Historical Fiction is not always historically accurate, but that’s okay. Please see Part One for more words on the subject and the first half of this list.
I’ve written a bit about Michael Moorcock in one of my previous posts, and I return to him again with Gloriana, his rather fantastical and darkly imagined take on the reign of Queen Elizabeth I. Moorcock always takes pains to write fantasies lacking in idealism, and the England (or Albion) of Gloriana is an unpleasant, decadent, and bloated empire ruled by a debauched queen, with the book’s lurid descriptions of the kingdom and its court sometimes bordering on the didactic. Written as “a dialogue with Spenser’s The Faerie Queen“, Gloriana offers a rare, unabashedly fantastic take on a supposed golden age that is not afraid to confront the ugly realities of the period.
The Sot-Weed Factor
John Barth is an occasionally difficult author known to interlace his works with complex structures and esoteric ideas, but his works are also filled with ribald humor, genuine cleverness and exciting storytelling. The Sot-Weed Factor, his most well-known work, tells the story of Ebenezer Cooke, ‘Poet-Laureate and Virgin’, a somewhat over-aged innocent traveling throughout Colonial America whilst attempting to write an epic poem about his homeland. Primarily what drives this story is the quirkiness of its characters and the adventurous spirit of the novel, but the work also contains extended portions examining the actual events surrounding American colonization, including a notably different take on the story of John Smith and Pocahontas.
Baudolino, for what it’s worth, grants the reader a reprieve from Eco’s traditionally overstuffed and extravagantly erudite style of writing. This may or may not be a good thing, since I tend to enjoy the challenges his fiction offers, but even with its deceptive simplicity, Baudolino stands with Eco’s best works. Set in the High Middle Ages, Baudolino is the story of the titular character, a born liar and the adopted son of German Emperor Frederick Barbarossa, as he travels across Europe using his genius and penchant for lying to solve the various problems of the continent. To get the full gist of the story you are best served to have several degrees in European history, but even if you fall short of this requirement it is not hard to grasp the central thesis of the book: the way history, myth, and outright fabrication all contribute to our perception of the past. Most of the book plays it straight, but in the last third of the story we follow Baudolino to the legendary and quite fictional realm of Prester John, where he encounters satyrs, unicorns, blemmyes and other inventions of the medieval mind. Although the story is straightforward, much of it is based around a complex, multilayered examination of truth and fiction and the story may leave the reader with some fairly heavy lingering philosophical questions. (What is reality? How does mythmaking affect our understanding of history and the immanence of time? Did anything real actually happen to Baudolino or did I just read a 500-page novel that was some guy riffin’ on made up stuff!?)
The Baroque Cycle
Like science? Want to read a 2600 page trilogy about the establishment and early history of science, including excessive jargon, seemingly endless tangents on subjects you never thought to consider, complex historical analysis and bold, occasionally revolutionary diatribes on the changing nature of science and evolving paradigms in the way we view nature and reality? Neil Stephenson is a science nerd par excellance, and he requires that his readers be the same. Traditionally challenging, dense, and packed with facts you don’t need to know but should anyhow, his books excel because as an author he rarely forgets the fundamentals of a good story and fills his work with excitement, fun, and, in the case of ‘The Baroque Cycle’, some good swashbuckling. Set during the time of Isaac Newton’s inquiries into science, the novels track the story of a group of scientists (or natural philosophers, as they were known at the time) as they seek to develop the systematized method of thought and analysis later to become the scientific method. Lots of other stuff too. And there are enough bizarre and decidedly pseudoscientific events occurring in the series to place them disticntly in the camp of science-fiction, even if the optimist might declare that some of the oddities throughout the story are more improbable than impossible, and that Stephenson is educating us about branches of science that are yet to be uncovered.
The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet
The most recent work on this list, and directly and openly inspired by Norfolk’s Lempriere’s Dictionary. Set in Japan during the Napoleonic Wars, (making it the third book on this list set in that period,) The Thousand Autumns chronicles the lives of Dutch traders living on a small traders’ post in Nagasaki Harbor, attempting to adapt to the alien culture as well as to the changing times. For the most part this book is very straightforward, and might read as some exceptionally well-written spinoff of the ‘Shogun‘ novels, but the inclusion of an immortal Zen master and his rather enigmatic temple adds what is, for my money, some old fashioned science fiction goodness to an otherwise very unremarkable tale of culture class, forbidden love, and days of trade and plunder. I won’t say too much about what happens, but I will say I have a distinct theory about what Mitchell leaves to the reader to figure out. (Hooray for me.) Also, let it be noted that Mitchell has announced this book IS a science fiction novel, despite the scarce evidence to prove it as such, and he is currently planning two sequels that will involve the theme of immortality and take place in the far future.