Archive for the ‘Historical Novels’ Category

I discovered Stela Brinzeanu’sSet in Stone‘ through Marina Sofia from ‘Finding Time to Write’ . The story looked beautiful and so I was excited to read it.

It is the medieval ages. We are in Moldova. Elina is a young noblewoman. She lives with her father. Her mother has passed. One day she crosses paths with Mira. Mira is the potter’s daughter who is hoping to become a potter herself one day. Magic happens. But this is the medieval ages. A woman falling in love with another woman and they both getting together is impossible. Also, their social divide is impossible to bridge. What happens to them forms the rest of the story.

At its core, ‘Set in Stone’ is a beautiful love story. But it is also much more than that. It depicts the lives of women in the middle ages and how everything was hard for them, how women who were healers were branded as witches, how people lived together as a community and helped each other out, the battle between different religions, the old and the new, how freedom was elusive whether one was poor or rich and how no one was truly free. At one point Elina asks her father, “What’s the use of all this if I can’t be free?” To which her father replies, “No one is really free, my dear. I’m at the behest of the voivode and he is a vassal of the Ottoman sultan, and so it goes. Real freedom doesn’t exist, and if it did, I’m not even sure we’d want it.

I loved most of the characters in the book (except the bad ones). Most of the women characters were fascinating and inspiring because they defied the restrictions imposed on them and tried to break free and express themselves and live beautiful lives. Stela Brinzeanu’s prose is soft and beautiful and brings that period alive. The conversations between Elina and Mira were cool and stylish and were such a pleasure to read.

I loved ‘Set in Stone’. This is the first ever book that I’ve read where the story is set in Moldova. Yay!  I’m so happy about that! Stela Brinzeanu has written another book set in Moldova during contemporary times. I can’t wait to read that!

I’ll leave you with some of my favourite passages from the book.

“‘At the heart of any storm, whether it’s around or inside you, there’s a place of quiet like no other. When you find that place, you gain such strength that nobody could ever take that away from you.”

“She watches the snowflakes swarming outside, as if they are choosing where to settle. Who is she fooling? Of course it isn’t up to them where they end up. It’s the invisible wind that’s tossing them about, teasing them with the promise of free will.”

“Elina thinks how much easier it is to communicate with animals. They perceive the world in silence, and they’re never wrong. Words are useless tools if you’re digging for truth, she thinks. They lie, deceive and distort. Only in the absence of words can there be truth. That’s why people talk, because they have something to hide.”

“Home isn’t really someone’s hut or manor, she thinks, but the place where your loved one is waiting for you.”

Have you read ‘Set in Stone’? What do you think about it?

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I did a readathon today and finally finished reading the third volume of the Alexander trilogy, ‘The Ends of the Earth‘.

The third part takes the story from the Egyptian adventure and continues with the story of Alexander’s and his army’s journey into Persia and the Middle East, Central Asia and India. There are lots of battles and wars and blood spilled. There are some beautiful, moving scenes in between. Some of those moving scenes look real. Others look like they have been inserted by the author to relieve the monotony of the war scenes.

This third part was interesting, but I felt at some point that the story was running on autopilot mode – one more new country, one more new war, one more new conquest, more killing. Out of the three parts, the first part was the best, the second part was good, and the third part was the weakest. But on the positive side, the third part has some of the most heartbreaking scenes in the story. The Alexander who comes in the first part is very likeable, the Alexander in the second part is half likeable, but the Alexander in the third part is far from likeable. This grownup Alexander is a ruthless person, who razes down cities which have surrendered and have opened their gates, killing thousands of innocent people. This Alexander is so ruthless that he kills a whole community of innocent people because they don’t bow to him. This Alexander is so insecure that he suspects his close friends and people who are loyal him and gets them executed and assassinated. This Alexander is a tyrant and is a barbarian himself. At some point the story changes from an adventure into a tragedy when Alexander tells his troops to loot and ransack a city which has surrendered and then he watches them raping and pillaging and burning down things. The story then descends into a farce when Alexander marries the Persian princess and tries to take revenge for the Persian king’s murder, the very king whom Alexander himself went to war against and tried to kill. Then it descends to worse than a farce with more and more illogical behaviour on Alexander’s part. It is hard to blame the author Manfredi for all this, of course, because he is just trying to keep the story close to historical events. And the historical Alexander was like this. Not the noble hero as we are led to believe but a spoilt brat and a ruthless tyrant. His close friends are mostly ‘Yes’ men who occasionally speak their mind, but mostly toe the line. The only person who comes out of the story with his honour intact was General Parmenion, who serves King Philip first and then continues serving Alexander after he becomes king. He is old, his hair is white, but he is brave and loyal, and he speaks his mind. Things don’t end well for him. He was my favourite character in the book.

After finishing the book, it is hard not to ask what is the point behind all these wars and conquests. What is the point of invading countries and killing people and razing down cities, especially when the people were minding their own business? How is that glorious? In the end how did all this benefit Alexander? He died young, in his thirties, leaving behind three wives and a kid. His wives were not Macedonian  – two of them were Persian and one of them was Central Asian. They were all probably killed by his generals who fought over his kingdom. So what was the point in the end? It was all just a waste of time. It makes for a good epic story, 2500 years later, but otherwise, it is just lots of time wasted on unpleasant activities which resulted in unnecessary loss of thousands of lives. This is the story of every war. There are no winners. One of the unfortunate consequences of Alexander’s invasions was that other kings and armies tried doing similar things across the centuries and millennia, trying to conquer the world or atleast their neighbouring countries. This has persisted deep into the 20th century and is continuing to this day.

The book has a note in the end in which the author describes the historical basis behind the story and it is fascinating to read.

I’m happy that I finally got to read the Alexander trilogy. It is my second chunkster this year, and at 1171 pages, it is the second longest book that I’ve ever read. Yay!

Have you read the Alexander trilogy by Manfredi? What do you think about it?

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The second part of the Alexander trilogy, ‘The Sands of Ammon‘, continues the story from the first part, and describes the war between the Macedonians / Greeks and the Persians and ends with Alexander’s invasion of Egypt. Most of the book is about war and war strategies, some parts of which are very readable, while other parts are overwhelming with details. It will be of much interest to war history enthusiasts. I think it would have worked better in a movie or in a TV series.

But war is not all there is. The war scenes are interspersed with beautiful scenes, some of which blend seamlessly with the story, and others which are digressions. It looks like Manfredi has done his research well and has tried to find room for every historical anecdote and every story from the Alexander legend which may not have a historical basis. The depth in terms of detail is amazing and sometimes overwhelming.

There were many beautiful scenes in the story which were moving and gave this reader goosebumps. One of my favourites was when Barsine – the wife of Memnon, the Greek mercenary commander who is fighting for the Persians – writes a letter to her husband, telling him how much she is missing him. In that letter she says that she is reading Euripedes‘ tragic play ‘Alcestis‘, and she describes a heartbreaking scene from it. I’ve never read a Euripedes play before, and after reading this, I want to read ‘Alcestis’ now. Another of my favourite scenes in the one in which Alexander is fighting one-on-one with a Persian in a battle, when he recognizes this Persian and realizes that he was the one who saved him during a hunting expedition when he was younger. So he asks his soldiers not to harm this Persian but to keep him under arrest, and later visits him, realizes that the Persian also recognizes him, they both talk in sign language, and then gets him a horse, and tells him that he can go back home to his family. It is a beautiful moving scene.

In another of my favourite scenes, after capturing a city, the Macedonians are trying to find a new king after the Persians have fled the city, and they discover a gardener who was ready to fight and give up his life for his garden and his trees, when invaders tried razing them down. They make this gardener the king, and he turns out to be one of the kindest kings the city ever had. It made me think of the Roman general Lucius Quinctius Cincinnatus, who had retired and who was sitting in his small farm tending to his plants, when the people came to him and asked him to assume the leadership of the state and help defend it against their enemies. He came back from retirement, assumed charge, defeated his country’s enemies, and then did the amazing unthinkable thing – handed over the reins of power to the civilian authorities and then went back to his farm to tend to his plants. It also made me think of Deng Xiaoping, who had been banished to his village, where he was working as a truck mechanic, when one day people arrived and told him that the Gang of Four are dead and the country is in chaos, and asked him to come back to the capital, take over the leadership, and guide their country into the future.

I’ll describe one more of my favourite scenes. In this, Leonidas, who was the teacher of Alexander and his friends when they were young boys, decides to visit Alexander who is in the middle of a military campaign. Leonidas is old now, in his eighties, and toothless, but he has heard of the glorious deeds of his student and so wants to meet him one final time and ask him about his experiences. When Leonidas arrives, Alexander’s friends see him first and they are surprised and suddenly they roll back the years and they taunt their old teacher the way they used to do when they were naughty students and Leonidas hides his tears of affection and shows mock anger and tells them that they are as unruly as ever. It is such a beautiful, heartwarming reunion scene. Later Leonidas and Alexander sit and talk for the whole night, and the old teacher asks his famous pupil many questions on all the wonders he has seen, and the pupil replies to his teacher, while they both are basking in the warmth of the fire. That whole episode made me cry. My dad was a teacher for many years and sometimes when his old students, or younger teachers whom my dad mentored visit him, I can see the way my dad gets animated and see how proud he is of the achievements of his students, who were once naughty kids in the classroom. I remembered that when I read about Leonidas.

Aristotle also makes guest appearances in this part, in which he is trying to solve a murder mystery. It hasn’t been resolved yet and the culprit hasn’t been identified, and so I’m looking forward to finding out what happens in the third part.

The word ‘mercenary’ is used in a negative connotation these days, but this story describes how mercenaries can be noble too.

The story describes the siege of Halicarnassus and also mentions its most famous former resident, the great historian who is regarded as the father of history, Herodotus. The siege was heartbreaking to read, of course, but reading about Herodotus made me take out his ‘Histories’ that I have and flip through its pages. I’m so tempted to read it next. The book also has many scenes in which Alexander is reading from the ancient Greek classic ‘Anabasis‘ by Xenophon, and discusses it with his commanders. I read parts of ‘Anabasis’ a few years back and loved it, but unfortunately got distracted halfway through, and couldn’t finish it. I want to read it again now. So, this story has added atleast three books to my TBR – ‘Alcestis‘, ‘Histories‘, and ‘Anabasis‘.

I enjoyed reading this second part of the Alexander trilogy. I loved the first part more, but I loved the beautiful, quiet scenes which came in this second part. I can’t wait to get started on the third part.

Have you read this second part of the Alexander trilogy? What do you think about it?

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I discovered Valerio Massimo Manfredi’s Alexander trilogy during my student days when one of my friends recommended it. My friend had a dog whose name was Peritas. It was the exact same name as Alexander’s dog. It was very unusual, because I didn’t know anyone else who has a dog with a classical ancient Greek name. I got the book at some point, when I could afford to buy it, but I never got around to reading it, because it was too big for me. But after I read ‘Captivity’ by György Spiró recently, I got very excited about the history of the ancient world and I thought I’ll read another historical novel set in Ancient Greece or Rome. Sometime later, I opened an old box filled with books, and this Alexander trilogy leapt at me. It looked clearly like a sign given by the old Greek gods. How can one resist that? So I picked up the first book of the trilogy and finished reading it today.

This first part of the trilogy tells the story from around the time of Alexander’s birth and ends at the time Alexander sets sail on his fleet to Asia. My knowledge about Alexander is very sketchy based on stories I’ve read here or there. And because of that I learnt a lot through this book. Manfredi is a historian and so his knowledge and research shines through in every page. However the historical facts blend into the story and don’t overwhelm it.

One of the fascinating things I learnt is that Alexander is Macedonian and not Greek. Macedonia is a totally different country with a different language. When I learnt history in school, the general impression created by the textbook and the teachers was that Macedonians were Greeks like the Spartans or the Athenians or the Thebans. While the Spartans and the Athenians and the Thebans were Greeks, though they frequently fought with each other, they both regarded Macedonians as outsiders and they united together when the Macedonians threatened them, because they regarded the Macedonians as the common enemy. So Alexander, the greatest conqueror from ancient times, was Macedonian, not Greek. I think this is a very important distinction. Atleast this is what I learnt from this book. There is a country called North Macedonia today. I am wondering how it is related to Alexander’s Macedonia.

Manfredi’s prose is simple and spare and moves the story along at a beautiful pace. The descriptions of those ancient times – the countryside, nature, mountains, the food, clothes, jewellery, culture – it is beautiful and feels authentic. The battle scenes are also vivid and it feels very real.

One of the interesting things in the book is that the story suggests that Alexander had intimate relations with some of his male companions. I don’t know whether this is the imagination of the author or whether this is suggested by historical records. It will be interesting to do more research on this. There seems to be a current fashion in which many historical and mythical characters from ancient times are portrayed as gay, irrespective of whether they were gay or not. This was started by the historical novelist Mary Renault in the 1950s but it has gained a lot of traction and popularity in recent times.

Many historical characters make an appearance in the book, which is to be expected. Aristotle comes in the story for a while. I didn’t know that he taught Alexander for a few years. It was fascinating to discover that. One of my favourite scenes is when Alexander goes in search of the philosopher Diogenes and how they finally meet and the interesting conversation they have. I discovered this particular anecdote when my college English professor described it during one of our after-class chats. This professor inspired a lifelong love for Ancient Greek philosophy, literature, and history in me. I miss those times. So I’ve always had a soft corner for Diogenes because of this. I also loved Diogenes because of another anecdote – once Diogenes was walking through a street in the middle of the day, with a burning candle in his hand. When someone asked him why he was carrying a burning candle during a bright afternoon, Diogenes replied that he was searching for a honest man 😄 So, anyways, because of all this, I was so happy to see the Alexander–Diogenes scene in the book.

One more thing I loved in the book is the relationship between Philip and his son Alexander. It is very beautifully depicted, especially in the scenes in which Philip takes Alexander around, shows him the ropes and how the world really looks like, and shares his wisdom with his son. In one particular scene, Philip says to Alexander –

“I wanted you to know that there is a price to be paid for every thing. And I wanted you to know exactly what type of price as well. Our grandeur, our conquests, our palaces and our finery – all this must be paid for…Only man, among all living things, is capable both of rising up to touch the dwelling of the gods, and of sinking lower than a beast. You have already seen the home of the gods, you have lived in the home of a king, but I felt it was right that you should see what fate may have in store for a human being.”

It was a moving, powerful scene. These Philip–Alexander scenes were some of my favourite parts of the book.

I loved reading the first part of the Alexander trilogy. Can’t wait to start the second part.

Have you read the Alexander trilogy? What do you think about it?

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The Ocean’s Own‘ is the third volume of Nandini Sengupta’s Gupta trilogy. I loved the first two parts, ‘The King Within‘ and ‘The Poisoned Heart‘ and was excited when I discovered that the third part was coming out. I just finished reading it.

The Ocean’s Own‘ is not a sequel to the first two parts but is a prequel to the first part. It tells the story of the Gupta emperor Samudragupta, when he was still a prince. The story starts with the newly married Prince Kacha (Samudragupta’s name before he became the emperor) going on his honeymoon with his young wife Datta with their best friend Harisena accompanying them. The young couple are enjoying the first days of their married life together, when they receive news from the palace, which is not good. Soon they are attacked by unknown people in the forest. The subsequent action moves the story fast and we can’t wait to find out what happens next and who these unknown assailants are and as Holmes is fond of saying, what plots are afoot. To find out what happens next, you have to read the book 😊

Historical fiction in English written by Indian writers is typically set in the British colonial era or during the Mughal era. This is probably because many Indian writers feel that these are the eras in Indian history which international readers are interested in and so if they want a book to be widely read, it is better to set the story in these time periods. This is odd, because India has a rich history stretching back to centuries before the Mughal era. The Mughal era started in 1526 CE and the Buddha was born at around 480 BCE (according to one estimate), so that is 2000 years of history out there, for which some kind of evidence is available, even if we ignore the mythical origins of Indian history before the Buddha. But Indian historical fiction writers writing in English have ignored this vast span of time filled with amazing events and have focused only on the past five hundred years. Nandini Sengupta has tried to redress that and has set her trilogy during the Gupta dynasty which was there between the third and fifth century CE. This era was regarded as the golden age of Indian history and culture and it was the time that the great poet and dramatist Kalidasa lived. So Nandini Sengupta has broken new ground here, in terms of Indian historical fiction writing in English, which is inspiring.

The three books in the trilogy focus on three different emperors and this third volume, ‘The Ocean’s Own‘ is about the Emperor Samudragupta. It has all the things that Nandini Sengupta’s fans have come to expect from her books – a wonderful start filled with mystery and intrigue, unknown assassins trying to do bad things, palace intrigue, beautiful friendship, wonderful descriptions of sword fights and battle scenes, passionate romance. And last but not the least, the amazing strong women characters. There are the quiet strong women, like the princess and the empress. And then there is the courtesan, the assassin, the warrior, all amazing women. This book features the Pallava princess and warrior, Angai, who is a fierce warrior like Penthesilea, the Amazon queen who fights Achilles, and who teaches Emperor Samudragupta one or two things about how to fight in a battle, and gives him an education that he never forgets. She is one of the great characters in the story and the trilogy.

I loved ‘The Ocean’s Own‘ and the whole Gupta trilogy. Unfortunately, all good things have to come to an end, and I had a bittersweet feeling when I finished reading this final volume. I can’t wait to find out what Nandini Sengupta comes up with next.

Have you read ‘The Ocean’s Own‘ or other books in the Gupta trilogy? What do you think about them?

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I haven’t read a book in my native language Tamil in a while. So I thought that before I forget it completely, I’ll read a book in Tamil  I decided to read ‘Ponniyin Selvan‘ (Ponni’s Son) by Kalki.

Ponniyin Selvan‘ was first published in the 1950s, when it was serialized in Kalki magazine. It was probably the first (or one of the first) historical novels in Tamil and it got great acclaim and a huge fan following when it first came out. It led to a whole historical-fiction-industry in Tamil, when everyone and their brother and sister started writing historical novels. I think that craze died sometime in the 1990s.

I first read ‘Ponniyin Selvan‘ when I was in school. It was reissued again  in Kalki magazine. We used to read a couple of chapters every week and then wait for the next week’s issue. The story ran for nearly three years. A few years back, one of the publishers decided to publish the book in the format in which it originally came out in the 1950s, with the same font, and the illustrations by the original artist. When this edition came out, I got it. It was beautiful. That is the one I am reading now. I finished reading the first volume today.

What is the story about? Well, ‘Ponniyin Selvan’ has a long, epic, rambling plot. It is a historical novel set at around 970 C.E. It is about the Chola king and queens and princes and princesses and their friends and enemies. It has everything that one would expect in a historical novel – many characters, intricate plot, conspiracies, palace intrigues, romance, war, amazing adventures, secrets from the past, charming characters, spies, badass villains, many surprising revelations. The influence of Alexandre Dumas is deeply felt in Kalki’s book – there is a young man, Vandhiyadevan, who looks like D’Artagnan, there is a beautiful woman, Nandini, who looks like Milady de Winter, and there is even a minister like Cardinal Richelieu. Of course, the actual plot and characters are different and fascinating in their own way.

One of the things I loved about the book is that it focuses on the plot and the characters. There is a lot of charming dialogue, but there are no long monologues or boring descriptions. There is rarely a dull moment in the story. Another thing I loved about the book is that, the author gives the required historical background, whenever it is required for a better understanding of the story. He doesn’t push the historical background into the footnotes or into the notes at the back of the book, but provides it in the middle of the story. That way he makes us learn history on the way and I loved that. Another thing I loved about the story is that different characters in the book quote classic Tamil poetry, and they follow it up with a commentary on the poem. Sometimes a poem has mythological allusions which are not readily apparent while reading the poem and the author, through a character’s voice, explains them. It was fascinating to read.

I read the book for the first time when I was fifteen and now when I am reading it again after many years, my reading experience is totally different. For example, when I read it the first time, I unconsciously classified the characters as good and bad, the way we tend to do when we are younger. But reading it now, I realized that the way Kalki has depicted the characters, they are complex and imperfect and fascinating. The bad characters are not really bad, and the good characters are not really perfect. It is fascinating how we see a book with new eyes, when we read it again after many years.

The artwork in the book by Maniom, is very beautiful. It has a classical, vintage feel to it. I’m sharing some of my favourite pictures from the book, below. Hope you like them.

Left : Vandhiyadevan ;
Middle : Aazhvarkadiyaan
Left : Nandhini ;
Right : Vandhiyadevan
Palace sculpture
Palace sculpture
Left : Vanathi ;
Right : Kundhavai
Left : Vandhiyadevan ;
Right : Kundhavai

Hoping to start the second volume later today 😊

Have you read ‘Ponniyin Selvan‘? Do you like re-reading your favourite books? Do you relate to them differently when you read them again?

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