Let me give you some examples.
- I absolutely love the Bernard Cornwell series called “The Saxon Chronicles.” According to Cornwell’s website this series tells “the tale of Alfred the Great and his descendants through the eyes of Uhtred, an English boy born into the aristocracy of ninth-century Northumbria, captured by the Danes and taught the Viking ways.” The framework of the books is the consolidation of what would become England. Most of the characters are historical figures. But the storyline follows Uhtred’s life – HE is the focus of the books. He is telling his own story, complete with all the personal details that endear a character to a reader. I learned so much about this period in history through this series all while enjoying a great story about a character I was invested in. [Here are my reviews of book 3 and book 4 of the series.]
- On the other hand, I was a bit disappointed by Steven Pressfield’s book GATES OF FIRE. This book tells the story of the Spartan defense at Thermopylae (the same story depicted in the movie “300”). The Persian King Xerxes is so impressed by the Spartans that he commands Xeo, a Spartan warrior’s assistant and the lone survivor of the battle, to tell him the story of the men who fell in the battle. Rather than focusing on Xeo’s story, Pressfield uses Xeo to tell the story of Sparta itself and a few of its best warriors. Again, I learned a great deal from this book (and I really enjoyed learning it) but the characters felt too distant for me to be really attached to them. Everything was on such a large scale that I was lost in the melee. I needed a character I could identify with and feel close to in order to really appreciate this book. [Here is my review of this book.]
- I had the same problem with Pressfield’s TIDES OF WAR. In this book too most personal details are left out or glossed over as they don’t affect the outcome of the epic. But for me, that was the fatal flaw – I NEED something personal to latch on to otherwise I don’t care about the story. [Here's my review of this book.] Right now I’m listening to Bernard Cornwell’s AGINCOURT and having the exact same issues – the story is really about the war, not about the main character.
All this may not sound very profound to you but it is a revelation to me. I love historical fiction and history in general and now I have a better idea of how to choose historical novels that will really appeal to me.
One more quick thing …
As I was working on this post Nymeth wrote a review of LAVINIA by Ursula le Guin. This book is about the end of Trojan War and the early days of the Roman Empire, told from Lavinia's perspective. In her review Nymeth says, “unlike what sometimes happens with epics, I never felt distant from the characters or the story.” That is exactly what I was talking about above! I think LAVINIA might be the perfect book for me.
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