My History Fiction Bookshelf

Astute readers of my blog will know that usually I only review non-fiction history books, both academic and casual-reading. Not just because I hope one day there will be a wide enough range of reviewed books on HASM for my blog to become a valuable resource for people looking find out more about books for their research or just buying them for pleasure. But it's also simply easier for me because I tend to read rather a lot through my studies. Just occasionally however one takes time out and indulges in some historic fiction, I don't read a great deal it has to be said, but I really do love each and every one of the small number of historic-fiction books that I own and would hope that by reviewing a few of my favourites I might introduce you fellow history lovers to something new.

By George Macdonald Fraser

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Starting with my personal favourite! For me there are few literary pleasures that can compare to the perusal of a Flashman-novel. Each new instalment I embark upon is always eagerly awaited and greedily read. Flashman fans are a devoted, enthusiastic lot, and I have yet to meet anyone who has read a Flashman and not enjoyed it. Oddly, I have met lots of people who are still unfamiliar with the Flashman series - the poor deprived folk who think it might not be quite their thing. Oh, how I envy them that first flash of Flashman, the thrill of the novelty and discovery as Flashy-fever takes hold!
There are 12 historic-novels in the series, all written by George Macdonald Fraser, an author also known for the screenplay for the Bond film Octopussy. It all began with this, the first instalment simply called 'Flashman' (and definitely the proper book to start with for the uninitiated). George MacDonald Fraser's literary creation, Harry Flashman, is, in fact, not Fraser's creation at all. The character appears briefly in Tom Hughes' 1857 novel, Tom Brown's Schooldays, as a school bully who gets expelled from Rugby for drunkenness. From this brief description Fraser has fashioned a character who managed to get himself involved in what appears to be practically all of the significant historical events between about 1840 and 1900.
Fraser claims that Flashman wrote his memoirs in his old age, and that these were rediscovered in 1965 and that Fraser was asked to edit them. Releasing one "packet" of adventures at a time (not in chronological order) Fraser -through Flashman- takes his readers to many of the battlefields and exotic places of the 19th century. The books are in Flashman's voice, with Fraser only adding some explanatory historical notes and maps.
The series is truly remarkable for a number of reasons. This is not your usual historical fiction, where honour, truth, and bravery triumph. Not at all! In fact, Flashman freely admits to being a poltroon (our dictionary suggests "base coward" as a definition, and that's exactly what Flashman is). Other than preserving his own hide there is little that Flashman cares about - except seducing the ladies. And he is exceptionally gifted at both. Much of the fun in these books is that, despite his best efforts, Flashman always manages to wind up right where the action is and that he invariably emerges as the hero (if only because all the witnesses to his cowardice are dead).
Morally defective though he might be in some respects, Harry Flashman is a charmer and tells a mighty fine tale. He doesn't pretend to be anything that he is not (at least not in these books -- meaning, he admits, that he is "breaking the habit of eighty years"). He differentiates himself from the author of Tom Brown's Schooldays, writing:
He was more concerned to preach a sermon than to give facts.
But I am concerned with facts, and since many of them are discreditable to me, you can rest assured they are true.
Fraser, too, is concerned with facts, and the other part of the series that sets it far above other such efforts is that Flashman takes part in actual historical events, playing a role that rewrites history while leaving the actual outcome unchanged. It is an insider's view of historical events, suggesting the subjectivity of all historical accounts, and how things might actually have happened. A fastidious and thorough researcher, Fraser does an excellent job of presenting historical events and re-inventing them. The sweep of the novels is also incredibly broad, as Flashman travels everywhere from China, Afghanistan, Madagascar, to the American West and elsewhere. History was rarely this much fun (and at the same time educational).

The novels need not be read in order (and they are not presented in chronological order), but Flashman is the proper introductory volume. Here Flashman explains his version of the Rugby expulsion, and then his early career in the British Army. He cheats his way out of getting killed in a duel (and comes out looking like the crack-shot honourable man that he most definitely is not) and he marries the beautiful Elspeth (who has the endearing "open, simple smile of the truly stupid"). He goes to serve in India and gets caught up the catastrophic retreat from Kabul.
It's a great adventure, with fun, romance, local colour, a riveting historical backdrop, and a wild cast of characters as well as some sobering historical truths. Recommended not just for the male adventure lover or amateur/professional historian. This is a fine book regardless of your tastes, entertaining literature as it is meant to be.

The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet
by David Mitchell

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Having recently completed this book it was the inspiration for my previous post on the history of the island of Dejima where most of the story takes place, during the turn of the 18th century, in Edo-era Japan. The author has lived in Japan for many years, he is the father of half-Japanese children, and has set an earlier novel – Number9dream (2001) – in the country. Equally, the fact that this new novel centres on a love story between a European man and a Japanese woman represents no more than the most basic draw from autobiography. Beyond that, it is a completely self-standing historical novel, written in chronological order in the present tense, which conjures up a wonderful, profoundly researched and fully realised world.
The Dutch East India Company has requisitioned the 120 metre-long artificial island of Dejima, in the bay of Nagasaki, as a trading post. Theirs is the most significant contact Japan has had with the outside world – a tiny valve for the exchange of goods and ideas. Jacob de Zoet is an uptight young Dutch book-keeper, charged with cleaning up the accounts of an operation riddled with corruption as Dutch power fades and English naval power looms. Possessing no navy of its own, Japan is both fanatically insular and increasingly vulnerable. Encountering a beautiful but scarred Japanese midwife who has been granted some limited contact with European medicine, Jacob finds himself in thrall to a love forbidden by tradition, culture, politics and law.
The object of this ginger-haired naive's hopeless desire, Miss Aibagawa, is bound by the highly stratified social order of Japanese society and then purchased by the abbot of a secretive mountain shrine, where a form of sexual slavery is practised by the monks. A rescue attempt, in the form of a samurai raid on the shrine, briefly makes you suspect the novel is going to turn on a thriller plot but, thrilling as this episode actually is, it rather turns on the murk of politics and the complex allegiances of a feudal society. Miss Aibagawa is no cipher of the mysterious "other": her own medical gifts prove more useful to her than her would-be rescuers and, as a character, she is at least as fully realised as de Zoet.
With Enlightenment ideas and European corruption washing up to the Japanese coastline, Mitchell creates, in Dejima, a single, dramatic gateway through which to observe the encounter between civilisations from both sides. Mitchell saturates his Dejima with the detail of his knowledge of it, that – particularly in the opening quarter – the labour of the writing can at times become a labour of reading, even for a guy who can't get enough reading in about Feudal Japan, descriptions of Nagasaki of the period are, at one point, lyrical to the point of – literally – rhyming.

by Simon Sebag Montefiore

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Having written a book about Stalin’s court, and then a biography of Stalin himself, Simon Montefiore has now published his first fiction work inspired by the history he has spent a lifetime studying. Sashenka, therefore, a novel about the horrors visited by Stalin on one Russian family and a master class on how the more imaginative historians can get another feathers in their caps.
The novel is divided into three chronological parts. In the first, which takes place between 1916 and 1917 in St Petersburg, Sashenka Zeitlin, the teenage daughter of a wealthy Jewish financier, is recruited into the Bolshevik party. She is arrested for her activism and pursued by a Tsarist officer, who tries vainly to turn her into an informer, but then sees her party’s dream realised when the old ruling classes are swept aside. In the second and longest part, set in Moscow in 1939, Sashenka is married to a senior Communist officer and edits Soviet Wife and Proletarian Housekeeping magazine. They enjoy a pleasant standard of living — city apartment and grand country house — which, ironically, is similar to that which Sashenka enjoyed as a child and against which she fought. The only difference now is that a stray word, or even a false rumour, can cost you your life, and soon enough the world which Sashenka and her husband helped to create turns on them. Serious, moral Sashenka has an affair, and the repercussions lead to her arrest and torture and the loss of her beloved children, Snowy and Carlo. In the third part, set in 1994, a young historian is hired to investigate Soviet archives, and we discover what eventually happened to Sashenka and her family.
As a first novel, it is excellent. It’s no surprise that the historical detail is strong, but it is also equally impressive that the author never seems to get caught up in it; Montefiore deploys his historical knowledge as a means to an end, rather than as the end in itself. The characterisation is deeply superb, with Sashenka being especially well drawn. When her battle between the need to be dutiful and the need to be an individual takes place, it is tempting to draw parallels between her and many other tragic female characters in famous Russian literature.
I struggled with the pacing midway however. Montefiore’s prose, at its best, is rich and evocative; at its worst, it slows the story too greatly, and occasionally when the requirements of drama demand that things should keep moving, the story is freighted with unnecessary, scene-setting descriptions of clothing and surroundings. To describe one smell is useful; to describe endless smells in just a few pages, so that different people are giving off whiffs of cloves and sweat and stale cheese, risks making the reader a bit numb: it became an overload of imagery and I found myself getting unresponsive. However, Sashenka is still a powerful novel, erudite and well structured, and with a heroine who lingers in the mind when the story is finished.

The Janissary Tree
By Jason Goodwin

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As former Spectator/Sunday Telegraph Young Writer of the Year, Jason Goodwin has written encyclopaedic studies of the Ottoman Empire (Lords Of The Horizon), the dollar, (Greenback), and won the John Llewellyn Rhys Prize for On Foot to the Golden Horn.
The Janissary Tree puts us in Istanbul in 1836. With lavish and unrelenting descriptions of steaming tanneries stinking of the dog faeces used to tan hides; cramped markets that are fat with an Empire's produce; dervishes whirling for coins; the Imperial Archive bulging with 400 years of bureaucratic reports.
The hero has access to every cranny and alley of Istanbul life. He is Yashim, a retired Court eunuch, reserved and dapper in his cashmere cloak, a criminal investigator for the Empire's elite; in effect, a detective. Past adventures in the Crimea are hinted at and now there's trouble at the palace. A young officer of the westernised New Guard is found stuffed in a cooking pot in the Royal stables, his face sliced off. Three more officers are missing. In a side-plot, a young harem godze (sadly there is no glossary) is strangled on her way to the bed of Sultan Mahmut II, and jewels presented by Napoleon to the Sultan's mother, the Validé Sultan, are stolen. Things being a bit slower in 1836, our detective has 10 days, not 48 hours, to find the guilty party. The proclamation of a liberal Edict from the Sultan and a grand public review of the New Guard are due, and the Court doesn't want unsolved murders raining on its parade.
Goodwin has crafted a fast-moving tale, told almost entirely in third person by an omnipresent narrator. The text is rich with dialogue and features very short chapters, rapid scene changes, and lots of little cliff-hangers. His descriptions of Istanbul are wonderfully textured, even when they take the reader into places where no ordinary tourist would go, like the inside of a tannery or up into one of the old fire towers. His secondary characters are typically well-drawn. I especially liked Yashim's friends Palewski, the somewhat shabby Polish ambassador, and Preen, the köçek dancer -another eunuch.

Shooting Leave
By John Ure

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For most of the 19th century, and the early part of the 20th, young British and Russian officers travelled into the largely uncharted mountain passes and deserts of central Asia to compete for control of the gateways to British India, a secret diplomatic tussle that was known as 'The Great Game'. The cover name that the British used for these nefarious activities was ‘shooting leave’ -hence the title of this extremely entertaining little book I was given for my birthday last year by my good lady.
Then as now, intelligence in the region bounded by Persia in the west, Kazakhstan in the north, Kashmir in the east and Baluchistan in the south, often had to be gathered clandestinely by clever and brave young soldiers prepared to live undercover for months at a time. Nowadays these spies are rather unromantically called “special forces” by the Ministry of Defence.
Here is the story of “the reluctant spy” John Wood (so “entranced by his first encounter with yaks…he even managed to ride one and get some riding trousers made out of yak hair”) on an intelligence-gathering mission in 1837-8. He is joined by an extraordinary cast of characters such as Captain Fred Burnaby, 6ft 4in tall and immensely strong (“his party trick was to hold out at arm’s length two billiard cues by the pointed ends without wobbling, the 19th-century equivalent of ¬tearing up a London telephone directory”); Alexander “Bokhara” Burnes, who once rode 70 miles nonstop to Kunduz to escape murderous Uzbeks, and was eventually assassinated in Kabul; Percy Sykes, who, when dispatched to Turko¬man country, was “delighted to see the map full of blanks”; and Valentine Baker, who left Charing Cross station in 1873 with two companions (one later killed in a polo match in Delhi and the other murdered by the Bedouin), plus more than a ton of luggage including Worcester sauce, meat extract, salmon rods, “my old shoulder single-¬barrelled duck gun No 4, which carried a ball beautifully up to 80 yards”, and a letter of introduction from the Prince of Wales.
Ure, who has thoroughly researched his subject and brings much original material into the book, paints a vivid picture of life in the region for an agent of the British Empire. The officers would need to blend in with the local population, take on the character of a holy man, perhaps, or appear as a traveller from Armenia. They would also need to elicit complete trust from their entourage, or fear that would be revealed by one of their own. And only then could they hope to undertake their set task. It is thrilling stuff indeed – and no surprise that these stories seeded the worlds of Kipling, Buchan and MacDonald Fraser.