This is one of the best historical novels I’ve ever read. Williams perfects the formula used in Burke in the Land of Silverand Burke and the Bedouin, this time transporting his spy to France and later to Belgium, where he and his loyal friend William Brown take part in one of the most famous battles in European history.
The book opens with Burke and Brown infiltrating a Bonapartist plot to assassinate the Duke of Wellington, and from there sets them on the trail of a dangerous agent of the Corsican. As in previous books, Burke must make full use of his wits, his courage, and his uncanny knack for inhabiting a new identity so completely it nearly overtakes him.
Also as in previous books, Burke gets plenty of time to use his seductive charms, though this time around he finds a woman that he cannot control and, moreover, with whom he begins to fall in love, in a subplot that underscores the difficulty of finding a happy love life for a man in the service of His Majesty.
And then there’s the battle itself, which Williams describes vividly and dramatically. Honestly, it felt more immediate and exciting than watching the movie Waterloo. Williams somehow manages to make it suspenseful. I could almost forget the known historical facts, temporarily, and feel as uncertain of the outcome as any soldier on the field that day. “A damned nice thing,” indeed…
I’ve read books about, watched documentaries on, and seen dramatizations and reenactments of Waterloo. And I’ve always found it a little tough to follow. For a long time, I chalked this up to my own blockheadedness. But, reading this book, and especially the author’s afterword, I learned there is still much about the battle that is not well understood. Certain aspects are confusing and weird. Like Marshal Ney’s unsupported cavalry charge. What was that?
Oh, well. I imagine it was a confused nightmare of artillery fire, charging horses, and multiple loosely-coordinated armies. Under such circumstances, even first-hand observers could hardly be expected to remember clearly what they saw, or what they did. The one thing everyone seems to agree on was that the field in the aftermath of the battle was a horrific hellscape of carnage, noxious with the smell of the dead and the screams of the dying, and this book portrays that, as well as a hint of the soul-searching that the survivors must have gone through.
This is everything you could want out of historical fiction: a gripping story interwoven with enough details of life in the period to give you a little taste of what it would have been like to be there on that fateful day.
I normally review modern novels and short stories. This was written in the 14th century, and it’s describing events in the 2nd and 3rd centuries. It’s not really a novel, and definitely not a short story. It’s more along the lines of something like the Iliad–a combination of historical account and mythology.
And of course, it was originally written in Chinese. In fact, it’s one of the most famous works of ancient Chinese literature. I read the 1925 translation by Charles Brewitt-Taylor. There are more recent translations, but I deliberately chose an older one because a translator can’t help coloring his translation with his own impressions.
Brewitt-Taylor was an Englishman, and his translation shows a rather Victorian sensibility. So this is looking at a historical-mythopoetic account of ancient China through the lens of an early 20th century Briton. What better way to view one past empire than through the eyes of another?
The book is vast and sprawling, covering numerous battles, political intrigues and other events. The core characters are Liu Bei and his brothers Guan Yu and Zhang Fei. Brothers by sworn oath rather than blood, the trio participate in countless battles and grand historical struggles.
Liu Bei is the closest thing to a hero in the story–wise, capable and humble, he usually manages to extricate himself and his brothers from a variety of dangers.
There are shifting alliances and Machiavellian intrigues on every page. (Can I say “Machiavellian” when the events depicted predate Machiavelli by about 1400 years? Discuss.) Also, huge battles and reports of troop movements that are pretty hard to follow for one as ill-trained on Chinese geography as I am. I have at least read Sun Tzu, who is referenced briefly here.
Also, note that the word “romance” in the title is being used in the classic sense, of a medieval legend. Think the stories of King Arthur. Because it’s almost completely devoid of romance in the sense we think of it today. Marriages are arranged strictly for political purposes, and wives and concubines are treated as property.
Of all the hundreds of characters, I believe there are three women who have actual lines of dialogue. These are all rendered in weirdly submissive third-person terms: e.g. a character will refer to herself as “thy unworthy handmaid.” It’s pretty shocking to a modern sensibility. But I suppose everything about life in ancient times would be.
The central theme of the book is the struggle for power. Constantly, nobles and generals are scheming for ways to take power, and to hold it once they’ve got it.
The exception to this is Liu Bei. Despite being supremely capable, he remains humble and unassuming. One would almost say unambitious, and yet he continually rises, by virtue of his ability to positions of command which he hardly thinks himself worthy.
As depicted in the legend, Liu Bei essentially embodies the Confucian concept:
“The ancients who wished to illustrate illustrious virtue throughout the Kingdom, first ordered well their own states. Wishing to order well their states, they first regulated their families. Wishing to regulate their families, they first cultivated their persons.”
This is sometimes paraphrased as, “To set the nation in order, first set ourselves in order.”
The real Liu Bei of course is somewhat more complex than the character of legend, although he still seems well-regarded by history.
That said, the most fun parts are the translator’s renderings of the condemnations heaped upon Liu Bei’s enemy, the villainous minister Cao Cao. For instance:
“Thus Cao Cao is the depraved bantling of a monstrous excrescence, devoid of all virtue in himself, ferocious and cunning, delighting in disorder and reveling in public calamity.”
The version of the book that I have includes the Chinese Hanzi next to the English translation. For fun, I tried looking up the words in the quote above with this miraculous site, to see if it would render Brewitt-Taylor’s translation back into Chinese in anything like the same characters. But the translation didn’t seem to match up with what I was seeing. Even with the hint, via Wikipedia, that this: 曹操 is “Cao Cao,” I still struggled to match what I read on the page with the translation.
However, learning Chinese is not necessary to use this book as a window into a fascinating period in history–several periods, in fact. Given its massive length, it will probably be a while before I tackle Volume 2, but I’m glad I read this one.
Nola Fran Evie is a story about four women, each trying to make a difference in the world. The three title characters are all players in the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League, organized in the 1940s. The three starred for the Racine Belles, until the league folded when taken over by businessman Harvey Shaw.
The three women go their separate ways from there, until they meet again at a Cubs game–Nola bringing her baseball-loving son, Fran photographing the action, and Evie as the unhappy wife of the same Harvey Shaw.
From there, their lives intertwine in strange ways, as each tries to cope with life after baseball in her own way, amidst the conventions and prejudices of the 1950s. Nola juggles single motherhood with work, Fran wrestles to control her own fiery emotions, and Evie struggles with her loveless marriage.
All three women’s stories are told through flashbacks, prompted by items found in an old handbag by the fourth woman, Jacks, another baseball lover who discovers them as she is in the process of boxing up her belongings for a trans-Atlantic move.
The different threads blend together well, and each of the main characters is clearly and distinctly drawn, each with a vivid personality that makes them enjoyable and memorable. I especially enjoyed the interactions between Nola and her son.
In the end, all three characters’ stories tie together in a logical and satisfying way. And Jacks, too, finds herself fitting into their tale as well.
This book is more driven by characters than by plot, but the crisp prose and witty dialogue make it all flow smoothly; the story never drags, and the jumps between different time periods are handled well.
I was expecting the book would feature more baseball than it actually does, but after roughly the opening quarter of the novel, the sport becomes secondary–though still important as a way of bringing people together, and as a metaphor. (To be honest, this was kind of a relief to me–I’m not a big fan of the game. But even I could appreciate how well-written the baseball portions were.)
There are memorable lines throughout Nola Fran Evie, and I was consistently impressed by Skrabanek’s skill at memorable descriptions. Even details like clothes and household objects–which I sometimes find myself skimming past in books by big-name authors–are described with wit and care.
This is a charming, well-crafted book with lots of period atmosphere and vivid characters. Nola, Fran and Evie feel like real people, so much so that I suspect different readers will react differently to each one. Fran’s personality really stood out to me–she reminded me of someone I once knew, and Skrabanek explores her psychology so well that I felt as if I understood my old acquaintance better for having read the book. That is a testament to the quality of the writing.
Lovers of feminist literary and historical fiction, take note: Nola Fran Evie deserves your attention.
My dad has told me for years I have to read this book, along with another of Roberts’ novels, Oliver Wiswell. Well, Wiswell isn’t on Kindle, but Rabble in Arms is. So the choice of which to buy seemed obvious, although as it turned out, it might have been better to go with a physical copy–more on that later.
Rabble in Arms is set in the early years of the American Revolution, and is told from the perspective of Peter Merrill, an American patriot and merchant who joins the rebelling colonists.
Peter’s brother Nathaniel also joins, but is constantly distracted by Marie de Sabrevois, a beautiful but devious woman who is obviously (to everyone except Nathaniel) a spy for Britain. Peter himself falls in love with her niece, Ellen.
Repeatedly, Peter is thwarted in his efforts to court Ellen by the actions of de Sabrevois, and likewise his attempts to look after his brother are thwarted by the same. Well, that, and the war gets in the way too, as the Americans–represented by a colorful cast of supporting characters, highlighted by the one-dimensional-but-still-funny Doc Means–continually find themselves struggling against the mighty British Empire, thanks to a blundering, out-of-touch Congress and a number of incompetent, bureaucratic officers.
Patriot officers are depicted as a pretty worthless bunch in Rabble in Arms, with one significant exception: General Benedict Arnold. Indeed, it became pretty clear early on that Peter’s romance with Ellen, and Marie’s seduction of Nathaniel, and all the antics of Doc Means and the other supporting characters, are just filler sub-plots. What Roberts was really out to do with this book was rehabilitate General Arnold’s image. (Peter at one point tells the reader, “It has not been my purpose… to tell the story of Benedict Arnold.” But he’s lying.)
And frankly, it seems like Roberts has some legitimate points. How many people know that Arnold was wounded fighting for the Americans in the invasion of Quebec? For that matter, how many people know the Americans invaded Quebec? The aftermath of this invasion forms the first act of Rabble in Arms, and Arnold’s heroics are the highlight. The fact that the action was a defeat for the revolutionaries is laid at the feet of other officers.
Likewise, in the American retreat, Arnold is portrayed as a master strategist and brave warrior. Presumably, Roberts made his fictional narrator a ship captain so he could have a front row seat for Arnold’s feats of daring at the Battle of Valcour Island.
Roberts seems to be on firm factual ground here. Wikipedia (As my statistics teacher used to sarcastically call it, “the most valid source ever.”) summarizes: “The invasion of Quebec ended as a disaster for the Americans, but Arnold’s actions on the retreat from Quebec and his improvised navy on Lake Champlain were widely credited with delaying a full-scale British counter thrust until 1777.”
After Valcour Island, our heroes are captured by a tribe of Native Americans, who later turn them over to the British, who then turn them back over to the Native Americans again. If anyone is wondering how the Native Americans are portrayed, I guess I’d say, about like you’d expect from a book written in 1933.
All the characters who aren’t actual historical figures are basically stock caricatures. The only two female characters who say anything of substance are the pure, sweet, innocent Ellen and the evil, manipulative temptress Marie. The Madonna/Whore complex is strong with this one!
After more misadventures, one odd interlude with a captured Hessian soldier, and more problems caused by Marie, Peter makes it back in time to witness Arnold win the battles of Saratoga, despite being stripped of official authority by the bumbling General Gates.
Again, Roberts has the facts on his side here: Arnold indeed performed bravely at Saratoga, and was again wounded–shot in the same leg as in Quebec.
The penultimate chapter is a summary of why Peter will always defend Arnold, in spite of his subsequent treason. Indeed, Peter (who is clearly acting as a surrogate for Roberts here) even defends Arnold’s betrayal, arguing that Arnold came to view Congress as a greater threat to the United States than the British Empire.
While I was doing research for this review, I came across something interesting: Benedict Arnold’s open letter “to the Inhabitants of America.” That’s right; back in 1780, shortly after his betrayal, Arnold tried to explain himself to the people he’d just sold out. I recommend reading the whole thing. But here’s the key bit:
I anticipate your question, Was not the war a defensive one, until the French joined in the combination? I answer, that I thought so. You will add, Was it not afterwards necessary, till the separation of the British empire was complete? By no means; in contending for the welfare of my country, I am free to declare my opinion, that this end attained, all strife should have ceased…
…In the firm persuasion, therefore, that the private judgement of an individual citizen of this country is as free from all conventional restraints, since as before the insidious offers of France, I preferred those from Great Britain…
If we take Arnold at his word–which admittedly is a dangerous thing to do with the most infamous traitor in history–he was defecting because he didn’t like Congress making an alliance with France. That’s pretty ironic, considering it was the Arnold-led victory at Saratoga that persuaded the French to enter the war.
Throughout Rabble in Arms, Peter makes repeated reference to the Continental Congress giving undeserved military ranks to French officers, passing over more qualified Americans to do it. He doesn’t explicitly connect the dots between that and Arnold’s betrayal too closely, but the pieces fit.
(For what it’s worth, the most famous Frenchman to fight for the American colonies, the Marquis de Lafayette, went to France to secure military support for the Americans in January 1779. Arnold set the wheels of his betrayal in motion in May 1779. Make of it what you will.)
I’m not saying it’s accurate, but Roberts laid out a plausible case here: Arnold feels Congress is overlooking him. Congress is casting their lot with the French. Arnold doesn’t like Congress, and he doesn’t like the French. So, he thinks America is better off negotiating with the British. Arnold was perhaps the first (but not the last) American patriot who believed he had to fight the government in order to save the country!
Arnold wasn’t just betraying Congress. He was betraying the men who had fought with and for him, and the families of the men who died for him. He was betraying the trust Washington had shown in him by giving him command of West Point. (While Arnold was generally disliked and unpopular among his comrades, Washington seems to have been one of the few people who actually liked and respected him.)
This is where the “Arnold-had-to-betray-America-in-order-to-save-it” theory breaks down a bit, and other possible reasons for his betrayal start to loom large.
Despite his best efforts, Roberts’ novel comes up short in persuading me that Arnold’s treason was justified. Arnold was no doubt a brave soldier, and quite possibly a brilliant strategist. He may well have been badly treated by men not half as skilled as he was. But I just can’t buy the conclusion that Arnold did it, as the narrator claims, “to fight a greater threat than England.”
So, Rabble in Arms doesn’t fully succeed as pro-Arnold propaganda, but it makes a solid effort. Arnold gets all the best lines, and when he’s not around, I found myself longing for him to get back into the story. The rest of the book is pretty standard historical adventure type stuff, though it’s not without its charms. Roberts could make the occasional keen insight. For instance:
“The vainer a man is, the tighter he clings to his preconceived notions; he’s afraid of someone accusing him of changing his mind, which would show he hadn’t been the all-wise possessor of all knowledge from the moment of his birth.”
All in all, it’s a decent book if you like historical fiction and can stand a tale that takes a–well, let’s just say, a very old-fashioned approach to portraying its non-white and female characters. It’s actually pretty mild by the standards of its time, really. I’ve read other books from the period that just ooze racism and misogyny; this is more patronizing.
And now, a word of caution for those who buy it on Kindle, as I did. Whatever software they used to scan the pages of the physical copy to make the electronic version has some flaws. Quite often, a word was misinterpreted by the scanner, and an incorrect word inserted in its place. It was usually possible to figure out the correct word from the context–“lie,” for example, was throughout rendered as either “he” or “be”–but this got annoying after a while. I could never be sure if some characters’ names were really what they appeared to be. It would have actually made for an interesting meta-literary device had it been done intentionally and in another context–I was always second guessing what I read, like an unreliable narrator story.
I wouldn’t say this ruined the book for me, but it was irritating, and some readers may prefer to spring for the physical version and avoid the hassle of things like figuring out that when a character appears to say “TU he,” what he’s actually saying is “I’ll lie.”
Imperial Passions is a sweeping historical novel told from the perspective of Anna Dalassena, who at the beginning of the tale is a 14-year-old orphan girl living with her grandparents. Over the course of the novel, she grows up, marries, becomes a mother, and through it all is witness to many major events during a tumultuous time in the Byzantine Empire–emperors and empresses rise and fall, wars are waged, and all the while daily life goes on in what was then one of the most powerful cities on Earth
A major plot thread is Anna’s hatred for Constantine Ducas, a powerful official in the imperial court who viciously abuses his wife, Anna’s cousin Xene. Ironically, by the end of the book, she finds her family in an uneasy alliance with the man–though he is clearly maneuvering to gain power for himself, just as many of the other palace bureaucrats do.
One of the things I liked most about the book is the way the political machinations cause real effects in the characters’ daily lives. Another plot thread is how the government levies taxes on its citizens to build extravagant churches and palaces, while failing to pay soldiers on the empire’s edge. It’s one thing to read that someone is an officious bureaucrat–it’s another when you read that their corrupt tax collection scheme is robbing the main character. (The Econ major in me also liked seeing an early example of Ricardian equivalence.)
The large cast of characters is composed largely of actual historical figures, though in a few cases Stephenson takes understandable liberties, given the relative lack of historical information. Some of the most memorable characters are Anna’s uncle Costas, who teaches her about strategy through their frequent chess games, and the bureaucrat Psellus, a “Vicar of Bray“-like character who manages to retain his high office by constantly courting the favor of the various rulers.
Imperial Passions is a truly ambitious work, and Stephenson clearly has done extensive research. Almost every aspect of Byzantine life is covered–food, clothing, travel, religion, marriage and almost anything else you can think of is discussed in some fashion. As a result, the story is rather slow to unfold. If you like a rapid-fire plot with lots of sudden twists and turns, it might not be your cup of tea. And there are times when the otherwise commendable commitment to authenticity hurts the flow of the tale–for example, since many of the characters are historical figures, there are a lot of duplicate names. I wish I had a solidusfor every “Marie” and “Constantine” who crops up.
Also, because there are few historical novels about Byzantium, (compare with how many there are about, say, Tudor England) some readers may be intimidated by the unfamiliar setting and the forbidding Byzantine terminology, although there is a helpful glossary in the back. But it’s well worth sticking with it, even–maybe especially–for readers unfamiliar with the setting, because you will end up learning quite a lot about a fascinating and unjustly neglected period in history.
[Imperial Passions is available here. Also be sure to check out the author’s website for lots more information on the Byzantines.]
[The following is an email interview I conducted with Eileen Stephenson, author of Tales of Byzantium: A Selection of Short Stories. It’s a very enjoyable book, and a great introduction to an unjustly-neglected time period. Ms. Stephenson’s answers are very helpful for independent authors, especially those writing historical fiction. Enjoy!–BG]
Q: How did you first become interested in Medieval Byzantium?
A: It was all because of the 2-3 hours I spend commuting to the day job. I came to rely on audio books for my sanity. One Saturday at the library, searching the shelves I came upon John Julius Norwich’s A Short History of Byzantium. I didn’t know much about them, and expected little. Then in the introduction, the author says that the one thing you could never say about the Byzantines is that they were boring. “Oh, really?” I thought skeptically. He was right, though, as the three bookcases I now have filled with Byzantine history will attest.
Q: The third story, “Alexiad” is about Anna Comnena writing “The Alexiad”. I liked that it focused on a woman as the central character. Can you tell me a little about women in Byzantine society?
A: Medieval women anywhere usually had few rights and less education. However, 11th and 12th century Byzantium saw literacy, even for women, become common down into the middle classes. There were women doctors – paid about half as much as the men, and expected to work twice as many hours, but still far ahead of western Europe.
The Eastern Roman Empire (Byzantine) had three women ruling empresses. The first was Irene the Athenian, the 8th century widow of an emperor and mother of another emperor. However, her reputation is tainted by the fact that she blinded her son to take the throne. The next was Zoe in the 11th century. She was the oldest surviving child of an emperor and married three men who each took the title of emperor at their wedding. After Zoe and her last husband died, Zoe’s sister, Theodora, succeeded them and ruled alone for 19 months before dying.
During the Comnene era, from 1081 to 1185, women frequently influenced events, starting with the heroine of the novel I’m working on, Anna Dalassena, even if they never fully ruled in their own right. There were more than a few women of that period who left their mark in history.
Q: Both Anna Comnena and Constantine VII, who features prominently in the first story, seem to have been very notable because of their writing. Do you think that history is often, as you write in the notes to “Alexiad”, “told by the writer”? And if so, to what extent do you think that their perspective skews our understanding of history?
A: History is definitely told by the writer, although often the writer is paid by the winner. I think in Anna Comnena’s case she wrote partly because, with her intelligence and education, she needed something to do in the long years of her confinement, and partly to honor her father. Anna’s brother, the Emperor John II Comnenus, was a notably modest man and kept no historian on staff to record his accomplishments, so there is little history of his reign.
A better example of writers skewing perspectives is the 6th century historian, Procopios. A courtier in Justinian I’s reign, he wrote a typically bland official history and then he wrote his Secret History, a salacious retelling of every possible mistake and ugly rumor concerning Justinian and his wife, Theodora. I’ve never looked for a copy of his official history, but his Secret History is in paperback and still quite a read. That’s the one that people remember now.
Q: What is the most challenging thing about writing historical fiction? How do you balance historical accuracy vs. well-paced narrative, if the two conflict?
A: The most challenging thing about writing historical fiction is the writing. Grasping the elements of grammar is a start, but then there’s the need for a well-crafted story holding the reader’s attention. You can’t build a sturdy house just knowing how to hammer a nail.
Balancing historical accuracy vs. the well-paced narrative can be challenging but my reading of some stars of the genre – Sharon Kay Penman, Elizabeth Chadwick, Colleen McCullough – have provided examples of how to do it. Often it means having long periods of time pass between some chapters, while other chapters occur in close time proximity.
Q: What is the number one reaction you would like readers to have to your book? Do you want them to be more interested in studying history, or do you want them gripped by the story/characters?
A: Reading historical fiction as a kid made me want to learn more about the history. With the Byzantines, it was the history that came first, and when I found little fiction about them, I knew that was what I had to write. The reaction I hope my readers have is that the story and characters so grip them that they want to learn more about the history.
Q: What other authors in the historical fiction genre influenced you?
A: Sharon Kay Penman, Elizabeth Chadwick, and Colleen McCullough would be highest on that list. Others are Bernard Cornwell, Thomas B. Costain, Philippa Gregory. I’ve been fortunate to meet other historical novelists in the Historical Novel Society and many of them have been kind enough to share their wisdom with me. It’s been a great experience.
Q: If you were to write an “alternative history” story about Byzantium, what historical event would you like to change?
A: I think most historians would wish the outcome of the Battle of Manzikert to be different. But Manzikert was just the result of forces put in play thirty years earlier when Empress Zoe chose as her third husband a frivolous spendthrift who disastrously weakened the empire. So I would probably say my alternative story would be a better husband for Zoe than Constantine IX Monomachos.
[My thanks to Ms. Stephenson for her time and very thoughtful answers. You can get Tales of Byzantiumhere.]