Welcome to the first post in the ‘Introducing’ series! Before reading this post, please make sure you’ve read the opening post about the aim of the series.
To try and broaden understanding of what so-called genre fiction can be, I’ve deliberately chosen three historical novels that also embrace the traditions of other genres. I’ve listed the original publication year, but the paperback publishers, as each book belongs to an established series. Each also has a beloved place on my shelf, and anyone is welcome to borrow them.
1) Anno Dracula – Kim Newman (Titan Books, 1992)
I first discovered this series while working at Waterstones Camden, which has a particularly strong science fiction/fantasy/horror section for a store of its size. I’ve long enjoyed vampire fiction (yes, since before Twilight – the first I heard of it was a friend saying, ‘Oh, you like vampires; have you read this?’), so the title grabbed me. Kim Newman, who runs with the likes of Neil Gaiman, doesn’t just imagine vampires, or even just a world where vampires are known and, to a certain degree, integrated into society (à la True Blood). He takes this setting to Bram Stoker’s London, and imagines which of the great Victorian figures, both historical and fictional, would have chosen to be “turned”, and which to remain “warm”.
The premise in itself is great fun – Oscar Wilde is, of course, a vampire. But the series – extending through undead time to the First World War, then Fellini’s Rome in the late ’50s, then 1980s America – is also meticulously researched. It’s no mean feat working plot twists into recorded history, or weaving together fact and imagination. Anno Dracula is bloody good fun to read, and, as an idea, couldn’t have been done much more cleverly or more interestingly. Whether your interest is in Victorian literary greats, vampires, murder mysteries or just superbly silly-for-bookworms storytelling, this is for you.
2) The Matthew Shardlake series by C.J. Sansom (Pan Macmillan, 2003)
As with Anno Dracula, I was initially drawn to these books through a personal obsession – this time, and just as nerdily, the Tudors. (I practically wet myself when Mantel won the Booker, honestly.) These are crime novels from an age before DNA, guns, computer files or even a national police force. Sansom, Britain’s number one alternative history author, puts his History PhD to good use, cannily identifying the sixteenth century’s ‘detective’ as a lawyer, Matthew Shardlake. Sometimes employed by the government, sometimes by private individuals, most often uncertain to whom he answers in an age before England was a fully-formed state, Shardlake is hired to investigate the King’s business. In the first novel, Dissolution, Mantel’s hero Cromwell sends Shardlake to solve the murder of a royal commissioner serving Henry VIII’s Dissolution of the Monasteries.
Sansom has done the impossible, and created a page-turner set in early modern England; a deeply engrossing tale narrated not by the great and powerful of Tudor England, but a “jobbing lawyer” who rides to Lincoln’s Inn on a doddering horse or treads the filthy streets on foot. His London is just as vividly portrayed as Anno Dracula‘s, its near-unrecognisable smallness somehow relatable. At the same time, these unusually spun murder mysteries bear distinct similarities to modern-set equivalents. Shardlake’s hunchback makes him just as memorable and endearing as limping Poirot or amputee PI Cormoran Strike. He’s something of a lone wolf. And, abiding by Ronald Knox’s Ten Commandments, the culprit is always a familiar face. It’s a playful take on crime, gently narrated but grippingly unfolding, and offers a welcome rethink of Tudor London away from the glamour of Henry’s court.
3) Temeraire by Naomi Novik (Harper Voyager, 2006)
Temeraire is the opening volume of one of my favourite fantasy series. The premise is simple: the Napoleonic wars, but with an air force composed of dragons. As with the other two authors I’ve discussed, it wouldn’t be enough simply to present this concept – that way lies the mediocre madness of ‘Iron Sky’. These novels are intricately and ingeniously imagined – there’s a lot of technicality to rigging dragons as flying warships. Novik has thought through every detail, from the strategy and narrative of thrilling battle scenes to the series’ growing exploration of dragons’ rights; from how Napoleon, Wellington and others would use the dragons in their conquests, to the state secret of a dragon species that will only accept women riders – a clever and narratively fruitful way of bringing female characters into a masculine world.
Novik’s crowning achievement is the dragons themselves. Temeraire, the dragon at the heart of the story, is an exasperating, endearing creature, and his group of friends and enemies are just as individually well-painted. My heart simply bursts with affection for these wonderful characters, and their emotional journeys are easily interwoven with the pacy narrative. Temeraire first caught my eye, amid a sea of homogeneous, overtly ‘SFF’ block capitals, by its spine. For me, the original cover art for the books perfectly reflects their nature: lovingly and highly skilfully constructed works of pure beauty and absolute originality.
You don’t need ever to have read historical fiction, crime fiction or fantasy to appreciate these novels. I defy you not to enjoy them, and they’re among the best-conceived stories in my library. Hopefully, next time you’re looking for a good read, you’ll try one.