Tag Archives: fiction

The Fields of Death by Simon Scarrow

Like me – and, indeed, thousands of others out there – Simon Scarrow is obviously a big Sharpe fan. This book is the final instalment in his lightly-fictionalised series on the careers of Wellington and Napoleon.

The story of Wellington and Napoleon’s military careers is an epic one, and for the most part Scarrow does not overcook what are fantastic stories in the first place – the Peninsular War, the battles of Asspern, Essling and Wagram, the Invasion of Russia, the Battle of Borodino, the retreat from Moscow, the Battle of Leipzig and Napoleon’s defeat and abdication in 1814, before his return and final defeat at Waterloo.

The reader is left with a feeling that Napoleon, early in his career a gifted general, gradually became a tyrant, exactly of the kind that he fought to overthrow during the revolution. And Scarrow’s depth of understanding when describing British contemporary politics is clearly very good. The description of diplomatic intrigue between charcaters such as Talleyrand, Fouche and Metternich is insightful – after all, a good historical novel should inform as much as it entertains. And Sharpe fans will enjoy the respectful nod to Bernard Cornwell’s famous character during the Battle of Vitoria – something that could so easily have gone wrong, but works.

There are several downsides, however. I feel that by calling the Duke of Wellington ‘Arthur’, Scarrow allows the reader to develop a sense of familiarity with the him, that the man himself would almost certainly have not allowed in real life, given his well known coldness and aloof nature. Most of Napoleon’s Marshals come across as bumbling, disloyal and incompetent – Soult and Davout in particular have not been kindly treated here, compared to history’s view of them.

But most notably, the fictional meeting between Wellington and Napoleon just after Waterloo just does not work, not for this reader anyway. Wellington had no desire to meet Napoleon, and there was nothing to negotiate anyway. The great advantage of historical fiction is that the writer can take historical license. But in order to work and ring true; it has to be believable… which, sadly, is not the case here. But this is a difficult story to write, as anyone who picks it up is bound to know what the ending is. So its not surprising that Scarrow has looked for ways to freshen it up.

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Filed under Army, fiction, Napoleonic War, Uncategorized

New York by Edward Rutherfurd

Make no mistake about it, this is a big book in both size and stature. To attempt to tell the story of one of the world’s biggest and most dynamic cities is always going to be a tall story. Edward Rutherfurd is a specialist of the historical novel focussing on a geographical location, with similar books already published on London, Sarum and Moscow. But New York, however, is his most ambitious project yet.

The story begins in the 17th Century, with the first Dutch settlers who inhabited Manhattan, and their interaction with the Native Indian people. Soon the English arrive, and oust the Dutch. But most of the Dutch settlers remain and adapt to life under English rule. Out of this period we meet the Master family, who are very much at the spine of the story. Of course soon the colonies rise up in rebellion, leading to the American Revolution and the declaration of Independence. Throughout the Nineteenth Century New York witnessed much change, with a number of large communities emigrating from Europe – Irish (the O’Donnells), Germans (the Kellers) and Italians. The Dead Rabbits and Tammay Hall, a la Gangs of New York – feature. We witness the development of New York as a financial centre, and the events surrounding the Wall Street Crash. In the later twentieth century a wave of Jewish Immigrants arrive, as well as Puerto Ricans.

The central theme of the book appears to be that various communities of settlers have been arriving in New York for generations, and throughout history have integrated into the city, making it what it is today – these are the hands that built America, as the song goes. The Big Apple is greater than the sum of its parts, we feel. And with apologies to Washington DC, you cannot help but feel that New York is the unofficial capital of the United States of America. But interestingly, right at the end Rutherfurd invokes a Wampum Belt, Indian made, that first appears in the 17th Century – a reminder that the Indians were there before anyone else, perhaps?

Historical novels are not the easiest to review – not only are you looking for historical accuracy and atmosphere, but also aspects of literature too. In terms of history, whilst I am by no means an expert on American History, if there are any errors I’m sure they are minor. Regarding the literature, Rutherfurd’s writing has evolved since the writing of London some years ago – the whole story flows better, is not so compartmentalised, and is less tiring to read – which is important in such a mammoth book!

Its often said that a good song will make a kid want to go out and buy a guitar. If thats so, shouldn’t a good book want to make the reader do two things – either immerse themselves in the subject, or try to emulate what they have just read? For the record, this book makes me want to not only visit New York, but has made me wonder how interesting a similar book about Portsmouth might be.

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Birdsong by Sebastian Faulks

I often feel that in the twenty-first century we are in something of a literary wilderness. Whilst I am sure that there are some great books out there that I just haven’t found yet, I cannot help but feel that the burgeoning shelves of Da Vinci Code and Harry Potter wannabe’s will never been in the same league as Dickens, Austen, Shakespeare or Chaucer. Happily, Birdsong is one modern novel which follows the best traditions of British literature.

Stephen Wraysford arrives in Amiens in North France in 1910. After embarking on a clandestine love affair that causes scandal and upheaval, after heartbreak we follow him to the horrors of the western front. By starting the story in pre-war France, and establishing the readers rapport with Stephen Wraysford well before the Great War, Faulks has ensured that this is a book that is about more than just war. It also gives the story longitude, and broader meaning. Unlike a lot of modern novels, I can also imagine sitting in a classroom, analysing this text for an English exam. There are all kinds of interesting metaphors, contrasts, and other tricks that colour a story.

The plot of writing a novel in two eras is a brave choice. Switching from one time period to the other within is even more risky – like a badly-sewn shirt, the seams might show. But Birdsong works. By introducing snippets from Wraysford’s descendants, but without spoiling the story, Faulks reminds us poignantly of how long-gone events have a resonance to us today.

The problem I often find with military historical fiction – and this is from somebody who has tried and failed to write myself, numerous times – is that the balance between the history and the fiction is often out of sync. You either read a historian playing at fiction, or an author playing at history. Faulk’s illuminating preface tells us of how he would sit in the Imperial War Museum’s Library and read accounts from the Great War, and it obviously had a great effect on his writing.

Birdsong is a modern classic, I found it a pleasure to read. The best books take no effort to read, and this is one of them. A TV adaption, or even better a feature-length version, is well overdue.

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Filed under Book of the Week, fiction, World War One

Book of the Week – Azincourt by Bernard Cornwell

Azincourt - Bernard Cornwell

Bernard Cornwell is perhaps best known for his Sharpe series of Napoleonic, swashbuckling novels. And quite rightly too, in my opinion they are one of the best historical fiction series ever written. But Cornwell has far more strings to his bow, as this effort demonstrates. And the pun is intended.

Azincourt follows the exploits and adventures of Nicholas Hook, an English Archer taking part in the legendary Agincourt campaign in 1415. Azincourt takes the reader not only in the footsteps of Henry V and his Army during those fateful days, but also on a voyage of discovery in medieval England. As usual with Bernard Cornwell, a convincing and gripping storyline is supported admirably by evidence of deep and broad research. Fitting and appropriate use of contemporary language and imagery is the icing on this literary cake.

An easy trap to fall into would be to write yet another Sharpe novel and simply graft it into a different era, something that several authors have done in recent years. This will perhaps never have the readership of Sharpe, or Sean Bean playing Hook, but it is a worthy addition to any bookshelf all the same. Cornwell is clearly not a one trick pony.

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Filed under Book of the Week, fiction, Medieval history