Historical Musings #29: All at sea

After last month’s post in which I discussed my feelings about battle scenes in historical fiction, this month’s is on a similar topic: scenes set at sea – which may or may not include sea battles! With air travel being a relatively recent invention, it’s obvious that travel by ship or boat is going to play a significant role in many historical fiction novels. This is something I have often struggled with, but that is starting to change, thanks largely to my decision to read Patrick O’Brian’s Aubrey-Maturin series. This is the beginning of my review from February 2013 of the first book in the series, Master and Commander:

I do not usually like books set at sea. However hard I try, I just can’t seem to keep track of the nautical terms and as soon as I see words like ‘mainsail’, ‘fo’c’sle’ or ‘bosun’ my brain just seems to switch off. As a fan of historical fiction, I have been unable to avoid this entirely – after all, until the 20th century the only way to cross the sea was by ship and many historical fiction novels do involve a sea voyage or two – but the thought of reading a book where seafaring forms a major part of the plot is always quite daunting for me.

Four years later, and I am now in the middle of the sixth book, The Fortune of War. Although I still can’t claim to understand all of the naval terms or to follow everything that is happening in the sea battles, I feel that I can understand and follow as much as I need to!

Some other historical novels I’ve read with strong nautical elements:

Captain Blood by Rafael Sabatini

She Rises by Kate Worsley

The Time of Terror by Seth Hunter

Jamrach’s Menagerie by Carol Birch

Sea of Poppies by Amitav Ghosh

Some of Dorothy Dunnett’s novels also feature passages set at sea, as do Diana Gabaldon’s – as well as The Song of the Sea Maid by Rebecca Mascull, which I read a few months ago and loved, and the book I have just finished reading, Shadow of the Moon by MM Kaye. In books like these though, the sea travel arises naturally from the story, as a way of getting the characters from one point to another, rather than the author sitting down to specifically write a nautical novel. As I said in last month’s post on battles, if I have already formed a connection with the characters and care about what happens to them, I will be interested in reading about any situation they find themselves in, even if it’s something I might otherwise find boring or challenging.

How do you feel about historical fiction set at sea? Do you have any good ship-based books to recommend?


New to my historical fiction shelves since last month’s post:

* Circe by Madeline Miller – I’ve been waiting for another book from Madeline Miller since reading The Song of Achilles in 2012. This won’t be published until 2018 (I got a copy from NetGalley) but it’s the story of the witch from the Odyssey and sounds intriguing!
* The Tudor Heritage by Lynda M Andrews – This is a reissue of a book about the early years of Elizabeth I’s reign, originally published in 1977.
* The King’s Bed by Margaret Campbell Barnes – I’ve read a few other books by Margaret Campbell Barnes so couldn’t resist this one about an illegitimate son of Richard III.
* The Coffin Path by Katherine Clements – Having enjoyed Katherine Clements’ previous two novels I was delighted to receive this 17th century gothic ghost story from NetGalley too.

* And one non-fiction book: Queens of the Conquest by Alison Weir – I know very little about most of the medieval queens featured in this book, so I’m expecting to learn a lot!

Have you added any new historical fiction (or non-fiction) to your shelves recently?

Historical Musings #28: Battle scenes – love them or hate them?

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?

Historical Musings #27: A new list…

I have almost reached the end of my Classics Club list – a list of 100 books I put together in 2012 and have been slowly working through for the last five years. I was officially supposed to finish in March this year but didn’t quite manage it – although I’m not too worried about that, as I think taking my time to enjoy the rest of the books on my list is more important than rushing to meet a self-imposed deadline. Over the five years, I have discovered lots of great authors and have tried different types of books that never really appealed to me before, such as classic science fiction and plays. However, you won’t be surprised to hear that I also read a lot of classic historical fiction!

The books I have read for the Classics Club which can also be considered historical fiction include:

Lorna Doone by RD Blackmore
A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens
The Three Musketeers by Alexandre Dumas (and its sequels)
Mary Anne, Frenchman’s Creek and The Glass-Blowers by Daphne du Maurier
Romola by George Eliot
The French Lieutenant’s Woman by John Fowles
I, Claudius by Robert Graves
The Hunchback of Notre Dame by Victor Hugo
The Princess of Cleves by Madame de Lafayette
The Scarlet Pimpernel by Baroness Orczy
Scaramouche, Bellarion, The Sea-Hawk and Captain Blood by Rafael Sabatini
Ivanhoe and The Heart of Midlothian by Sir Walter Scott
Prince of Foxes by Samuel Shellabarger
The Master of Ballantrae by Robert Louis Stevenson
Kristin Lavransdatter by Sigrid Undset

And a few others, including my current read, The Leopard by Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa. When I finish The Leopard, the only books remaining on my Classics Club list will be my long-anticipated re-reads of two of my favourite books, Rebecca and The Count of Monte Cristo. I have already started thinking ahead to creating a second list to begin later in the year – and I would like your help!

Can you recommend some classic historical fiction for my next list?

I know I asked a similar question a while ago, but that related to classics by women only. I received some interesting suggestions at the time, particularly these four:

The World is Not Enough by Zoe Oldenbourg
The Fortunes of Garin by Mary Johnston
Shadows on the Rock by Willa Cather
The Scottish Chiefs by Jane Porter

I have also been considering these:

Claudius the God by Robert Graves
The Cloister and the Hearth by Charles Reade
In a Dark Wood Wandering by Hella S. Haasse
The Black Arrow by Robert Louis Stevenson
The Betrothed by Alessandro Manzoni
La Reine Margot by Alexandre Dumas
The Fifth Queen trilogy by Ford Madox Ford
Captain from Castile by Samuel Shellabarger
Something else by Rafael Sabatini
Something else by Sir Walter Scott


Do you have any more suggestions for me?

To decide whether a book is ‘historical fiction’, I use as a guideline the Walter Scott Prize definition: the majority of the storyline must have taken place at least 60 years before the book was written. Defining a ‘classic’ is more difficult, so I’ll leave that up to you to decide!

Historical Musings #26: Judging a book by its cover…

There was a recent Top Ten Tuesday topic on book covers which I would have liked to have participated in but already had another post scheduled for the same day. Better late than never, though, so for this month’s Historical Musings post I thought it would be fun to look at some of the various types of covers which tend to be used for historical fiction novels. There are only seven on my list rather than ten, but you will probably be able to think of more.

The ‘faceless woman in a pretty dress’ cover

Example: The Queen’s Governess by Karen Harper

I didn’t have to look very hard to find some of these covers on my shelves! This design has become very popular in recent years and although there are some variations – sometimes we can see part of the face and sometimes we can see only the back of the head – the overall effect is the same. I have read that a lot of publishers like to use these covers because obscuring the woman’s face creates mystery and avoids the problem of readers complaining that her appearance doesn’t correspond to the author’s descriptions. However, this type of cover is usually associated with light, romance-focused historical fiction and, depending on reading tastes, might put some people off; there are exceptions, of course, so it’s not always fair to judge. As a separate issue, there’s the question of whether the dress is appropriate to the time period – I won’t go into that here, but you may be interested in this list of anachronistic covers on Goodreads.

The ‘swords and shields’ cover

Example: Insurrection by Robyn Young

These have the opposite effect to the previous type of cover, I suppose. When I see a cover with a shield, sword, helmet, flag or something similar, I expect the story to be action-packed with lots of battle scenes, not much romance and probably a male protagonist rather than female. Again, there are exceptions, but in general these novels have a very different feel from the headless women novels and will often appeal to different readers (although there are plenty of examples of both that I’ve enjoyed).

The distant lands cover

Example: The Far Pavilions by M.M. Kaye

Many historical fiction novels have a strong sense of place as well as of time, and sometimes the publisher will choose to use that as the selling point for the book. One of my favourite historical fiction novels, The Far Pavilions, wouldn’t have worked if it had been set anywhere other than India and Afghanistan, hence the picture and the quote on the cover of my edition – “A Gone With the Wind of the North-West Frontier”.

The tie-in cover

Example: North and South by John Jakes

These are my least favourite types of cover, particularly if I haven’t already watched the adaptation in question. I prefer to form my own visual impression of the characters as I read, rather than have somebody else’s interpretation already in my head before I start, and I like other readers to be given that opportunity too. (I did love both the book and mini-series versions of John Jakes’ North and South trilogy, though, and must read/watch them again one day!) Tie-in covers are not specific to historical fiction, of course, and occur across all genres; although I don’t like them, I can understand the reasons behind their use. Here’s an interesting article from the Guardian.

The illustrated cover

Example: Cashelmara by Susan Howatch

This could overlap with some of the other sorts of cover listed above, but I thought I would still include it (and it gives me a chance to mention another book which is on my must-reread-soon list, along with some of Susan Howatch’s others). Do you prefer books with old-fashioned illustrations on the cover rather than the stock photographs and images that are more popular these days? What about covers with portraits or reproductions of famous paintings (like Girl With a Pearl Earring)?

The ‘what were they thinking?’ cover

Example: Lion of Alnwick by Carol Wensby-Scott

Not too much to say about this one, other than that whoever designs the covers sometimes doesn’t get it quite right. I thought Lion of Alnwick was a good book which deserved a much nicer cover!

The simple but striking cover

Example: The Winter Isles by Antonia Senior

Sometimes a publisher will avoid all of the above options and go with something basic and neutral. This makes it difficult to judge the book by the cover and to decide at a glance whether it’s something you want to read or not, but the advantage is that it’s not immediately off-putting to readers. (If you’re wondering, I’m reading The Winter Isles now, so haven’t posted my thoughts yet!)


What do you think of the covers pictured above? Would they make you more or less likely to pick up the book?

Historical Musings #25: Ancient Greece

Historical Musings As discussed in a previous Historical Musings post, despite my love of historical fiction I have never really felt drawn to novels set in the ancient world. I’m not sure why this should be, but I have certainly read very few books set in Ancient Rome, Greece, Egypt or other ancient cultures, and feel much more comfortable with settings from the medieval period onwards. Since that previous post, when I specifically asked for suggestions of Roman novels to try, I have read Robert Harris’ Cicero trilogy (which I loved and can’t recommend highly enough), Margaret George’s The Confessions of Young Nero, and my current read, I, Claudius by Robert Graves, so I think I’m over my aversion to Ancient Rome! Now I need some help with Ancient Greece…

Thinking about books I’ve already read that are set in Ancient Greece, there are some but not many. I have read Homer’s Odyssey (in a translation by TE Lawrence), though not the Iliad yet – it’s debatable whether you would consider those to be historical fiction, I suppose, but they’re obviously a good starting point for exploring Greek history and myth.

Based, like the Iliad, on the Trojan War, there’s The Song of Achilles by Madeline Miller, which tells the story from the perspective of Patroclus, and Hand of Fire by Judith Starkston, this time retelling events through the eyes of Briseis. Briseis is also one of the main characters – the other is Chryseis – in Emily Hauser’s For the Most Beautiful, which I read last year and enjoyed. I’ve recently received a review copy of the next book in the series, For the Winner, a book about Jason and the Argonauts and the Golden Fleece.

The books I’ve mentioned so far are all inspired by Greek mythology, some of them including appearances by gods or other mythological beings. Burning Sappho by Martha Rofheart is a bit different, concentrating on the life of Sappho, the Greek lyric poet from the island of Lesbos.

Finally, I must mention Mary Renault, a beloved author of many readers when it comes to historical novels set in Ancient Greece. So far I have only read The King Must Die, the first of her two novels telling the story of Theseus in a way which gives plausible explanations for elements of the Theseus myth. I enjoyed it, but didn’t fall in love with it the way I’d hoped to, and still need to read the sequel, The Bull from the Sea.

What are your favourite books set in Ancient Greece? Have you read any that I’ve mentioned here?

Historical Musings #24: Ireland

Historical Musings

With St Patrick’s Day less than a week away – and to join in with the Reading Ireland Month being hosted by Cathy and Niall – I thought I would devote this month’s post to a discussion of historical fiction set in Ireland.

The first books to come to mind when I think of Irish historical fiction are two very big novels by Edward Rutherfurd – Dublin and Ireland: Awakening (published in the US as The Princes of Ireland and Rebels of Ireland), two books taking us through the entire history of Ireland from the year 430 to the 20th century. I read these books years ago and they gave me an excellent overview of Irish history.

Another novel set in the distant past – and fitting perfectly into the St Patrick’s Day theme – is Joan Lesley Hamilton’s The Lion and the Cross, a novel about the life of Patrick himself.

I love a good family saga and I can think of two set in Ireland. The first is Hungry Hill by Daphne du Maurier; although the name of the country in which it is set is never actually named, it’s obviously supposed to be Ireland. The second is Cashelmara, one of several novels written by Susan Howatch which I read a long time ago and remember loving. The story is set in 19th century Ireland, but the lives of the characters cleverly mirror the lives of several Plantagenet kings. This – along with Howatch’s Penmarric and The Wheel of Fortune – is on my list for a re-read.

Staying in the 19th century, why not try The Convictions of John Delahunt by Andrew Hughes, a dark and atmospheric historical crime novel about a young student at Dublin’s Trinity College who comes up with a very dubious solution to his money problems. I am currently reading Hughes’ second novel, The Coroner’s Daughter, which is also set in Dublin and, so far, is a great book too. I can also highly recommend The True and Splendid History of the Harristown Sisters by Michelle Lovric, only partly set in Ireland but featuring a wonderful set of Irish characters. And you may have seen my review last week of The Good People by Hannah Kent.

Moving forward into the early decades of the 20th century, there’s The Secret Scripture by Irish author Sebastian Barry. Like all of Barry’s novels, it’s worth reading for the beautiful writing alone. Of the other books of his that I’ve read, On Canaan’s Side and The Temporary Gentleman are set partly, but not entirely, in Ireland.

There’s also Ghost Light by Joseph O’Connor, a novel written in the second person (which is quite unusual) and telling the story of the actress Molly Allgood and her relationship with the playwright John Millington Synge.

Another Irish author whose books I enjoy is John Boyne, but most of his are not actually set in Ireland. However, The Heart’s Invisible Furies, which I’ve recently read but haven’t reviewed yet, takes place in Ireland as well as in several other locations around the world, and spans several decades from the 1940s to the present day. Finally, I want to mention The Herbalist by Niamh Boyce, in which a mysterious stranger arrives in a small town in 1930s Ireland – and also Colm Tóibín’s Brooklyn, which gives some insights into the life of a young Irish immigrant in 1950s America.

Have you read any of these books? Can you recommend any more historical fiction set in Ireland? If not, I hope I’ve given you some ideas for future reading here!

Historical Musings #23: Time Travel

Historical Musings

I have always loved the idea of being able to travel through time so with my interest in history it’s not surprising that I enjoy reading fiction with an element of time travel. My recent read of The Phantom Tree by Nicola Cornick (in which a young woman from Tudor England travels forward to the present day) made me think of other time travel – or time-slip – novels I’ve read over the years. Before I start to list them, let’s see what Wikipedia has to say about the difference between time travel and time-slip:

The difference is that in time slip stories, the protagonist typically has no control and no understanding of the process (which is often never explained at all) and is either left marooned in a past time and must make the best of it, or is eventually returned by a process as unpredictable and uncontrolled.

It would seem, then, that time travel is deliberate and time slip is accidental, but thinking about the books I’ve read, it’s not quite as simple as that – sometimes a book doesn’t fit neatly into either category or is a mixture of both.

The first time travel books I can remember reading as a child were Madeleine L’Engle’s Time Quintet. The one that stands out most in my memory is Many Waters, in which twins Sandy and Dennys travel back to Biblical times – the days of Noah’s Ark – in a world populated by supernatural beings such as the Seraphim and the Nephilim. I also read Tom’s Midnight Garden by Philippa Pearce, probably at around the same age, although I can remember very little about that book now. Most of my time travel reading has been as an adult.

The House on the StrandThe House on the Strand by Daphne du Maurier is one of my favourite time travel novels. Interestingly, I found that with this book it was not so much the historical storyline (14th century Cornwall) which interested me as the method of time travel, the fascinating questions it raised and the impact it had on the life of the person doing the travelling.

Then there’s Anya Seton’s Green Darkness, a book I read years ago, before I started blogging The movement between time periods in this novel takes place not as physical time travel but through reincarnation: a modern day American girl, Celia, relives a previous existence as a servant in Tudor England. Although most of the plot has faded from my mind, I still remember the atmospheric descriptions of the manor house, Ightham Mote.

Lady of Hay by Barbara Erskine is a similar story about a woman from the 1970s who undergoes hypnosis and is regressed to a former life as Matilda de Braose, a 12th century noblewoman. Sleeper’s Castle, published to mark the 30th anniversary of Lady of Hay, is the story of a woman in modern-day Wales who begins to have vivid dreams taking her back to the 1400s and Owain Glyndŵr’s rebellion against the English.  Erskine has written a lot of other time-slip novels, although I haven’t read many of them yet.

MarianaI can’t talk about time-slip novels without mentioning Susanna Kearsley, whose books have impressed me more than Erskine’s. Not all of them involve a form of time travel, but those that do include Mariana (which takes us back to the 17th century), The Rose Garden (18th century Cornwall) and The Firebird (18th century Scotland and Russia). I think Kearsley makes the time travel in her novels feel quite natural and believable; the transitions between one period and another are very smooth.

I have already mentioned The Phantom Tree; I haven’t read Nicola Cornick’s previous novel, House of Shadows, but I’m looking forward to it. I think readers who enjoy Cornick may also be interested in Pamela Hartshorne’s novels. The one I read – The Edge of Dark – follows the story of a present day woman who begins to experience the memories of a woman who lived in the Elizabethan period.

And finally, there’s Diana Gabaldon’s Outlander series in which World War II nurse Claire Randall walks through a circle of standing stones to find herself in 18th century Scotland. There are eight books in the series so far; I loved the earlier ones, but was slightly less enamoured with the last two.  I’ve reviewed the most recent books, An Echo in the Bone and Written in My Own Heart’s Blood, on my blog, but I strongly recommend starting at the beginning and reading the series in order.


The titles above are the ones which came instantly to mind when I started to write this post. I was sure I must have read more, so I had a look back through my blog archives and was reminded of a few others:

The River of No ReturnThe River of No Return by Bee Ridgway – set partly in the modern day and partly in the Regency period. This would be a good choice for readers who are interested in the actual mechanics of time travel; I noted in my review that this is a novel “where the manipulation of time forms a big part of the plot – jumping forwards in time, jumping backwards in time, freezing time, speeding time up and slowing time down”.

Shadow of Night by Deborah Harkness – the second book in the All Souls Trilogy, in which our two main characters – a witch and a vampire – travel back in time to the year 1590.  I remember finding the time travel aspect a bit confusing in this one.

Kindred by Octavia E. Butler – this is a great novel about a black woman in the 1970s who is pulled into the 19th century and finds herself on a Maryland plantation where she meets one of her ancestors, who happens to be a slave owner.

The Map of Time by Felix Palma – an unusual novel made up of three separate but interlinked stories which pull the reader backwards and forwards in time.  HG Wells, author of The Time Machine, even appears as a character in this book.

Now it’s your turn.

Have you read any of the books I’ve mentioned above?  What are your favourite time travel/time-slip novels?  Which methods of time travel do you find most convincing?  I am particularly interested in hearing about books which involve travel to or from the past, but if you prefer books which take us forward to the future – like The Time Machine – feel free to recommend those too.