Wednesday, August 26, 2009
From the Shelves of the Paco Library
Today, I’ve got a couple of historical fiction novels you may find interesting.
The late Nigel Tranter was a native of Scotland who gained fame for writing more than fifty novels dealing with notable figures and episodes of Scottish history. I have only read one, so far, but it is a good one and has certainly whetted my appetite for more.
Macbeth the King is a well-researched novel which presents a far different, and far more accurate, picture of the Scottish king than Shakespeare’s tormented character. The real Macbeth seems to have been, for the most part (and considering the times), a genuinely noble monarch who struggled to maintain the unity and independence of his kingdom. Nor was his lady the scheming, overly-ambitious queen of the play, but a strong-willed, dignified and loving helpmate. The novel is full of fascinating supporting characters, including, perhaps first and foremost, Thorfinn Sigurdson (styled, the “Raven Feeder”), Macbeth’s half-brother. A wild-spirited, but loyal, ally, he was a half-Danish, half-Celtic Viking, master of the Orkney Isles, and occasional protector of Galloway, who came to Macbeth’s aid on a number of critically important occasions. In addition to skillful plotting and a masterful ability to adapt the known historical record to excellent storytelling, Tranter has a superb eye for the physical features of his country, and, after reading the book, you may feel as if you have slogged with Macbeth through the marshes and over the mountains and along the wind-blown seashores of his kingdom, as he fights to keep Scotland out of the hands of both Danes and Englishmen.
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David Liss’ third novel in the Benjamin Weaver series, The Devil’s Company, is out, and it is his most enthralling page-turner yet. Weaver, an English Jew of Portuguese extraction – ex-pugilist and highwayman turned thief-taker and investigator – finds himself embroiled in a great plot involving the East India Company. He is forced into the Company’s service through an extraordinarily cunning trap set by the sinister Jerome Cobb, a wealthy man whom no one has ever heard of. Cobb has brought pressure to bear, not just on Weaver himself, but on his beloved uncle, one of his uncle’s friends, and on Weaver’s own close friend, Elias Gordon (surgeon and ladies’ man). Weaver is compelled to play a dangerous game, involving an array of questionable allies and determined enemies, including a beautiful spy, an Indian watchman of gigantic proportions and uncertain loyalties, and a company director who gives troubling signs of being genuinely mad. The book takes us through the treacherous and noisome streets of London, into smoky taverns, the homes of great merchants, and the pungent warehouses of the Company, filled with the spices and textiles of the orient – the stuff of fabulous fortunes, and the cause of blackmail and death. I am thrilled to have found an author of 18th-century fiction who has helped to fill the vacancy created by the death of Bruce Alexander, whose John Fielding mysteries provided me with so much pleasure.