Archives for category: Historical Fiction

Sharon Penman has always been one of my favourite authors, but this is not my favourite book of hers.

When Christ and his Saints Slept

The novel chronicles the dark time for England following the death of King Henry the first. His son and heir had drowned in a shipwreck, so he named his daughter as his heir. This was not a popular move — few believed a woman capable of wielding a monarch’s power and even fewer wanted her Norman husband, Geoffrey of Anjou, to be pulling her strings. Enter Stephen, King Henry’s nephew, who upon Henry’s death claims the throne for himself. The resulting civil war is long and full of atrocities on both sides.

Penman’s true talent is her characterisation. The plot and the history is excruciatingly well researched from what the experts say, but the thing that always pulls me in is how she enables the reader to identify with each character, explaining their motivations for actions now only contained in the dusty and dry tomes of history. We feel sorrow at their defeats and humiliations, joy in their successes and loves.

Both Maude and Stephen are given equal time, giving us insight into their side of the story. It also provides insight into their failings. For both were terribly flawed. Stephen too receptive, generous and forgiving, Maude unable to take advice or compromise her principles to woo her people or her allies.

The thread that links both in the novel is Ranulf — a by-blow of the old King Henry who served as a page in Stephen’s household but also later as a squire in the household of Maude’s most loyal supporter, her half brother Robert. Ranulf was unfortunately created by Penman, which I didn’t know until reading the author’s note. When I read her confession I felt terribly cheated. One of the things I love the most in about Penman’s novel is the thought that everything actually happened (with some changes for dramatic effect.) The idea that I’d invested so much attention and emotional capital into someone who didn’t even exist made me cranky. I don’t expect anyone else to feel the same way, especially if they are picking up Penman for the first time.

The other disappointment was Penman’s portrayal of Maude’s son Henry and his wife Eleanor of Acquitaine, who are the focus of the end of the book. After the superb portrayal of Maude and Stephen’s failings, Penman’s description of Henry’s prowess and perfection felt one dimensional. Eleanor was better portrayed, but not a patch on the author’s portrayal of her in the later books when she was older, wiser and more touched by sorrow. Penman herself admits she found it difficult to write about the tempestuous lovers’ younger years and it shows.

In summary, this is not my favourite Penman, but it’s still street ahead of the works of any other historical fiction writer I’ve ever read. (The closest for me are bestseller Bernard Cornwell and German author Rebecca Gable.) I’m going to give it a 4 out of 5.

The Fortune Hunter is an odd mix of Georgette Heyer, Jilly Cooper and Dick Smith that enchanted me from its first pages.Fortune-hunter

Charlotte is an heiress who has some rather tactless and grasping relatives. She puts up with them because she is in general a very forbearing person, but she very much looks forward to gaining her majority when her fortune will be her own.

The more impoverished Bay Middleton is shaken by the end of an affair with a society wife, who, though pregnant with his child, discards him callously to return to her husband in the country.

Perhaps longing for someone who he can call his own, as soon as he meets Charlotte he is struck by her. Even though she is plain he finds her conversation as well as her photography hobby refreshing.

For herself, Charlotte falls head over heels for the charming Bay almost as soon as she sees him. Who would not? After all, Bay’s charm has won over countless ladies before her.

It is that charm that leads to his being appointed as a guide to the Empress of Austria, Sisi, for the season’s hunting. Glamorous, rich and accustomed to getting her own way, Sisi takes a liking to Bay and decides to make him her creature.

The demands of the empress threaten to destroy the fragile understanding Charlotte and Bay have formed, especially since Bay is dazzled by the Empress’s beauty and superior riding skills while feeling compassion for the unhappiness hidden beneath her militantly maintained exterior. As the book progresses, it seems ever more likely that the empress’s growing attraction to her English guide will doom the future Bay dreamed of with Charlotte.

In typical Heyer fashion, the strength of this book lies in the wry portrayal of a large set of characters. True, they are not particularly original – their like can be found in any period romance – but this does not extinguish their charm. We feel for Charlotte as she navigates their idiosyncrasies.

Meanwhile, in Dick Francis style we are caught up in Bay’s overriding passion for the hunting world – an obsession for horses combined with a fierce joy in the freedom and dangers of the sport – and Charlotte’s photography hobby – an interesting glimpse into a technology that has evolved much over the last 150 years.

Finally, it is the irreverent depiction of Queen Victoria and Empress Sisi verbally fencing at Windsor that makes me think of Jilly Cooper, who does love to highlight the ridiculous in her novels. I chuckled to myself on a number of occasions, which made people on the bus think I was a little mad.

Whoever Goodwin took her inspiration from; since I started the book on Sunday and finished it on Tuesday I think I can safely say it was a hit. The only thing I didn’t like was that I felt the blurb had falsely advertised the book. It describes a novel that is about the empress, when really the focus is Charlotte. Although Sisi is a fascinating historical figure, she is definitely the antagonist – to be pitied but not loved.

I’m going to give this book a 4/5.

Rhinegold is a saga of fate and revenge. Rhinegold

The gods Wodan, Hoenir and Loki are travelling in the world of men when they accidentally kill the son of a local lord. The family demands the gods pay the murdered man’s weight in gold or be killed. The gods do pay this wergild, but the gold they hand over is cursed and will lead the victim’s relatives to sorrow and death, generation after generation. The novel describes the painful path the family must take in order to lift the curse and stop the cycle of killing.

I first started Rhinegold because I had never taken the time to learn the story of the famous hero Siegfried (Sigifrith), which makes up a major part of the novel. Having married a German, I would have said I understand the country and its culture pretty well. Rhinegold shook that belief.

There is something irrevocably alien about a woman who is party to her own children’s death because they were not courageous enough to murder their father to avenge their grandfather. Similarly, it seems particularly fickle of a god to sire a son on a line of humans and give particular members of that family favour, only to be the instigator of their doom some years later.

In general, the choices the characters make in the novel (and I assume the original story) feel horrifying or tremendously stupid, especially since the characters are generally aware of the grievous consequences that will result from their decisions. In today’s world, most of us would come to a fork in the road, see a choice and take the easier path. We would not fight in a battle where our defeat was assured.

Yet the Rhinegold characters believe firmly there is no choice: if one path would be to abandon honour and duty to kin, then it is not a possibility. Besides this, their belief is often that whatever choice is made, the end result would be the same – fate cannot be turned aside. The important thing is how a man (or woman) faces their destiny. If with courage, Valhalla awaits.

Although this ideal does make it hard to relate to the characters, there’s something very pure and gritty about it. It felt to me a little like watching a blizzard while being home and safe in bed. It is better to be living now, where we are easier on ourselves and others. The narrative also has a pleasingly circular arc such that at the end we feel we have moved back to the beginning.

I do have to admit to struggling a little – it is a rather long tome, but I am still thinking about it some weeks after finishing, so it must have been worth it. I’m going to give it a 3 out of 5.

Max Overton's Scarab Akhenaten

(Credit: Max Overton)

There are certain things I expect when I read a book. First among them is that the book is actually all there. Unfortunately this was not so for Scarab Akhenaten.

There is a gripping scene, probably the most exciting in the whole book, where the female protagonist has to face down a group of bandits who are going to rape and then kill her. As many authors do at this point, Overton took us away from this scene so that we would race through the next chapter about another character to find out sooner what happened to our heroine. Unfortunately, when we returned to her story, everything had been resolved by some soldiers who hadn’t been on the scene before. I thought I must have accidentally skipped a chapter somehow, so went back to see if I could figure out what had happened. All in vain.

It appears that the all important resolution of this most exciting point in the book was simply left out. By accident, I’m sure, but it was a drag on the story nonetheless. Somewhere, Overton needs to add a Chapter 33a, where we find out how Paramessu saves our heroine, earning her everlasting adoration.Because I hadn’t been there when said rescue occurred, I also hadn’t experienced the reason the heroine was so enamoured of him, so I only felt annoyance that she would be so ungrateful to the boy she expected to marry by mooning after another man.

But let’s move on. Mistakes aside, the book was competent. It paints a very vivid picture of Egypt, explaining rituals and customs amongst the common people and their rulers. However, in places it read like a history book rather than a novel.

For example:

Akhenaten instituted religious intolerance for the first time in our long history. Withdrawing to his city of Akhet-Aten, the king set up his cult of Aten, under which he was the son of the sun and the sole beneficiary fo the blessings that poured down from the god. Akhenaten believed it offered something for the common people but in fact it did not. It did not offer any sort of moral philosophy or laws, nor did it offer a comforting afterlife. The citizens fo Aten’s city at least had the semblance of a religious life with the king active in his self-centered worship, but the rest of the country did not even have that.

The priests of Amun were extremely rich and influential before Akhenaten’s edict and, faced with the confiscation and redistribution of their wealth, started to foment dissatisfaction and incite riot among the populace. Coupled with the weakening of the army, Kemet tottered on the brink of anarchy.

That reads very much like a history lesson, does it not?

The amount of telling instead of showing was also offputting. There is a point where the Egyptian King was doing something particularly stupid, as he often does in the book. As things go badly, he starts to reconsider his decision. However, his trusty advisor firms his resolve in this passage.

Ay advised the King to stand firm, to force the priests to stand down, by the use of force if necessary. He portrayed the uprising as a rebellion against the Aten rather than for the gods; and hardened the king’s heart.

I think this, and other passages like it, would have read better as a scene where we lived the argument through Ay’s own mouth, not through that of the narrator.

The propensity to show and not tell is most likely the reason I did not feel attached to any of the characters, with the possible exception of Smenkhkare. Unfortunately for Overton, if I can’t empathise with the characters, I don’t like the book. That’s why I’m giving it 2/5 and I won’t be buying any of the other novels in his series.