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Hot historical reads

Racketing around the local library a few years back, I was in the mood for a big, fat, historically fictional read. There is nothing like one of those - or a good fantasy series - to take over your world for a while.

The Gates of Rome by Conn Iggulden caught my eye. Written in 2003, it's the first in his series about the life and times of Julius Caesar, from his boyhood as it is presented here, on up to his tragic end at the hands of his friend. I reviewed last of the series, The Blood of Gods, last year and was a little underwhelmed. As rewarding as it can be to devote yourself to a run of big, fat reads, it can also be exhausting, and I felt like the story had worn itself out, and me, by extension.

And yet, we rest and rise to read again, and when I got the review copy for Iggulden's second book in a new trilogy about the conflict between the House of Lancaster and the House of York, I couldn't have been happier. Not a fixture in the history lessons of an American like me, I've caught up on history in the infinitely more-palatable way through fiction, and Iggulden's work always feels like it's grounded in fact, and yet presented with flair.

This flair presents itself in a degree of detail that leads to that exhaustion, it must be said, but the people, places and things that Iggulden describes is dead impressive.

I had to play catch up with some of the invented characters, but otherwise, having not read the first in this series - Stormbird - is merely a personal disappointment. We pick up with the kingdom in chaos: Henry VI has what appears to be a stroke; wife Margaret of Anjou, though only young, is fiercely protective of him, and of her infant son Edward, who needs to be declared the heir, by his father, who can't communicate. If Edward isn't proclaimed as such, and soon, his uncle Richard Duke of York won't be able to protect the kingdom for him - or will he steal it?

The author's gift with pacing and characterisation makes this really sing. I think I will go back and read the first one, and anticipate the finale in the next year or so. I had to check at least three times to see was this actually the first book in a new series: so much reference was made to past actions in the first 20 pages, I was certain that I'd missed something. Well, I had: this is a continuation of sorts, of two previous trilogies in which the main character, FitzChivalry Farseer, has already played a part.

Talk about feeling left out! It's a bit like taking up George RR Martin's Song of Ice and Fire in the fourth volume - just about pointless. I have to say, it put me off and made working my way into the 640 pages very hard work indeed.

Fitz is middle-aged now and content, which of course immediately inspires an ill-fated feeling for the poor man. No longer bitter about his bastard birth, no longer an assassin, that contentment of course becomes the target, in order that any dramatic narrative ensue.

Unfortunately, not much does. The author clearly understood that the characters created were well-loved, and that readers would give anything to read about them again. It goes to show why characters are left at their relative 'happy ever after', because contentment is in fact boring.

Is it too late to go back and immerse myself in this world thanks to the previous two trilogies? I think so. If you've read Hobb before, and liked her work, don't make the mistake that I have.

In fact, I recommend 2005's Shaman's Crossing, the first in the author's Soldier's Son trilogy - I thoroughly enjoyed that one.

I read Penman's The Sunne In Splendour many, many years ago, and it was a revelation.

One of the earliest historical novels I ever breached, well before 'historical fiction' became a thing, it was so, so good that it brings back where I was, and when I was, when I read it. It's kind of amazing, the way in which she went against type and made Richard III - the hunchback and villain of the Shakespeare play - into a character with which one sympathises. Such good writing!

Here, it's not that the writing isn't good, but that the story told is a bit 'huh?' Justin is the illegitimate son of a highly-placed bishop, and as such isn't expecting much of a leg up in life. This changes when he comes upon a crime on his way out into the cold cruel world, and promises to fulfil a dying man's last wish by delivering a letter to Eleanor of Acquitane. By so doing, Justin becomes one of the Queen's most trusted dogsbodies and he sets off to solve the mystery of the original messenger's death.

Many characters of little historical import are introduced; Justin himself isn't terribly interesting; even Eleanor seems to have been created by rote. Very disappointing; won't be continuing on with the other two. I may go back in time and reread her early work.

I went back in time with this one too; eBooks make everything new again.

This too is the first in a trilogy, and I've got a little more time for Chisholm's Sir Robert Carey. He's a kind of rough-and-ready courtier who has been sent to lay down the Queen's law on the West Marches, whilst also managing to bring himself close to his lady love who is unfortunately married to someone else.

I imagined Michael Fassbender in this role, which made the read extremely pleasant. In this first instalment, Carey is making himself known to all and sundry, showing that he's not just a pretty face, trying to avoid being called back to Her Majesty QEI's court, and working to solve the mystery of all the horses going missing in the area. The pacing was initially very, very slow, and the amount of surnames one was deluged was rather daunting.

I really did like Carey, though, and may check out the second volume, A Season Of Knives.