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Uncle Orson Reviews Everything
March 8, 2012

First appeared in print in The Rhinoceros Times, Greensboro, NC.


Greatshadow, Historicals, Matthew Shardlake

I have written about James Maxey before. His Bitterwood trilogy -- Bitterwood, Dragonforge, and Dragonseed are wonderful adventure novels set in a cleverly conceived far future in which nanoscience persists only as magic, and intelligent dragons, once created by human genetic manipulations, now rule the world.

With Maxey's newest novel, Greatshadow: Book 1 of the Dragon Apocalypse, he plunges us into one of the most extravagantly fantastical worlds I've ever seen. Yes, there are dragons, at the end, but what drives this intense story is the fact that the narrator is dead.

Not at the beginning. No, indeed, in the first chapter he is very much alive, following his longtime partner-in-crime, a woman named Infidel, in a daring escape from people they were caught stealing from. Infidel has been rendered almost invulnerable by magic, and few are the warriors in the world that could stand against her.

The narrator, however, gets his sense of invulnerability from his dedication to the project of remaining as drunk as possible -- thereby earning him the name of Stagger.

As they escape, Stagger proves his worth in a pinch, but then dies on the blade of his own knife. To his surprise, his spirit does not move on to any kind of afterlife. Instead, he lingers near the knife that killed him.

And since Infidel keeps the knife with her, this means he becomes her constant observer. More interestingly, whenever blood is on the knife to which he is bound, he becomes more solid, able to speak and be heard, able to act in the material world.

So we have a novel in which the narrator is mostly observer but sometimes an active participant. But he always has an intense emotional involvement because not only is he in love with Infidel, she is now involved with an expedition following in the footstep of Stagger's own strange father.

The whole thing is bigger than life, as if we were caught up in a Homeric epic, where the major characters are heroes and demigods -- but still able to die, when they come up against an enemy with power or cleverness enough to get around their magical powers.

Usually, I turn away from superpower stories. When a character can do anything, then who cares what he does? But when the characters are real and deep enough for me to care, then I enjoy the romp of such high adventure as much as anyone.

If it weren't for the candor about sex in the novel, I'd recommend it for any reader, young or old; but the book is not aimed at young readers, though some will find it anyway. I'm sixty years old and I enjoyed it immensely from beginning to end.

Maybe because, in my own alcohol-free way, I identified with the dead narrator and the way he manages to find a reason for living his shadow life. Though there are future volumes in the series, this book is quite satisfying in itself. Don't wait for the whole thing to be finished -- this one is worth reading right now.

*

A few weeks ago, I told you about an essay in the Wall Street Journal, signed by prominent scientists, charging that it was time to stop treating global warming as a crisis, or as being caused by human activity, or indeed as anything other than the natural cycles of global climate.

This essay referred directly to the machinations and deceptions of the global warming alarmists, who have demanded vast political and economic changes in response to an event for which they have no scientific evidence whatsoever.

The response by the priesthood of environmental puritanism was predictable. They answered none of the evidence or reasoned arguments of the scientists who signed the original piece. Instead, they wrapped themselves in the mantle of authority and sneered at anyone who dared question their dogma.

In other words, they responded the way people who have no honest answer always respond, by attacking their accusers.

Had they had any evidence, they would have produced it. That's what honest people do.

I urge you to read the reply-to-the-reply by the original group of scientists.

But in case you don't have time to read the whole response, here is how it ends:

"In summary, science progresses by testing predictions against real world data obtained from direct observations and rigorous experiments. The stakes in the global-warming debate are much too high to ignore this observational evidence and declare the science settled.

"Though there are many more scientists who are extremely well qualified and have reached the same conclusions we have, we stress again that science is not a democratic exercise and our conclusions must be based on observational evidence.

"The computer-model predictions of alarming global warming have seriously exaggerated the warming by CO2 and have underestimated other causes.

"Since CO2 is not a pollutant but a substantial benefit to agriculture, and since its warming potential has been greatly exaggerated, it is time for the world to rethink its frenzied pursuit of decarbonization at any cost."

*

If I have a favorite genre of fiction, it is the historical novel. It's what I grew up on; it's a genre that includes such classics as Gone with the Wind, Scaramouche, The Three Musketeers, A Tale of Two Cities, Les Miserables, and The Hunchback of Notre Dame.

Perhaps the last great pure historical novelist was Mary Renault, whose brilliant novels of ancient Greece captured my imagination and set a high mark that I still strive to reach.

If you don't know her work, you can start anywhere: The King Must Die and The Bull from the Sea, set in the heroic age before Homer; The Last of the Wine, in the age of Socrates; and Fire from Heaven and The Persian Boy, which follow the life of Alexander the Great.

Alas, that genre has virtually disappeared.

It died of its own success. It subdivided into several branches.

The leading branch back in the 1940s and 1950s was Christian historicals -- Lloyd Douglas was constantly on the bestseller list, to be succeeded by Taylor Caldwell. The followed in the tradition of Lew Wallace's Ben-Hur. But after Taylor Caldwell, Christian fiction shifted from serious historicals to self-congratulatory "inspirational" fiction, and became a tiny niche.

Merging with Gothic Romances, another branch became today's mostly-pornographic "women's historical romance" category, which barely bothers now to do any serious research into history at all, as the characters are relentlessly modern in their outlook and the costumes exist only to be ripped apart in a frenzy of completely uninteresting passion.

Another branch followed J.R.R. Tolkien's pseudo-history Lord of the Rings, a fantasy with very little magic and a great deal of imaginary history. Few writers have either the patience, the intelligence, or the imagination to create a fantastic history as thoroughly imagined as Tolkien's Middle Earth, but some have done it -- Robin Hobb, for instance, and George R.R. Martin.

Science fiction created its own historical-fiction tradition with the alternate histories long dominated by Harry Turtledove. In this genre, you work closely with real history -- your research must be impeccable -- and then you tweak it by making one seemingly simple change, and then extrapolating how else history might have been transformed.

The trouble with alternate history is that your readers probably don't know enough history to realize what you have changed. So you have to give them clues about what happened in our real history, so they can catch on to the difference.

Either that, or you just give machine guns to Confederate soldiers and let the chips fall where they may.

Yet another branch of the historical novel is military fiction, exemplified first by C.S. Forester's Horatio Hornblower series, and continued by writers like Bernard Cornwell and Michael Shaara, and by near-future military fiction writers like Tom Clancy (and, for that matter, by me, with Empire and Hidden Empire).

Midway between military, fantasy, and alternate history is the brilliant Temeraire series by Naomi Novik. I have now read all but the newest of her books (Crucible of Gold), and my admiration for her work approaches the way I feel about Horatio Hornblower and the works of Mary Renault.

Yes, these are novels about dragons. But they are also novels of the Napoleonic Wars, with society, strategy, and moral questions dealt with in a serious, intelligent way. Whether you think you care about dragons or not, if you love the Hornblower books, or Captain Blood, or other stories of high adventure in the past, you will enjoy Novik's works greatly. She makes you believe in her world of dragons-of-war.

But the liveliest category of historical fiction today is under the heading of mystery or detective fiction. Stephen Saylor's Roman mysteries remain some of the best, though alas with his two massive historicals Roma and Empire he bites off more history than even very thick volumes can embrace. Instead look for his Roma Sub Rosa series and you'll find historical fiction at its best.

Many other mystery writers have turned to historical writings, some with more success than others. Alas, finding a balance between the mystery element and the historical element is difficult, and most writers of historical whodunits do not bring off either very well.

Let me tell you about the very best of them -- yes, better than Stephen Saylor, though it hurts me to say it. Not even giants are equal, alas.

C.J. Sansom's Matthew Shardlake novels are set in the England of Henry VIII. It was a time of turmoil, as King Henry's break with Rome in order to marry Anne Boleyn led to the Protestant reformation of England. But as Henry gets older, he backs away from radical Protestantism, and Lutherans are as likely to be burned at the stake as Catholics.

The first Matthew Shardlake mystery is Dissolution. Shardlake, a hunchback from a good family who became a lawyer, is deputized by Thomas Cromwell, Henry VIII's prime adviser and enforcer, who is trying to dissolve all the monasteries of England, both to advance Protestantism and to enrich the king -- and himself, and his friends.

Cromwell knows that Shardlake cares little about the dissolution of monasteries, but can be relied on to pursue the truth. A royal deputy has been murdered at a monastery in Kent, and it may trigger controversy at least, rebellion at worst if it becomes known without having been solved.

If you're a pure mystery fan, you'll find that the solution is quite guessable, though it's also well-explained. Sansom's strength is not in the puzzle aspect of mystery writing, but in the creation of characters, of whole societies with complex interactions, and of moral dilemmas that wrench the souls of those who try to keep a clear conscience in an era when faith is inseparable from politics.

Dissolution introduced Shardlake and a physician friend who comes as close to being a crime scene investigator and medical examiner as is possible in the period. And Sansom's integrity as a writer of historical fiction is impeccable. He sticks to what was knowable and what could be done.

If, in later books, Shardlake is sometimes a bit more modern than most people of his time, it is still not anachronistic. In a time when doctrines were decided by politicians and executioners, and swung back and forth with the king's preferences, it was hard not to become cynical or apathetic about matters of faith.

And Sansom makes Shardlake a sincere man who misses his faith. In the early days of reform he was a reformer. He even had a spiritual experience that left a strong mark of faith on him. If he no longer believes in any particular school of thought, and even doubts sometimes the existence of a good God, he also respects people of faith and holds to his own integrity.

When he tells someone that he will pray for them, but then adds the warning that his prayers have been little heard of late, we feel the pain of a disillusioned but still, ultimately, faith-driven man.

Sansom's trickiest set of choices is in the realm of language. This is the era just before Shakespeare, and if he had wanted to, Sansom could have attempted authentic period English. The books would have been unreadable, however, if he had.

Many writers have done this -- I remember clearly one singularly inept attempt by a writer who actually drew his dialogue from Shakespeare's own plays, though the lines were ludicrously misapplied and inauthentic.

Instead, Sansom has "translated" into a vigorous English that recaptures, in a modern vocabulary, the different levels of language used in the mid 1500s. The result is a clear language that any modern reader can understand, which nevertheless preserves differences of class, region, and culture that well depict the times.

If he sometimes uses anachronisms like "contact" as a verb, a neologism still being decried in the 1970s, it hardly matters -- everything is being translated into modern language, and it's not my job to second-guess Sansom's choices.

(I have been listening to the books as narrated by Steven Crossley for the publisher Recorded Books, and downloaded from Audible.com. Crossley does a superb job of handling regional accents that, if fully authentic, would be unintelligible.)

Sansom's only real howler of a historical mistake is in Heartstone, the most recent novel, and few readers will notice or care. He shows a young gentleman in Sussex who has a copy of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight on his bookshelves.

This is, of course, impossible: The Middle English poem was utterly lost and unknown until its rediscovery in 1839. A stray copy might have existed in the 1500s, but Matthew Shardlake could not have recognized it.

I point this out only to indicate that I am not an uncritical enthusiast. Indeed, the better I liked these books as I went along, the more suspicious and skeptical I became.

Surely I have not found another writer as brilliant at creating a historical period and compelling characters and relationships as Mary Renault, I told myself. Surely a mere mystery writer has not risen to the very pinnacle of achievement in historical fiction.

Surely he has. C. J. Sansom's Matthew Shardlake novels are as good as historical writing get, which is why I took the time to defend his language choices against those nitpickers who will miss the point. This is great novel-writing, period; that it is also good adventure and good mystery writing as well is merely a bonus.

After Dissolution, Dark Fire verges on sci-fi as Shardlake and others pursue a mystery surrounding a claim that the secret of Greek fire (a kind of napalm from the Byzantine Empire) has been rediscovered.

Then, in Sovereign, perhaps the best of the books so far, Shardlake is drafted into going north on King Henry VIII's progress into Yorkshire, a rebellious county and also a near approach to Scotland, with whose king Henry wishes a rapprochement. Quite unintentionally Shardlake comes to the attention of both the king and the queen, to his great cost -- and the queen's as well.

Revelation is in some ways the hardest of the novels to get into. Sansom sets himself the difficult project of getting us to care about characters and relationships among people who are, quite simply, so good as to be dull. Fortunately, one of them is promptly murdered and from then on the novel surges forward relentlessly.

Shardlake has made powerful enemies, who constantly complicate and endanger his life; yet he is also useful to enough other powerful figures as to afford him some protection and relief.

And the more you know the history of the period, the more delightful or ironic his encounters become. When Shardlake becomes an admiring confidant and yet critic as well of Thomas Cranmer, Archbishop of Canterbury, the historically informed reader knows that Cranmer is doomed to be burned at the stake under Queen Mary many years later.

When Henry woos the recent widow Lady Latimer, one knows how things will turn out as soon as we realize that her maiden name is Katherine Parr; when we see the arrogant, quick-tempered lord Thomas Seymour as her devoted suitor, it is amusing to know that after Henry VIII dies, he finally does manage to marry her.

Wherever possible, Sansom is absolutely faithful to what is known of the people and the times. He treats history with deep respect. But he is also a gifted novelist, penetrating to the complicated and believable motives and feelings of all his characters, the good and the bad -- and his characters are usually a fair mixture of both.

His good characters are not always good or always wise; his fools are not always foolish; his dangerous ones not utterly impure of motive. As explorations of the human condition, Sansom's novels hold their own very well. As gripping adventures, they compete with the best.

The books are all available as paperbacks, e-books, and audiobooks: C.J. Sansom, Dissolution, Dark Fire, Sovereign, Revelation, and Heartstone. There are not enough of these books yet. I wish Sansom a long, productive life.


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