If there ever was a year in my life that cried for some escapism, 2020 was it. I’m not saying it was the worst year or anything (personally, I’ve certainly had more troublesome years), but the barrage of worrying news was more deafening than ever. So, what better way to cope with that than to retreat to a comfortable armchair and lose oneself in a story of times gone by, of battles fought and won or lost a long time ago, whose impact on today’s life is indirect (and yet often crucial). Thus, here are the three best historical fiction books I read this year.
The third book in the Masters of Rome series deals with Sulla’s dictatorship including the wholesale condemnation to death of his political enemies and the aftermath when Sulla voluntarily withdrew from power. In the afterword, McCullough mentions that this is the last book in the series into which she could pack all historical events reported of the time (as from around 70BCE on, the source material is so abundant that it is no longer possible). And that’s exactly what this book reads like – like a mix of Appian, Plutarch, and Suetonius. McCullough finds important whatever they find important – so, a lot of military and legislative details, and the choice anecdote to illustrate personalities (and atrocities). That lends the book an air of immense authenticity, as the reading feels very close to an actual ancient text – just embellished by more private scenes and the polishing of modern fiction writing (although not too much of that).
The characters are now more familiar to the general reader – and, with more source material about them, also more detailedly constructed. Only Caesar stands out – as the precocious, arrogant genius who cannot do wrong. McCullough’s infatuation with Caesar seems excessive, then again, as a Caesar fanboy myself, I cannot and will not blame her.
A sweeping end to Hilary Mantel’s Thomas Cromwell trilogy. Once more, we are inside the mind of a fascinating man for whom interrogating prisoners, browbeating ambassadors, outmaneuvering dukes, and gently nudging his king to do the right thing (that is, the thing that benefits England, protestantism, and Cromwell, in that order) is his daily work. Cromwell contains distinct contradictions: He is the son of a brewer and blacksmith, but holds the highest offices at court, he has a certain thuggish aura which he cultivates, but also a gentle wit and genuine compassion, his phlegmatic approach to his business makes the highest stakes seem low. He is a complex hero, in which one can see why he has been painted as the great villain in so many other accounts. In the end, what does him in is when he strays from his previous policy of rather bending than breaking, when his idealistic commitment to a German/protestant alliance wins over a realistic abandonment of it once the king dislikes his new wife.
Although the book could certainly a bit shorter (the middle part drags at times), it is remarkably constant in its entertainment value, with a thousand little gems of wit in the dialogue. That is an achievement in itself.
Two very good books! Yet this year, the winner could only be…
Okay, I cheated. Again! This book is set in contemporary America, yet it is, as the subtitle has it, a novel about history, and about the various ways to engage with it – the academic one, the high school one, and finally the brand of amateur armchair generalship prevalent in online forums and at board game tables in which our protagonist, high school student Sean Lansbury engages.
The author Darren Kilfara is not a stranger to the historical conflict simulation himself (at least at the time of writing he was a regular at the Consimworld forums), and it shows in his sympathetic and nuanced portrayal of why someone would want to play a long, complicated game on World War II, a topic fraught with atrocities, over and over again. Kilfara is not afraid to tackle the more negative aspects of the community (and to display the problems war gamers often have introducing their hobby to others), yet in the end, the book ends on a cautiously optimistic note.
If you are interested in the themes of the book in further detail, check out my review here!
Which historical novels did you enjoy this year? Let me know in the comments!