Review of Adrian Goldsworthy and Doherty & Turney, or Can There Be Too Much History in Historical Fiction?

Copies of the books have been provided by the publisher in exchange for a review.

The western part of the Roman Empire ceased to exist in the late 5th century CE while in the East it continued all the way to the late Middle Ages, or 1453 to be precise. Still, this long-gone civilization continues to capture our imaginations, as evidenced by two recent novels from British independent publisher Head of Zeus, namely Adrian Goldsworthy’s The Fort and Sons of Rome, written in collaboration by Gordon Doherty and Simon Turney.

As a historian, it was an interesting experience to read these two books back-to-back. They both belong the same subgenre–Roman military historical fiction. They are both set in the later centuries of Roman history; The Fort during the 2nd century CE and Sons of Rome around the turn of the 4th century CE, as Rome is coming out of the Crisis of the Third Century. Neither book takes place in what we conventionally think as Rome, that is the western part of the European continent and the Italian peninsula. Instead, The Fort takes place in what is now Romania, while Sons of Rome is mainly focused on the eastern Mediterranean and the Middle East.

When reading historical fiction, there are two ways to approach the material: history and plot. When you approach it through history, you are concerned with the historical correctness of context and details. When you approach it through plot, you are concerned with the historical plausibility of the action. In the case of The Fort and Sons of Rome, Goldsworthy has taken the first approach, Doherty & Turney the second. The Fort is about the fictional character Flavius Ferox, while Sons of Rome chronicle the lives of real-life Roman Emperors Maxentius and Constantine.

The result is two different types of stories. One where the context is based in historical research while the characters are fictional, the other where the characters are based in research while the context is fictional. (However, in the case of Maxentius and Constantine, so little is known about them as people, that Doherty & Turney’s characters are near fictional as well.)

Regardless of the approach, what matters in the end is the story. But again, when it comes to historical fiction, there are certain things that need to be taken into consideration that we don’t need to care about when we read fiction that is purely creative. If we go back to the two approaches to historical fiction, i.e. historically based context with fictional characters or fictionally based context with historical characters, the writer’s choices are determined by which approach they take. If we look at The Fort versus Sons of Rome, the first story is fictional and therefore unknown. The second story is historical and consequently known. I wouldn’t be guilty of any spoilers if I told you the plot twists of Sons of Rome, because we know the general outline of the lives of Maxentius and Constantine, but you would be very upset if I told you the twists and turns of The Fort.

Even though the choices each writer of historical fiction makes are limited due to history, there is still the fine balance between how much of history to actually include. Historical fiction is meant to entertain first and educate second, while the purpose of history is the opposite. The main critique levelled at historical fiction tends to be that it is so preoccupied with entertaining that it forgets to educate. In other words, the problem with a lot of historical fiction is that there isn’t enough history, or that history has been bent to fit the story, rather than the other way around.

But what about the reverse? Can there be too much history in historical fiction? My answer to that question is that yes, there can be. Take The Fort for example. As I’ve stated above, the context is historical (Roman fort at the border between the Roman Empire and Dacia, present-day Romania) but the characters are fictional (main character: Flavius Ferox).

Goldsworthy himself is a leading authority on Rome, in particular its army. And this is, paradoxically enough, where the novel stumbles.

To create a historically accurate environment for Ferox to work within, Goldsworthy loses sight of the narrative forest for the historical trees. Unless you, like Goldsworthy, are a Roman army geek, and also somewhat fluent in Latin, names of legions, military terms-of-art, military ranks, and categories of weapons will fly right over your head. This is usually not a problem, but when the text is peppered with italicizied Latin terminology, most of which cannot be found in the sparse glossary nor is explained in the chapter on the historical background, the attempt at historical accuracy becomes a nuisance.

What’s more, for a novel written by a considered authority on Rome, the world presented is surprisingly outdated. The Fort is a story about men, which is not surprising since military settings tend to be male dominated. But that is not an excuse to feature women as background characters only brought to the fore as eye candy, or when the male characters are in need of engaging in some witty banter, or both. Moreover, the Roman army is known for its diversity as it recruited people from all over the lands it conquered and then deliberately stationed them far from home. Very little of that comes across here (unless the character is British). Doherty & Turney are also guilty of pushing women to the back, as well as non-Christian religious movements and ethnic groups. In their case, it’s not as egregiously done as in the case of Goldsworthy; there are women featured, who speak for themselves and take action, albeit in their role as auxiliaries to the men.

All that being said, I enjoyed both books very much. Sons of Rome does a great job of going inside the minds and hearts of two young men who lead their lives at the center of Roman Imperial politics, not because they chose to, but because their social status and family lineage forced them to without any possibility of opting out.

As paradoxical as it might seem, despite its outdated history and sometimes stiff characters, I enjoyed The Fort the most out of the two, and the reason for that is Flavius Ferox. As a historian, I am well acquainted with characters who have lived to make a mark in history. I am familiar with their motivations, I know their life stories, and I know their end. The same goes for any battles that are fought. This is why, out of all the characters in The Fort, Hadrian, future emperor of Rome, is the least interesting to me.

In enjoyed The Fort because Ferox is a clean slate. The end of the siege that he finds himself under together with the people who populate the fort under his command is unknown to me. Whereas I know how Constantine and Maxentius’s careers developed, it is with Ferox I stand on the top of the fort, staring into the thick fog, looking for signs of the enemy, and wondering if we will live to see another day.

In the words of my friend, the Australian, I shall return.

Defne Suman’s THE SILENCE OF SCHEHERAZADE, or Searching for the Voice of the City of Smyrna

A copy of this book has been provided in exchange for a review.

Smyrna (modern name: Izmir) is one of the oldest cities in the world. Located on the Anatolian coast of present-day Turkey, Smyrna traces its history back 5,000 years, making it a contemporary to the fabled city of Troy, located not far away. Smyrna is mentioned in the New Testament’s Book of Revelation when Jesus tells the book’s supposed author, John of Patmos, to send messages to the Seven Churches of Asia.

Destroyed in the 7th century BCE, Smyrna was reestablished in the 4th century BCE by none other than Alexander the Great. Over the centuries, Smyrna grew to experience prosperity, tragedy, conquest, and liberation all the way to the early 20th century when the Greco-Turkish War, fought in 1919–1922 as a result of the collapse of the Ottoman Empire in 1918, caused excessive damage to the city and forced a large part of its population to flee and never return.

Book cover of Defne Suman's novel The Silence of Scheherazade showing a the blue profile of a woman behind green vines and against a yellow background.

The events of the Greco-Turkish War and their impact on the city of Smyrna serves as the backdrop to Defne Suman’s novel, The Silence of Scheherazade (Head of Zeus, 2021), translated into English by Betsy Göksel. Told in hindsight by a mysterious woman given the name of Scheherazade as a child, the story focuses on four families and their lives leading up to the disaster. Among these many individuals, Scheherazade pays particular attention to her mother, a woman she never knew. Born out of wedlock, Scheherazade was given to another family, and as a result the girl became mute, her new name a cruel historical joke.

Time and again, Scheherazade describes the city where she was born–Smyrna. She wants to convey the magic and mystery of this ancient place, to share what she experienced and what she remembers. In the aftermath of the collapse of the Ottoman Empire, Smyrna was still a multicultural and multiethnic city where the inhabitants spoke several languages out of necessity, where the three Abrahamic religions and their subdivisions rubbed elbows in neighbourly relations going back centuries. Scheherazade mentions streets, buildings, and squares by name. She describes people as they go about their daily business.

And still, the novel’s city of Smyrna is as mute as Scheherazade. It doesn’t reply when she calls on it. The crowds are without faces, characteristics, and names. The Jewish community–one of the largest in the Ottoman Empire–is conspicuously absent. The four families blend in with each other, and turn into people who come and go without leaving an impression. An attempt at magical realism when toads rain from the sky only elicits a shrug from the characters. Violence in the streets as Smyrna is drawn into the armed conflict becomes a nuisance rather than the disaster it actually was.

It feels as if the novel, and Scheherazade inside it, are reaching for something. There is something the novel, the woman, and the city want to communicate, but their voices refuse to make a sound. Is it because Scheherazade herself is not present in the stories she is telling? Is it because Smyrna of the past millennia no longer exists? Renamed Izmir in 1930, the ties to history, shattered by the disasters of the war, were severed. How to speak of the trauma you have experienced if every time you bring it up first need to explain who you used to be? It renders you mute, whether you are a city or a woman.

There is beauty in this novel. There is history. There is grief and loss. Independence, strength, love, and happiness. But in the end it is difficult to say whose story is being told. Smyrna and Scheherazade both reach for their past and for a knowledge of who they are. Perhaps that is where the story lies.

Sources:
Defne Suman, The Silence of Scheherazade (Head of Zeus, 2021).
Britannica Online, Izmir (page accessed October 1, 2021).
ANU Museum of the Jewish People, The Jewish Community of Izmir (page accessed October 1, 2021).
Wikipedia, The Seven Churches of Asia (page accessed October 1, 2021).

In the words of my friend, the Australian, I shall return.

What the Dickens! Poetic License in Historical Fiction

How accurate does an author need to be when writing historical fiction? This is a question I have wrestled with for quite sometime, on Twitter and here on The Boomerang. This third installation in my ongoing discussion on history and historical fiction came about after reading Peter Damien’s book review of Lynn Cullen’s Mrs. Poe on Book Riot.

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Water color painting of Virginia Poe (1822–1847)
Source: Midnightdreary, Wikimedia Commons

The novel Mrs. Poe is a story about Edgar Allan Poe’s wife, Virginia, and the relationship between her husband and one of his admirers, a poet named Frances Osgood. Damien’s review of the book is a positive one. However, he does a double-take when Cullen lets Poe discuss Charles Dickens.

According to Cullen’s portrayal of Poe, he is not impressed by the writings of Dickens, even sneering at his portrayal of England’s less fortunate classes. Damien, who is obsessed by Dickens, notes here that Poe, too, was obsessed by this author. In other words, Cullen has given Poe opinions that contradict Edgar Allan Poe. As a consequence of this, Damien understandably begins to question the accuracy of the entire novel.

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Edgar Allan Poe (1809–1849)                  Charles Dickens (1812–1870)
Source: Library of Congress                    Source: Tagishsimon, Wikimedia Commons

Here lies the crux of historical fiction. The genre is called historical fiction. In other words, what you read is made up. However, the genre is called historical fiction. This means that what you read also has a basis in events that once took place.

As I stated in the blog post Living Vicariously Through Ichabod Crane, historical fiction is necessary to make historical research accessible to the general public. Historical research needs to be made sexy and historical fiction is a nifty way to do it. To make the story work some poetic license is needed or there would be little difference between fiction and research and the value of entertainment would be accordingly.

The problem with historical fiction is how an author can use poetic license and still call it historical fiction?

My answer to this question is that as long as the author does not change important facts or the essence of a character, poetic license can be applied quite freely.

The problem with Cullen giving Poe a negative view of Dickens is that in so doing she makes the fictional character of Edgar Allan Poe contradict the essence of the historical character of Edgar Allan Poe. This is where historical fiction leaves history behind and just becomes fiction.

According to Damien, the scene where Poe discusses Dickens is a minor one. But, as the saying goes, The Devil is in the details.

In the words of my friend, the Australian, I shall return.

Previous posts on the topic of the relationship between history and historical fiction are
Living Vicariously Through Ichabod Crane
Five Reasons Why You Should Get a PhD and not an MFA

5 Reasons Why You Should Get a PhD and Not an MFA

When querying an agent, what should you include in your letter? The answers to that question are as many as there are literary agents. But one thing that most responses have in common is, If you have an MFA (in creative writing), mention that. At first I was intimidated by this. I don’t have an MFA. But then I realized that I have something better.

I have a PhD.

If you want to become a writer, especially a writer of historical fiction, in my opinion a PhD is a wiser way of spending your money.

Here are five reasons why.

1) Language and style.
In historical science a writer’s language and style are of utmost importance. Historical science is dedicated to the study of human activities through the written word. These studies are conveyed to the rest of the human population through the writings of the historian. Language and style are important in historical science because if an historian abuses his/her privilege as a scholar, historical facts can be distorted, as in the case of Holocaust deniers and believers in exogenesis. Therefore, when writing historical research, the scholar needs to choose his/her words very carefully, consequently developing a close relationship to the written language.

2) Editing.
When writing a research article or a dissertation, the scholar needs to be able to determine what pieces of information are important to the argument and what pieces are not. Moreover, all academic publications, except perhaps the dissertation, are limited to the amount of words allowed. Whenever submitting an article or a chapter, you need to follow the guidelines of the editor or the publisher. If an article cannot exceed a certain amount of words, that rule becomes your law. Moreover, that limit often includes the footnotes and references, as well as the actual text.

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Daguerrotype of unidentified woman, possibly Mrs. Knox Walker, c. 1844
Photographer: Mathew B. Brady (c. 1823–1896)
Source: Library of Congress, Daguerrotypes

3) Thick skin.
Just like the publishing business, the world of academia can be both tough and rewarding. While writing your dissertation, your results will be heavily criticized by people who care about you and by people who don’t give a damn about you. Your research results will be scrutinized in minutest detail, questioned and picked apart. These reactions can have just as much to do with the quality of your work as they can be completely unrelated to anything you have written. As a graduate student you will learn how to discern the honest critics from those who play at politics. And you will learn how to incorporate the criticism in your work and improve it.

4) You will be published.
The question of graduate students publishing research while still working on their dissertation differs from university to university and from country to country. During my years as a graduate student I published several articles while I was working on my dissertation. By doing that I learned how to submit manuscripts, deal with editors, and, most importantly, wait for editors. When I graduated, the dissertation became my first book.

5) You have proven yourself.
When you graduate and receive your doctorate, it is the same as if you would become a master craftsman. You have created something and been rewarded. You have been allowed entrance to a community of peers. If you have a PhD in history with the ambition of writing historical fiction, the PhD is your ticket to archives, libraries, universities and university faculty expertise. You do not need to convince them of your skills. Your PhD will take you wherever you want to go. And once you get to the archive or library where your source material is located, you know how to find your way among the shelves and the documents. You know how to conduct sustainable research.

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Crimean War cavalry camp, 1855
Photographer: Roger Fenton (1819–1896)
Source: Library of Congress, Fenton Crimean War Photographs

Graduate studies are tough. There is a reason why I say that my dissertation was written in blood, sweat and tears. At the same time, writing my dissertation and receiving my doctorate was the best thing I have ever done. Graduate school may be hard and demanding, but it is a safe haven where you are allowed to fail and pick yourself up again. You are allowed to make mistakes. In fact, it is expected of you. When you graduate you have already gone through many of the emotional ups and downs of writing and publishing. When the agent doesn’t respond to your query or when a book critic tears your work to pieces, you will doubt yourself, your heart will be broken, but you know that you have the strength to continue. Because you have been there before.

In the words of my friend, the Australian, I shall return.