Clifford Beal

historical fiction with a twist of lime

Month: October 2012

Do the old sword & sorcery pulp epics still thrill?

Rewind: Sowers of the Thunder by R. E. Howard

Picked this up for a penny the other day. Plus postage and packing of course. I read
back in 1975 when I bought the Zebra special edition paperback with original illustrations. Sold it for next to nothing in the early 90s but for some reason the book popped into my head when I was trawling for historical fiction. My old Zebra edition now sells on amazon for £25 so I guess I’m not the most astute investor. Now I do plan to reread Sowers for the first time in 30 years but I’m a little reticent about it. Will it still thrill me the way my failing neurons seem to make me remember I was thrilled back in 1975?

Sowers of the Thunder, a collection of four unrelated stories, is a departure from the high fantasy worlds that R.E. Howard created and is best remembered for. Of course, he dipped into westerns and science fiction as well, but these are actually historical high-adventure tales. They’re set mainly in the Middle East and Asia in the Middle Ages although the last, Shadow of the Vulture, is actually set at the siege of Vienna in the 16th century. Pity the marketeers at Sphere Books didn’t actually read the book as the cover refers to: “Swordplay and slaughter in the most barbarically splendid fantasy kingdoms ever”.

I’m definitely not the same reader I was all those years ago. And I’ll probably notice now how creaky the plots are, how purple the prose, and how hammy the dialogue (Laurence Olivier might have had a great time with Howard’s lines). Or maybe it will indeed stand the test of time and, given that the stories were written in the 1930s, I’ll think they hold up well. Whatever the case, the most important thing for me will be that Sowers, and the other works of Howard, fired my imagination and my will to write creatively, and set me dreaming about past worlds. It might just be an enjoyable trip down memory lane.

Gideon’s Angel: UK cover preview

Double plus good! Solaris are releasing Gideon’s Angel with two different covers in the US and the UK. They’re both superb with very different takes on theme and hopefully they will draw you into the intrigue and magic of 17th century England.

Bring Up the Bodies: Tense in the Present

Challenging readers or just annoying them?

I’ve got a confession to make: I started Wolf Hall  when it first appeared in paperback but gave up about 200 pages in. I had high hopes that I’d like it since historical fiction is near and dear to my heart but I put it down and walked away. At the time, I found it irritating in the extreme. It’s set in an incredible period of English history with colourful characters and bags of intrigue but…written in the present tense. I did try and adjust to this, as well as to the complicated syntax and convoluted prose. In the end, I admitted defeat, miffed with Hilary Mantel and myself.

Now she’s scored another hit with a record-breaking second Man Booker Prize for the sequel, Bring Up the Bodies. It’s got me thinking again about writing and the implicit contract between authors and their readers. Rather Marmite-like, people are polarised by these books. Today I read an exchange in the Daily Telegraph comments section between two people. The first criticized BUtB for pretty much the same reasons I did above with Wolf Hall. The other person commented: “So how many books have you written?” This reaction misses the point. A reader has every right to criticise a work they’ve read whether they themselves are published or not.

Mantel wrote in the present tense as a device to bridge the time gap and give a sense of immediacy to events several lifetimes past (I assume). Somehow helping the reader to get inside the head of the protagonist, Thomas Cromwell. And frankly, that is just going to antagonize some readers. Present tense for writing historical fiction has always been frowned on—even considered amateurish for those who have tried. Until Hilary succeeded in it despite the odds.

Difficult prose for its own sake shows a disregard for the reader. But Mantel’s books (and they are a challenge to readers) are rich in texture, intricately composed,  cranky but ultimately beautifully written. And they show immense research of the time period: language, social mores, tastes, smells, sound and vision. It’s probably the closest any of us will actually get to time travel.

Every book isn’t necessarily for everyone. But any work of historical fiction that succeeds like these books have done, deserves to be feted. And given a second chance by those who were frustrated by its challenge. So I’m going to start fresh with Wolf Hall again. I was probably in a bad mood when I first tried reading it anyway.

Taking Liberties

Historical fantasy and fact vs fiction

If writing historical fiction sometimes requires taking liberties with the truth for the purposes of storyline, writing historical fantasy makes this almost a dead certainty. But half the fun of writing historical fantasy is in weaving the fantastical elements seamlessly with actual events without rewriting the historical timeline as we know it. You can even inject a fantasy device that directly triggers an actual event.

High fantasy demands world-building from the ground up. Historical fantasy is more like renovating a listed building without permission. You keep the fabric and build on what’s there but also construct some rather strange additions. Working on Gideon’s Angel (Solaris 2013) gave me the opportunity to introduce several real life figures into a fantasy/horror scenario and have them interact with the protagonist and other fictional characters. All of this obviously requires some good research to remain true to the actual person and the time period. But there can be something reassuringly comforting about making a real person one of your characters—like watching an old familiar friend in a new adventure that no one knew about. Who would have thought that Abe Lincoln had a second line of work in vampire hunting?

And readers will get the opportunity to meet characters they thought were fictional but are actually figures from true life. Without giving away the game, one of these is Charles de Batz-Castelmore, better known as d’Artagnan. Alexandre Dumas plucked him from the

The real version of musketeer d’Artagnan lives again in Gideon’s Angel

pages of history and dropped him into The Three Musketeers but in real life d’Artagnan lived almost the same adventure: as a soldier for King Louis XIV, as a trusted confidante of the great Cardinal Mazarin, and as an international man of mystery.

Less well known, but equally real, is Elias Ashmole. Ashmole, scientist, mathematician and founding member of the Royal Society, is best remembered today for the museum at Oxford that he began and that still bears his name. He was also a dedicated alchemist and astrologer. The 17th century was the twilight of an earlier age: new science was discovering physics and the circulation of blood at a time when most people still believed in hobgoblins and that the little old lady down the street was a witch. This head-on collision of medieval and modern makes the period especially fertile ground for historical fiction and fantasy. Gideon’s Angel takes that premise and runs with it. It hits the streets next March in the US and UK.

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