Wednesday, April 1, 2009

Traveling Through Time

I've read three historical novels over the last few weeks. The first was a mystery, Roman Blood by Steven Saylor, set in Rome in 80B.C.E. I've never read anything by this author before, unfortunately. I will definitely be reading more by him in the future. Roman Blood is the first in Saylor's Roma Sub Rosa series and features a sleuth named Gordianus the Finder. In this book, Gordianus is hired by none other than the famous Roman philosopher and statesman Cicero who is about to argue his first case before the courts. Cicero's client is Sectus Rosius of the town Ameria who is accused of the crime of murdering his father. The plot is quite intricate,but not too confusing. The story was well paced and I like almost all the characters I was supposed to like, suspected those I'm pretty sure I was supposed to suspect and distrusted most everybody with money and status. Some things never change, do they? It was to Saylor's credit that even though I knew Cicero was to win his case since he's a historical figure and we know he had a brilliant career, there were times when I just could not see how he could win even when he managed to rouse the fury of Roman dictator Sulla.

Saylor has a talent for characterization and his portrait of ancient Rome and the complexities of its various levels of societies was fascinating. I know this is fiction and the portrayals of famous historical figures requires a certain amount of freedom of interpretation from the author. In another's hands, the characters might well have been portrayed quite differently (see Sunne in Splendour discussion below). But Saylor convinced me that all these people were quite real, even the nonhistorical ones. Actually I liked Gordianus, his slave Bethesda and Cicero's slaveTiro best, as I suppose I was supposed to. They seem quite believable to me.

Next time I get to the library, I'm bringing another Saylor book home with me.

The Sunne in Splendour by Sharon Kay Penman brought me forward in time to England, 1459, and another story of political intrigue. This novel told the story of Richard III quite differently from the way most of us have learned it from Shakespeare and others. It was quite a thick book and with my short attention span I was a bit afraid I'd not be able to finish it. But I stayed up way too late way too many nights reading. Even though I knew that this novel could not possibly have a happy ending, I read it anyway. I was not disappointed. As a matter of fact, Sharon Kay Penman is completely 100% responsible for my fascination with medieval England, especially the late 15th and early 16th centuries. I thought that was nigh on to impossible to do, but I have been reading and researching online since I started reading this book. That alone should let anyone know beyond a doubt just how fascinating this book was. I had to keep reminding myself that this is a work of fiction, that Penman's characterization of Edward IV and his little brother Richard were just that - part of the process of creating fiction, albeit from historical sources. I hated all the folks I was supposed to hate and later began thinking about winners writing history and how what we read as gospel about historical figures might not be so gospel-ly after all. Anyway, this book, like the other Sharon Kay Penman books I've read, was well worth the time. I'm already hooked on her mystery series, and now I'm hooked on her other novels as well.

So next time I get by the library, not only will I be bringing home another Steven Saylor Roma Sub Rosa mystery, I'll be bringing home Penman's When Christ and His Saints Slept, the first in her trilogy about Henry II and Eleanor of Aquitane.

The third historical novel moved me up a mere century to 1569, the time of Elizabeth I. Assassin: A Lady Grace Mystery is actually a young adult novel by Patricia Finney (using the nom de plume Grace Cavendish, the main character). Since I had read Karen Harper's The Fyre Mirror, I was fascinated with this period and was eager to read something else featuring Queen Elizabeth I. So I did a search on PaperBack Swap and ordered this Lady Grace book. I'm not sorry I did. I really enjoyed it. It is definitely a children's novel, but like all really good children's fiction, the tale is so well told that anybody of any age could read and enjoy it.

Lady Grace, age 13 and an orphan, is one of Elizabeth I's favorite handmaids. Elizabeth has decided it's time for Lady Grace to choose her future husband. Someone needs to look after the properties her parents' left her when they died and in this time period, that means a husband, for the most part. So at the Valentine banquet, Lady Grace is to choose one of three suitors for her hand. Things are complicated when one spurned suitor is found murdered with the knife he had given Lady Grace. The man she had chosen was implicated and will probably be hanged for the crime if Lady Grace doesn't find out who the real murderer is.

I enjoyed the author's style and approach to telling the story as much as anything. Finney used the motif of Lady Grace's daily journal. I don't normally care for first person accounts, but this one worked so well I frequently forgot to grouse.