Thursday, March 17, 2011

From the shelves of the Paco library

Historical fiction day!

I believe I may have written about Michael Jecks’ excellent medieval mysteries before, but I’d like to draw attention to what constitutes a series within a series. The last several books – which feature the author’s great creations, Sir Baldwin Furnshill, ex-Knight Templar and keeper of the King’s peace for Devon, and his friend Simon Puttock, sometime bailiff and exciseman – have revolved around negotiations between Edward II of England and Charles IV of France for the return to the English king of certain lands seized by the French monarch.

The times were tumultuous, and the British realm was in increasing disarray (as Jecks has written, “The 14th century is a great time for a novelist to write about, just because it was not a great time to live”). The reign of Edward II was rocked by scandals, insurrection and defeats at the hands of the Scots, and no man’s property was safe from the depredations of the king’s chief counselor (and lover) Sir Hugh Le Despenser, a greedy and ruthless figure who is one of the preeminent villains of English history. The French have at last seized Edward’s valuable holdings on the continent, and Charles IV refuses to return them unless Edward travels to the French court to formally acknowledge and renew his vassalage. Edward is prevented by his pride, as well as by his fears for the life of Despenser in his absence, from personally appearing in the court of Charles. He eventually presses his estranged wife, Queen Isabella (who is Charles’ sister), to go to France and enter into negotiations with the French king.

In The Templar, the Queen and Her Lover, The Prophecy of Death, The King of Thieves, No Law in the Land, and The Bishop Must Die, Jecks weaves a multitude of inventive subplots, against the larger background of the lengthy, difficult and strained royal negotiations, that take our heroes back and forth, between France and England, where they are caught up in murders motivated by greed, ambition and politics, inadvertently creating powerful enemies as they proceed with their investigations, heedless of everything save the truth. The books provide a superb picture of some of the most notable men and women of the age, as well as a comprehensive look at the day-to-day lives of everyone from monarchs to serfs, from knights to wandering musicians.

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I have long been a fan of Edwardian fiction, particularly the adventure yarns of such authors as H. Rider Haggard and Anthony Hope, and the historical novels of Stanley J. Weyman. Thanks to my Kindle, I recently downloaded one of the books in Edgar Wallace’s series on Sanders, British commissioner for an unnamed colony in West Central Africa. In Bones: Being Further Adventures in Mr. Sanders’ Country, Sanders is absent for much of the time on leave. The responsibility for keeping the peace falls to Hamilton, his second in command, and to a new addition to the staff, Lieutenant Francis Augustus Tibbets, a brave, but thin and callow, youth, whom Hamilton nicknames “Bones” - sometimes, depending on circumstances, lengthening the name to “Bones, you ass.”

The stories fall into the subgenre of Edwardian fiction known as “empire fiction”, and although there is a bit of the “white man’s burden” aspect to the tales, given the prevailing spirit of lighthearted comedy (almost Wodehousian in places), and the follies of Lieutenant Tibbets, there is also something of the “black man’s burden”, as well. Together, Hamilton and Bones tackle tribal animosities, long-standing personal feuds, tropical illness, dynastic struggles and even a jungle god. Along the way, they are assisted by a powerful and cunning local chief by the name of Bosambo, who is not above a little larceny now and then, but who has a deep respect and a genuine affection for Sanders and his subordinates, managing to save them from less loyal chiefs (and from their own mistakes) on more than one occasion. Here is a sample of the sly humor that predominates, as Bosambo palavers with an ambassador from another tribe, a hereditary enemy:
Bosambo received an envoy from the chief of the Akasava, and the envoy brought with him presents of dubious value and a message to the effect that N’gori spent much of his waking moments in wondering how he might best serve his brother Bosambo, “The right arm on which I and my people lean and the bright eyes through which I see beauty.”

Bosambo returned the messenger, with presents more valueless, and an assurance of friendship more sonorous, more complete in rhetoric and aptness of hyperbole, and when the messenger had gone Bosambo showed his appreciation of N’gori’s love by doubling the guard about the Ochori city and sending a strong picket under his chief headman to hold the river bend.”
A very fun read.

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The second novel in John Stack’s series on the first Punic War is out - Captain of Rome - and it is outstanding. Also, I’m looking forward to reading A Battle Won, the second in S. Thomas Russell’s saga of the age of fighting sail.


JeffS said...

You'd need a sub-basement to hold all those books, Paco! That Kindle was a good purchase.

bruce said...

Not entirely off-(Edwardian)-topic;

"Almost everyone else in public life is visibly keen to get on, trying to survive, trying to be promoted, trying to kick aside rivals, trying to accumulate power, honours and money. It is important to have at least one person at the top who doesn't really want to be there. It is the precise opposite of Hitler's terrible will to power, against which George VI had to rally his country. The British people came to love their King precisely because he clearly had no ambition, and yet he did the job all the same, because he knew he must."

Food for thought eh? We Brit Commonwealthers are torn between American Republicanism and stuff like this.

bruce said...

Love Edwardian/Victorian stuff too just like you Paco. Value your recommendations very much. Thanks.

Paco said...

Glad to oblige, Bruce!

Jeff: I do have a basement - and it's full of books, too.

Yojimbo said...

I always loved "Punic Wars". I just see a bunch of guys running around in small tunics!

prairiecat55kc said...

Yojimbo - puny tunics? PERfect description of what always showed up in my brain when "Punic Wars" were mentioned. Thank you!

Basement, eh, Paco? Wow. I haven't seen a basement in a LONG time. Not many of 'em here in NEFL.

Will write down your suggestions, as they are exactly what I want when I need to get the Chief something to read. Thank you!