Continuing on my previous musings of historical novels, I must own that my very first introduction to the genre of historical novels began with M M Kaye’s The Shadow of the Moon- set in 1857 India, it chronicles the Sepoy Mutiny through the principle characters of Captain Alex Randall and Winter de Ballesteros. It might not be her most famous book, especially when one compares it to her epic work – The Far Pavilions, the immortal love story of Captain Ashton and Princess Julie, in the backdrop of the third Anglo Afghan War, but maybe I read the former at an impressionable age, it remains a favourite! I know all the high brow’s are lifting thier eye brows at my taste, but I love MM Kaye…so there!
When it comes to historical novels,nothing beats the genre of James Michener and lately Edward Rutherford. Of all Michener’s writings, The Source remains my all-time favourite and a comfort book. I am obsessed about Israel and a story about this land is told through the multiple layers of its history and the heirs of Ur (the first man), it’s bound to much used in my collection! Then there are what I consider flighty historical novels – Leon Uris and his Mila 18, Exodus and The Haj, all of which I have read and re-read and adore, but cannot be really considered serious body of history, many be excluding Exodus. They are great reads, but thier historcial depth leaves a lot to imagination! Then there is Michelle Moran; she has written exhaustively about Egyptian History – Nefertiti, The Heretic Queen and Cleopatra’s daughter, but I believe the one book that is far better than all of these is her last work – Madam Tussaud. It’s a rich complex tale of young a Marie Tussaud, an artist specializing in wax figurines and forced to make death masks in the background of the French Revolution. Again great stories but no sense of real history. Then there is Lord Jeffery Archer and his Cane and Able and Where the Crow Flies and Only Time will Tell. Great reads set usually during the period of 1890-1950s, documenting the rise and fall of iconic characters and their loves and lives. Read em, enjoy em and forget em! There is Philippa Gregory and her mammoth works on Tudor England, especially The Other Boleyn Girl and it’ sequels, The Queen’s Fools, The Virgin Lovers etc. Not particularly correct history, but then I could be completely mistaken!
In terms of serious classic historical novels, I think Umberto Eco and Hillary Mantel lead the brigade. I took forever to read The Name of the Rose, but once I finished it, I was in awe of the whole work. Not many people like the book and there is enough controversy around the same, but at the end of the day it’s a very good read. Wolf Hall is also a modern classic as Mantel explores the rise and fall of Thomas Cromwell in a brilliantly researched book, which keeps very close to history. There is Robar Harris and his Imperium, Lustrum and Pompeii and if you cannot guess, they are all based on Ancient Rome and I am not particularly fond of them and find these works tedious! There is John Masters and his series of novels based on Colonial India, The Nightrunners of Bengal, The Ravi Lancers and his most famous Bhowani Junction, though I think his best work is The Nightrunners. Alex Rutherford, the pseudonym for the husband and wife duo of Michael and Diana Preston who have written a very accurate and extremely captivating series on the first five Mughal Emperors of India. A S Byatt is another well-known literary figure requiring little introduction. Her Possessions captures the beauty of Victorian England and merging with lyrical poetry that traces the forbidden love affair of Randolph Henry Ashton and Christobel LaMotte. I am even more enamoured of her “The Childern’s Book’ which traces the lives of Wellwoods and Cains through 1890’s to 1914, though there are times I do feel the story should “get a move on”. Colleen McCullough and her Master of Rome series is also an exhaustively researched work that traces the end of Roman Republic.
My unmatched picks are Conn Iggulden, and JG Fuller and Peter Carey. Iggulden has written extensively on rise and fall of Julius Cesar in his four part novels – The Empire series. But my personal favourite are his Conqueror series that traces the rise and fall of Chengiz Khan and Mongols during 15th century. Rich in details and customs, it not only presents Chengiz in wholly different light, without any apologies for his deeds. Valerio Massimo Manfredi is another of my favourites. I loved his The Alexander Trilogy, but my real prized possession is The Lost Army, based on the accounts of Xenophon and his Anabasis and the legion of 10,000 that was sent to support Artaxerxes II against his brother, Cyrus of Persia, it is tale that vividly captures the life and times of Ancient Greeks and one of the most remarkable adventures in human history. JG Fuller won his Pulitzer for The Seize of Krishnapur and I must own its one of finest accounts of the Indian mutiny without any unnecessary glorification to the cause of either side and a true account of men and women tested in most trying times. Oscar and Lucinda is Pater Carey’s best. He has written The True History of the Kelly Gang – epic tale of a family through the various stages of Australian history and can be aptly called the great Australian novel. But nothing, and I mean absolutely nothing compares to Oscar and Lucinda, the obsessive compulsive gamblers on a boat to Australia and an incorrigible bet of transporting a glass Church from Sydney to Bellingen, come together to make a classic read!
To end with, I must confess, I have a huge thing for Salman Rushidie’s works, though many a times his writings take me on an intellectual trapeze act where my mind can no longer follow! I know enough has been written and cried about Midnight’s Children, so I’ll let it be and instead talk about The Enchantress of Venice that interplays and alternates between 16th century India and Akbar’s court and the 15th century Florence! It’s filled with images and scenes that bring it to life two magnificent eras of world history with all its caprices!