Smugglivus Smugglivus Guest Author

Smugglivus 2014 Guest Author: Michal Wojcik

Welcome to Smugglivus 2014! Throughout this month, we will have daily guests – authors and bloggers alike – looking back at their favorite reads of 2014, looking forward to events and upcoming books in 2015, and more.

Who: Michal Wojcik, whose short fiction has appeared in On Spec: The Canadian Magazine of the Fantastic and Daily Science Fiction. He also wrote one of Book Smugglers Publishing’s short stories, Mrs Yaga, which you can read here.

Michal Wojcik Mrs. Yaga

Please give a warm welcome to Michal, everyone!

Happy Smugglivus, one and all! In preparing for this post, I realized that I failed to read anything published in 2014, which demonstrates my amazing ability to keep up with the current state of the field. Impressive, huh? So instead of “the best books published this year”, here’s a list of the books I read in 2014 that stuck with me the most, regardless of publication date.

HILD_jacket

I have a…fraught relationship with historical fiction. I partially blame this on reading a few doorstopper historical novels by Gary Jennings when I was twelve (not recommended), which probably had some bizarre and negative effects on my adolescent development. Later on, studying history as an undergrad and for my MA made me a nitpicky bore. I tend to care about niggling details and approaches to history in fiction that almost nobody else cares about, and explaining why without delving into opaque historical theory is next to impossible. Let’s just say there are many ways a historical novel can go wrong for me. And yet, some of my favourite books of all time are historical novels. Because when it’s done right, it can be amazing.

Nicola Griffith’s Hild (2013) is one of those books. Yet strangely, any time I encountered any promotion of the novel online it was inevitably in science fiction and fantasy circles (maybe not so strangely, since Griffith is no stranger to science fiction). Blurbs on the hardcover made reference to Game of Thrones and it got nominated for a Nebula. Yet Hild isn’t a historical fantasy, at least in the sense that there are no supernatural elements that you can’t explain through natural means. This in itself is an interesting frame through which to view the novel. There was a bit of discussion swirling around about how Griffith used the tools of fantastic literature to breathe life into a historical setting that, by the nature of its distance from us, is just as alien as Middle Earth or Nyumbani. The temporal disconnect comes out even more starkly in the chosen setting of Hild: seventh-century Britain, a mysterious “dark age” insofar as written records from the time and place are few and far between. Such is also the case with the material behind the title character. St. Hilda of Whitby existed, certainly, but all we know about her life lies in a short passage from the Venerable Bede’s Ecclesiastical History of the English People. And Hild, as the beginning of a promised series covering the life of St. Hilda, only makes use of about a sentence from Bede.

In the gaps of the historical account, Griffith weaves a richly detailed imagining of Northumbria-as-it-was, meticulously researched, elegantly constructed, “world-building” to the extent of imagining a past to the same extent as you imagine a secondary world. It’s a marvellous reconstruction born from utter commitment to the setting—characters live and breathe their environment, their worldview. They’re alien yet familiar, odd to us yet oddly normal. My only complaint isn’t much of a complaint at all: While Hild has a court of believably flawed people occupying every station surrounding her, Hild herself seems too elevated, too perfect, too intelligent, too mature for her age, and invariably distant. Her reputation for prophecy arises not from any godly gift but her unusually sharp wit (“bright mind”), her ability to follow events to their natural conclusion in such an astute way her abilities do seem supernatural. It’s not a flaw, since this distance arises because Hild takes its stylings from medieval hagiography. She is supposed to be “too much”, and a great deal of the joy of reading Hild is seeing the effect of such an extraordinary person on others, especially when painted against the background of the introduction of Christianity among the pagan Anglo-Saxons and Griffith’s exploration of how a seer can become a saint.

Doomsday Book

I only discovered Connie Willis last year with To Say Nothing of the Dog, and I wish I’d read her earlier—once I pick up a Willis book I can’t stop myself from snatching every spare moment I can until I finish the damn book. The time travel novels are especially insidious this way since they amount to a wish-fulfillment fantasy for anyone who’s studied history in uni: corporations abandon time travel technology ‘cause they can’t find a way to make money off of it, leaving academic historians to go on adventures in the past. Awesome. Time travel scenarios also neatly elide something that bugs me in lots of historical novels: the sympathetic historical protagonist who thinks and acts like a twentieth/twenty-first century Westerner even when the setting makes this either unlikely or impossible. Boom—your protagonist is from the twentieth/twenty-first century. Problem solved!

Doomsday Book (1992) was the second Willis I read and it was…quite a contrast to To Say Nothing of the Dog.

Kivrin is a bright-faced grad student from Oxford ready to make the first ever journey back to the Middle Ages. However, a mishap inadvertently plunks her in 1348, literally the worst year in medieval English history you could find yourself in. What follows is an utterly harrowing tale of survival as the Black Death comes to an English village. Kivrin, inoculated against the disease, has to watch an apocalypse scenario as it unfolds. You could niggle about some historical details (which I’m wont to do) but the story is just so compelling and, ultimately, heartbreaking that you can’t help but get swept away.

Sure, I’m praising it late. Doomsday Book has won about a million awards and is well-loved for a reason, but praise it new, I say!

The-Count-of-Monte-Cristo

Talk about praising late and reaching back. I read The Three Musketeers a few years ago and enjoyed it immensely; this year I came across a matching edition of The Count of Monte Cristo (er…1844) at the local used bookstore and had to buy it if only for bookshelf aesthetics. The Three Musketeers reached down into some dark places amid the swashbuckling adventure, The Count of Monte Cristo goes rather deeper into those themes of revenge and violence. We follow Edmond Dantès after he is wrongly accused and thrown into the terrible prison of the Château d’If. After many years he escapes with an undreamed-of fortune and begins plotting the downfall of those responsible for his incarceration. But this is no ordinary tale of vengeance, for Edmond is perhaps the most patient person who ever lived. His style of retribution involves facilitating the self-destructive natures of his enemies instead of attacking them directly. His betrayers all come to deliciously appropriate ends. It’s more satisfying than I’d like to admit. Dantès’s schemes are just so perfect.

Couple that with the shifting landscape of French politics in the decades following Napoleon’s exile to Elba and you end up with an intricately-plotted, many-threaded novel that manages to somehow not be exhausting. Alexandre Dumas was a master of pacing in that regard.

Oh, and we also find out that Lord Byron believed in vampires. Who knew? Well, besides Tim Powers?

Lupa

I got the ebook of Lupa (2012) nearly a year ago in a giveaway on Marie Marshall’s blog. I’m a fan of her poetry and I was curious what her fiction was like—this is her first novel. I didn’t actually get around to reading it until I finally bought an e-reader a few months ago. By then, I’d sort of forgotten about it, but boy am I glad I found it sitting on my hard drive.

Lupa tells the story of Jelena, a former circus performer who fled the Balkans after the disintegration of Yugoslavia. An accident puts her out of work, and now she loafs around Rome watching spaghetti westerns while bearing an intense, almost irrational hatred for the city. Lupa also tells the story of a nameless young woman in Ancient Rome who runs away from her family’s villa to sell herself into slavery and train as a gladiator, taking on the moniker of Lupa, the she-wolf.

The two stories twine together increasingly tightly as the story progresses, Jelena believing more and more strongly that she is Lupa reborn. To say anything else about their true relationship would spoil it—everything comes together in a quiet and oddly moving ending. By then Lupa becomes (to circle around) just as much a musing on an individual’s personal relationship with history as it is a tale of an ass-kicking female gladiator and her modern-day counterpart. The writing is subdued, sparse, often mesmerizing. It’s a brisk read at only 130 pages, but I found myself thinking about it a long time after I read it. Let’s just say that there’s nary a wasted word her.

Coming from a South African micro press, and featuring some not-so-impressive cover art, Lupa is easily overlooked. But it shouldn’t be.

That’s all I got. Think you have any historical fiction in mind that won’t infuriate me? Recommend it below!

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10 Comments

  • Alexandra the Great
    December 29, 2014 at 12:13 am

    I’ve been keeping this post unread in my feedreader all day because I wanted to see what historical fiction people recommended, but I guess I’ll have to start things off.

    From one historian(ish) to another, some of my favourite historical fiction:
    – Mistress of the Art of Death and sequels by Ariana Franklin (Medieval lady coroner who solves mysteries in the court of Henry II)
    – A Brief History of Montmaray and sequels by Michelle Cooper (One of my favourite things about Blackout/All Clear was the portrayal of life in Britain during WWII, and the second two books deliver this in spades)
    – Code Name Verity and Rose Under Fire by Elizabeth Wein (Actually, just read everything by her. She also has some really great titles about King Arthur et al. set in actual 6th c. England)
    – Anything by Guy Gavriel Kay (Technically, these are fantasy. But Kay tends to research the deuce out of a time period, and then set his novels in a fictionalized version of it)

    Bonus: One Damned Thing After Another by Jodi Taylor and sequels. These are self-published and, quite honestly, don’t have the best writing (though they are super fun). HOWEVER, Taylor takes Willis’ idea of a university specializing in time travel and runs with it, and even fixes (if that’s the right word) some things that really bug me in Willis’ Oxford Historian books.

  • Belle
    December 29, 2014 at 3:53 am

    I read The Brewer’s Tale by Karen Brooks a couple of months ago, and it blew my mind. Absolutely amazing.

  • Victoria (Eve's Alexandria)
    December 29, 2014 at 4:09 am

    Some fantastic recommendations here. Particularly excited about Lupa, because I’m so shallow about cover art and would have disregarded it without your recommendation. 🙂 And I totally echo Alexandra’s recommendation of Guy Gavriel Kay. The Lions of Al-Rassan is my favourite.

    As for other recommendations, I’m sure you’ve read most of these, but:

    Wolf Hall and Bring up the Bodies by Hilary Mantel. Currently my favourite books of all time, if you haven’t yet, do. I’m hoping, praying, down on my knees begging that the third book The Mirror and the Light comes out in 2015.

    The Wake by Paul Kingsnorth. This came out from a crowd-funded press in the UK last year, so not sure how avaiable it is elsewhere. But it was longlisted for the Booker Prize, and so I’m sure it is being picked up. If anacronistic protagonist get you down, this is the book for you. Kingsnorth attempted to write a novel set in the 11th century using only words and beliefs with roots in Old English, which is alienating, frustrating and quite special.

    As Meat Loves Salt by Maria McCann. I’ve read other McCann books and didn’t like them, but I think her debut was scorching. It’s set in the 17th century during the English Civil War, and is this dark story of madness, obsession and love between two very different men. She uses the historical setting as a canvas for mental breakdown and it works incredibly well. There are some scenes I will never forget.

    The Song of Achilles by Madeline Miller. This book explained the Iliad to me, and then some. It’s gorgeously written, and moving, and really engages with the implications of Homer’s narrative. And the love story between Patrocles and Achilles is really understated and lovely.

    The Emperor’s Babe by Bernadine Evaristo. A historical novel in verse, hooray! It tells the story of Zuleika, a first generation Sudanese immigrant to London in the 1st century AD, who is sold off as a child bride and then becomes the mistress of an Emperor. Really unexpected and extraordinary. And totally glories in anachronism, but you will forgive it.

    The Crimson Petal and the White by Michel Faber. This used to be my favourite historical novel, before Hilary Mantel blew me away. A prostitute, the mad woman in the attic, a perfumier and his religiously unhinged brother in 19th century London. Amazingness.

    And I think I should probably stop there. 🙂

  • Joanna
    December 29, 2014 at 4:59 am

    For me, 2014 was the year of reading Dorothy Dunnett — I spent the best part of six months, immersing myself in her two series, set in 15th and 16th century Europe. I was so impressed by the level of research (apparently she discovered new things about real historical figures that then made it into her books), and she is able to seamlessly weave her two protagonists through scores of real life people and events. But what I loved the most was the global scale of the books: they aren’t just set in 15th century Bruges, or 16th century France or whatever, but the whole of Europe, the Ottoman empire and Africa, and you really get a sense of how different countries, cultures and events fitted together.

  • Celine
    December 29, 2014 at 6:14 am

    I’m running out to buy Lupa this very instant. Please run out to read Hillary Mantel’s trilogy of Cromwell books! (starting with Wolf Hall. & ending hopefully next year (or I will die of frustration)) I also highly recommend a teeny book called The Emperor’s Babe. Also cursed with an appalling cover, and by the unlikely fact of it being written in verse, it’s an absolute treat. (Manda Scott’s Boudicea books are worth a look too, I tjink. Though the prose is very dense, and the characters a teeny bit po faced)

  • Celine
    December 29, 2014 at 6:18 am

    Oh hey! Victoria got there before me. (I too loved Crimson Petal btw. Great choice)

  • Michal
    December 29, 2014 at 9:38 pm

    @Alexandra: At one point I could claim I read everything by Guy Gavriel Kay, even his book of poetry (the result are here). Then River of Stars came out and I can’t make the claim anymore. (Some day!)

    @Victoria: I’ve wanted to read The Wake since it made the Booker long list; hopefully it will be easier to get now than it was then.

    Thanks to all for the recommendations! Clearly I have to finally get round to picking up Wolf Hall.

  • Ana
    January 2, 2015 at 4:15 am

    I am taking note of all these books too. Thank you all!

  • Marie Marshall
    January 2, 2015 at 4:43 am

    Thank you for the recommendation, Michal, and for putting ‘Lupa’ in such good company.

    For historical fiction, I would recommend ‘A Tale of Two Cities’ – I believe it is the only novel in which Charles Dickens deals with a period before his own lifetime, and I have always found it compelling, not just because it has one of the most famous opening passages in English literature. Also the two ‘Claudius’ novels and ‘Count Belisarius’ by Robert Graves, and while we are on the subject of Rome, the ‘Cicero’ trilogy by Robert Harris (although of course the third book is not yet published). For light relief, how about the ‘Brother Cadfael’ mysteries by Ellis Peters. Towering above any of these, I believe, is ‘The Name of the Rose’ by Umberto Eco.

    I’m away now to read ‘Mrs. Yaga’.

  • Sunday Links, January 18, 2015 | Like Fire
    January 19, 2015 at 7:34 am

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