The following post was made as a guest post on the Historical Tapestry site on January 24, 2009. I was asked if I would like to share my reasons for loving the particular area of historical fiction that I do love, so I wrote about my love of big battle fiction. You can read the original post here.
Why I love big battle fiction
The reading “experience” (if you want to call it that) for me is all about the escape from the tedium of day-to-day life, but also about the entertainment. I read to be entertained. It’s why I can happily read through a book that is poorly written or grossly inaccurate or lame duck cliché characters, or any other deficiency, as long as it just entertains me. There are a number of things wrong with Harry Potter novels but I have always read them because they amuse me. It’s the same with everything I read, really, as many of them probably can’t be described as literary classics and each have their own simplistic deficiencies compared to the “greater” work of other authors, but all the same I love them and have spent countless hundreds of dollars and hours enjoying these books.
But it wasn’t always like that.
Years ago, when I was very much a young boy in primary school, I used to have a similar love of reading for entertainment. That was all ruined by a particularly malevolent and spiteful teacher who chose to force me to read some of the most unappealing and ill suited twaddle that could ever be thrown at a ten-year-old. I lost all interest in reading anything after, so I grew to hate reading and stopped all together for years. Of course I read the odd book here and there but evidently that horrible woman had had some effect on me through most of my teenage years as nothing ever seemed to make me want to read all the time as I used to. That started to change as I grew older and discovered a new love of history and began buying and reading a load of non-fiction books, mostly biographies, of people from the sixteenth century onwards, and some from the Roman period. I have a fairly hefty collection of non-fiction books sitting on my shelf from this time, all read and appreciated.
For a few years I read those merrily while remaining blissfully unaware of another type of historical novel out there – historical fiction. I can’t quite remember when, but I’m sure it was a friend of mine who said “you should read Gates of Fire”. Intrigued, I asked him what it was about and immediately became interested, as I love the ancient world as much as I love the early modern world. When he told me it was fiction, though, I felt a little deflated because I still had such bad memories and a fairly strong disinterest in fiction. But he told me to just read it, so I did, and absolutely loved it. Within minutes of finishing it I went on the internet and found similar novels by likeminded authors – Bernard Cornwell, C.S. Forester, Simon Scarrow, Conn Iggulden, George MacDonald Fraser – and set out to read their books and many others.
Theirs is a world mainly centred on the big culminating battle in one of the many epic conflicts that dominate our history. Bluff dashing warrior heroes, a cavalcade cast of friends and foes, a heroine, and a big fight at the end with lots of shouting and violence to top it all off. It is simplistic and very much to the point with a no frills approach but I love them, and can’t believe I spent so many years not interested in reading books like these.
I love the swashbuckling style action from Bernard Cornwell and the impossible yet highly entertaining situations he puts his protagonists in, and has them come out with a sword dripping in enemy blood and riches in the pocket. I love the sheer outlandishness and ridiculousness of the late George MacDonald Fraser’s Flashman, the way it flies in the face of the conceived norms of the high morality of the Victorian age. I love the sweeping big budget action movie feel to Conn Iggulden and the ruthless portrayal of Genghis Khan. I love the intricate single character development in Hornblower that works together to create one of the most wholly developed protagonists I have ever come across, a man whose insecurities and self doubts resonate with so many of us today. I love the way Simon Scarrow has taken up the mantle of the next Bernard Cornwell and set about creating a Sharpe-esque view of Roman Britain, and I loved Iain Gale’s unique way of creating a new twist on the well known outcome of the Battle of Waterloo.
Each of those authors and their fellow colleagues entertain me in their own way by combining a rediscovered love of reading and a love of history with the sheer excitement that can be generated by a big battle. It tops the novel off and provides a top notch climax, usually told in a way that defines the genre. I love it, when done right, the way the author can almost make it seem as though the protagonist really is doomed to defeat and cast into a whole new world of problems when it looks like the oncoming marauding enemy army is about to overwhelm the good guys, but victory is eventually won. Just about every time it sucks me in and keeps me entertained, and that’s all I am ever looking for in a book. Entertainment.
Some of them might not be perfect but it works for me.