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Tuesday, January 20, 2015

Historical fiction that immersed me in 2014

In recent years, I’ve come to crave historical fiction.  When I was in school, history was hardly my favorite subject.  I think that had to do with history textbooks.  Yet I had been learning some exciting history while reading good books.  Researching later on, I found that history books in the library were far more interesting.  An author’s narrative style, their ability to tell a story, and their personal commitment to a historical subject made a nonfiction book readable and even fascinating.  Eventually, I chose to read books that concentrated on a time or a gap in my understanding.  Here I will share the works of a few historical authors, those I read in 2014.

I had read The Histories of Herodotus, Volume 1, and because I enjoyed this ancient historian’s perceptive and flowing style, read Volume II.  This was not only history but anthropology, and it lead up to the Persian attack on Athens, a thrilling chronicle. Here are my comments:

As with Herodotus's other works, this varied between fascinating accounts and more tedious material. It was mainly about the Persian Empire's campaign against Athens, after they had conquered most of the city-states in Greece and Turkey, besides the Middle East and Egypt. I'm surprised there wasn't a blockbuster film about this.  The description of the armies that marched with Xerxes into Greece was incredible - a much bigger cast than Cleopatra going into Rome. Most Greeks thought that Xerxes was Zeus come down to earth and most submitted. The Athenians didn't think that and tried to persuade others to accept that Xerxes was a mortal man.

The Greek tactics turned out to be Herculean, winning the naval battles and waylaying the Persian army until the Persians had no more supplies or food.  I don't usually enjoy war stories but this was so colorfully told.

Then I read The Girl from Ithaca by Cherry Gregory.  Odysseus’s sister gets caught into the Trojan War in this historical fiction.   My comments:


I liked from the beginning the author's interpretation that the Trojan War wasn't just about Helen, and that it was about women and Greek men.  Cherry Gregory's telling was usually well-based on the historical story, and it told about Odysseus's sister being part of the war. The idea that women helped during the years of the Trojan War is solid.

The book also brings Greek heroes into human scenes while Neomene, Odysseus’ sister, attempts to be diplomat with Helen, helps to heal the injured, falls in love with a hero, and all the while, shows with the other women caught in the war the ancient woman's options in a treacherous and advancing world where warriors won.

Another recently published historical novel is Fiji by Lance Morcan and James Morcan.  I was glad to discover this book last summer and to be absorbed with the Island of Fiji in the 1800s.  Here are my comments:

Fiji was immediately very readable, written with flair, and smoothly intertwining its character plights with the history of missionary efforts, traders, and the Fijian people. While a love story between Nathan, the American trader, and Susannah, the missionary's daughter, dominates, the other characters figure with their own plots. Rambuka the outcast is comprehended in all his vengeance towards his brother. The passion of Joeli for his people and Sina for her lover, after she is abducted by Rambuka and made a slave, is ably drawn.

Also, the theme of death, its meaning to the Fijians, to the missionaries, and to Nathan, gives this book its realistic depth and that contrasts with the native lifestyles, their attachments, and their festivities.  Moving at the end, the book is full of believable heroism.

Dealing in used books, I kept coming across those of H. Rider Haggard, an author I hadn’t read.  He was very popular in the late 1800s, and I’d heard he had inspired some of the plot in the movie Raiders of the Lost Ark.  I read his book Cleopatra.  Ever since reading Shakespeare’s Anthony and Cleopatra in college, I’ve been interested in depictions of Cleopatra, historical and fiction. Haggard’s was tops, I thought. The books I’ve read of his seem to be modern movie fare.  Here are my comments on The People of the Mist.

Because of his uncle's financial affairs, Outram loses his family mansion and his intended. He leaves England for Africa with his brother but when his brother dies, Outram has no gold, only his trusty Zulu servant Otter. Otter recognizes a woman from a slave camp that he escaped. Soa knows where rubies are but she requires that the two help her free the white woman she worked for, and as many other captives as possible.  After they all bamboozle Arab slavers, I realized I had downloaded a long Kindle book. What I’d read seemed adventure enough but every time I picked up the book, the characters were so well-drawn that I continued to the ruby treasure. Soa ran away from the mountain People of the Mist and she knows how to disguise Juanna and Otter to look like gods prophesied to return someday. From one peril to the next, the story surges.

At, I read the first chapters of Gev Sweeney’s The Scattered Proud.  This is set in colonial America and moves to the France of Napoleon.  Here are my comments:

Gev Sweeney does a brilliant job in creating characters that are challenged with the turmoil of colonial times, then the revolution politics in France, heroically and in the spirit of religious commitment. An adolescent at the outset, Jeannette matures in France where her clergyman father dies.  She continues work at an orphanage with Kit, a young clergyman who is married to a returned French ex-patriot.  The scenes in France are vivid while the characters Jeannette comes to know are surprising under their surfaces, especially when she takes refuge in the country outside of Paris. The Bonaparte brothers enter because of stored arms which is part of a clever intrigue, a scene led up to and climactic. This is a book that doesn’t slacken in its storyline, continuing to be as compelling as the first scenes.  Underlying is the protagonist’s religious probing which can entangle the contemporary reader.

So I have found that historical fiction can be the tumultuous stuff of life!