Sep 21, 2022
A young hero’s 18th-century escapades evoke Walter Scott, in the first of a projected six-part series
The way history is told has changed over time, and the same is true of the historical novel. It starts with Walter Scott, for whom “history” was the site of romantic adventures: a young, likable hero goes out into the world and faces a struggle between historical forces – Whigs and Jacobites, Roundheads and Cavaliers, Crusaders and Saracens. He “wavers” between them (that’s why Scott’s first hero is called Waverley) before settling on the side of progress and modernity. The 19th century saw many Scott-influenced historical romanciers (Harrison Ainsworth, Fennimore Cooper), famous in their own day though forgotten now.
This style of historical novel went out of fashion over the 20th century. George MacDonald Fraser’s Flashman books parody it: Fraser’s hero is young and venturous, but also a cad, a coward, a rake. Toni Morrison’s historical novels deconstruct the pieties of the past in more serious mode, revealing worlds striated by hideous racism and sexism. Hilary Mantel writes the past with a fine but modern literary sensibility: her Thomas Cromwell is in effect a 21st-century individual, self-questioning, sensitive and with his creator’s hindsight. Alternate history novels – Hitler wins the second world war in Philip K Dick’s The Man in the High Castle, Africa colonises Europe in Malorie Blackman’s Noughts and Crosses – figure history as fragile and contingent, enabling us to think through our assumptions about its permanence and inevitability. Continue reading...
Jul 28, 2022
Prize judges, writers and Guardian reader Russell discuss the titles they’ve read over the last month. Join the conversation in the comments
In this series we ask authors, Guardian writers and readers to share what they’ve been reading recently. This month, recommendations include excellent nonfiction about migration, immersive romance novels and a sharp account of the coronavirus pandemic. Tell us what you’ve been reading in the comments.
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Dec 31, 2020
This speculative dystopia may strain for effect but is carried through by sheer energy and verve
It speaks to the hold TV still has over our culture that Courttia Newland, the author of seven novels and co-editor of The Penguin Book of New Black Writing in Britain, is best known today for the scripts he wrote for Steve McQueen’s BBC series Small Axe. Excellent scripts they are, too, and there is something televisual in the way Newland pitches his new novel: lots of visual description, busy with incident and plotty twists and turns. Where Small Axe grounds its stories in the lived experience of real people from the 1960s and 70s, A River Called Time reaches forward into a near-future alternate reality. If there are aspects of this worldbuilding that don’t entirely work, then maybe that reflects the broader influence on fiction of TV. Newland is certainly not the only contemporary writer trying to reproduce the immediacy and kinetic hustle of visual drama; but TV and novels tell stories in quite different ways, and sometimes that difference jars.
A River Called Time is set in Dinium, a version of London where most live among squalor, disease and violence, although a wealthy few occupy “the Ark”, an elite enclosure in the centre of the city. Our protagonist, Markriss Denny, grows up poor in the suburbs but has special powers: he can astrally project himself. He wins a place inside the Ark, but once there he finds his troubles are only just beginning. It turns out that his oldest friend, Ayizan, is actually his astral rival, and must be destroyed if the world is to be saved. Continue reading...
Aug 19, 2020
With a strong flavour of Peake and touches of Moorcock, this darkly brilliant story of a young boy’s rise to greatness is a standout novel in a bloated genre
Culture comes in clumps, like queues of No 7 buses. In the 1590s everyone was writing sonnets; in the 1950s cinema was wall-to-wall westerns. Soon enough a new vogue catches the public imagination – gothic novels or misery memoirs, Biblical epics or science fiction – but it’s tricky to be a writer in the middle of such a craze. Write the first sonnet and the world beats a path to your door. Write the millionth and it’s liable to be derivative, and so ignored.
Consider fantasy. Bookshop shelves groan, nowadays, with tales of magical realms and magical cities and magical schools, from JRR Tolkien and his many imitators to Terry Pratchett, JK Rowling, George RR Martin and NK Jemisin. What if you want to write your own fantasy novel? How to avoid being just one more orc in the horde? Continue reading...
May 01, 2020
In a series where writers make the case for a book they want you to try, author Adam Roberts champions what was once the world’s bestselling novel
Last year I wrote a literary biography of HG Wells, a task that, of course, entailed reading all his novels. I already knew his science fiction and some of his other novels, but I’d never read his first world war masterpiece Mr Britling Sees It Through, which was published in 1916. To this day I don’t know anyone who has. Yet in its day this was one of Wells’s most successful books (it was the bestselling novel in the world in 1917) and attracted hyperbolic praise. Maxim Gorky called it “the finest, most courageous, truthful and humane book written in Europe in the course of this accursed war”. Strange to think a book so fêted and successful could drop so comprehensively off the radar.
What makes it stranger is that the novel is exactly as good as Wells’s contemporaries thought: a wonderfully detailed, evocative and moving portrait of England at war. Britling himself is a Wellsian self-portrait: a successful writer, living comfortably in his Essex home of Matching’s Easy; married to his second wife, raising a son, Hugh, and two stepchildren, and conducting a discreet affair with an attractive neighbour. Part one, Matching’s Easy at Ease, compiles a leisurely but compelling portrait of the long Edwardian summer of 1914. The second part, Matching’s Easy at War, describes the impact of the war on the home front. Hugh lies about his age and signs up, and his letters to his father are full of vivid detail about life in the trenches. When he is killed – a freak shot catches him through a “loop” in the trench’s defences – the novel pivots to a heartbreaking account of his father’s grief. As the novel ends, Britling is reaching a fragile but hopeful epiphany, his atheism dissolving into a belief in God. This ending could easily have struck a merely sentimental, or an awkwardly pious, note, but in fact it does neither. It is testament to Wells’s skill as a writer how moving the conclusion is. Continue reading...
Apr 10, 2020
Despite some dodgy politics, this is an ingenious riff on international rivalry and has an inspiring friendship at its core
As a kid I read two kinds of books: cheap, paperback science fiction novels with covers festooned with spaceships and robots, and Hergé’s Adventures of Tintin. How I adored Hergé! Best of all were those Tintin adventures that combined my two passions: The Shooting Star (1941-42), Destination Moon/Explorers on the Moon (1950-53) and Flight 714 to Sydney (1966-67).
Child-me pored over on these books and their wonderful ligne claire images. Captain Haddock was, I think, the first fictional character I genuinely loved. To this day I maintain that there is real genius in his characterisation, the way his grumpiness and slapstick reinforce rather than erode his splendid courage and comradeship, and the way his character grows, from the cowardly booze-hound we first meet in The Crab With the Golden Claws into something approaching noble. Continue reading...