Reviews: Historical Fiction

June 13, 2005

The Dream of Scipio - Iain Pears


Iain Pear's The Dream of Scipio follows the lives of 3 men, all men who are deeply thoughtful and philosophical, all who must face terrible decisions which try their deepest beliefs, and all men who lived in France's Provence in three different centuries of great upheaval. Manlius Hippomanus, a wealthy Roman aristocrat, suppresses his own Greek philosophical training to become a Bishop in the mid to late fifth century AD, the period during which the Roman empire is collapsing and Gaul is abandoned to the Visigoths. 900 years later Manlius' writings are studied by Olivier de Noyen, a poet in the service of Cardinal Ceccani, during the brief historical period in which the pope resided in Avignon - the mid 1300s, and during which time the great plague decimated a third of Europe. 600 years later again, Julien Barveuve, a classics scholar unearths de Noyen's writings in the Vatican. Like the men before him, Julien's life is turned upside down as his world collapses during the Nazi invasion of France. Each man is also passionately in love with a powerful woman, and each passion leads to disastrous results.

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March 26, 2005

Ireland: a Novel - Frank Delaney


Ireland by Frank Delaney is the story of a young boy, Ronan O'Mara, who in 1951 at the age of 9 encounters an itinerant storyteller, who regales Ronan and others with magical tales, blending myth and fiction, of Ireland's past. Ronan is so taken with the storyteller and his stories that he starts a quest to find him, a difficult undertaking as the storyteller has no address - the storyteller wanders the countryside, staying with people who will feed him and give shelter in exchange for telling stories. Thus starts a life long passion for Ronan - collecting the folklore of Ireland, and uncovering Ireland's history.

The book's plot structure of Ronan's search for the storyteller is a convenient container for the true gems of this novel - wonderful, colorful stories covering the breadth of Irish history, from the making of the 5000 year old tomb at New Grange, the legend and fact of St. Patrick, Strongbow and the invasion of the Anglo-Normans, Daniel O'Connell and the repeal of the penal laws, to the 20th century troubles. In every breath of this novel, the Irish gift of gab is celebrated. I listened to the audiobook version of this book and I must say that this is most captivating audiobook I've heard to date. (Available also at author, Frank Delaney, does the narrating. With his various Irish accents he brings the stories alive in a way only possible through the spoken word.

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May 12, 2003

Masters of Rome Series - Colleen McCullough

This is an imposing series of six novels by the author of The Thorn Birds. It chronicles in extraordinary detail the time when Rome lost its Republic, from the creation of armies loyal to generals rather than the state to the series of civil wars that ripped the place apart. The core character is of course Julius Caesar, who is presented as a politician trying to prevent the loss of the Republic, but in the process he catalyzes the rise of Empire.

I found the parallels to today disturbing. The essential problem of the Republic -that the politics of a city-state were obsolete for an Empire, an Empire which fell to Rome somewhat reluctantly at first - may be foreshadowing our current dilemma, that the US seems ill-prepared in its new role of nation building and being the sole superpower. Caesar saw this failing and attempted to fix it, but fell into a bitter fight with the landed aristocracy (which had held power for 500 years). Caesar proposed sensible reforms: to allow better governance of overseas provinces, to maintain the army under the control of the Senate (through land reform to give veterans property to farm when they retired), and to broaden the ruling class to include provincials. In the end he took the expedient path of Dictatorship to institute the reforms, and the Republic was lost.

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