Category Archives: Historical Fiction

For the Joy of Reading: Black Robe

This is a story about a clash of cultures, about misunderstandings and incomprehension.   It is about French Jesuit missionaries coming into contact with Native Americans along the St. Laurence River in the seventeenth century.   The story is set in the early seventeenth century at the same time as the Three Musketeers.   Father Laforgue and D’Artagnan are contemporaries.   Cardinal Richelieu even makes a fleeting appearance in Black Robe.   But these are separate worlds.

A closer comparison would be to “The Last of the Mohicans” set a century later, and in the British colonies to the south.    But do not expect the noble savage, as envisioned by Rousseau.   Neehatin and Chomina are not Chingachgook and Uncas.   They are not even noble villains like Magua, someone you can hate but respect.   They are foul-mouthed, and can be quite cynical and vicious.

The world views however are quite different, and this is made very clear in the course of the telling of this story.   The Jesuits, obviously, and the French in general have a Christian worldview, a view of salvation gained through the sacrifice of the Cross and the miracle of the Resurrection.   They believe in the Sacraments, and especially that in the Eucharist or Communion the bread and wine is transformed into the body and blood of Christ.   Neehatin, Chomina and the others find this utterly incomprehensible.   For them, the world is sentient, filled with what we would call divinity.   They believe in the power of dreams, and they use dreams to guide the way in which to live their lives.   Basically, they believe that the Jesuits are sorcerers, and they are afraid of their power.

So when Father LaForgue sets off upriver to join a Jesuit settlement, he sets in motion a series of events over which he has no control.   The worst of this, for the Father, is the sexual relationship between his young assistant, Daniel, known as Iwanchou, and Chomina’s daughter, Annuka.   Chomina also does not believe that Iwanchou is a suitable husband for his daughter and does his best to finish the relationship.   This has deadly consequences.

There will be some passages which will shock you.   There is torture, there is murder, there is cannibalism.   This is a culture that is red in tooth and claw.   What hangs over this story, however, is the fear that one culture will destroy the other.   In this world, that makes this an important book to read.

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For the Joy of Reading: Falcon of Sparta

Conn Iggulden is a reliable writer of historical novels.   What you will get will be readable, pacy and exciting.   That is certainly the case with Falcon of Sparta.   This is the story of the Anabasis, the march of ten thousand Greek soldiers across the Persian Empire   It was this march that proved beyond a shadow of doubt that the Persian Empire was vulnerable.   This was the march that opened the way for the conquest by Alexander the Great.

The story begins with a dynastic struggle.   Darius II, the Great King of Persia, dies leaving two sons.   The elder son, Artaxerxes, succeeds to the throne but does not eliminate his brother Cyrus because of the intervention of their mother Queen Parysatis.   This however is after Artaxerxes has made his intention clear by murdering Cyrus’ bodyguards and imprisoning the Prince.   Cyrus is then released and prepares for war, recruiting 10,000 Greek mercenaries to march with him on the Persian Empire’s capital.

All of this is a matter of the historical record, but most people will probably not be familiar with ancient history.   So I am not going to give any of the details of the march, the battle of Cunaxa or what happened afterwards.   What is important is that one of the Greek leaders was called Xenophon, and he was a pupil of Socrates, the philosopher, who is a peripheral character in this book.   Xenophon was the author of the “Anabasis” the only record of this campaign.   We have to believe what he says, in the absence of any evidence to the contrary.   What we do know is that the army under his command survived and that gives his account credibility.

What Conn Iggulden is take the Anabasis and weld it into an historical novel, seeking to understand what his characters thought as the events progressed.   We meet some unpleasant characters, like Tissaphernes, a Persian noble loyal to the Achaemenid dynasty and to Artaxerxes, the heir of the Great King, but also self-serving, devious and vicious.   Then there is Queen Parysatis whose argument that Cyrus is the only heir as Artaxerxes does not yet have children proves to be fatal.   [Incidentally, if Artaxerxes of the Ahasuerus of the Book of Esther this throws a whole new light on the viciousness of the Achaemenid court].   We meet the Greek generals and soldiers, who throw themselves into an attack on the Persian Empire for money, but also for revenge.   Marathon, Thermopylae, Salamis and Plataea resonate throughout this story.

So what you have is an exciting historical novel, an easy read into the history of the ancient world, and the fall of the Persian Empire.   I wonder if a series about Alexander the Great will follow.