Tag Archives: historical fiction

“Facing Enemies” by Mary Ann Trail

The Napoleonic Wars seem to attract imaginative attention, being fictionalized by everyone from Patrick O’Brian (Aubrey and Maturin series, 20 volumes) to Suzanna Clarke (Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell, see my blog entry of February 2, 2018). The site Goodreads offers a list of 135 novels set in that era, but the number of authors involved is much fewer. What makes the Napoleonic era so compelling? Anyone have a theory?

Mary Ann Trail’s recently published second book, Facing Enemies, is set in 1803. It begins in Dublin, but most of the action takes place in France.

And there’s plenty of action! This book is engaging and fast paced. The characters are well drawn, and the bad guys are REALLY bad. I had no trouble dashing through this book during a busy week. I recommend it to anyone who enjoys historical fiction. I hope there’s a sequel pending! Some of the characters are too good to leave behind.


“The Agincourt Bride” and “The Tudor Bride” by Joanna Hickson

Nothing matches historical fiction for escape value! I particularly enjoyed these books because they were set in France. Maybe I’ve maxed out on English historical fiction.

I’ve decided historical fiction is part of the “fan fiction” genre (which I don’t actually read). People write “fan fiction” because they don’t want to let go of the character, settings and situations in their favorite fiction. I certainly sympathize with the inclination! Who isn’t frustrated about the delay in publication of more volumes of Game of Thrones?

A close friend of mine wrote a version of Homer’s Illiad. It’s a way of merging with the work and the author, a profoundly respectful assertion of co-ownership.

Will I ever take a stab at “fan fiction”? I doubt it. Historical fiction? Also unlikely… I like to write, but have stayed with non-fiction. Check out the works of Joanna Hickson if you need an agreeable dose of historical fiction.

“The Flame Bearer” by Bernard Cornwell

Copyright 2016, 280 pages.

Historical fiction is great! You can be distracted from your worries and at the same time be (gently) reminded that there have been difficult times before. “The Flame Bearer” takes place in Britain around 900 AD, before its (still uneasy) consolidation into a single, country with a commons language. Now I understand the Roman wall (built to keep out the wild Scots) a bit better. Christianity was fighting it out with paganism. Some characters were hedging their bets, praying to both sets of gods and waiting to see which rewarded them.

“The Flame Bearer” is written in the first person, from the perspective of a displaced warlord named Uhtred. Wait, wasn’t I just writing about a REAL warlord? Yes, see my blog entry of January 15, 2017, about Dostum, a contemporary Afghan warlord and politician. One thousand years have passed, and the descriptive term “warlord” still has meaning. What would these two men have in common? Both fought on horseback. Each relied on a cadre of loyal followers. Each was motivated by family and tribal loyalty. Each lived in a time of rapid change, and worried about betrayal. Each carried responsibilities well beyond the range of military concerns. Each “appealed” for divine intervention in battle. (Read Williams “The Last Warlord” for details on that aspect of his campaign.)

Differences? Uhtred dismounted for hand to hand combat and was an expert in deploying a shield wall. Dostum advanced from horseback to trucks and tanks, and faced a pace of technological change Uhtred would not have believed. Uhtred lived in a pre-modern world. Dostum is “modern”, with some traditional personality traits. (He’s also in the news lately. I’ll refrain from trying to comment here.)

What can we say about warfare based on these two “warlord” portraits? Each had available some mechanism for negotiation, temporary truce or surrender. Uhtred approached his enemies with a lowered sword, carrying a green branch. Dostum suffered the loss of soldiers when a surrender attempt went bad. War is seldom “total”. In each case there was some concept of protecting prisoners and non-combatants, but that was often violated. Do meaningful “rules of war exist”?

Cornwell has written scores of books, “The Flame Bearer” being #10 in his “Saxon Tales”. He admits in his “Historical Note” that the book contains little actual history. Maybe it’s more of an adventure novel. Cornwell obviously enjoys writing about battles and the psychological complications of fighting. The plot is revenge and redemption, with lots of BLOOD.

Another of Cornwell’s series follows a character named Richard Sharpe from 1799 to 1821, in 20 novels. What is Cornwell trying to do, outwrite Patrick O’Brian? I suppose I should not judge based on one book, but I don’t think his work equals the stature of O’Brian’s. (Yes, I’ve read the awe inspiring Aubrey-Maturin series.)

Patrick O’Brian’s Aubrey-Maturin novels work because they convey the arc of history, the sweep of the Napoleonic Wars. He invented his charmingly quirky protagonists, but the battles (I understand) are ALL taken from the naval records of the times. And sometimes they are surprising! I wonder if Richard Sharpe is as interesting as Jack Aubrey and Stephen Maturin.

But Cornwell is good, and I’ll undoubtedly read more of his books. I think they would be excellent in audio format, for long car trips. Pre-modern Britain is more interesting than Route 95.

“Ride With Me” by Thomas R. Costain

When did historical fiction become such an active and popular genre? This book was published in 1944. The author, Thomas Costain, died in 1965 at the age of 80. Looking at a list of his books, I think read two others, “The Silver Chalice” and “Below the Salt”, when I was in high school.

“Ride With Me” uses a fictional newspaper writer to tell the story of an historical figure, Robert Thomas Wilson, a flamboyant, often disruptive British military officer in the Napoleonic Wars.

I tried, briefly, to find out a bit about the Napoleonic Wars. Some subjects simply can’t be reduced to a Wikipedia article! I was rapidly overwhelmed. Fortunately, the novel had enough of it’s own narrative drive for my ignorance not to matter.

This novel is a romance with some military history thrown in. Francis Ellery, the misfit eldest son of an aristocratic family, falls in love with a glamorous, passionate ex-patriot French woman living in London. Over the years, he rescues her from a variety of dangers, then is finally rewarded with love and marriage.

This is very high quality historical fiction, with wonderful atmosphere and period details, and if you get tired of what contemporary authors are writing, I suggest you try Costain as an alternative.

“Uniting Enemies” by Mary Ann Trail

This newly released novel has a great plot! It caught my attention and I powered right through it. With historical fiction, it’s hard to know what you are getting. I would describe this book as 60% fiction and 35% historical. The odd 5%? Parts read more like a mystery than anything else. Who’s the bad guy??

The historical setting is the reunification of England and Ireland in 1801, but most of this book is about family and romance. The heroine, Marion Coxe, is trying to protect her four year old twin nephews from politically motivated abduction. She has two love interests – one from the past and one new to her life. The resolution of this shapes the outcome of the book.

The only time I felt the 21st century intrude was on the issue of social class. Some of the servants were too “good” and too accomplished, causing the aristocrats to question their own prejudices. It could happen, I suppose…

This book is described as the first in a series. The author certainly has strong characters and situations to build on, and I look forward to further adventures.

“Gutenberg’s Apprentice: A Novel” by Alix Christie

I’m always on the lookout for good historical fiction, and it’s nice to take a break from merrie olde England. This novel takes place in Germany, during the mid fifteenth century. The protagonist is Peter Shoeffer, an orphan who faced a harsh life in rural poverty until being adopted by a distant relative.

Shoeffer was apprenticed to Johannes Gutenberg, who is generally credited with inventing movable type. This technological revolution is often identified as the beginning of “modern civilization”.

Printing was as surprising and destabilizing as the emergence of the internet. Before that time, all books were the work of scribes, and the church had a monopoly on their services.

Christie’s book emphasizes the aesthetic aspects of printing.

Gutenberg is portrayed as a wild man – unpredictable, demanding, sometimes unscrupulous, and certainly a genius.

Christie provides lots of detail and atmosphere, as well as some romance. I hope this impressive first novel is followed by others.

“Crow Hollow” by Michael Wallace

I don’t know how this book got onto my Kindle. Well, technology just gets the better of me now and then! Fortunately, Crow Hollow was a good read.

Crow Hollow is set in colonial Massachusetts, which sounds like a dismal place, although the food was better and more plentiful than that available in England then.

Several historical shifts are in play. The King of England wants to reassert his control over Boston, Connecticut and Rhode Island. And the previously congenial (or at least tolerant) relationships between colonists and the indigenous population are strained by (guerilla) warfare, misunderstandings and greed.

The protagonists are an agent of the King and a young widow who survived months of captivity with the local Abenacki tribe. She believes that her daughter is still alive, adopted by an Indian woman.

This novel is fast paced and includes adventure and romance. Good beach reading!

There is food for reflection in the descriptions of the “praying Indians” and their long period of peaceful coexistence with the colonial settlers, who would probably not have survived without the their help. I can’t help but wonder, what if? What if colonial and indigenous people had continued to live comfortably in their parallel communities? What if the indigenous people had not be driven from New England? I don’t know the answers, but there’s a good deal more history available than was hinted at in my high school American History class.