Archives for posts with tag: 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.

Shogun is an adventure that whips you away into the mind of a European in Japan during the 16th Century. The two main male characters were both figures in history, although Clavell has twisted their relationship to spice his story.

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The novel begins with a Dutch ship on its way back from travelling through the straight of Magellan using a stolen rutter. John Blackthorne, William Adams in real life, is the pilot of this ship. The crew is ill, the weather is atrocious and Blackthorne decides to try and make land in the Japans, a country dominated by the Portuguese, who jealously guard the passage there.

The ship makes it to Japan, but when it arrives, the shipmen are imprisoned — the Japanese lord who owns the land where they came ashore intends to seize their wealth and guns for himself. The lord’s plans are foiled however, as a powerful daimyo steps in and claims the booty as his own. This daimyo, Tokugawa Ieyasu in real life, is one of a council of regents holding power for the son of the former dictator, who in real life was called Toyotomi Hideyoshi.

The European shipmen become pawns in the beginning moves of a massive power struggle amongst the regents that would change Japan forever.

The book is less about the events leading up to the historical battle of Sekigahara and more about Blackthorne’s personal journey of discovery. At first when he arrives, Japanese customs seem strange and brutal to him. Gradually, however, he sees there is a reason for those customs and even grows to prefer some of them to the norms of his native country, England.

This was the second time I’ve read this book. My first reading was sometime during my school years. I think I took more from Shogun with my second reading. I was able to better comprehend why the Japanese characters in the book were so ready to commit seppuku and why the Europeans were portrayed in such an unflattering light. The poetic interludes, such as the death poems and the tea ceremony held by the main female protagonist’s husband also resonated more deeply with me.

The thing I love about Shogun the most is that Clavell makes it so easy to empathise with each of the characters. You begin to see things through their eyes, especially their appreciation of elegance in simplicity and acceptance of life’s karma.

I really enjoyed it and am giving it a 4.5/5.

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.