Katie writes in with this question:When I was in Rome I read I, Claudius [by Robert Graves] and loved it. Now I’m looking for other historical fiction, of any period or nationality, that does a comparable job of bringing a time and place to life and maintaining some literary credibility. Any suggestions?According to Wikipedia, not the definitive source in this realm but a decent enough place to start, a work of historical fiction can be defined as one in which “the story is set among historical events, or more generally, in which the time of the action predates the lifetime of the author.” This is a bit broad for my taste, but I think it’s a good place to start. Going by this definition, a lot of books that we think of first as fiction could also qualify as historical fiction. Some of my favorite books by contemporary authors fall into this category. T.C. Boyle’s Water Music is about a Scottish explorer in Africa in the late 18th century, and Edward P. Jones’ book The Known World is about black slave owners in Virginia in the 1840s. Another example of a book like these is Charles Frazier’s Civil War novel, Cold Mountain.But these books aren’t really historical fiction in the same way that I, Claudius is historical fiction. Traditionally, in historical fiction, the history is like another character in the novel, and the action is more likely to be ripped from the history books, as it were, placing the reader in a novelized version of true historical events. Gone with the Wind by Margaret Mitchell about Atlanta during the Civil War is a famous example. Another is James Clavell’s Shogun about the 16th century exploration of Asia. Of the few historical novels I’ve read, my favorite would have to be Leon Uris’ Trinity, a powerful epic about the Irish struggle for independence at the turn of the 20th century.There is also historical fiction that hews closely to a particular niche, like the Aubrey/Maturin novels by Patrick O’Brian and C.S. Forester’s Horatio Hornblower series, both of which take place during the time when tall-masted ships ruled the high seas. The there’s Jean M. Auel’s Earth’s Children series, which is prehistoric, historical fiction. I know, crazy.I’m sure there are plenty of folks out there who have historical fiction to recommend, so please share in the comments, and thanks, Katie, for your question.Update: Jenny exposes my unfamiliarity with historical fiction by suggesting many, many fantastic-sounding books in the comments. Check it out, and leave some more suggestions if you’ve get them.
Billy writes in, his interest piqued by the big screen version of The Last Samurai, looking for books about Japan’s wandering warriors: After the movie The Last Samurai, I became intrigued by the true life and history of these people. Don’t want a cheesy rendition of the movie. Any advice?I didn’t see the film, but I was pretty sure that it was at least loosely based on a book. That’s not quite true. It turns out that the film is based on a true story, and that a book that gives a more historically accurate account of that true story was released around the same time that the film was released in theaters. That book, by Emory University professor of history and Director of East Asian Studies Mark Ravina, is called The Last Samurai: The Life and Battles of Saigo Takamori. From what I understand it’s an enlightening portrait of the period covered in the movie, but it is perhaps too dense and scholarly to be a starting point to learn about the samurai. Although maybe it is since, after investigating my usual sources, it doesn’t appear as though there is a good and broad accounting of the samurai period. Most of the books out there seem designed either for scholars or hobbyists (particularly those who have a fascination with the armor and weapons of the period). Nonetheless, some of these might be an interesting way to broaden your understanding of the subject. From the hobbyist side of things Samurai: An Illustrated History by Mitsuo Kure sounds like a good pick. It is filled with illustrations of armor and weapons as well as battle maps and diagrams. It actually sounds pretty interesting for those who learn visually. From among the scholarly books, most of which seem to be broader histories of Japan with big sections on the samurai period, I would recommend The Making of Modern Japan by Marius B. Jansen. It is a very readable overview of Japanese history from 1600 to the present. Still, it probably doesn’t give much insight into the samurai themselves. For that, you might want to try Hagakure: The Book of the Samurai, which, though it has acquired a cultish following in recent years, is perhaps the only surviving work by an actual samurai. The book outlines the philosophy of the samurai and it has in recent years been touted by those who believe its lessons are applicable to modern times. Finally, if you interested in reading some fiction that takes feudal Japan as its setting, read James Clavell’s Shogun. People don’t really read Clavell much anymore but this book was a blockbuster when it first came out and is by all accounts a great read.