1066. It’s pretty sound sword-and-shield stuff, with bloody battles, an odd-couple pairing at its heart and a maverick hero. It doesn’t ever transcend that, but it’s an engaging way to encounter this rather dark period of English history.

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Gentlemen of the Road: Michael Chabon

★★★★★

First of all, a very Happy New Year! I hope you had a wonderful holiday and that the new year brings you all sorts of splendid things. For my own part, 2018 has arrived hand-in-hand with well-meaning resolutions, such as easing off on book-buying. I have such a treasure-trove of things to read that I could quite happily spend the entire year reading books I already own, and that’s doubly true because I received some fabulous things for Christmas. The best presents, as always, are those you don’t expect and this lovely little book, a gift from J, displayed a startling understanding of my psyche: here is adventure, derring-do, disguise, intrigue, sardonic wit and rich, luscious prose, all bundled together in 200 pages of 10th-century adventure on the shores of the Caspian Sea.

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A Search for the King: Gore Vidal

★★½

Some years ago, I read and enjoyed Gore Vidal’s Julian, which tells the story of the young pagan who becomes Emperor in a post-Constantine, Christian world. Since then, I’ve been keen to try more of his historical fiction and this book was the first to come into my hands. I had high hopes for it, as I’ve always been fascinated by Richard the Lionheart – probably due to my childhood fondness for Robin Hood stories: Richard’s own record as an indifferent King of England certainly doesn’t do him any favours. Vidal focuses on a particular episode from Richard’s life: the King’s famous capture in Austria on his return from the Crusades, and the faithful (and probably fictional) quest of Richard’s troubadour Blondel, who sets out to find his master’s prison, armed only with his viol, his voice and a good deal of faith.

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The Last Hours: Minette Walters

★★★

Minette Walters is best known as the author of crime novels, but her new book strikes out into fresh territory: historical fiction. She introduces us to the 14th-century village of Develish in Dorset: a prosperous, contented place despite the depredations of its arrogant lord, Sir Richard. His more thoughtful wife Lady Anne has quietly worked behind the scenes to improve the quality of life for their serfs, and received their love and loyalty in return. As Sir Richard rides out to deliver their daughter Eleanor’s dowry to her intended husband, Lady Anne’s abilities are about to be tested to the full. For it is 1348 and the countryside is troubled by rumours of a great pestilence, which kills with no respect for rank, age or piety. As Lady Anne and her serfs gather behind the manor’s defensive moat, the certainties of an entire age are about to be turned upside down.

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A Morbid Taste for Bones: Ellis Peters

★★★★

The Brother Cadfael Chronicles: Book I

In 1977, forty years ago, Edith Pargeter published the first book in her Cadfael series, which combined her talents as historical novelist (under her real name) and mystery writer (under the nom de plume Ellis Peters). Set in her native Shropshire, the story features the eponymous worldly-wise monk, whose adventurous youth has given way to a comfortable middle age at Shrewsbury Abbey. Here he finds himself solving a series of crimes in and around his foundation. Those who grew up in the 1990s, like me, will remember the cuddly Sunday-night ITV adaptation with Derek Jacobi as the sleuthing monk. Cadfael was almost certainly my introduction to murder mysteries and I know that I read some of the books as a teenager, though I don’t remember them now. I was delighted to find the first seven novels in the series during a recent tip to the Book Barn, and decided it was time to refamiliarise myself with them.

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By Blood Divided: James Heneage

★★★

The Mistra Chronicles (Rise of Empires): Book IV

A word of warning before I get into my flow: this is marketed as a potential stand-alone, but will make much more sense if you’ve read the previous three books in the Mistra Chronicles (Rise of Empires) series. I have not read these and consequently found myself floundering at first. Once I found my feet, however, I thought there was much to enjoy in this novel which takes us into rarely-mined historical fiction territory. Books set in the 15th century rarely make it further east than Venice and, indeed, we do spend some time in Venice here. But much of the story unfolds at Monemvasia and Mistra in the Peloponnese: two tiny outposts of the fading Byzantine Empire, standing proud against the looming armies of the Ottoman Turks. The true decline and fall of the Roman Empire is at hand, and it will be bound up with the story of two courageous men and the woman who is loved by both of them.

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The Outcasts of Time: Ian Mortimer

★★★

There’s a modern trend for historians to try their hand at fiction. As far as I can tell, it started with Alison Weir’s Tudor novels; more recently, Lucy Worseley and even Neil Oliver have jumped on the bandwagon. Now it’s the turn of Ian Mortimer, a brilliant medieval historian and the author of the various Time Traveller’s Guides to British history. You can understand the appeal. After all, historians have immersed themselves in the modes and manners of their specialist periods and should be perfect guides to fictional recreations of those worlds. But, but, but. Knowledge alone isn’t enough to make a good historical novel. Mortimer’s speculative time-slip moral fable is packed with instructive observations about daily life in the past, but does it work as a story?

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A Wind in Cairo: Judith Tarr

★★★★

For some reason, I always had Judith Tarr down as an author of historical fiction set in Ancient Egypt. However, though she has written some books with this setting, it turns out she’s a prolific author of historical fiction more broadly, as well as historical fantasy. I discovered this book completely by chance thanks to a post Tarr wrote at Tor.com on C.S. Lewis’s The Horse and his Boy, and have been utterly charmed by it. It’s an Arabian-Nights-style fantasy, set in Cairo in the 13th century during the rule of the young sultan Salah Al-Din: a tale of enchantment, arrogance, romance, and self-realisation, with a fiery young heroine and a most unconventional hero.

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The Half-Drowned King: Linnea Hartsuyker

★★★½

The Norway Trilogy: Book I

This rollicking tale of Viking adventure opens with oar-dancing in the first sentence, which boded very well for the rest of the story. Based on the sagas of Harald Fairhair written by Snorri Sturluson in his Heimskringla in the 13th century, it looks back to the Norway of the late 9th century, a fragmented peninsula of petty kings and ruthless raiders. Focusing on the stories of a brother and sister fighting to realise their destinies, it’s an engaging tale spiced with the beliefs of medieval Scandinavia.

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