Here be a great book! A review of Penman’s Here Be Dragons

I first discovered Sharon Kay Penman in the Silver Spring library and I’m glad I did as I consider her to be one of my favorite historical fiction authors. Often times historical novelists can be described in one of two ways: they are either very good at prose or they are very good at research. Gore Vidal has a great talent for sentence construction and pithy sayings but the research that informed The Golden Age is sub-par to say the least. Evaluating the prose of a historical novel is inherently subjective, some of my friends love Hilary Mantel and some can’t get past the first chapter of Wolf Hall, but I think anyone who reads a lot of historical fiction has come across at least one well-researched novel they just couldn’t get into.

Sharen Kay Penman, however, is different: she excels at prose and research. Her stories are filled with beautiful, heart-rending scenes–colored by Penman’s vivid imagination but always informed by pain-staking scholarship–and there may be no better example of this than Here Be Dragons.

The story begins in the late 12th century and within the first fifty pages, we are introduced to a litany of characters. Many of these characters have little importance to the plot, some never show up again, and some readers will probably find this off-putting. Historical fiction has many unwritten rules–stick to one POV per section, avoid omniscient narrating, stay away from confusing names–and Penman breaks pretty much all of them. Nonetheless, her writing and her research are so compelling that I think most readers can forgive her these sins.

At times the number of characters we are supposed to keep track of can get overwhelming but the first half of the book revolves largely around three characters: John, Joanna, and Llewelyn.

Each character is interesting in their own right but John’s POV was unexpectedly moving. By and large, we don’t have much reason to like John. He is a narcissistic philanderer with few redeeming qualities and he only becomes worse once he gains more power.

In his mind, he is ever the victim, even when is carrying out terrible atrocities, and he cannot comprehend why anyone would dare to disagree with such a simple truth. Unwilling to heed the advice of learned statesmen, he careens from crisis to crisis with alarming speed and Englanders soon grow weary of his ineptitude. By the end of his life, John has lost favor with just about everyone he holds dear: his wife, his relatives, his advisors, even his children. His final days are filled with unbearable pain, but he accepts it all with impressive equanimity. The imminent prospect of death inspires no small amount of introspection and John remarks, “I think I always knew I would die alone.” It is his most powerful line in all the book and I often find myself thinking on this line when I reflect on John’s storyline. John is an undeniably cruel man and while the line doesn’t justify his cruelty, I think it does help explain his vindictive tendencies and his bitter persona. 

John, however, is by no means the only interesting character in the book. His illegitimate daughter, Joanna, makes for a fascinating character and her decisions often drive the plot. Many readers will probably find her thought process frustrating, I often put down the book because I’d be so upset by Joanna’s actions but then I’d have to pick it up again to see how things would play out, but I suspect there are few readers who hate or even strongly dislike her character. If that’s not a testament to Penman’s skill as a writer, it’s hard to know what is.

As for a character that’s easy to like, few of Penman’s characters can hold a candle to Llewelyn. An accomplished diplomat and a skilled warrior, Llewelyn dedicates his life to winning independence for Wales. His ambition is as consuming as it is absolute, but as Penman notes in the epilogue, his dream did not long survive him. Considering the many sacrifices that Llewelyn made on behalf of his country, his inability to win meaningful independence for Wales is all the more galling. 

Whether readers are interested in British history or social drama, I highly recommend Here Be Dragons and look forward to reading more of Penman’s work.

A Review of a Riveting Reconquista Podcast

I have only recently started listening to history podcasts and I discovered Flashpoint history while searching for a podcast about the fall of Granada. Flashpoint history has podcasts dedicated to various topics–the Punic wars, the exploits of Attila the Hun–but I decided to start with the Reconquista podcast because of its relevance to my own writing. Truth be told, it feels a bit disingenuous to call Nitin Sil’s work a history of the Reconquista since the series explores so many other topics. So far, 11 episodes have been released and the narrator covers everything from will the rise of Islam, the Arab invasion of North Africa, and the Moorish invasion of Europe. Even the First Crusade gets a special shout out. I, for one, really appreciate the narrator’s deep dive approach to history and considering the legions of listeners, I think it’s fair to say the same holds true for many others also.

History podcasts are becoming increasingly popular with the public and the crowded market space will probably doom many up-and-coming podcasts. I suspect that will not be the case for Flashpoint history, though. Pretty much anybody can create a podcast which is great from a plurality of perspectives standpoint, but terrible from a quality control standpoint. If there are no gatekeepers, how can we assess the accuracy of the information we are being given?

Sure, we can consult reviews, but what with the free-rider effect, this approach has some drawbacks. And while some podcast narrators are upfront about their credentials, many are not. To be fair, in many cases it doesn’t matter. Bill Burr may not have a degree in sociology but his social commentary is funny all the same. However, when speaking about mathematics or history or some other complex matter, I think intimate familiarity with the subject matters a great deal. Because of that, I really appreciate that Sil takes such pains to reference his sources. He draws heavily upon primary and secondary sources, sometimes reading texts verbatim for the sake of the audience. I can’t say I know many other podcast narrators who do the same but I really appreciate that Sil does and I think his willingness to do so makes his work more trustworthy.

To be fair, veracity is not the only metric worth taking into account when assessing the quality of a podcast. After all, a narrator could read verbatim from a dictionary and while such a podcast would technically be very accurate, it would also be dry as cassava bread. I think Flashpoint history deserves high marks when it comes to entertainment value and audiences must agree considering the immense popularity of the podcast. Part of the entertainment value comes from the narrator’s familiarity with the subjects being discussed. In addition to being well-read, Sil has also traveled to many of the sites mentioned in the podcast. As a result, he’s able to weave in many anecdotes and fun facts for the sake of his listeners. In addition to this, he also has a good sense of humor. The Vikings make a surprise appearance in the series–turns out they did battle with the Moors way back, which must have made for a really interesting clash of cultures–and the narrator could have just played it straight and recounted the facts. Instead, he encourages us to imagine the sense of confusion the Moors might have felt when the Vikings first started sacking their coastal outposts and plays an instrumental version of Led Zeppelin’s Immigrant Song. I thought it was a very inspired decision, and I suspect the same holds true for many others. 

I strongly recommend Flashpoint history to listeners interested in Mediterranean history, Islamic history, Christian history, or military history and look forward to checking out more of Sil’s work.

Sons of Texas review: Tons of fun and insightful, too

I never had much interest in Westerns when I was younger but I figured I would give Sons of Texas a read in the interests of trying something new. I’m glad I did as it’s easily one of the most engrossing books I have happened across this year. Considering we are not even one month into the new year, I know that may not mean much but I did really enjoy the book.

Sons of Texas starts in 1816 and transports readers back to a time when the west was a rough, dangerous place and borders were as fluid as the Sabine. Having spent all his life on a small farm in Tennessee, Michael Lewis has largely been sheltered from frontier violence but his wayward father, Mordecai, served with Andrew Jackson and know just how violent the western territories can be. Nonetheless, he can’t help but pine for the free lifestyle offered by frontier living.

The author makes it clear that Mordecai is far from the first Lewis to suffer from wanderlust, Michael wonders to himself at one point if his family would have ever crossed the Atlantic had it been any other way, but Mordecai’s wanderlust verges on deadly. Often times, he goes days without his food and weeks without seeing his children. Such hardship exacts a toll but Mordecai is quite content with “living on water and air for days at a time” because he figures that “a man was not so easily killed as was commonly supposed.” Nonetheless, his penchant for exploring and adventuring is not without risk and Mordecai has borrowed more than he can ever hope to pay back. Unless of course he can pull off his latest get-rich-quick scheme. To pull it off, all he needs to do is sneak into the mysterious place known as Texas, round up some wild horses, and then return to Tennessee with them. Only problem is Mordecai will have to break the law to do so and the Spanish authorities have little love for the “Americanos” who sneak over the border to help themselves to the bounties of Texas.

While Mordecai has little compunction about breaking the law, he fully understands that capturing the wild horses will not be easy. Convinced, however, the money is worth the risk he returns to Tennessee to recruit men and gather resources. His own children hardly recognize him, but Mordecai only stays a few days before he leaves Tennessee to return to Texas. This time, however, Michael follows him and learns for himself just how rough frontier life can be when he comes across two outlaws with a penchant for violence. He barely escapes the encounter with his life, but it will not be his final brush with violence. Michael assumes that he will be safe once he links up with his father’s posse, but a group of Spanish soldiers ambush them after they have caught the horses and Michael suffers a near-fatal injury.

In the interests of not giving away the entire story, I won’t say any more about the plot but it’s worth noting that Michael’s first encounter with the Spanish soldiers is not the climax of the story. It is certainly a high point, but the book does not lack for harrowing sequences, whether it’s an encounter with a murderous priest or a blood feud with a neighbor. As gripping as these plot points are, I think what I will really remember about this book is the way author Elmer Kelton makes us sympathize with characters we shouldn’t like.

There may be no better example of this than Mordecai. Mordecai is a terrible father–he provides next to nothing for his children and spends almost no time with them–but he’s a surprisingly sympathetic character. Absentee fathers are a staple in Westerns but Mordecai is different. He neglects his family not so he can tend the bottle or chase skirts, but to search for greener pastures. He’s convinced that he can always find something better for his family and constantly casts his gaze west in search of that better living. He can’t give up on the hope that greener pastures can be found elsewhere so he can never be there for his family as he should be. There’s something very heart-rending about that and I suspect that readers will remember the characters of Sons of Texas long after they finish it. I strongly recommend the book to anyone interested in frontier history, Antebellum history, or Texas history and will be sure to read more of Kelton’s work. 

Malintzin’s Choices

By the time I read Malintzin’s Choices, I already knew that I was going to write a historical novel about the Spanish-Mexica war. I picked up the book not so much because I liked the cover or because I knew the author but because I knew I wanted to read a book about Malintzin. I’m glad I picked up Townsend’s book and I consider it to be one of the best history books I’ve ever read. 

Considering my strong interest in the Spanish-Mexica war, I will be publishing the second installment in the Tenochtitlan Trilogy later this year and wrote my undergraduate history on the subject, I figure this type of praise may be easy to brush off. After all, nobody would be surprised to learn that a francophile enjoys macarons. But if I am going to be completely honest, I really didn’t know much about the Spanish-Mexica war (better known to the general public as the conquest of Mexico) prior to reading this book. 

The thing is, I thought I did. After all, I had learned about the event in my AP world history class as well as my intro to world history class at GWU. My knowledge of the conflict was admittedly shallow but I was quite familiar with the legend that Cortes was perceived as a returning god. The idea that Cortes could return the exact same year the god was fated to return, and that he even shared a similar complexion, was incredible to me and almost Shakespearian. As it turns out, this great coincidence is more fiction than fact and Townsend makes a convincing argument that Cortes, like the Spaniards before and after him, were not perceived as gods. Those interested in the particulars of this argument ought to read the book and can expect to learn a great deal by doing so.

In all honesty, I did not expect a book about a long-dead translator to delve so deeply into Mesoamerican theology or the politicization of history, but that’s part of what makes the book so great. It’s so much more than a biography–it’s a reflection on how we study the past and which narratives get prioritized. History books, the good ones at least, ought to challenge our assumptions and broaden our horizons, and I suspect Malintzin’s Choices has done that for a great many readers.

Townsend’s interests can be admittedly niche, I have yet to meet the layman who can expound at length upon the complex political alliances of central Mexico in the early 16th century, but even readers who do not have a strong interest in the Spanish-Mexica war will find much to enjoy in this book. Townsend’s prose is both engaging and insightful, investing her book with the type of energy and wit more typical of fiction than non-fiction. I strongly recommend the book to readers interested in women’s history, Amerindian history, or historiography, and I look forward to reading more of her work.

The Siege of Jadotville and the Liberty Offered by Historical Fiction

A few years ago, I came across a movie on Netflix called the Siege of Jadotville. I had never heard of Jadotville but I figured I would give it a watch since I like historical fiction. I’m glad I did as it ended up being a pretty entertaining movie and fairly informative also. Like many historical fiction works, the movie takes place in the mid 20th century. However, unlike most historical fiction works, the movie has little to do with WWII and, perhaps even more unusual, takes place in Central Africa.

The movie begins with Lumumba’s assassination, a scene that could have benefitted from some better editing, and then makes a hard pivot to a much calmer setting to give audiences some background information on the conflict. It quickly becomes clear the crisis in the Congo has garnered worldwide attention and the international community is determined to contain the violence. Containing the violence, however, is easier said than done as the Congo has become a proxy battleground in the Cold War. Terrified of what might happen if the shadowboxing of the Soviet Union and the United States escalates into a global conflagration, the UN makes the fateful decision to step in. 

At this point in history, the UN was about the same age as a pouty teenager, it had existed for a mere 16 years by the time Congolese civil war broke out, and had little in the way of real power. Nonetheless, advocates are hopeful the UN can help curb the violence and Ireland agrees to send a small contingent of peacekeepers to the DRC. It soon becomes clear, however, these peacekeepers have extremely little power to stop the wanton bloodshed that is engulfing the DRC and must content themselves with defending an isolated military compound in the countryside. Commander Quinlan thinks it unlikely his troops will see serious action in the DRC but errs on the side of caution and orders his men to undertake defensive preparations.

As it turns out, his caution proves prescient. International forces have attacked a rebel-held radio station over a hundred miles away, killing numerous in the process, and the powers that be are looking to retaliate. What better way than to attack the Jadotville compound, a military outpost defended only be peacekeepers armed with light weapons and little combat experience? What should be a romp, however, is complicated by Quinlan’s adept understanding of defensive warfare and the offensive forces suffer some humiliating setbacks in their attempt to siege Jadotville. The battle scenes are pretty gripping–according to the Telegraph, the actors underwent serious combat training to help make the battle sequences more believable–but the most powerful scene in the movie takes place far away from the battlefield.

Dag Hammarskjöld is not a name known to many, even IR students could be forgiven for not knowing him, but this long-ago Secretary-General was determined to make the UN a serious player on the world stage. So determined was he to do this that he put his own life on the line to increase the power and prestige of the UN. During the height of the Congo Crisis, Dag Hammarskjöld took the bold step of traveling to the DRC to help restore peace. Unfortunately, his decision proved to be a fatal mistake, and his plane crashed outside of Ndola.

As someone who has long been interested in the history of the UN, I knew about Dag’s Hammarskjöld’s plane crash before I watched The Siege of Jadotville. Nonetheless, I always figured it was some kind of tragic accident because non-fiction accounts never suggested any type of foul play. The Siege of Jadotville, however, takes a different tack and suggests that Congolese rebels shot down the plane. To some, this may come off as irresponsible. After all, when the movie came out, there was little hard evidence to prove that Dag Hammarskjöld was deliberately shot down, though I wouldn’t be surprised if a great many in Dag Hammarskjöld’s inner circle suspected it.

In any case, I personally don’t think historical fiction needs to only stick to what we know for certain. After all, there is precious little we can know for certain in history–we know that Caesar traveled to Egypt to take Pompeii into custody but we can’t know if his hands shook when he learned Pompeii had been killed or if tears came to his eyes–and good historical fiction, in my opinion, should relate more than what we know for certain. It should also relate what’s plausible, so long as it doesn’t conflict with what we know for certain, and I think the airplane scene does a great job of making audiences think about the circumstances regarding Dag Hammarskjöld’s death. Perhaps because of the renewed interest in the Congolese civil war, Dag Hammarskjöld has attracted more attention of late and investigators recently revealed they had discovered credible proof that Dag Hammarskjöld’s plane was deliberately shot down. If this is not a vindication of the airplane scene of The Siege of Jadotville, it is hard to know is.

Nonetheless, I completely understand that some people may find the movie interesting for reasons other than a two minute scene. Based upon what I have read about the Siege of Jadotville, something I can safely say I would have never looked into were it not for the movie, I think the movie could have done a better job of communicating Quinlan’s prowess as a military commander, but I think the movie deserves high marks all the same. I recommend it to anyone interested in UN history, Congolese history, or anyone interested in a straightforward battle flick. 

Pocahontas, Whitewashing, and Playing the Long Game

I have not seen the movie Pocahontas since I was a small kid. Truth be told, I don’t remember that much of the movie. I remember that the English looked very Spanish in the movie, what with their glittering armor and their Morion helmets, and I remember that Pocahontas sings something about the color of the wind or something like that. If I remember correctly, there was also a raccoon that was supposed to be pretty important to the story. Were I to rewatch the movie today, I doubt I would enjoy it much.

Truth be told, there are a variety of reasons why. Part of the reason is I’m not that into musicals–the suspension of disbelief is usually too much for me. Part of the reason is I missed out on the chance to see the Matrix in theaters because I had to stay home to watch Pocahontas with my younger brother. As someone who really enjoys film and philosophy, I am still aggrieved that I missed out on the chance to see the first Matrix on the silver screen. But if I am going to be completely honest, what really bothers me about the movie Pocahontas is the lack of respect for the history and the people involved in the story.

I understand, of course, that Pocahontas is intended for a young audience and that young kids aren’t necessarily interested in a historically accurate tale. Nonetheless, I still find it disturbing that Disney took so many creative licenses with the historical facts related to the Jamestown colony and disagree with the idea that historical fiction ought to be sanitized if it’s intended for a young audience. For proof why this is not the case, I would urge readers to pick up Blood on the River.

Blood on the River was required reading in my elementary school and my first introduction to historical fiction. The book is very much intended for a young audience but I suspect if I were to re-read it today, I would still enjoy the book. Told through the eyes of a young orphan forced to join the Virginia Company, the story does a great job of capturing the wonder, confusion, and fear a young boy may have experienced upon arriving in 17th century Jamestown.

Well-known historical figures like Pocahontas and James Smith both make appearances in the novel, but unlike Disney’s Pocahontas, Elise Carbone never tries to suggest the two had any kind of romantic relationship. Moreover, Carbone does not try to elide the fact that Pocahontas was pretty young when she met the English, likely 12 or so, and her decision to stay true to the established facts should be commended.

As almost anyone familiar with the history of Jamestown knows, it has a pretty sordid history. The colonists who founded Jamestown brought little in the way of practical skills, but they did bring plenty of gold-mining equipment, and knew next to nothing of living conditions in the Chesapeake region. Some of the people who were most knowledgeable, the Powhatans for example, did share information and resources on occasion, but the English had a bad habit of attacking Powhatan settlements which kind of put a damper on peaceable cross-cultural interactions. Owing in part to their inability to forge a positive, working relationship with their indigenous neighbors, and their profound ignorance of agriculture, the colonists often went weeks without food. These food shortages were often times severe, so much so that more than half of the colonists died during the Starving Time, and drove many of the Christian settlers to cannibalism.

Genocide and famine don’t exactly make for light reading, but I think Carbone does a good job of alluding to these events in a way that won’t be off-putting for young readers. Moreover, I think the way the protagonist, a real-life historical figure who went by the name of Samuel Collier, deals with these crises make for compelling reading. At one point in the book, the protagonist has to decide whether he will kidnap a baby from his mother to save the child from coming famine or if he will leave the baby with a mother who insists the Jamestown food shortage is no serious matter. The choice that Collier makes sticks with me to this day and gives the book an emotional depth unmatched by the Pocahontas movie.

In all fairness, Disney is in the money-making business, not the telling historical-stories-accurately business. Nonetheless, it’s worth noting that Blood on the River was a big success with readers. The book has over 4,000 ratings on Amazon and averages 3.99 stars which is pretty good by most metrics. Moreover, it’s also a top-seller in multiple Amazon categories which is impressive considering the book was released only 12 years ago. I’m sure Pocahontas helped Disney bring in tons of money, but I suspect the movie will fade from the cultural lexicon in the years to come and will hurt Disney’s brand in the long-run. Whitewashed historical fiction just isn’t as popular as it used to be and fans have increasingly high standards when it comes to historical fiction. Owing to Carbone’s respect for history and people involved in the Jamestown colony, I suspect Blood on the River will continue to rack up many positive ratings and will continue to be read by young students all across the country.