My Favourite Historical Novels, by Ben Kane
I’ve been a fan of historical fiction for more than thirty years. I can’t remember the exact book that started my love of the genre, but Rosemary Sutcliff’s iconic novel, The Eagle of the Ninth, was certainly one of the first novels that pulled me into the past. Although I spent many years reading fantasy as well, I never gave up on historical fiction. Books that influenced me heavily as a boy include the aforementioned The Eagle of the Ninth, Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sir Nigel and The White Company, Henry Treece’s Viking trilogy and Ronald Welch’s series about the stories of individual members of the same family throughout history. All of these books were able to create a vivid image of the past in my mind, and were full of (what I felt at the time was) realistic characters and events.
The years have gone by, and despite the fact that my day job is as a writer of historical fiction, it is still my reading genre of choice. I love a good read, and I still find myself drawn to books that immerse me – totally – in the past. A good example of a novel that has done that is Hawk Quest, by Robert Lyndon. I read this in late 2011, and would rate it as one of the best books – of any genre – that I have read in the last three to five years. Indeed, it’s one of the best five historical novels that I have ever read.
Why is that? First of all, it’s about a period that fascinates me. Few of us choose to read books about time periods that do not rouse our interest. Secondly, the premise was fantastic. In Europe of the eleventh century, birds of prey, notably gyrfalcons, were worth immense sums of money – so much so that men were prepared to sail to Greenland to try and trap them in the wild. The thrust of the story in Hawk Quest is that a Norman knight, taken captive by the Seljuk Turks, has had a ransom price set at four gyrfalcons. A party of adventurers is sent to capture these birds from England (recently vanquished by the Normans). They must travel by sea to Iceland and Greenland, and thence to Scandinavia, Russia, Constantinople and Anatolia. An epic journey, to say the least, yet one that was historically undertaken if not the whole way by individual men, then in large stages. All across the sea and overland, with the most incredible obstacles in the way.
Of course a richly described stage is nothing without strong, believable characters to walk upon it. With confident strokes, Lyndon paints us five of these: Vallon, a troubled Frankish knight; Hero, a naïve and idealistic Sicilian scholar; Wayland, a wraithlike and haunted Englishman; Syth, a strong-willed young English girl and Raul, a tough, brutal mercenary. They are as disparate a group of people as one could hope to find in the pages of a book, yet they come alive within a few lines of arriving onto the stage. Their interactions were what turned the incredible idea of Hawk Quest into a great story. Vallon’s cynicism competes with Hero’s idealism; Wayland’s abilities and sensitivities stand in stark contrast to Raul’s earthiness and rough joie de vivre. This is a lesson that I’ve learned in writing: that a great idea/historical happening does not a novel make. There has to be a good story, and there have to be characters in whom the reader believes. Hawk Quest provided these in spades. I tore through its 650 pages+ in a matter of days. I enjoyed it hugely and really did not want it to finish. Towards the end, I found myself in the very rare position of counting the number of pages that were left, and dreading the moment when I reached the last one. In my mind, that’s the mark of a truly great book.
Ben Kane’s author website: www.benkane.net
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