dimanche 27 septembre 2015

Walking through Smithfield Market...

 It has been a while since I haven't posted anything on this blog. The reason is that I am still reading through Peter Ackroyd's 800-page biography of London. So far, I am quite enjoying the historian's prose. Although the book starts in a rather classical chronological order, as you would expect from a history book, it soon shifts to a more thematic approach in which the story of London is told through descriptions and anecdotes related to a given topic, such as Pestilence and Flame (the London Fire and the Great Plague) or Crime and Punishment (the theatricality of justice and executions throughout the ages). I have learnt quite a deal about the history of the city, and will now see London with a different eye. Every morning, as I walk through the Smithfield wholesale meat market on my way to the office and look upon the bleeding pork carcasses, I cannot help but think that Smithfield was also infamously known as a place where executions were carried out. According to Historic UK, this is where those who were accused of high treason were "dragged by a horse to the place of execution, hanged until almost dead, then disembowelled whilst still conscious, beheaded, and finally being chopped into four pieces (i.e. 'quartered) and subsequently having these pieces put on display across the city." No wonder I sometimes struggle  to drink my morning coffee after walking through Smithfield Market...

samedi 12 septembre 2015

For those who enjoy commercial historical fiction: Stormbird, by Conn Iggulden

"A book must never allow the style to overcome the story and the characters, in my opinion. It is possible to deal with great truths of the human condition in fiction, obviously. It has been the joy of my career that writing about Caesar and Genghis, for example, has allowed me to explore fatherhood, family, honour, courage and a hundred other themes. Yet the story has to be there – if the reader isn’t interested in ‘what comes next’, I would have failed, I think." This is how Conn Iggulden, describes in his own words, his job as a writer. In Stormbird,  the first volume of the Wars of the Roses, he indeed fulfills that promise, which constitutes both the book's strength, but also its main weakness.
   Stormbird tells the origins of the dynastic wars fought in the XVth century between supporters of two rival branches of the royal House of Plantagenet, the houses of Lancaster and York. This episode of English history  later became known as the war of the roses due to the red and white roses in the coat of arms of the warring factions. In 1437, after the death of King Henry V, the Lion of England, his frail and sickly son King Henry VI takes the throne. In order to end a war with the French which he can no longer afford to sustain, the weak king Henry VI forges an alliance with them by marrying a young French princess, Margaret of Anjou, effectively giving up the English-owned territories in France, including Normandy, Anjou and Maine. His decision leaves the realm of England divided. Soon, Richard, Duke of York, challenges the King's authority and starts making claims to the throne.

   Conn Iggulden is indeed a very good storyteller, and he makes historical fiction accessible to the reader, much like Ken Follett. The plot is full of narrative twists, and it unfolds at a fast pace, with only a limited number of descriptions which would inevitably slow down the progression.  This makes it a quite enjoyable read, but occasionally the reader cannot help but think that the tricks and gimmicks of commercial fiction are a little too obvious in this novel.