Top Ten Books for a Beginner to Historical Fiction

This is a rendition of Top Ten Tuesday (and a Day…or Three) by the thebrokeandthebookish.wordpress.com. This week’s prompt was the top ten books you’d give someone to introduce them to your choice of a genre. I chose historical fiction because I feel there’s many wonderful books that are sadly overlooked.

Top Ten Books for a Beginner to Historical Fiction (many of which are just my top ten historical fiction books)

1. “Scaramouche” by Raphael Sabatini
-I know I mention this a lot and there’s an abundance of reasons for it! This book is set in the French Revolution and is good for drama nerds, lovers of wit, and people who like “The Princess Bride.”

2. “Mistress Wilding,” also by Raphael Sabatini
-This has one of my favorite first sentences: “‘Then drink it thus,’ cried the rash young fool, and splashed the contents of his cup full into the face of Mr. Wilding even as that gentleman, on his feet, was proposing to drink to the eyes of the young fool’s sister.” As you can see, it is high on passions, as well as British history and romance, in both senses of the word.

3. “The Borgia Bride” by Jeanne Kalogridis
Borgia_Bride
-This novel focuses on Sancha, bride of the youngest Borgia son and notorious in several tales. For fans of the Borgias, Italian history, “Game of Thrones,” scheming, and strong female leads.

4. “Master of Verona” by David Blixt
(Full review here: https://wheresmytower.wordpress.com/2012/06/06/the-master-of-verona/)
-This is another Italian history tale, that focuses on Dante’s son and explains the feud behind “Romeo and Juliet.” Obviously, for fans of Shakespeare, Italian history, and those who like to discuss philosophy.

5. “Girl with a Pearl Earring” by Tracy Chevalier
-This tale of a girl’s entanglement with Dutch painter Vermeer provides excellent insight into a historical mindset in a lovely succinct, brief manner for such intense themes.

6. “The Second Duchess” by Elizabeth Loupas
-Another Italian setting, Barbars marries the Duke of Ferrara in 1565. This is another literary crossover tale as it’s based on Robert Browning’s poem “My Last Duchess.” For fans of poetry, murdery mysteries, and paranormal works.

7. “The Grand Sophy” by Georgette Heyer
(Full review here: https://wheresmytower.wordpress.com/2012/04/24/the-grand-sophy/)
-This regency romance with a shockingly in-control heroine is a hilarious, quick read for fans of romance, Regency Britain, and humor.

8. “Her Royal Spyness” by Rhys Bowen
(Full review here: https://wheresmytower.wordpress.com/2014/07/25/her-royal-spyness/)
Her Royal Spyness
-This murder mystery set in 1930s England showcases a witty, practical, and engaging heroine who leads us on a light, quick read for fans of mystery, humor, British history, and reliable narrators.

9. “Lion of Ireland” by Morgan Llywelyn
lionofireland
-This history of Brian Boru brings early Ireland to vibrant, detailed life. For fans of Ireland, “Game of Thrones,” military tales, scheming, and “Vikings.”

10. “Catherine called Birdy” by Karen Cushman
-A fit introduction for younger readers, this daily diary book is set in 1200s England from a teenage girl who discusses holy days, marriage prospects, and daily concerns like food, animals, and who can fart at will.

Yes, indeed, if we switch out “Catherine Called Birdy” for “Baudolino” by Umberto Eco, this would basically be a list of my top ten historical novels of the moment. But “Baudolino” is not for beginners…So, if you aren’t one, I highly recommend it to you. What historical novels do you like?

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If murder be the food of love, slay on

I am extremely choosey about my mysteries.  I am often extremely wary of them failing me as the plot goes on, particularly if they boast a more intricate storyline.  And yet, I still feel complete confidence that the book I am currently reading will not disappoint me.  This is even more odd considering I’m a good way into it and not that much about the actual mystery plot has been revealed.  What hath wrought this miracle???

 

Thirteenth Night by Alan Gordon.  It boasts (spoiler-free):
-A JESTER in the role of detective.

-A Guild of Fools who secretly run the world via influencing politics, economics, etc.  Is that not just everything you’ve ever wanted?

-This Guild of Fools is a secret branch of the Catholic church! In other words, they are like Division in Nikita, only with motley!  This is a show that I need to see, some day.

-Shakespeare is involved.

-Random other folks like Francis of Assisi wander through.

-Depictions of medieval saint day observations are always fascinating and usually hilarious.

 

Hence, I already know that no matter what happens with the actual murder mystery, I will be happy reading the rest of this book, as well as the others in Alan Gordon’s Fool’s Guild series.

 

Note: This book has quotes atop every new chapter.  I have yet to come across a book that does that which I have not enjoyed.  Correction-I have yet to come across a book that uses real quotes atop each new chapter that I didn’t like.  There was one that had clearly made up sayings from people like Attila the Hun on them that…was a bit like popcorn with too much salt.  It still served its purpose as snack food and tasted fine for awhile, but then left you feeling thirsty with dissatisfaction and the knowledge that you have had much better.

 

John Crabbe (The John Swale Chronicles)

John Crabbe (The John Swale Chronicles #9)
By: David Pilling
(http://pillingswritingcorner.blogspot.com/)
Musa Publishing 2012
an historical fiction review

 

John Crabbe returns the chronicles to tempestuous Scotland, with pirates at the helm.  Notorious pirate John Crabbe finds himself facing defiant nobility on and off the water.

Pilling deploys his excellent introductory skills to meld excitement and tension into the debut of his first sea bandit.  The pace whips everything along so briskly that this short work feels even shorter than it really is.  The variety of conflicts, both internal and external, keeps John Crabbe in choppy emotional waters while the action keeps it salty.  It’s a harsh voyage to read, but one that offers all the expected thrills of piracy within the darker context of Scotland’s impending warfare.

The Wild Hunt (The John Swale Chronicles)

The Wild Hunt (The John Swale Chronicles #8)
By: David Pilling
(http://pillingswritingcorner.blogspot.com/)
Musa Publishing 2012
an historical fiction review

 

Finally on his way towards revenge, Swale’s anticipation to engage Folville drives The Wild Hunt.  However, encountering Folville’s relatives proves far easier than meeting the bandit leader himself.

Another brief segment of The John Swale Chronicles, The Wild Hunt breaks into the real action of the feud.  From opening tactics to the first battle, Swale and Folville keep this work tight, dark, and harsh.  Unlike previous installments to this story, no other character is allowed to broaden the story.  This simpler structure and use of only established characters makes the story sharper, with a more direct message.  On the other hand, it’s missing Pilling’s usual doses of nuance and clever whole-world-building.  As part of a larger work, The Wild Hunt would make a compelling sequence.  Published on its own its success is narrowed to those who appreciate military tales or are highly invested in Folville and Eustace, as opposed to other players in this series.

In short, this is the part of a fight where expectations are still building and resolution is not yet in sight.  Time to place your bets.

Colossus: Stone and Steel-Quarrying Queries

In my review of David Blixt’s Colossus: Stone and Steel here: https://wheresmytower.wordpress.com/2012/09/20/colossus-stone-and-steel/ I say that it “invites intellectual debate.”  Now I’m going to follow through on that by going through the cumbersome quarries of material within this book to chisel out some interesting queries.  (I’m sorry, I had to.)

 

I present to you, Colossus: Stone and Steel Discussion Questions! 

(Expect spoilers).

1. The question of Florus’s wife Cleopatra bothers me.  As the property of Florus, at the time of this novel it would’ve been seen as fitting that she share her husband’s fate.  Undoubtedly, as his wife, she shared in the spoils of his greed and mistreatment of the Judeans.  On the other hand, can any of the blame really fall on her?  The descriptions and inner thoughts of Florus hardly include Cleopatra, let alone giving any hint that he would have behaved differently if she wasn’t there.  None of the victims mention Cleopatra as having done anything offensive on her own.  Even Berenice speaks only of Florus, and surely she would have mentioned Cleopatra by name if this wife had also slighted her.  True, Cleopatra’s personality isn’t stellar-she’s obnoxious and selfish.  Still, is that any reason for her to share the tortuous end of Florus?  Shouldn’t someone have at least thought that Cleopatra might deserve a separate fate?

 

2. Speaking of Cleopatra, is there any way in which this portrayal of Queen Berenice is not reminiscent of Elizabeth Taylor’s Cleopatra?

 

3. Colossus: Stone and Steel frequently refers to the worth of blood and ancestors.  One of the first ways this is set up is in the contrast between the businesses of Judah and Phannius.  While it’s natural to resent such differences now, particularly from the view of non-aristocrats like Judah, can all the blame really always be laid at the door of the “superior-blooded”?  Phannius is constantly described as a ‘lout’, largely because he doesn’t seem to work as hard to Judah and Asher.  He’s even indiscriminately punched in the face by Judah, for no immediate reason, only latent resentments against decisions that are not all, or even mostly, Phannius’ fault, but his mother’s.  Is it any easier for those on the upper side of the scale to overlook such attitudes concerning them?  Should it be?

-On that note, does the fact that Vespasian and Titus are allowed to flourish according to their military prowess in Rome, in spite of their lack of famous ancestors, demonstrate that Roman laws are more progressive than Judea’s?

 

4. Omens appear frequently in this book.  However, whereas Judean omens seem to derive from different interpretations of the same original texts or themes, Roman omens seem to leave more room for individuality.  Titus feels blessed because of something that happened when he was vowing over the Fifteenth’s eagle.  The eagle itself is an established historical symbol, but the wind event derives from the immediate stimulus of visual impact and shared feeling.  Titus does not need to recite other times this same event happened to other people to ensure its validity.    It is valid because he was there and it seemed propitious to those who saw it.  Nor does he need to become anything other than what he is.  Unlike Yosef, who tries to become the mahsiah, Titus’ omen is not so much about his place in society as about external events he will take part in.  Similarly, whereas Yosef’s new interpretation of Hebrew prophesies centers on Vespasian becoming an archetype in relation to others, the Roman prophesy about Vespasian’s family winning the war is purely about outside outside happenings.

-Are omens more powerful as foretellers of events or as declarations of a person’s destined place in the world?  Or more dangerous?  Titus and Vespasian may be less encumbered with deep thoughts about prophesies, but is that good or bad?  Is Yosef’s spiritual journey less genuine because it’s always tied to omens he wants to work himself into?  Or is that responsible for Yosef’s great power to adapt and therefore possibly a positive thing?

 

5. Sex appears over and over again as an underlying theme.  Yet, this too is represented very differently for the Romans and the Hebrews.  The potential for sex appears as something negative whenever the Judeans encounter it: the potential for shame if Judah and Deborah engage in it, the sexual threats to Perel, Edith, and Asher, derogatory comments about Queen Berenice, and the lesson that sexual activity removes the Lord’s presence.  On the other hand, sex is used to bolster the Roman egos-they will win the war like a seducer winning a fuck, they revel in the phallic nature of their weapons, individual men gain strength from their sexual partners.  What does this say about these culture’s views on sex?  Aside from that, which of these sexual attitudes is shown to lead to the healthiest attitudes about women?  Or is it all just foreshadowing of what side will win and which will be violated, and each character should be viewed as creating their own views on sexuality and women?

 

6. Was anyone else’s favorite scene Yosef’s mathematicide?  It was delightful in its inevitability, understated intensity, and flow!  What are some other favorite scenes and why?

 

7. The question of performance versus intention comes up a lot.  Is Deborah really who she seems to be around Judah, if she has to try to act this way?  Is Yosef really brave when fighting if he does it for the sake of those watching instead?  Are Judah and Asher really heroic for firing Roman weaponry, or is their deed tarnished by their desire to be seen as heroes like Atlas?

-Is the real difference between Yosef’s fighting and the twins’ that the twins were willing to die?  Yosef certainly believed he might die.  Was the difference that the twins truly believed it was worth it, while Yosef thought it was madness?  In that case, many of the zelotes’ deeds become noble because their doers truly thought they were needed.  Was it that Asher and Judah performed their fighting for the present moment, whereas Yosef is always thinking ahead?  If so, a lot of us are in trouble because it’s deemed wise and necessary to look ahead.  Is the difference that Asher and Judah respected the people who were watching them, while Yosef did not?

 

8. The question of whether death is greater than life offers a rich quarry, indeed.  Many people are remembered more for how they died than how they lived, the Romans believed that to die with honor was worth more than anything, is immortality granted by the living or by gods?  The side issue of whether suicide or homicide is better also plays a large role.  Is the willingness to die for a cause greater than themselves the true measure of honor?  Or is dying to prove something about yourself equally noble?  Or is either reason simply misguided?

 

9. Yosef gets a lot of flack for continually manipulating everything to try and prove who he thinks he should be.  Most notably, he kills people off to ensure he will live because he believes he’s a person who must.  However, Judah commits very similar acts.  Judah believes that his purpose in life is to be a warrior-that is who he is, the same way Yosef believes he’s a great priest.  Several times, Judah is willing to sacrifice everything and everyone else to partake in the feelings and actions of a warrior.  He rushes out of the shield wall, he wants to stay and die fighting, even if it dooms his twin and his friends, because a warrior’s who he believes he’s meant to be.  Does the fact that Judah is killing Romans instead of Judeans really excuse him from the same personality flaws as Yosef?  Judah’s actions are a more emotional response while Yosef’s are planned, but does that make them different?  Yosef’s belief can be as genuine as Judah’s and Judah’s lack of concern for others when opposed to his personal self-purpose is arguably equal to Yosef’s.  Is it just the end goal of dying (as a warrior) versus living (as a leader) that makes us more sympathetic to Judah?  If so, what does that say about current beliefs about death being greater than life?

 

10. Who betrayed Jotapata?  (Personally, I think the clues are quite clear, but it seems a fitting question to end on.)

 

 

Colossus: Stone and Steel

Colossus: Stone and Steel

By: David Blixt

(http://www.davidblixt.com/)

Sordelet Ink (April 23, 2012)

An historical fiction review

Filled with factions and smarting from insults, ancient Judea rebels against Nero’s Rome.  With both sides sporting an injury, the insurrection sparks a war complete with heroes, poetry, and slaughter.  Through the eyes of twin masons, Judah the warrior and Asher the scholar, and the opportunistic leader Yosef, Blixt builds Colossus: Stone and Steel into a story where perceptions are paramount.  Where do you come from?  Who is your god?  What is your history?  Do you truly know your real purpose in life?  And above all, what would you sacrifice to prove your chosen answers real?

With broad strokes of suspense and meticulous details of authenticity, this novel asks a lot of its readers.  Blixt taxes memories and asks for tithes of understanding by refusing to create a simple narrative or reduce the questions brought up by dissension.  The conflicts in this work are myriad: cultural, political, religious, moral.  Even asking these difficult questions, Blixt’s writing assaults the emotions.  The reader gets entangled in the confusing mixture of attempted reason and subjective response that the characters experience.  It’s an absorbing work, driven by characters as much as ideas.  Tied to the fortunes of Judah, Asher, or any other noteworthy player, Colossus: Stone and Steel offers joy, relief, and thrills.  The historical reasons and horrifying barbarities of the war provide a different kind of appeal.  As usual, Blixt’s novel invites intellectual debate.

Like a Roman legion, Colossus: Stone and Steel attacks its subject thoroughly, aggressively, and with the full weight of history, symbolism, and authority behind it.  Only under Blixt’s command, destruction becomes a lens to study the world, as well as a call to comprehend its peoples.

The Pretender (The John Swale Chronicles)

The Pretender (The John Swale Chronicles #7)
By: David Pilling
(http://pillingswritingcorner.blogspot.com/)
Musa Publishing 2012
an historical fiction review

 

The Pretender introduces Edward Balliol, the man whose claim to the Scottish throne is pulling the tides of English and Scottish politics.  With Robert the Bruce’s child son on the Scottish throne and Edward III brimming with ambition, conflict can’t be far off.  This work elaborates on the players of the upcoming struggle while plainly illustrating how the power of kings and countries trickles down to influence the fortunes of everyone.

A short work with a lot to set up, The Pretender is a waiting piece, adding tinder to the fireplace but not yet striking up flames.

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