Walter Scott Prize for Historical Fiction – Longlist:

I see a pattern. Do you?

  • A God in Every Stone by Kamila Shamsie – England, Turkey, India – WWI
  • Arctic Summer by Damon GalgutEngland, Cairo, India – 1912 (unclear from reviews if/how much WWI figures into the story)
  • Mac and Me by Esther Freud – England WWI
  • The Lie by Helen Dunmore – WWI France; Post-WWI Cornwall
  • The Paying Guests by Sarah Waters – 1922 England, Post-WWI
  • Wake by Anna Hope – England Post-WWI
  • The Wake by Paul Kingsnorth – England Post-1066

Observations:

  1. Western writers and readers obviously still can’t get enough of WWI and WWII.
  2. The 1600s remains a popular era.
  3. The context of war is fertile soil for story.

Publishing note: The Wake by Paul Kingsworth appears to have been originally published in 2014 by a crowdsourcing process. See:

http://unbound.co.uk/books/the-wake

Can you guess which just jumped to the top of my TBR list?

More From Ancient Egypt: Stephanie Dray’s Lily of the Nile

Stephanie Dray’s Lily of the Nile, is an imaginative rendering of Cleopatra Selene’s formative tween years. Selene, daughter of the Cleopatra and Mark Anthony, was raised in the Roman household of Caesar Augustus after his triumph over her parents led them to commit suicide.

Rough start for a kid. But Dray’s Selene is no ordinary princess.

I usually resist anything suspect of girlishness but had picked up the book at the Historical Novel Society’s 2013 conference after hearing Ms. Dray talk about her work. Having recently read Wilbur Smith’s River God and The Quest, I figured I should get the last of my ancient Egypt stack taken care of. Although Lily of the Nile mostly takes place in Rome, the protagonist fits in my Egypt category.

I was pleasantly surprised at the unsentimental nature of Dray’s work and her ability to embed the historical context within an engaging story. I confess to an irresponsible lack of knowledge about the times and events so I was at Ms. Dray’s mercy for the facts but came away feeling better inform on all levels: people, events, culture and worldview.

Three areas of particular note:

1. Culture clash: I’d never given thought to how cold and rigid Roman culture must have felt to the conquered peoples. Selene’s Ptolemaic Egypt now seems the perfect foil to Augustus’ masculine authoritarianism.

And Dray’s representation of Isis worship in conflict with Roman religion was eye-opening. I’d always thought of Rome as primarily universalist – as long as the official gods were publicly honored. Dray makes it clear why the Romans might have seen Isis as a threat to their ordered social strata.

2. The Isis faith: Before reading Wilbur Smith’s stories mentioned above, I knew next to nothing about Isis or any of the Egyptian religions. In Lily of the Nile, Stephanie Dray does an excellent job of showing how the Isis religion may have contributed to the receptivity of Christianity and it’s eventual expression. Since Sunday School, I was taught that Rome’s Pax Romana paved the way for Christianity by facilitating the swift spread of ideas. I have some understanding of Hellenistic influence on the early church, and have a better-than-average awareness of other influences on the historical development of Christianity, but I was not aware of an active Egyptian religion contemporary with the birth of Jesus which preached love, appealed to the downtrodden and had a “Queen of Heaven” at the center. Okay, Isis also married her brother and included temple prostitution and magic in her cult. So there are plenty of differences. But after Dray’s portrayal of Isis it is hard to miss the universal tendency of human felt need for a Mother figure.

3. Dabbling in Fantasy: As with Wilbur Smith’s The Quest, Dray’s Lily of the Nile allows the magic of the worldview to manifest itself in the “real life” of the historical fiction. Maybe Smith’s The Quest prepared me for it here since I found it less disconcerting in Dray’s work. Possibly I was more jarred by it in The Quest because Smith’s earlier work, River God, with the same characters, did not blur the lines of genre. Suddenly, finding myself in a fantasy world threw me for several hundred pages. In reading reviews of The Quest and Lily of the Nile some readers are seriously put off by this genre mashup. I do not have a problem with it in principle – hey, we’re primarily telling fun stories here – as long as I feel prepared for it in some way. Since I don’t read back covers, synopses or reviews before reading, I take a bit of a risk when I venture in unaware. But I think that’s my own problem, not the writer’s, if there has been some hint beforehand.

I’d like to know what others think about this question. I love a story that goes deep into the worldview of the characters, but how do you feel about blurring the genre lines between historical fiction and fantasy? Historical fiction is fraught with plenty of debate already. (How much are you allowed to make up or change “history”?). I suspect some folks will want to keep the categories tight. I’m more inclined to let imaginations run wild as long as we all know we are reading fiction, in spite of my own experienced disconcertion. I do think the reader needs some kind of “heads up” though. How much of the supernatural should be there before labeling the book with a sub-genre?

Lily of the Nile: Recommended

If you would like to read story synopses and reviews for Lily of the Nile, check out the following links:

Goodreads

Amazon

I do plan to read Stephanie Dray’s next Cleopatra’s Daughter installment Song of the Nile.

But next up here is: Strange Gods by Annamaria Alfieri – Historical Mystery set in early 20th Century East Africa!

Wilber Smith’s River God and The Quest – Some Observations

In my efforts to expand my exposure to Long Ago & Far Away historical fiction, it was past time that I read some Wilbur Smith. His novels of ancient Egypt intrigued me so I picked up River God and ventured in – as always without reading the back cover, reviews, etc.

From the first page I knew that Smith was writing my kind of historical fiction: accent on adventure and mostly fictitious main characters allowing lots of room to play. I am observing that, the more locked to historical figures, the more difficult it is to craft a satisfying story. (Though the likes of Sharon Kay Penman and C. W. Gortner do it with aplomb). Call me low-brow but I like heroes and villains and adventure rooted in some other world than ours – historical fiction, fantasy, sci-fi, etc. For historical fiction I want the context to be accurate but after that, I just want a good story.

So, River God: the most compelling aspect of this work is not so much the story as the voice of the main character. Our first-person hero, Taita, borders on the fantastical – no, is fantastical. He is a Renaissance Man in extreme: playwright, architect, administrator, military strategist, physician, mural painter, jeweler, hydraulic engineer, embalmer, musician – what have I missed? There are chariot battles, damsels in distress and adventures into sub-Saharan Africa. I know so little about the history or geography that, besides the epic exaggerations, I had to largely take Smith at his word on the basic facts. But it’s Taita’s voice that carries this book. His voice will stay with me when the story is forgotten.

Imagine my shock when I opened The Quest and found a third-person narrative, mostly in Taita’s point of view, but also from other characters and even much use of the omniscient. I had skipped two books in the series, so I knew there would be story I’d missed and I expected subtle changes in the author’s style but I grieved the loss of Taita’s voice for 100 pages before I finally let it go.

Also, by the time you reach The Quest, there has been a shift in genre from imaginative historical adventure to what is essentially a fantasy set in ancient Egypt/Africa. Taita is no longer simply skilled at everything. In the interim he has become a mage and a long-liver. Rather than the natural enemy of an invading force (River God) Taita is now pitted against a thousand year old witch.

I read fantasy so it should have been easy to make the transition, but it took me about as long to let the historicity go as it did to relinquish Taita’s voice. I do not want to be the one to pigeon-hole writers into strict genre distinctions but I really struggled with it. I like historical characters to take on as much of their own worldview as I can possibly comprehend, and the people of ancient Egypt would understand the world very differently from me, but that’s not what The Quest is. The Quest is fantasy – best to make that mental switch in your head before you start page one.

It would be interesting to read the interim books and observe when and how Smith makes this transition. I suspect it is gradual and would not have shocked me so if I had read the progression as written. I’d love to hear from folks who have read all four to learn if this is the case or if The Quest was a leap in style and or genre.

And, a warning about The Quest: this story is sexually visceral. For the most part, the sexuality is rooted in the themes of power, identity and transformation that run through both books, but there were bits that seemed gratuitous.

River God: Recommended – here is it’s review page on GoodReads (interesting that the reviews are mostly divided between love it/hate it. Few in between.)

The Quest: Recommended with caution – here’s it’s review page on GoodReads (also very divided opinions). And one from the Historical Novel Society.

 

 

 

Nine More!

As promised, I reviewed the Historical Novel Society‘s most recent reviews of new and upcoming historical fiction set in out of the way places. The following reviews are available online:

The Year of the Horsetails – R.F. Tapsell – Eastern Europe – Early Middle Ages

When the Jungle is Silent – James Boschert – Malaysia – 1964

Island of the White Rose – R. Ira Harris – Cuba – 1958

Equilateral – Ken Kalfus – Egypt – Victorian

Sword & Scimitar – Simon Scarrow – Malta – 1565

Trees without Wind – Li Rui, (John Balcom – trans.), China, 1966-76

The Twelfth Department – William Ryan – Moscow – 1930s

From the Mouth of the Whale – Sjon, Victoria Cribb (trans.) – Iceland – 17th century

The Wayward Moon – Janice Weizman – Galilee, 894 AD

So, have a look and add to your teetering stack of TBR.

28 New Long Ago & Far Away Reading Options

Yesterday I received the latest edition of the Historical Novel Review – the quarterly magazine published by the Historical Novel Society. I am always anxious to see the reviews of new historical fiction and note which ones need to be added to my To Be Read list. In this round, I found 28 books under the printed reviews which fit our Long Ago & Far Away focus. For easy reference I am posting a list of those books here.

Three books under “Biblical” fit LAFA’s (Long Ago & Far Away) loose parameters, but since this period/location gets a lot of attention, I will skip them for this compilation. There are seven in the “Classical” category, six of which take place in either Rome or Greece, again, not really off the beaten path. I did include one from the classical period because it takes place in Turkey – a bit out of the way. I’m also skipping crusader stories since the context is already popular. I have included one from that period due to it’s Spanish setting being less familiar.

The list:

The Last King of Lydia – Tim Leach – Lydia (in present day Turkey) – 6th century BC

1200 year gap!

The Secret History – Stephanie Thornton – Byzantium – 6th century AD

600 year gap!

The Corpse Reader – Antonio Garrido (trans. Thomas Bunstead) – China – 13th century

Emeralds of The Alhambra – John D. Cressler – Granada – 14th century

200 year gap!

Claws of the Cat – Susan Spann – Japan – 16th century

200 year gap. (Is this like contractions?)

The Pagoda Tree – Claire Scobie – India – 18th century

The Devil is White – William Palmer – Africa – 18th Century

And now, the 19th century:

The Corsair – Abdulaziz Al-Mahmoud (trans. Amira Noweira) – Bombay, Oman, Iraq and China – 19th century

The Scarlet Thief – Paul Fraser Collard – Crimea – 19th century

Kiku’s Prayer – Shusaku Endo (trans. Van C. Gessel) – Japan – 19th century

The Prisoner of Paradise – Romesh Guneskera – Mauritius – 19th century

Burial Rites – Hannah Kent – Iceland – 19th Century

The Collector of Lost Things – Jeremy Page – Arctic – 19th century

The Family Mansion – Anthony C. Winkler – Jamaica – 19th century

20th Century:

Blood Tango – Annamaria Alfieri – Argentina – 1945

The Roving Tree – Elsie Augustave – Haiti/Zaire – 1950s

Mystery in Malakand – Susanna Bell – Peshawar/Northwest Frontier/British India – 1920

Midnight in St. Petersburg – Vanora Bennett – Revolutionary Russia

Shadows on the Nile – Kate Furnivall – Egypt – 1932

The Gunners of Shenyang – Yu Jihui – China – 1960s

The Man From Berlin – Luke McCallin – Yugoslavia – 1943

The Bride Box – Michael Pearce – Egypt – 1913

The Child Thief – Dan Smith – Unkraine – 1930

Ben Barka Lane – Mahmoud Saeed (trans. Kay Heikkinen) Morroco – 1964 (originally published in Arabic in 1970, so fits only the loosest definition of historical fiction but it is definitely LAFA to most of us.

A Question of Honor – Charles Todd – India/England/France – early 1900s

Multi-period:

Lighthouse Bay – Kimberley Freeman – Australia

The Age of Ice – J.M. Sidorova – Russia

Paranormal/Fantasy:

The Ghost Bride – Yangze Choo – Malaysia

Exciting reading ahead! Which of these interest you the most?

There are additional reviews online (294 in total!). I will peruse those as soon as I am able. There are also YA and Children’s books reviewed both in the printed mag and online. If someone else would like to glean LAFA books from these before I have the chance, just let me know and we’ll get them posted.