Historical Fiction

So I’ve already admitted my fondness/weakness for post apocalyptic fiction in a previous post, but another weakness of mine is historical fiction. I think it gets a bit of a short shrift because while there’s some amazing writers and books in the genre, there’s also a lot of lackluster ones. I’d imagine most “literary” critics and literary snobs probably look down on the genre, which I think is a bit unfair. For instance, some “classics” such as War and Peace and A Tale of Two Cities, both of which I’ve read, are basically historical fiction and I’m sure there’s plenty of others that I’m missing.

My point is, while there’s probably plenty of drivel in the historical fiction genre, and while genres as a whole are looked down upon often, there’s some amazing books and writers in it. I would probably say that a few of my favorite books and some of the most moving I’ve read are historical fiction. Now I will admit that I have a bias towards this genre having been a history major in college and still read a lot of non fiction history books on a regular basis. But a good historical fiction book can sometimes do a better job of making you feel how things really were than a dry textbook could ever hope to. Not to mention that some people that couldn’t care less about history might be drawn to research a particular period that they’ve read about in a good historical fiction book.

So anyway, having written my defense and praise of the genre, I’d like to mention a few that to me are simply amazing and that I highly recommend even if you don’t like history at all. Rather than just listing some and giving a brief synopsis like I did with the post apocalyptic stuff, I feel the need to give some of these books a bit more time and space, so this will probably be a recurring series rather than just a list. I will warn you, most of these books are on the long side, which to me is a plus: if a book is good, I don’t want it to end. I’ve read most in print and also own many of then in audio form and a lot of the audio versions are over 40 hours long.

When I thought about writing this, the first book that came to mind for me was Shōgun by James Clavell. It was first published in 1975 so if you’re my age or younger you may have never heard of it, but at the time it was a huge bestseller. They even made a primetime miniseries of it in the 80s that was successful and according to Wikipedia it had sold 15 million copies worldwide by 1990.

Anyhow, this book is based on the feudal age of Japan. If you don’t know much about Japanese history, it was basically not that different from feudal Europe. There was originally an Emperor who was supposed to be divine and descended from the Gods, but after a time the emperor became more of a figurehead as powerful lords called daimyos, basically the same as powerful lords in Europe, took over lands, built up armies of retainers(samurai), built castles, and basically ruled their own parts of the country. Every now and then one of the more powerful lords would have the strength or prowess in battle to subdue the other ones and have himself declared Shogun by the emperor, meaning he ruled the country supposedly in place of the powerless emperor.

At the beginning of the book though, there is a different situation: in the preceding years a peasant general had been so great in battle and strongwilled that he had either beaten or won over all of the powerful lords. He couldn’t proclaim himself Shogun because he was originally a peasant and only those of the samurai class could be Shogun, so he basically created a title for himself, Taiko, and ruled the country. Unfortunately for him, he died with a young heir and while the great lords all claimed that they would rule the country together until his heir came of age, anyone that has studied history could see how that would work out.

Anyway, the book starts in 1600 amid this turmoil and is told from the point of view of an English navigator on a Dutch ship that is wrecked in a storm. He’s actually called a pilot and his name is Blackthorne. He’s washed up with some of the crew on the lands of a vassal of one of the most powerful daimyos named Toranaga. The Japanese can’t speak his name in their language so for the rest of the book he is known as Anjin, pilot in Japanese. This shipwreck isn’t a great thing for him or his crew because at this point only the Spanish and Portuguese are allowed to trade in Japan and them both being Catholic countries they hate the English and Dutch for being protestants and also don’t want any other countries to hone in on their monopoly.

Blackthorne and his men are also looked upon as smelly barbarians by the local japanese villagers and the minor lord whose land they washed up on. Things aren’t looking good between the Catholics calling for them to be burned and the local lord thinking they are barbarians, but after a bit, word travels up the feudal ladder to Toranaga who is the ultimate overlord of the area, and also the one person that the other lords suspect might try to seize power in the vacuum. Blackthorne/Anjin knows about navigation, knows how to build ships, and there are cannon and guns recovered from the wreck of his ship, so he might be useful to Toranaga.

And that’s basically where the story really starts. It’s semi based on the real historical Shogun Tokugawa and is frankly amazing in how well it presents the Japanese psyche and way of life at this time. There’s treachery, love, revenge, death, battles, and some simply moving scenes, a few that actually can still bring tears to my eyes. Honestly, it’s one of the most amazing books I’ve ever read in how it truly brings to life a past time and way of life, and like I said it has plenty of action and intrigue.

I recommend the audio version as it’s quite well done but it might be a bit pricey. I’m sure there are cheap used paperback copies on Amazon to be found so if this sounds at all interesting to you, I suggest you find some way to get it. It’s probably in my top five books I’ve ever read, and that says a lot as I’ve read probably thousands of books by this point in my life.

Anyway, that’s enough for today’s historical fiction rec…there’s a few other really good ones that I’ll probably suggest in the future and feel free to let me know if there’s any I miss or if you like or dislike my selections.