Maybe it's because of Game of Thrones withdraw, but recently I've been reading a lot of historical fiction of the swords and sandals variety.
Previously, when I've delved into historical fiction, it has been more on the line of bodice rippers like Philippa Gregorgy (my guilty secret), but after reading an article in The Times a couple of weeks ago about women's growing dominance in the swords and sandals genre, I thought I should give it a try. I was worried that these book would be a bit 'blokey' but I've really enjoyed reading them!
A brief synopsis of the novels pictured above, before I give you the full low down on what I think:
Boudica: Dreaming the Eagle, Manda Scott: set in ancient Britain before the Roman invasion, the country is occupied by fierce warriors, psychic dreamers and warring tribes. This is the first in the series of book that charts the life of Breaca, from childhood to legend.
Emperor: The Gates of Rome, Conn Iggulden: Two young friends grow up together in a affluent, but unstable Roman household just outside the capital city, Rome. Trained in combat by a former gladiator, the two boys are ready to test their mettle in the legion and the senate. First in a series about Julius Caesar
Holy Warrior, Angus Donald: Second book in a series about Robin Hood. Alan, now in his dotage, recounts his early life as a trusted companion of the notorious outlaw. Robin and his band of merry men are now respectable and are favourites of King Richard the Lionheart. To settle a debt they must join the king's crusade to reclaim the holy city of Jerusalem.
All three of these novels share some similarities; bloodthirsty battle scenes, court politics, bildungsroman narratives and rich, historical detail. They are not however equal, if I was going to pick one to recommend it would be Manda Scott's Boudica. It seamlessly blends together a fictional and fantastical story with carefully researched historical fact. Plus, I have an affinity with feisty ginger women.
Colin Iggulden's Empire, is a strong start to a series and I'm looking forward to reading the next one. It is less complex than Boudica however. I felt that Iggulden has borrowed from the glut of Roman films (Gladiator, Ben Hur, The Eagle, Spartacus) without really adding anything new- that isn't to say I didn't enjoy the book, it just seemed to be a pretty conventional narrative. Boudica on the other hand, felt fresher, perhaps because I'm less familiar with the myths, religion and cultural practices of the ancient Britons. The abilities of the dreamers and druids made the novel blurred the historical genre into fantasy, so if your a Game of Thrones fan, you may enjoy this. The magical element to the novel gave Boudica the edge over Empire, in my opinion as it made the story more innovative and imaginative.
Another point in the favour of Boudica is the strong cast of characters. There are plenty of complex female protagonists, that have the physical prowess, charisma and leadership that is more commonly assigned to male characters. The secondary characters are also interesting and three dimensional.
You can probably give Holy Warrior a miss, it is a weak sequel to Outlaw. The main problem of this novel is it deviates to far from the Robin Hood legend, the characters would have been better off staying in Sherwood forest rather than marching off to Jerusalem. There are some dodgy racial undertones in this novel, and the massacre of Jewish people in particular wasn't written very well or handled sensitively enough in this book. I don't think I'll be carrying on with this series, which is a shame as I had fun reading the first one.
What do you think? Are you tempted to give reading a swords and sandals epic a try?