It’s an unfortunate fact that war and conflict have played important roles in shaping the history of just about every country in the world. It’s not surprising, then, that they also have a big part to play in many historical fiction novels. From Viking invasions to medieval sieges to the trench warfare of World War I, it can be difficult to avoid battle scenes of one sort or another when reading books set in the past.
I wouldn’t necessarily complain about books containing too many battle scenes – obviously, as I’ve said, the impact of war throughout history is something which can’t and shouldn’t be ignored, and it would be hard to write about certain time periods without covering at least some of the military history of that period. However, I don’t always find battle scenes particularly interesting to read and often find myself becoming confused, no matter how hard I try to concentrate and follow what is happening. Of course, there are plenty of exceptions: I will sometimes comment in a review that “I even enjoyed the battles”, which is high praise from me! I remember being completely gripped by Sharon Penman’s portrayal of the battles of Barnet and Tewkesbury in The Sunne in Splendour – and while I much preferred the peace sections of War and Peace, I found that some of the most powerful and memorable moments occurred in the war chapters.
In general, though, it’s fair to say that I am not really a big fan of battle scenes, which is why I tend not to be drawn to authors like Bernard Cornwell or Conn Iggulden very often. It’s not just the battles themselves that I sometimes struggle to engage with – it’s everything else that goes with them: discussing military tactics, planning campaigns, learning to use weapons etc. Again, there are exceptions and some authors still succeed in holding my attention with these scenes, but I would usually prefer them to be just one aspect of a novel rather than the main focus.
Sword fighting is a different matter. I love a good fictional duel! Rafael Sabatini’s Scaramouche has some great duel scenes – and there’s one in The Game of Kings by Dorothy Dunnett which has to be one of the most tense and exciting scenes I’ve ever read, partly because by the time the scene appears in the novel we are so emotionally invested in the two participants that it would be impossible not to be on the edge of our seats. And actually, I think that is why, in terms of larger-scale combat scenes, some of them work for me and some don’t – it’s all down to the emotional connection. If I can be made to feel that I’m there on the battlefield with a character I already care about and want desperately to survive, then I’m probably going to enjoy reading that scene.
Then, of course, there are sea battles – but I think that’s a topic for another post!
How do you feel about battle scenes in historical fiction? Do you love them or hate them? Which authors do you think write the best battle scenes?
New to my historical fiction shelves this month:
* Widdershins by Helen Steadman – I can’t wait to read this new novel about the 1650 Newcastle witch trials.
* Glendower Country by Martha Rofheart – The kindle version was free on Amazon last week and as I’ve enjoyed some of Martha Rofheart’s other books I couldn’t resist this one, set in Wales. (Also published as Cry God for Glendower.)
* The Mermaid and Mrs Hancock by Imogen Hermes Gowar – This one sounds fascinating so I was pleased to receive a review copy from NetGalley, but the publication date is not until January 2018 so you’ll have to wait a while to hear my thoughts on it!
* Fire From Heaven by Mary Renault – I’ve been interested in reading Mary Renault’s Alexander the Great trilogy for a while and was lucky enough to find a copy of the first book in my favourite bookshop, Barter Books, yesterday.
* The Flower Reader by Elizabeth Loupas – Another one from Barter Books. I have read and loved two other books by Elizabeth Loupas, so I’m looking forward to reading this one.
Have you added any interesting historical fiction to your shelves lately?