A Cautionary note on “Historical” Fiction

There is one important word in the phrase ‘Historical Fiction.’

Clue: That word is NOT ‘Historical.’

If you want to learn history pick up a text-book, or a first hand account, or watch a documentary. Historical Fiction is fiction, first and foremost.

I won’t deny that some historical fiction novels are extremely accurate while others show brief glimpses of accuracy but you should not come to the genre actively seeking enlightenment on what life was like ‘back then.’

What it is good at is giving you an interest in a particular aspect of history, making you want to learn about certain events or times. For example, I read the first two books in Conn Iggulden’s Conqueror series and decided I wanted to know more about Genghis Khan so I looked him up online and I went to the library. At no point did I take Iggulden’s word as fact until I had it confirmed by a historian.

Now I’m not saying this is a bad thing, far from it. I love the Conqueror series but I’m also aware that it’s primary objective is to entertain, not educate. Iggulden is better than most when it comes to historical accuracy (Although he learned it after his Julius Caesar saga)

Here’s a few quick thoughts on historical fiction and some ways it differs from other kinds of fiction:

1. Character:

there’s lots of character driven fiction out there but for historical fiction the centrality of characters is imperative (doesn’t that sound awful fancy?).  The thing with historical fiction is we already know how it’s going to end – except in books that use only a historical setting with completely original characters and plot. if we don’t know a quick search on BBC history can tell us the answer. We know Brutus killed Caesar, we know Genghis invaded China, we know Rome won the Punic wars or that the North won the American civil war, we know that America ‘won’ the space race (Although I maintain that’s because they decided what constituted winning).

Therefore Historical fiction cannot keep us in suspense about the larger plot, especially if the main character is one of the more famous participants in these events. The only remedy for this is to make the characters extremely vivid, make it easy to relate to them, make us care about them so that we grow to care about the specifics of what happens to them. The subplot or romantic interest becomes important, even the details become more vivid. Yes Brutus killed Caesar in the senate house but hat was each of them feeling? How aware was Caesar of what was going to happen? Does the author make Brutus an assertive paragon of the republic bravely doing what had to be done or is he a cowardly senator pressured into it?

All of these are choices made by the author, they are what make it fiction.

2. Learn your history:

Just because the reader should not expect to learn any history doesn’t meant he author shouldn’t either. I’m not denying that people learn stuff historical fiction, I’m just saying it’s difficult to separate the history from the fiction.

actual inaccuracies Vs. Picking a version of history

author’s have to change stuff. They use their own interpretations, they pick specific versions of history or sides of a debate, they take advantage of periods when history is a little fuzzy or biased, sometimes they leave bits out to streamline the narrative, sometimes they make slight alterations to either a person’s character or an event to fit the story they are trying to tell, sometimes they fill in the gaps in history. All of these are choices. To make a choice you must first be informed on the subject.

There is NO excuse for shoddy research.

For example: Iggulden changed/fabricated a  lot of Caesar’s early childhood so that he cold set up his relationship with Brutus and explain their opposition more clearly. That’s fine. Getting simple things wrong, things which do not affect the plot in any way such as the  typical menu at a Roman feast, is just plain lazy(I’m looking at you Napier).

3. characters should not educate other characters!

I cannot state this enough but author’s should not try and catch the audience up or set the scene by having characters monologue the bleeding obvious at other characters (Yeah, I just used monologue as a verb. Got a problem with that?)

I mean that characters shouldn’t have a conversation where they explain to each other things about their world that they should already know by virtue of living in that world. No generals should not explain the structure of the army to each other, I’d have hoped they learned that before they became generals. Characters from the same city/nation/faction should not explain their customs to each other. Basically any conversation that starts with ‘as you already know…’ should set off warning bells.

But however will the audience understand? 

Forgive me if I’m wrong but isn’t that what narrators are for? Telling the story, explaining events, drawing the reader in, all that type of thing? John Stack has an excellent way of fitting this kind of exposition into dialogue without making it sound contrived. He has two main characters, one is a soldier in the legions from Rome. The other is a Greek and is captain of one of the first vessels in Rome’s tiny navy. In this context it would make sense that the characters have to explain stuff to each other as they work together. One doesn’t understand sea tactics, the other doesn’t get footsoldiers. One doesn’t understand Roman customs, the other Greek.

Please, if your characters explain stuff to each other make sure they have good reason to do so. If not ask yourself’ would it be better to leave it to my narrator to divulge this piece of information?’ Or, better yet ‘does my reader actually need to know this?’

I like historical fiction, there’s plenty of good novels out there and it’s a great way to get interested in history and discover things that you might otherwise have never heard about but remember that it’s first and foremost about the story.

REVIEW: ‘Ship of Rome’ by John Stack

Ship of Rome: Masters of the Sea 1 by John Stack

7 out of 10

I first read about Stack when an account of him writing this series about the Punic wars and getting a Harper Collins three book deal was published in the Irish Independent. However I’ve been unable to get a copy of it till now due to financial constraints and a woeful lack of historical fiction in my library.

The bad stuff first. This is another author who insists on itlalicising every use of a Latin word which does get very annoying when it happens two or three times on a page. I know it’s a minor complaint but after explaining the difference between a Holplon Shield and a Scutum shield he shouldn’t feel the need to highlight the fact that the word is Latin every time it is used, I know it’s not an English word and he kindly tells us what it means so there’s no need to break flow in a fictional narrative to obey academic conventions.

A love story between Hadria and Atticus is crowbarred into the plot but barely dealt with leaving a skeleton romance to be fleshed out in the sequels. The manner in which he deals with this is extremely clumsy, the counterparts barely meet then subsequently are separated for a long period of time. Upon their reunion they assert their love for each other despite Hadria’s only apparent quality being her beauty and they barely speak to each other up until this point.

Another scene which really got to me is the one in which Fabiola, wife of the senior consul Scipio, seemingly telepathically discovers the traitor in their servants who feeds information on Scipio’s plans to the Junior Consul. The information he passed on, about an enemy fleet  blockading Sicily, was also known by the crew of an entire naval vessel and a maniple of soldiers, none of whom were under orders to keep silent on the matter. They were all in a dock not twelve miles away potentially full of spies and informants, someone there could have easily heard the news and passed it on without Fabiola knowing but she dismisses this out of hand and just ‘knows’ that it was a servant listening on the other side of the door as Scipio told her the news. She even knows which servant because when Scipio called for him he had to do so three times. How could he not be a spy with psychic evidence like that?

There is some criticism of the historical accuracy in this novel but I don’t think it’s especially relevant as this is a historical novel some things have to be embellished, invented or left out for the benefit of the narrative and his writing style.

Some of his characterisation is stereotyped (Scipio, Gisco, Hadria) while some is excellent (Atticus, Duilius, Septimus). His main characters get the most development and detail so the few one-dimensional characters don’t drag down the story too much. His writing style overall is excellent. For a novel mainly concerned with war and strategy he paces it brilliantly, balancing description and action so that one doesn’t outweigh the other and neither is used when unnecessary to the story. For the various battle scenes he chooses a few characters, usually three, with different roles, objectives and allegiances, and flicks between them in short passages so that we get a fully comprehensive picture without any unnecessary overlapping.

Overall the book is an enjoyable read and I will read the rest of the series.

REVIEW: ‘Attila’ by William Napier

"Attila" Book CoverAttila: The end of the world will come from the East by William Napier

2 out of 10

I recently completed a module on the Later Roman Empire called Christians, Barbarians and the Fall of Rome. Roughly 4 months of lectures, study, exams, essay and there was not one mention of Attila the Hun. I decided this was false advertising so I bought The Attila trilogy by William Napier to fill in the gaps hopefully in an enjoyable way.

(small disclaimer before we proceed: I actually really enjoyed tha module, just in case anyone going to Maynooth reads this, it’s taught by Dr. Michael Williams, stick with him through the tedious Christian history because the Barbarian section is brilliant)

It turns out I should have just bought a textbook on the Huns. The first half of the book is extremely tedious. I can normally get through a book this size in a few days, a week at most but this took weeks because I really didn’t enjoy it, I didn’t look forward to reading it at all and couldn’t have cared less what happened to the pompous little Attila. The book deals with Attila’s boyhood in Rome and his attempts to return to his people. The Huns exchanged him with the son of a roman nobleman as insurance, so that both sides would have an incentive to remain allies rather than declaring all-out war on each other.

The first half of the book is crammed with so many ‘facts’, useless information and tidbits about the ancient world that on almost every page I can feel Napier thinking ‘I spent time researching this so I’m damn well going to stick it in, relevant or not.’ This along with extensive descriptions (pages about the food at a feast, or the words of a preacher who’s never mentioned again)  really drag down his story and slow up the pacing. It feels like he’s just stretching it into a trilogy for the sake of tradition, using all this as filler.

However, despite his relying on this infodump more than plot or characterisation for the first half I found myself questioning the reliability of every statement. I understand that when writing historical fiction you have to choose a version of history and stick with it, offering alternative theories just messes up narrative continuity, but I feel he is taking liberties all the same. Allowing for the fact that he wrote this in 2005, perhaps dominant theories were different then, it still seems like he got a lot of information about daily life wrong. He is setting up the trilogy for a clash of cultures, Romans freely offer opinions on those barbarian Huns whereas Attila scorns Roman decadence periodically but it all feels extremely forced and over the top. The description of a Roman feast at the start is so over the top indulgent that it felt like it came out of the Satyrica (An ancient novel specifically exaggerating the efforts of freedmen to join the upper classes in order to cast scorn upon this kind of decadence) rather than historical documents where descriptions of a groaning feast table are much more meager. A lot of the characterisation of barbarians by Roman characters is not in line with modern thinking on the ethnography of 4th century Rome but I won’t go on about this because as I said Napier did have to pick a version of history and he seems to have gone with he one that suited his ‘totally opposed cultures’ theme in every way.

His characters are blessed with remarkable foresight and psychic ability. All of them are constantly predicting the future accurately, General Stilicho even refers to the Dark Ages at one point, centuries before they happened and almost 1,000 years before the term was in general use. This foresight is apparent when Attila gets into a street fight in Rome as a twelve year old, he accidentally kills a man and all the onlookers see him as a threat, a powerful man, someone who they should soon fear rather than a young lost boy whose arrogance has just been cut back to size when he makes this mistake. Later an entire Roman century is more than happy to give up their lives to defend the hostage boy. Attila is fourteen at this point and with no opportunity in the two years to train, no mention of him having any knowledge of how to use a sword he is able to fight alongside them. From snivelling boy after accidentally killing someone to fierce warrior, and indeed one of the only survivors of the battle, is a little hard to believe without at least some mention of practicing. Genetics seem to be doing all his work for him.

I found there were inconsistencies in tone, language and technique in the novel. Archaic seeming language, almost attempting to imitate Virgil and ancient historical chroniclers frequently gives way to modern phrases, slang and curses with an extremely jarring effect. Because he relies so heavily of fact for most of the novel an extremely mystical scene with an old woman who turns into a young girl, can read their thoughts and induce visions seems extremely out of place and almost irrelevant. One thing in particular that annoyed me was his insistence on italicising any word or phrase that was not in English. He doesn’t have to follow the academic standard when writing fiction, it’s a minor thing that breaks flow but I found is especially annoying when characters were speaking. What’s even more annoying is when a character says a Latin phrase and then the english translation in the one breath. They’re supposed to be speaking in Latin al the time anyway so why would they need to translate the words for each other? I would have preferred if the narrator provided the translation or if it was all in English because the use of Latin, Celtic and Hunnish words seems like another instance of him doing too much research and being determined to show it off.

However the book picks up a lot towards the end, for one reason or another he seems to run out of things to say and there are very few written sources on the Huns so once he gets all his lecturing out of the way the story isn’t too bad I’m willing to forgive the aspects of his style I didn’t enjoy so long as the story becomes much faster paced and as I can’t afford a different book on Attila now I’ll continue with the series.