Adventures in Bookland: Royal Flash by George MacDonald Fraser

All the Flashman books are good but this might possibly be the very best of a remarkable bunch (although Flashman at the Charge and Flashman’s Lady run it close by my reading). But with Otto von Bismarck as the villain and the extraordinary Lola Montez as the lust interest, and with a plot that plays homage and tribute to The Prisoner of Zenda, this is as good as historical fiction gets.

Adventures in Bookland: Darkest Hour by Anthony McCarten

A political chancer cast out into the outer dark through one too many gambles that had fallen through. An egomaniacal gloryhound. A man in love with language and the sound of his own rhetoric. Winston Spencer Churchill was the last, extraordinary, flourishing of the Victorians who, through the 1930s, looked like a man born out of his time, a man born too late to seize the glory that he most earnestly desire. And then history came to his rescue, and he came to the rescue of history. Carlyle’s Great Man theory of history is very much out of fashion – modern historians prefer the minutiae of economic theory and feminist grievance mining – but the 20th century stands in bloody rebuke to this. If ever a century – and in particular the paroxysm of the Second World War – was a story of history-bending individuals it was the 20th century. Imagine a century in which young Adolf Hitler had succeeded as an artist and the young Josef Stalin had stayed in the seminary. Would the 20th century have become the bloodbath it became without them? I think not.

But then imagine a century in which the young Winston had blocked one of the bullets that flew past his head during the Boer War. That is what this book forces one to imagine: and in the fractious comfort of our 21st century it really brings to life the dark abyss that we – the whole world – stared down into and that we so narrowly escaped. Indeed, for those parts of the world that fell under Soviet sway, the escape postdated the end of the war by half a century.

Winston Churchill almost single-handedly held the line against what seemed inevitable defeat. He had the belief, the drive and, in a national context, most importantly the words to define and solidify the national response to onrushing disaster: unremitting defiance.

As such, this book is excellent. It reminds the reader just how close we came and what a debt we owe to Churchill and those others who stood firm beside him. Unfortunately, the writing itself never rises to the heights that Churchill himself regularly scaled, both on the page and in speeches. It’s workmanlike: honest stuff but nothing more.

Adventures in Bookland: The Exiled by David Barbaree

What responsibility does the writer of historical fiction have to the historical record? This tautly written, rather bleak thriller of Imperial Roman politics raises that question for the reader. In his author’s note, David Barbaree inform the reader that The Exiled is a work of fiction and that he has taken liberties that a novelist is allowed. But since many readers of historical fiction read the genre to be informed as well as to be entertained, it behoves the writer to inform his reader where he has taken these liberties. Unfortunately, Barbaree does not. So the unsuspecting reader might believe that Domitilla, the sister of the Emperor Titus, was alive and a key player in the events of his reign, including the aftermath of the eruption of Mount Vesuvius, when in fact so far as we know she died a decade before all the events of this story took place. Barbaree’s entertaining fancy as to the true fate of the Emperor Nero, which was the focus of his first novel, The Deposed, continues in The Exiled, and its inclusion is more understandable given the world he has constructed. Perhaps the book is best taken as an imaginative working out of the ‘What if?’ scenario that Nero did not die, but lived on, working behind the scenes of Imperial politics. As such, the book might perhaps be best thought of as historical fantasy, sans dragons and gods and nymphs, but with similar scant regard for what probably happened. Readers allergic to the use of the present tense and modern-day vocabulary in historical fiction might also want to be wary.

Adventures in Bookland: Superluminary by John C. Wright

Although marketed – and sold as – three separate books, this is really one rougly 500 page story split into three. A bit cheeky that – you end up paying, even for the Kindle edition, significantly more than you would if it was sold as what it really is, a single novel.

Still, I’ll forgive the marketing – it’s not as if writers are coining it (average wage £10,000 per annum), so if this gets John Wright a bit more in royalties, I can’t cavil – as the story itself is such a magnificently over the top piece of space opera. For you older SF fans out there: if you thought nothing could top EE Doc Smith’s Lensman stories, think again. To give an idea of the scales involved, Superluminary has War Dysons as one of its minor conceits! Arthur Clarke famously said that any sufficiently advanced technology is indistiguishable from magic: so it is here. Quantum physics, Aristotelian teleology, and every possible variant on the space-time continuum are employed to give an exhilirating veneer of plausibility to a ride that takes the reader to the galaxy’s core (engineered by Space Vampires as the ultimate weapon) all the way through to galactic ramming. This is SF on a scale so massive that it inspires smiles of awe at Wright’s sheer chutzpah. Can he possibly top this, you ask at the end of Book 1? The answer is, yes.

Now, after the praise, the criticism. Given that the book is quite expensive, the editing on it is far too sloppy. There are far too many typos, incorrect words and word order and sundry other editing errors. It does not look like it has been checked much beyond a spell check. That is sloppy, and takes the reader out of the story quite unnecessarily.

But it’s worth it for the ride.

On The Road

Next stops on the History Bros (in Law) Warrior road tour are two book festivals this weekend in Galloway, Scotland, and Carlisle, England.

At 1.30pm on Saturday 5 October, Paul and I are appearing at the Wigtown Book Festival in, of course, Wigtown. Tickets available here.

Then at 3.30pm on Sunday 6 October we are at the Borderlines Festival in Carlisle. Tickets here.

Forum Books – Tour Day 1

The History Bros had the first stop on our Warrior book tour yesterday, at Forum Books in Corbridge, and it went better than we could have hoped. Every ticket was sold and the good people at Forum even had to get in some extra chairs to accommodate more people who turned up on the night. Forum Books itself is everything an independent bookshop should be and completely delightful – as you’ll see from the photos below. One of the audience, journalist Ian Wylie, very kindly forwarded me these photos he took of the event. Find more of his work on Twitter @ianwylie. Our next stops, on Saturday 5 October and Sunday 6 October, are the Wigtown Literary Festival in Wigtown and the Borderlines Festival in Carlisle. I hope to see you at one of these. In the meantime, here are Ian’s brilliant photos of Tour Day 1.

The Complete Little World of Don Camillo by Giovanni Guareschi

It’s flat. Don Camillo’s world. Flat. Flatter than Norfolk. Flatter than the Netherlands. Flatter than a table. Completely, unrelentingly flat.

That world is the flood plain of the River Po, Emilia Romagna in Italy. The soil there, nourished by thousands of years of effluvium from the flooding Po, is the richest in Italy. Bologna, the provincial capital, has the best food in the country. But these are the stories of the people of the plain, of the farmers and mechanics and one large, ham-handed priest who suffer through the unrelenting glare of the summer, then suffer through the rising fog and the long damp of the winter. It was a malarial land, dangerous as well as bountiful, and its people were touched by its geography: harsh, generous, superstitious and pious. My relatives live there now, and it hasn’t changed so much since Don Camillo’s days in the middle of the 20th century. Yes, it’s richer, the coast is tourified, but the geography is still overwhelming.

Read these stories for a glimpse into an old Italy that still lurks, barely covered, beneath the new Italy.