Tuesday, 22 December 2015

This year's reading list

Normally I don't read a lot of fiction, but 2015 has seen a bit of a shift in that stance. This year I've managed to read (that I can remember) 11 novels - all historical fiction. That is probably not much for some people, but I do tend to spend most of my reading time reading books about true stuff, rather than made up stuff.
The change in focus has come about largely thanks to two authors and their series - Conn Iggulden and Ben Kane. Most readers are probably familiar with Iggulden, he has been around for a while and wrote the 'Emperor' series about Julius Caesar (who wasn't an Emperor, but more on that soon) and the Conqueror series about Genghis Khan - who was definitely a conqueror. In the last couple of years he released a new series which focuses on the Wars of the Roses, and it is a stunner. I've devoured all three books this year: Stormbird, Trinity and Bloodline, and can't wait for the next installment. The series has made the Wars of the Roses, a bit of a confusing period in many ways, very accessible. Admittedly there is some license taken with some of the events and the characters develop the way that the author wants them too, but in general, if you are intending to play WotR using Lion Rampant then this series is for you!

I enjoyed these books so much I went back to his series about one of my favourite historical personages of all time - Julius Caesar. I read two chapters of Death of Kings and threw it down. Historical fiction can twist and tweak history, but there is stuff that you just don't muck around with, and it was mucked with pretty badly. In case it was just that book, I then picked up the last book in the series, The Gods of War. This time I only got through one chapter. To be fair, no-one is going to write about this period better than Colleen McCullough did in her First Man of Rome series, but honestly - Pompey as dictator and Julia still alive in 49BC?
Despite this, I decided that I would try out the Conqueror series, starting out with Lords of the Bow, the second book in the series. The reasons for ignoring the first book were twofold. First, I wasn't that interested in reading about Temujin before he became Genghis Khan; and secondly, I picked it up cheap at a second hand sale. I have to say, this book was more like it. I have no idea about the historical accuracy of the book's background, and this is probably a good thing, because inaccuracies did not stop me enjoying a well delivered story. I have the rest of the Conqueror series lined up for next year.

At a conference of Classical Studies teachers I was told by a colleague that if I was interested in Hannibal (which I am), that I might enjoy Ben Kane's books. So I tried the first one last year and found it quite slow to get into. I am not good at persevering through fiction, and I put it down for a couple of months. Then the Christmas break came along and I took it to the beach where I had time on my hands. The more I read, the more I couldn't put it down. Needless to say this year I have read the next two books in the series, Fields of Blood and Clouds of War, and thoroughly enjoyed them. The story has developed the characters to the point where the reader really cares about them, which doesn't always happen in historical novel (I wouldn't be upset if Richard Sharpe was killed in a book, but was very annoyed with the death of a supporting character in Clouds of War). One of the important things to note is that Hannibal and other top commanders are not the people followed in the book. The main characters are soldiers in the armies, but they have a well-connected back-story. The series is highly recommended, and Kane's first Spartacus novel is on my reading list for the holidays.

At the beginning of the year, as I was rifling through the bargain bins after Xmas, I came across a book by Patrick Mercer, whom I know as the author of the Osprey Campaign book on Inkerman. It seems that he has also turned his hand to novel writing, and, no surprises, the first one is set in the Crimean War. As I was in the middle of the 15mm Crimean pocket project at the time, I picked it up. I'm really glad that I did. Mercer is thoroughly well researched and his main character, Anthony Morgan, is an identifiable hero. It gave me a fantastic feel for the Crimea from a soldier's perspective, and for the mid-nineteenth century in general. The only thing that I didn't like was I felt that the novel finished too quickly, I could have done with another 50 pages of denouement. I see he has released a second novel with Anthony Morgan turning up for the Indian Mutiny, so I'll definitely give that a go.

In the afterward of Clouds of War, Ben Kane acknowledged Harry Sidebottom's hero, Ballista, as inspiration for a quirk of one of his characters. So I checked out whether the local library had any of his books. Of the two on the shelf at the time, I picked up the earliest one in the series, King of Kings, second in the Warrior of Rome series. In short, I liked it. It isn't a period of Roman history that I'm particularly familiar with, being set in the mid third century AD, and I learned a lot. His research is impeccable (he is a classics professor, so it should be!) and he has created a solid hero who has to deal with more danger from the politics of the Imperial Court than the enemy. I'm very keen to read the next book in the series, especially as this one ended with our hero's future up in the air!

Finally, we have Bernard Cornwell. I read Sharpe's Escape, for completeness as much as anything, although the formula is really starting to wear thin with this series. 1356 which came out several years ago, but I hadn't got around to reading. I enjoyed it, but I can't say that Thomas of Hookton needed any more adventures after the Grail quest, which, like the Arthur series, always seemed to be a self contained trilogy. Currently I am reading The Pagan Lord and I have the Empty Throne to start straight afterward. I wasn't originally that taken with Uhtred of Bebbanburg and his story, wading my way through the first book. But then as the story began to grow around him, I've found the series much more entertaining. I still don't really care for Uhtred himself, but I really enjoy the series, which builds on itself and doesn't just become formulaic adventure every novel like Sharpe.

So that has been my historical reading this year. Hopefully some people will see something that they haven't read before and think that they will give it a try. As for me, I'm going to try and make it at least 12 novels in 2016.



  1. I agree with much of your assessment. Did like the Genghis series and really enjoying the Wars of the Roses although I think his research here is not particularly robust (shields used by the troops in 1461 - really?). Harry Sidebottom I enjoy an awful lot and he's a really nice chap to boot. as is Ben Kane and his books are terrific. Gave up with Cornwell as it all seems the same and there are so many more new authors to explore.

  2. I too have read all three of Iggulden books on WotR this. Just finish the third last weekend!.

  3. I have just finished the third War of the Roses book. My first experience with Iggulden and on a period that has never really grabbed me before. I loved them! I have been considering the Emperor series but this is a period I am interested in and pretty familiar with...so I shall now probably give them a miss.

  4. I enjoyed the Khan series (but I didn't know very much about the period) and thought I'd look at the Emperor series afterwards but couldn't read it at all. It was appalling. As you say, the late great Col. McC. is a hard act to follow, but this was cringe-inducingly bad.

  5. I thoroughly enjoyed the Wars of the Roses books...they read very like a game of Kingmaker! I kept imagining a metaphorical card appearing summoning the Warden of the Cinque Ports to Rye :) I also enjoyed his Genghis Khan books although I felt it went on a bit too long. I think I did read his Caesar books at some point but can't remember them, which I guess is pretty telling. I've read most of Cornwell's stuff which is readable but not inspiring (apart from the Arthur books which I thought were excellent). I've stuck with the Warlord series although, again, I do think they could have wrapped it up sooner...it does seem unnecessarily lengthy now.

  6. Conqueror series...loved it. First book was excellent and the rest really hard to put down.
    The adventures of Ballista brilliant. I am yet to read some more in that series.
    Going have to read the War of The Roses series now. cheers