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Three books sitting on a hardwood floor: "The Dragon of the Ishtar Gate" on an eReader, "Flashman and the Dragon" in paperback, and "Tyrant" in paperback

Last winter I read some novels instead of puttering around on the Internet. This week I thought I would talk about three novels by three authors which span the range of the genre of adventurous historical fiction. While all of these have peril, romance, blood, and all the other Dionysiac fluids, each has its own mix and its own style. In some ways this reflects the three different adventurous individuals who wrote them.

L. Sprague de Camp admired inventors and explorers, so his stories tend to focus on them. His vision of adventure is full of charlatans, con men, and small businessmen with big ideas as well as strange scenery and the practical problems of travel. As an amateur linguist, he also experimented with different styles to represent different ancient dialects or differentiate characters. The joy of his novels comes from his sensitive picture of human foolishness and the careful descriptions of towns and techniques. As an Achaemenid historian, I appreciate that he set two novels in the Achaemenid empire and focused on the parts without too many Yauna running around. de Camp takes as his starting point Herodotus’ strange knowledge of the source of the Nile, and the odd appearance of what look rather like Pygmies and Congolese animals on Xerxes’ reliefs at Persepolis, and spins these into a story of a desperate king and an expedition into the unknown. Sometimes his novels have the flavour of a travelogue, with details borrowed from the earliest sources, whether classical, medieval, or (at a pinch) nineteenth century. Each of his main characters and their adventures is distinct, but all reflect his inimitable spirit and ability to notice human absurdity and laugh at it rather than cry. The Dragon of the Ishtar Gate (set in the reign of Xerxes king of kings), An Elephant for Artistotle (in the time of Alexander of the same title), and The Bronze God of Rhodes (set in a time when everyone was king and nobody was king, to borrow a phrase from the Sumerian King List) are available from Phoenix Pick.

Christian “Miles” Cameron focuses on professional soldiers and their lives on duty. While this could be tedious, Cameron’s heroes always have eventful careers and complicated personal lives. Cameron’s characters do a lot of fighting, often describe it in intricate detail, and spend a long time musing about fighting and soldiering. Cameron enjoys drawing on his experience as a re-enactor, camper, and craftsman to add colour to his fiction, but he also enjoys talking thoughtfully about the problems of assuming that soldiers are soldiers and love is love and place and time and culture are details. Tyrant takes as its starting point a poorly documented historical incident, the Macedonian expedition against the Royal Scythians and the Greek cities of the Crimea in 331 BCE. The first few scenes have a strong flavour of a film script, with rapid cuts between vignettes and passages like the following:

By the time Kineas had his baggage over the side, the only man he knew in the town was standing with a torchbearer on the pebbles under the bow and calling his name.
‘Calchus, by the gods’ he shouted, and dropped on to the shingle to give the man an embrace.
Calchus gripped him back, first hugging him, then grasping for a wrestling hold so that both men were grappling, down on the gravel in the beat of a seagull’s wing, Calchus reaching around Kineas’ knees to bring him down, Kineas grappling the bigger man’s neck like a farmer wrestles a calf. And then they were both standing, laughing, Calchus adjusting his tunic over his muscled chest and Kineas rubbing the sand off his hands.
‘Ten years,’ said Calchus.
‘Exile seems to suit you,’ responded Kineas.
‘It does too. I wouldn’t go back.’ Calchus’ tone implied that he would go back if he could, but that he was too proud to say it.
‘You got my letter.’ Kineas hated demanding hospitality, the lot of every exile.
‘Don’t be an idiot. Of course I had your letter …’

Other parts are more philosophical, with musings about the barriers created by differences in culture and education, the pains of language learning, the obligations of command, the nature of war, and the impossibility of choosing to forget some experiences.

Cameron’s eagerness to describe how things in the distant past worked and felt and smelled is a mixed blessing; his novels are vivid, but he has admitted to some big mistakes on his blog (is that one an argument for spending more time staring at Connolly paintings?) Sometimes I was unable to recognize a minor character, or notice that a new character had been introduced in the middle of a long passage of description. In a few places he has also hinted that while he is eager to learn from academic research, he does not believe that the limits of science are the limits of what can be known. The joy of this novel is the way it darts like a hummingbird between these different ways of thinking about the past- poetic inspiration, academic research, and the experience of a soldier and camper in a very different age- and takes what it can from each. Tyrant (Orion, 2008) is available on Bookfinder.

George Macdonald Fraser is the most accomplished wielder of variatio amongst the three. By alternating between descriptions of scenery and editorial musings about how certain characters and events should be understood he keeps any one from becoming dull. The character of Harry Paget Flashman gave him an excuse to tell stories about most of the adventurous parts of the 1840s, 1850s, 1860s, and 1870s. Flashman and the Dragon sends the title character to Nanjing at the height of the Taiping Rebellion then to Peking in 1860 as part of the treaty negotiations which later became known as the Second Opium War. Fraser has a similar attitude to the adventurous life to de Camp’s, so Flashman finds himself in danger as a result of bad luck and bad character and escapes through a mix of good luck, nimble application of his skills and equipment, and willingness to run away and abandon his partners. The joy of these novels comes from the exotic places and customs and characters he introduces, the offhand judgements of famous historical figures, and the sly pokes at 19th century novels (Flashman claims to be a character in Tom Brown’s School Days, the unacknowledged inspiration for the Prisoner of Zenda, etc.) The book is also available on Bookfinder.

I feel like writing a historical novel set in the 19th century is cheating, since that period is ridiculously well documented in easy languages. Fraser could find almost all the details he needed in memoirs and the Illustrated London News, fleshed out with a little imagination and an unreliable narrator with an eye for the salicious detail. A nice touch are the ‘editor’s footnotes’ which earnestly explain which sources corroborate details of Flashman’s narrative, which can neither be corroborated nor contradicted, and which are contradicted by other sources. These are charming, while also addressing the problem that people have a hard time keeping things they learned from works of fiction and things they learned from nonfiction apart- yet a novelist who never says anything which is not a reasonable extrapolation from the evidence is unlikely to sell many copies.

If you enjoy my blog, there is a good chance that you will enjoy these novels. And they make this eccentric blogger want to meet the wonderful and unique people who created them, even if its too late to do so in the case of Fraser and de Camp. But like Herodotus, they live through their works, and the lively picture of humanity which those works create.

Edit 2016-05-12: s/salubrious/salicious;