Annis's Historical Fiction Picks
Ten of the Best I Read in 2009
(and one more for luck)
1. Imperium by Robert Harris (2006)
Harris puts his considerable political savvy to good use in this excellent biographical novel about Roman lawyer, politician and orator, Marcus Tullius Cicero. Rome’s momentous Late Republican period comes to vivid life here, as does Cicero himself, often regarded as a priggish, prosy old bore. The second, equally gripping book in Harris’ proposed “Cicero” trilogy has recently been released. It’s titled Conspirata in the U.S., Lustrum in the U.K.
2. The Unicorn Road by Martin Davies (2009)
This is a bittersweet story set in the thirteenth century. King Manfred of Sicily sends an expedition into the exotic East in search of a unicorn, but its members never return. A moving story about communication, the power of love, and the random, often cruel vagaries of fate; its subtext is the importance of letting those we care about know how much we love them before it’s too late. This book introduced me to the tragic, almost forgotten story of Sicily’s Hohenstaufen dynasty, and the heartbreaking fate of King Manfred’s family.
3. Remarkable Creatures by Tracy Chevalier (2009)
Chevalier is in fine form with this novel set in early nineteenth century England. Mary Anning, a young working-class girl from the coastal resort town of Lyme Regis, sets the pundits of science and religion on their heads with her discovery of a fossilised creature later labelled an icthyosaur. It’s also a touching story about friendship and sisterhood amongst the spinsters who dwell disregarded at the fringes of nineteenth century society.
4. Imperial Governor by George Shipway (1968, reissued 2003)
Who better than Shipway, a classical scholar and former officer of an Imperial British Indian cavalry regiment, to capture the mindset of an Imperial Roman general? Shipway tells the story of Boudica’s revolt from the point of view of Gaius Suetonius Paulinus, first century Roman governor of Britain. Paulinus is portrayed masterfully and with subtle complexity as a man who lets nothing get in the way of duty. He’s not a man you’d ever warm to, but as seen by his own lights, one deserving of reluctant respect. Battle strategies and troop dispositions are described in detail, making this book a military train-spotter’s delight.
5. The Best of Men by Claire Letemendia (2009)
An intelligent political thriller that successfully doubles as a swashbuckler, an irresistible combination. This is one of several recent novels which take place during the English Civil Wars of the seventeenth century, a period undergoing a renaissance as a historical fiction setting. Letemendia grew up in Oxford, England, a town which played a central role during the conflict, inspiring her interest. Her academic background in political theory adds depth to a novel about moral dilemmas and political machinations in 1642, just before the first outbreak of hostilities between Royalist and Parliamentarian factions.
6. Paths of Exile by Carla Nayland (2009)
Nayland has made an extensive study of available resources dealing with Britain’s Roman and post-Roman history. She spotted the potential for a great tale in the Venerable Bede’s commentary about King Edwin of Northumbria, a seventh-century Anglo-Saxon prince who spent his early years on the run from the vengeful warlord who stole by conquest Edwin’s patrimony, the kingdom of Deira. Edwin, says Bede, “wandered as an unknown fugitive for many years and through many kingdoms”. The story of how Edwin’s kingdom was lost and he himself put to flight becomes an exciting and engaging adventure in Nayland’s hands, and the many different people and places Edwin and his companions encounter on their perilous journey richly illustrate the diversity of cultures in this turbulent, little-known transitional period between late antiquity and the medieval era.
See Review or Author Interview
7. Death on the Ice by Robert Ryan (2009)
Ryan’s compelling, sensitive novel recounts the story of Robert Falcon Scott’s doomed 1911 “Terra Nova” expedition to the South Pole in the context of its times, showing Scott, Oates, and contemporary explorers like Shackleton, and the Norwegians Amundsen and Nansen, as fully rounded, often competitive and sometimes clashing personalities who face their fears with courage and even humour. Scott was an English gentleman, an amateur who believed that pluck and spirit were more important than planning, in contrast to his meticulously organised rival, Amundsen. He considered professionalism unsporting and once said, “Gentlemen don’t practise”. Scott’s refusal to take Oates’ advice clearly contributed to the deaths of his South Pole party. In the end though, it is Scott’s heroic failure that we remember, while Amundsen’s success in winning the race to the South Pole has become almost a footnote in the history of Antarctic exploration.
8. Hodd by Adam Thorpe (2009)
This intriguing literary novel traces the Robin Hood myth back to its bleak medieval origins. The charming, chivalrous Robin Hood of Sir Walter Scott’s Ivanhoe has no place in Robert Hodd’s harsh, dog-eat-dog world. Hodd, a violent, psychotic wolfshead who self-medicates to ill effect with magic mushrooms and birch-leaf brew, takes as his acolyte a young boy desperately searching for a father-figure. Raised by various men of God, young Moche is both repelled and attracted by Hodd’s blasphemous philosophy, and becomes a member of the outlaw chief’s band. As a repentant elderly monk, he confesses his part in starting the Robin Hood legend. Rigid, unforgiving religion has a lot to answer for in this ironic story about the creation of popular mythology.
9. The Mark of the Horse Lord by Rosemary Sutcliff (1965, reissued 2006)
Every now and then you come across a novel written with such power that the hair at the back of your neck lifts as you read it. The Mark of the Horse Lord is one of these special books. How did I miss this one as a youngster? It's suitable for both teens and adults, though a mature reader may be better able to appreciate its deep mythic resonances.
Set in second-century Scotland during the Roman occupation of Britain, this is the story of Red Phaedrus, a young British gladiator released from slavery when he wins the Wooden Sword. Not knowing what to do with his new life, he recklessly tosses his fate to the gods, and they swiftly catch it up, granting him a kingdom and the Lordship of the Dalraiada, a Scottish tribe. But as Phaedrus discovers, gifts from the gods often come with a hidden price attached. It’s a remarkable tale of tribal warfare, ritual kingship, honour, loyalty and sacrifice. It’s also a superb evocation of life among the northern Celtic tribes with their rival religions, based around either worship of the masculine Sun God or matriarchal veneration of the Great Mother.
Reading this novel inspired me to go back and revisit Rosemary Sutcliff’s work as an adult and write an article about it.
10. The Collector of Worlds by Iliya Troyanov (2008)
A multi-layered novel about the brilliant maverick Victorian scholar and explorer, Sir Richard Francis Burton, told in three parts, each covering a different period in Burton’s life. In the best storytelling tradition, Troyanov captures our attention with the rhythm of repetitive phrases and lures us in with intriguing titbits, adding a little more detail with each layer. Burton is seen only through the eyes of others, the different viewpoints building a composite picture of a chameleon: a restless, passionate, intense but unknowable man, a believer in the “sacred frivolity of life”. Burton is a seeker: of adventure; of sensual experiences; of different places, languages, religions and cultures; and ultimately of the mystical union with God to be found only in spiritual enlightenment.
See Review at The New York Times
Best new “old” find: Lion Feuchtwanger. Although regularly reprinted in his native Germany, Feuchtwanger’s works have almost disappeared in English translation.
11. Josephus by Lion Feuchtwanger (1932)
Controversial first century Roman-Jewish historian Flavius Josephus is the subject of this novel. As a radical Jewish-German intellectual, Feuchtwanger abhorred the rise of Nazism and consequent loss of individual and national freedoms, and Josephus must be seen in this context. The setting is no coincidence: the Third Reich took the Roman Empire as its inspiration. Anyone who’s watched “Triumph of the Will”, a film recording the 1934 Nazi rally at Nuremberg, can’t help but be struck by all the vexilla, eagle standards, and other Imperial Roman imagery on display. Writing with his characteristic empathy for the human condition, Feuchtwanger poignantly depicts Josephus’ moral conflict as he attempts to maintain his integrity as a Jew while working with a regime in the process of conquering his Jewish homeland. He portrays both Jews and Romans as complex beings with an equal capacity for good or evil.
See Review or Article on Feuchtwanger
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