Friday, September 30, 2016

Book Review - "Genghis: Lords of the Bow (Conqueror, #2)" by Conn Iggulden

This was a gripping page-turner. 3.7 stars. The author paints a credible picture of Genghis Khan's temperament and psychological tendencies in his decision-making processes and in his dealings with his family, his tribesmen and his enemies.

The story is about how Genghis Khan, having united all the various Mongol tribes, led his army to invade the Xi Xia Kingdom (of Tanguts) and then the Chin (Jin) Empire (of Jurchens). It tells how he developed and improved his assault tactics.

Historical information about the various battles is generally accurate and the battle scenes are vividly drawn. An entertaining read overall.

Friday, September 16, 2016

Book Review - "Stormbird" by Conn Iggulden

This is the first novel in the “War of the Roses” series by Conn Iggulden.

The author skillfully weaves the bodacious actions of two main fictitious characters (Derry Brewer, the King’s spymaster, and Thomas Woodchurch, a commoner living in Maine, France) with some pivotal historical events that took place under the reign of Henry VI of England.

Part One deals with Derry Brewer’s political machinations initiated on Henry’s behalf with the aim of bringing about a lasting truce with France. He throws into the bargain England’s two French possessions, Anjou and Maine, and an offer for Henry to marry the French King’s (Charles VII) niece, Margaret of Anjou.

Part Two tells the outrage felt by many English subjects who have lived all their lives in Maine and Anjou. Their riotous reaction to the English Crown giving up those lands is seen through the eyes of an archer-turned-merchant Thomas Woodchurch, who decides to lead a resistance movement in order to thwart the French army’s taking possession of the two towns. His attempt fails in the end. The English loses not only Maine and Anjou, but also Normandy.

Part Three describes the infamous Jack Cade’s rebellion in London amidst widespread grievances in society over official corruption and the weakness of Henry VI in the face of an ever strengthening France. It sets the stage for Duke of York's throne-claiming ambitions to play out.

All in all, the plot is a gripping one and the writing flawless, especially in the movie-like description of the battle scenes. However, I personally find it a bit hard to relate to the two fictitious characters. I’m giving this novel 3.5 stars out of 5.

Monday, August 29, 2016

Book Review - "Hypatia of Alexandria" by Maria Dzielska

Several years ago I saw on TV the movie “Agora”, and ever since, the image of Hypatia, the legendary 4th century female scholar and philosopher of Alexandria, has left an indelible mark on my memory. I’m glad that I’ve finally got round to reading Maria Dzielska’s myth-dispelling account of Hypatia’s intellectual life and the times she lived in.

Relying on two ancient historical tomes (Historia Ecclesiastica by Socrates Scholasticus and Suda), plus a collection of correspondence kept by Synesius of Cyrene, who was a well-known disciple of Hypatia’s, the author goes about reconstructing the life and achievements of this influential intellectual, who died a most gruesome death during Lent in 415 after taking a stand behind Prefect Orestes in his political duel with power-hungry Bishop Cyril.

The author also dispels a widespread myth that Hypatia was a youthful woman at the time of her death, and contends that she was around 60 years old at her life’s violent end.

These passages sum up Hypatia’s social and political situation in Alexandria before Cyril became Bishop:

“Esteemed by the ruling elite, sympathetic toward Christians, indifferent to pagan cults, neutral in the religious fights and altercations, she lived in Alexandria for many years enjoying the city’s rulers’ respect and her disciples’ love…… Besides teaching ontology and ethics, Hypatia lectured on mathematics and astronomy.”

“Hypatia herself, not needing to conceal her non-Christian religiosity, enjoyed full intellectual independence and the tolerance of the ecclesiastical authorities.”

In conclusion, Dzielska states:

“Relying on the most important sources and their analysis, we may thus state unequivocally that the conflict between Orestes and Cyril was concluded in a manner and for a reason known and used for ages: murder for a political purpose….. They killed a person who was the mainstay of the opposition against him.”

“Cyril undoubtedly presented the affair as a struggle against paganism (with such of its manifestation as magic and sorcery), as official church propaganda proclaimed after all.”

“A cover-up campaign was orchestrated to protect the perpetrators, affiliated with the church, who murdered a person well disposed toward Christians. We contend against this silence when from the extant fragments we undertake to reconstruct the life and achievements of Hypatia.”

Friday, August 26, 2016

Book Review - "The Confessions of Catherine de Medici" by C. W. Gortner

After watching in 2014 the first season of the TV historical fantasy romance series “Reign” on CW channel, I was hooked. I didn’t miss the second and third season. It was this TV series that spurred my interest in the historical character Catherine de Medici.

This engaging novel is the third one I’ve read so far by the author C. W. Gortner, and he didn’t disappoint. With his mesmerizing prose I was quickly transported to tumultuous 16th century France, rife with bloody religious wars between Catholics and Protestants and treacherous court machinations in the royal families’ wrangling for power.

As a foreign teenage bride of undistinguished lineage arriving from Italy to marry a sophisticated French prince Henri II, whom she had never met before, Catherine de Medici was doomed to have rough beginnings in her adopted country. Soon she discovered that her new husband’s beloved mistress was the true mistress of Henri’s household and his only true love. When her childless state started to threaten her marital bond, she resorted to using the black arts to help with her fertility.

After becoming the Dauphine, Catherine was able to sire a number of children consecutively, three of whom would become King of France in tandem. During her second son’s reign (Charles IX), she got mired in a noxious scheme to kill several Protestant (or Huguenot) leaders, one of whom had once been her lover and who she believed had betrayed her. The scheme eventually got out of control and led to what is historically known as the Massacre of St. Bartholomew, during which several thousands of Huguenots were murdered in Paris and beyond. The Catholic nobles led by the usurping Guise family put the whole blame on Catherine, who always showed tolerance towards the Huguenots and preferred peace to strife. From then on, she and her reigning sons would be caught up in the never-ending feud between the Catholics and the Huguenots, until the time when she had the Guises killed and subdued.

As much as some of her actions might be deemed ruthless, it would appear they were occasioned by untenable situations brought about by the opposing religious factions’ hostile stances. Were her choices motivated by her thirst for power, or just her zeal to protect her cubs and the royal lineage at all costs?

In the reported words of Henri IV: “What could a woman do, left by the death of her husband with five little children on her arms, and two families of France who were thinking of grasping the crown – our own (the Bourbons) and the Guises? I’m surprised she didn’t do worse.”

Gortner has successfully spun a believable yarn about one of history’s most maligned royal women. I do believe a woman's maternal instincts would overrule everything else.


Tuesday, August 16, 2016

Some Thoughts on the "Historical Fiction" Genre

In a recent LinkedIn Historical Novel group chat, I made a casual comment that it seems in the world of historical fiction, history is almost automatically taken to mean Western History, and that such an assumption obviously ignores a large part of humankind history.

To my above casual comment, one group member, who formerly taught History of Philosophy and World History at an American university, remarked that my observation is correct and that “Western History” is still assumed by some to be “history”. Gladly though, he added, things are changing for the better, a phenomenon borne out by the fact that even the “Epic of Darkness” (a collection of Chinese tales and legends depicting primeval China in epic poetry) is being taught and studied in American classes.

Another group member explained that the assumption is due to publishers and film producers only going with what is “popular” and thus to some extent limiting Western readers’ choices. It is assumed in the publishing industry that “Western” is what readers want, and so that is what readers get.

I am not a historian and my abovementioned observation arose purely from my reading experience, through which I noticed that the bulk of historical fiction written in English is related to Western History or has a Western historical setting. There is obviously a relative paucity of fiction with an Oriental or Chinese historical context or setting. When publishers, literary agents, booksellers or writers refer to “historical fiction”, they seem to have only “Western historical fiction” in mind.

Being bilingual, I can easily satisfy my interest in Chinese history by reading fiction and non-fiction in Chinese. But I can see this would be a problem for Westerners who may share my interest but who only read English. Their only option would be to read translated works, and even these are in short supply in the historical fiction genre.

As readers, would you agree with what the two LinkedIn members said? Would you like to see the historical fiction genre diversify into the Oriental history field?