What Makes For Great Historical Fiction? by Anthony Riches
I have to admit that I have some strange tastes when it comes to what I read: thrillers, good sci-fi (of which there is depressingly little about these days), modern military fiction; I’ll read them all voraciously, but when it comes to historical fiction I’m pickier than a six year old confronted with a menu devoid of the magic word ‘chips’.
I do like good historical fiction, I really do, but I’m just not drawn to those shelves in the bookshop that hold my contemporaries’ work (unless it’s to stop my wife from putting my books over theirs, as she does when given half a chance). Don’t get me wrong, there are plenty of cracking historical authors out there, Scott, Kane, Sidebottom, Low, Kristian, and so on, and I like them all very much when I knuckle down to read them. It’s just that I never go looking for them with any hunger. My must reads are Iain M Banks, Richard Morgan, Lee Childs, Charles Stross, Joe Abercrombie and the like, perhaps because I spend so long researching and writing my own historical novels that I want something else when it comes to leisure reading – with one exception. There is one historical fiction author whose work I pre-order and consume at maximum velocity, and that man is Christian Cameron.
Cameron – if you’re not already a fan – has written at least a dozen books in two genres: contemporary military espionage thrillers under the name of Gordon Kent, co-authored with his father, and stunningly good historical fiction under his own name. I’m going to talk to you about just one of them in the hope that you’ll either be smiling smugly in a ‘read that’ way or that you’ll immediately buy a copy of the book and find out for yourself just how good a writer he really is. So, let’s consider Killer of Men or Long War 1 to use the clunky series title that we all get lumbered with these days as a way of pointing out to the reader that there are more of these out there and will they please buy them!
In Killer of Men Cameron uses that well tried and tested device, the old man telling tales about his life, to begin the story of Arimnestos, a young man who fights in a series of battles between Plataea and Thebes only to find himself enslaved, his father murdered by his uncle and his world turned upside down. As a slave he meets a series of famous characters from the period who Cameron slides into his well crafted plot to form the mainstays of its historical landscape: Miltiades, the Greek pirate and politician; Artaphernes, the Persian satrap; Heraclitus, the philosopher; Hipponax, the poet; and Aristagoras, the Greek who led the long war of the title against the Persians. Arimnestos grows to manhood and discovers that he has been blessed with the ability to fight like few other men can, his fame as a killer of men quickly spreading as he establishes a place for himself in the world.
So, what’s so great about it? The characters, plot and dialogue are all spot on, but more than that the fighting sequences all share that gritty realism (and deep research) that characterises Pressfield’s excellent Gates of Fire – another favourite – so that the reader finds him or herself immersed in what it was like to fight in the chaos of an ancient battlefield with weapons and armour made from bronze. The politics of the 5th century BC come alive, not as dry words on a page but as the life and death struggles between a people who were not all united against their enemy. This really is stunning stuff, perfectly researched, beautifully constructed and with that ‘can’t put it down’ factor that will keep you reading late into the night.
It’s a great series too, as Ari becomes a war leader for Plataea, suffers his own grievous losses and takes revenge on the man who condemned him to slavery. We take part in the battle of Marathon later in the run of books, which illustrates the last thing I love about Cameron’s work, his ability to show the big events from the viewpoint of the men fighting their way through what was to become the stuff of legend. That is what I consider to be the epitome of great historical fiction.
Anthony Riches’s author website: www.anthonyriches.com
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