What to Read Next (No. 174): epic historical fiction
Happy Friday and a hearty welcome to a number of new subscribers! My appearance on Anne Bogel’s What Should I Read Next? podcast brought in a lot of new folks, and I’m awfully glad to have all of you here. If you haven’t listened to that show, Anne does a great job talking books and doing literary matchmaking. My 5-star review of West With the Night was thanks to her—that was the first book she recommended for me.
Today we’re taking a look at one of my favorite genres: historical fiction. When done well, historical fic seamlessly transports you to the past in a way that allows you to learn something without it feeling like you’re learning something. Featured here today are two superb historical fiction novels that I’ve finished in the last couple months and which I know are going to stick with me for a long time to come.
One last thing before jumping in: our book club met this week (indoors! in person!) and talked about American Dirt (which I wrote about back in March). Opinions were varied, but most of us enjoyed it and the conversation was great. Highly recommended for your own book clubs; it’s guaranteed to be a good discussion starter.
The Evening and the Morning by Ken Follett
Published: 2020 | Pages: 913
I’ve long been a fan of Ken Follett’s novels. I read Pillars of the Earth back in the fall of 2010—I had just finished college in the spring and was eagerly devouring non-academic reading. It was epic in the full sense of the word. That novel was written in 1989, but just in the last 10 years or so Follett has added three books to that world to make it a ~4,000-page series. It’s a quartet I’ve been itching to get at, so I was thrilled when my wife grabbed the newest book, a prequel, from the library for me.
Let’s meet our three main protagonists:
We first meet Edgar in the year 997. His small village is ravaged by a Viking raiding party and what’s left of his family is forced to move to an even smaller town to make a new life. Edgar has a talent for building and math; he takes on a number of projects in the Dreng’s Ferry, first and foremost being to make a new boat to shuttle folks back and forth across the all-important river.
Then there’s Ragna—a noblewoman from France who marries into the English nobility a short distance from Dreng’s. Her new husband isn’t everything she thought, but Ragna is insistent on maintaining her independence as well as her skillful political maneuvering.
Finally, we have Aldred. He’s a well-meaning monk who longs to turn his abbey into a center of learning and scholarship. He’s dealing with philandering leaders in the hierarchy above him and he has to figure out which sins to let slide and which to confront head on.
Their lives will intersect in ways they never thought possible.
At its core, this is a character-driven political novel. How does a small English hamlet cope with changing times? How does it build an infrastructure that can sustain a growing population? What’s a good person to do in the face of a priesthood and a cruel noble class that are hell-bent on nothing but power?
There’s intrigue, there’s murder, there’s a family of brother husbands (as opposed to the sister wives that you’re probably more used to when it comes to polygamy); there’s royalty and there’s leper colonies; there’s Viking raids and even a classic romance story.
The Evening and the Morning has a little bit of everything and represents epic historical fiction at its finest.
I know it wont be for everyone, but you’ll know in the first 50 pages or so whether you enjoy the writing and the story. If you’re eagerly turning pages at that point, you’re not likely to be disappointed over the course of the next 850+.
The Book of Longings by Sue Monk Kidd
Published: 2020 | Pages: 416
“We all have some largeness in us, don’t we?”
I’ll say this at the outset, so it’s crystal clear: The Book of Longings is one of the most compassionate, empathetic, and heartfelt novels I’ve perhaps ever read.
Kidd imagines the life of Jesus’ wife, had he been betrothed. The literary landscapes of Jerusalem and Nazareth and Alexandria are beautifully painted—you can almost taste the dust in your mouth as the pages turn. But of course this book has to be about the characters, and especially that main one, Ana: What would the life of Jesus’ spouse look like? What sort of family would she come from; what character traits would she possess; how would she react to his family, his growing religious movement, and, of course, his brutal death on the cross?
Ana, as you might expect, is no ordinary woman of her times. She has deep longings to be more than just a wife, more than just another prematurely aged mother. She wants to write—specifically, she wants to write the stories of brave women. But her culture isn’t much for allowing women to do that sort of thing, so she writes in secret, at any chance she gets.
Given the subject matter, there’s plenty of inherent possibility for offending readers of all sorts, but Kidd navigates all of it with a lyrical grace that treats the religious aspects with the utmost respect.
Though I’m coming from a Christian viewpoint, I really think readers of all religious or non-religious backgrounds will find themselves accepting the premise and following along where Kidd takes us.
One of the more interesting parts of the book is actually the author’s note at the end. I wish she had put it at the front, though—in those dozen or so pages Kidd explains the lengths she went to in order maintain the historical accuracy of the period and real life characters. She also makes the interesting case that Jesus could have actually had a wife; but Kidd isn’t trying to convince us—she’s in fact just saying that the entire point of the novel, as a form, is to explore “What if?”
I can’t disagree with that one bit, and Kidd gives us one of the great what ifs that I’ve come across in my reading life.
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