It looked so promising

As I’ve joined a history book club, I’m sharing a post I wrote a while ago about a historical novel… which unfortunately, I didn’t enjoy!

It looked so promising; it was set just after the fire of London in 1666, there was a disappeared young woman, people murdered in peculiar ways, intrigue and mystery – so the cover promised me. The author is well-respected, has won many awards, has written many other books.

I am not always a great fan of historical fiction, although I loved the Shardlake books by C.J. Sansome, and going back to much earlier reads, the Claudius books by Robert Graves, and Mary Renault’s novels and Brother Cadfael by Ellis Peters – not forgetting Rosemary Sutcliff! I’ve read most of the Lindsey Davis, and most recently the Red Tent by Anita Diamant…

There is an incredible amount of detail which I am sure is accurate, the clothes people wore, the way they lived, their houses, their food, the geography of the place and what the burnt out and still smouldering city must have looked and smelt like…

However, however I just have to admit I am not really enjoying it, and I confess, I’m rather disappointed. So it is not the genre, it’s not the period, it’s not the accuracy… is it me? Somehow I feel as if I’m wading through The Ashes of London by Andrew Taylor. In one review it is described as ‘gripping, fast-moving and credible, reaching a climax in the ruins of St Paul’s…’ Well, I’m a couple of chapters off the climax and I guess I do want to know what happens, but if  it wasn’t for the fact that I have to finish it for book club tomorrow night I think I would be reading it more slowly and interspersing it with something else… in fact, last night I even picked up a history of the Anglo Saxons and galloped through a couple of chapters of that.

So why am I struggling? Maybe I haven’t engaged with the characters – the story is told by a young man and also in the third person a young woman barely out of her teens. Maybe it’s the clichés… people are forever biting their lips till they draw blood, their faces look like skulls beneath the skin for example… I shall be interested to see what the book club say – usually I’m the one who has a different opinion, so I’m used to that!

I found a list of fifty well-known historical novels, and I’ve picked out the ones I’ve read; the ones I’ve enjoyed are in bold :

50 Essential Historical Fiction Novels

  • I, Claudius Robert Graves  – A fictionalised autobiography of the Roman emperor Claudius.
  • Wolf Hall Hilary Mantel-  – Booker Prize winner documenting Thomas Cromwell’s rise to power in the court of King Henry VIII.
  • The Three Muskateers Alexandre Dumas – Swashbuckling tale of d’Artagnan and the three Musketeers in 17th century France.
  • A Tale of Two Cities Charles Dickens – Parallel stories intersect in London and Paris during the French Revolution..
  • The Thousand Autumns of Jacob De Zoet David Mitchell  – Love story between a clerk for the Dutch East India Company and a disfigured Japanese midwife.
  • War and Peace Leo Tolstoy Tolstoy’s – epic masterpiece depicting the French invasion of Russia during the Napoleonic era.
  • Gone With the Wind Margaret Mitchell – The Pulitzer Prize-winning tale of the American South during the Civil War and Reconstruction.
  • The Luminaries Eleanor Catton  – This Booker Prize winner part love story, part mystery, set against the backdrop of New Zealand’s 19th century gold rush.
  • August 1914 Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn  – An epic chronicle of events leading up to the Russian Revolution.
  • Midnight’s Children Salman Rushdie – A  story of children born at or near the moment of India’s independence from Britain.
  • The Name of the Rose Umberto Eco -A highly literary murder mystery set in a 14th century Italian monastery.
  • The Hunchback of Notre-Dame Victor Hugo – A Gothic novel that inspired a flood of tourists to Paris’ most famous cathedral.


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