Ambassador of Books ~ Book Club Madam ~ Blogger Gal

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Choosing Epic Historical Fiction ...

I’ve recently been disappointed in a few historical novels I’ve read (or listened to), books I thought I’d enjoy. This was really bothering me so I gave it some serious thought and came up with a theory:

In order for me to enjoy an historical novel, especially once that is “epic” in scope (and especially ones with lots of battles in it), I need to have a real connection with the characters; their stories need to be the focus of the book.

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.

*** Giveaway Reminder: I'm giving away a copy of THE LOCAL NEWS by Miriam Gershow - click here for details. ***


Lezlie said...

Isn't it great when you make discoveries like this about your reading? I don't necessarily need a character for me to connect, but it really depends on how the rest of the story is presented. Sometimes it's the situation or the cause that I can relate to moreso than the characters themselves.


Heather J. said...

Lezlie - I always thought that was the case with me, but I really think that for epic stories, I need something personal to latch on to. I was so thrilled when I figured this out - it should make it much easier to choose good epic books!

Jamie said...

Heather, I have the same issue, but it applies to every book I read. I must have some sort of personal feeling to get through it, or I'm just going to put it down without ever finishing it. One book I really had a problem with was Toni Morrison's "Beloved". I couldn't relate to the people in the story, or follow the dialect it was written in, and so it now is gathering dust on my bookshelf.

okbolover said...

I prefer having characters to get attached to as well although sometimes it's good for me to just read something without getting attached - in that case I'm hoping the events in the book are so mind blowing that characters are secondary to me.

I love Cornwell's books. He's excellent :)

Heather J. said...

Jamie - For me the problem is really with epic novels - the story seems to big if there isn't a personal connection. Doesn't it make life easier when you really understand your reading preferences?!

okbolover - Thanks for commenting, I haven't seen you here before. :) Always glad to find another Cornwell lover! BTW, have you read Agincourt? I'm really struggling with the audio book right now ...

Lydia Hirt said...

Hi Heather:

I was thrilled to discover your site today, as your topics and content appeal to women and mothers in a smart and friendly tone. I have a historical fiction novel that I think may be perfect for you: while maybe not "epic", it is tale of a mother's love in Victorian England.

I work in the marketing department of Putnam and Riverhead and we’re excited to announce the first title by debut novelist Erica Eisdorfer, THE WET NURSE’S TALE and extend an advanced readers copy to you.

Featuring a bright and clever, sharp-tongued heroine in the business of nursing babies in Victorian England, this tale is endearing and gripping. Susan Rose is an atypical protagonist with a lovable personality that shines despite her low-class status. Try to imagine how Susan’s life goes astray when her child is sold to a London woman! While on a quest to find her son, Susan is thrown into a world of secrets and deception that will keep you turning the pages.

Loved by author Elizabeth Gilbert of Eat, Pray, Love fame, I’m confident you’ll enjoy Eisdorfer’s story and voice. If you’re interested in receiving an advanced readers edition please send me an email at with your mailing address.

Thanks and best of luck with your blog and family!

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