“As they faced a massed charge for the second time, the militia bunched even tighter, terrified and confused.
Twenty thousand buzzing arrows smashed the red lines to their knees…”
Conn Iggulden, Lords of the Bow.
Sometimes you just want a good battle. If that was all he did, that would be enough. But Conn Iggulden does so much more. He shows us that there are so many people out there—myself included—who will pay good money to read of war and politics. Social history has added to what we enjoy from the past, but the traditional “Big Man” of history isn’t going away either.
Iggulden has an amazing talent for capturing the politics of a period in time and making it intelligible. Many people say narrative history is dead, some gloating and others lamenting but among a few precious individuals, it lives on. Tom Holland is probably the best known example in the academic sphere, and for good reason, but Iggulden is the narrative historian par excellence when it comes to literary fiction. He has brought the much loved Roman Republic to life once more, engaged a generation of Westerners with the epic story of the Mongol Empire, and somehow managed to make sense of the Wars of the Roses. For his efforts he has a thriving fan base and his novels are in every book store I can find. Historians and writers alike, take note, narrative history is not dead, and those that do it successfully will be rewarded.
Of course, Iggulden doesn’t give you every fact under the eternal blue sky. He appreciates the balance you need to strike between authenticity and entertainment. He has to simplify things at times, while at others he changes or adds things for entertainment. When we read Julius Caesar speaking to Spartacus atop a mountain, those of us who’ve studied Rome may quietly shake our heads but our inner soul quietly murmurs, “I wish I’d thought of that.” Iggulden, like Bernard Cornwell and Philippa Gregory, treats history like a block of marble—he knows you’ve got to chip away at it a bit and mould it to get a masterpiece that people will pay to see.
But there are other things he does well too. One of the key differences between Cornwell and Iggulden is that Iggulden is happy to jump into the minds of different characters besides the protagonist. Cornwell mainly keeps to his protagonist and seems to rarely shift his point-of-view, but Iggulden will do so fairly regularly when it suits him. He makes what some authors these days condemn as a vice and sloppy writing into a virtue and hallmark of his style. In Letters to Alice, Fay Weldon mentions this very thing—that what is a fault in one writer can be done to fineness in another and I think she’s right. Too many people are frightened to experiment and decide what works for them but thankfully we still have some people who will take such risks. It might not be point-of-view of course, it might be something else, but we need to realise that the quirks of our author voice are like the quirks of our normal selves, they make us unique and no one person will be like another.
Let’s get onto military and war, then. Some might say that Iggulden goes into too much depth in his battles and the lead up to them. I personally disagree. I understand his novels are not for everyone but for those of us who do enjoy them, this is perhaps where he is at his most glorious. For those who want such details he gives them for you in an exciting and well-thought out way. He is as much a military strategist as he is an author—he’s had to be to recreate so many battles from history. While George R.R. Martin considers Cornwell the best author in regards to writing battles, I would actually give that title to Iggulden himself. No-one has captured both the grit and glory of war as well as he has since Homer. And it’s because he tried. It’s because he enjoyed writing about battles and his audience enjoyed reading them. It’s because military history isn’t dead and he was brave enough to give it a go.
This ends my short series on my three favourite Historical Fiction authors and how they inspired me to write Historical Fiction. This series also gives you a hint as to my own writing style, particularly within this genre. Everything you see me praising in their work, I’ve tried to incorporate in some way into my own. This, of course, includes the common thread among them all of getting the balance between history and entertainment; fact and fiction. However, it also includes what seem like paradoxes: military and political fiction as well as social fiction; Big Men of history and the overlooked in society, particularly women; having an engaging protagonist but not being afraid to change point-of-view and sticking to conventions as well as challenging them. Is this an ambitious work? Of course. Will it be worth it? I believe so…
(Photo sourced from Wikimedia Commons)