This year I am taking part in the Historical Fiction Reading Challenge 2022, hosted here. There are six different levels to aim for, and they are:
- 20th Century Reader – 2 books
- Victorian Reader – 5 books
- Renaissance Reader – 10 books
- Medieval – 15 books
- Ancient History – 25 books
- Prehistoric – 50+ books
Since historical fiction books are often chunky beasts, and since I don’t want to read only historical fiction this year, I’m going to aim for the Renaissance Reader level. I’ve now hit the 20th Century Reader level, and here are the books I read…
The Evening and the Morning by Ken Follett
You know how I was saying historical fiction books are chunky? This one is 897 pages. It spans the years 997 to 1006, so it’s all Anglo Saxons, Normans and Vikings. It follows a boatbuilder, a noblewoman and a monk as their lives intertwine, and they contend with a Machiavellian bishop.
There’s a lot to like about this novel. It has a consistently engaging plot, full of twists, turns and intrigue. It doesn’t present a sanitised version of the past (slaves are pimped out, criminals are castrated) and there’s no silly straightwashing either (one of the main characters is gay and there are plenty of other queer characters).
Unfortunately, the depth of world-building and plot leaves the characters looking rather shallow, and I wanted more nuance from them. Also, I’m not entirely sold on Ken Follett’s style – too much exposition made me feel like I was getting a history lesson at times. I enjoyed reading this book, but it didn’t linger in my mind afterwards.
The Fortune of War by Patrick O’Brian
I can’t write anything sensible about Patrick O’Brian’s Aubrey-Maturin series because I love it too much. Instead, here are my five favourite things about this novel (mild SPOILERS):
- Jack Aubrey’s hat gets eaten by a wombat in chapter one. Stephen Maturin is more concerned with his wombat’s digestion than Jack’s hat. These books are so f*cking funny and I always forget that until I start reading one.
- There are a couple of actual, honest-to-God murders. In a series full of battles and bloodshed, these somehow manage to be shocking.
- Jack and Stephen call each other “brother” all the time, which I guess is just the 19th century equivalent of “bro”, but it hits those found-family feels all the same.
- Stephen’s relationship with Diana Villiers is … rekindled? No, not exactly. Interesting stuff happens.
- The battles. OMG, the battles.
I need three more hist fic books to reach the Victorian Reader level, and any recommendations will be gratefully received. Is anyone else doing the Historical Fiction Reading Challenge?