Category Archives: Historical fiction

Drews – the extent of the 1200BCE Catastrophe

I started reading Drew’s book on the c.1200 BCE catastrophe over the weekend. So far he has been reviewing the archaeological data concerning which sites were destroyed. Basically the map shows that a whole slew of cities and palaces were sacked and for the most part throughly burned in:

  • mainland Greece
  • modern Turkey, both the coastal regions round Troy and Miletus and the Anatolian Hittite regions
  • modern Syria, both along the coast and further inland
  • Cyprus
  • modern Lebanon and parts of Israel and Jordan, in particular the coastal plain and down the Jordan valley

Outline map of city destructions c. 1200BCE
Literally dozens of settlements of varying sizes were burned and the inhabitants scattered, all within what seems to be a time span of 30 or 40 years. . In some cases the places were resettled not long after, but in others the abandonment was longer term – for example Ugarit was never resettled, and was lost to memory until recent times.

The archaeological evidence is not exact enough to say that all these destructions had the same cause, nor the sequence in which they happened, but he argues on both logical grounds and from the Egyptian texts that the movement was north-to-south.

The destruction pattern washes around but does not really touch the southern hill country of modern Israel and Palestine, and he specifically mentions Jerusalem and Gibeon as places which were untouched. This is handy for my overall storyline, as these places – under the names of Shalem and Giybon – feature strongly.

Drews’ overall question is, I think, fascinating. The destruction of cities and palaces, whilst always terrible for the occupants, often does not signal major social change or the collapse of the culture – in many cases the destruction spurs off a new flourishing of building work and other cultural activities. But all around the Levant these events were truly catastrophic. The Bronze Age social structures and connections collapsed, and were uniformly replaced by other forms. Why should this have happened?

I have not yet read far enough to see what his answer is, but since he is an advocate of the ‘new military technology’ approach, my guess is that he will suggest that the new styles of warfare swept the former military elites away. This would make the change comparable in some ways to the demise of the mounted armoured knights of the medieval period. The advent of the longbow and then gunpowder not only changed the course of battles, but also signalled much wider social transformations. When the dust of the 1200 BCE catastrophe had settled, the new kingdoms that arose all around the eastern Mediterranean were built on different principles.

Review – The Ayah’s Tale

I found The Ayah’s Tale, by Sujata Massey to be entirely captivating. After what has been a dry patch of slightly disappointing books, here at last was another five star read.

Buy The Ayah’s Tale from Amazon.co.uk
Buy The Ayah’s Tale from Amazon.com

The Ayah of the title actually relates two different tales. The frame is set in 1950s Malaya, where Menakshi is an adult with children of her own. Inside that we are transported to pre-independence India of the 1920s, where she is Ayah (guardian/governess) to the young children of a high ranking British family.

Part of my motivation to read this book was a desire to encounter India through fiction as well as through daily contact with team members at work. The Indian voices in the book – Menakshi herself, as an intelligent and emotionally perceptive young woman, her friend and supporter Ram, and others – were immediately familiar to me. In 1920s India these people were trapped within the constraints of a social system which denied them opportunities to reach anything like their potential. A few Indians were starting to cross the social divide in terms of wealth and access to resources, but the vast majority could not move out of the circumstances of their birth.

The British voices are diverse, blending the unthinking arrogance of some with the kindness and compassion of others. For the children Menakshi cares for in the household, there is a gradual dawning of awareness of the realities of their family life. Some passages make for very uncomfortable reading for a Brit, along with a sense of relief that the underlying attitudes of assumed superiority have been considerably eroded since those days. It is, after all, nearly a century since the experiences of Menakshi’s youth.

The tone and vocabulary of the book make this accessible to young people as well as adults. However, it would take a certain level of maturity to be interested in the story line, and sensitive to the inter-personal dynamics. For those many of us who have no personal memory of the period of British Empire, it is a useful and timely reminder of what our nation took away from other countries as well as gave to them. But the focus of the book is not really on the dark side of British rule, but rather on the Indian potential for growth, and the ability to face challenges and rise above them.

The final chapter, closing the 1950s frame, is a beautifully crafted piece which both tidies up the plot line and also leads you to rethink what has gone before. Sujata has given us a fine example of how to use this particular structural device to conclude a story. All in all, a great book which I have thoroughly enjoyed reading. In case there was any doubt… five stars from me.

Cover - The Ayah's Tale

Review – The Last Caesar

This was another selected item at the book club I go to, and in stark contrast to the previous choice (The Garden of Evening Mists – which I reviewed on January 5th this year), I found The Last Caesar to be a profound disappointment. Henry Venmore-Rowland had, I think, carried out a considerable amount of background research, but the end result was, to me at least, rather uninteresting.

Buy The Last Caesar from Amazon.co.uk
Buy The Last Caesar from Amazon.com

Most of the book could easily have been presented as a wiki entry or series of blog posts rather than a historical novel, and there were very few places where I had a sense of a unique insight into the past. The writing is solid and uninspiring rather than delightful or poetic. Conceivably this reflects The Roman Way of Life, but I have read other books set in the classical period which have managed to portray a lighter and more delicate world.

This story is set in a turbulent year, when the family line of Augustus Caesar spluttered to a halt with Nero. This triggered a struggle between several contenders for the imperial mantle, and the main character in this story – Aulus Caeccina Severus, apparently loosely based on a historical individual – is part of that struggle, supporting one or other faction in turn as his own ambitions and anxieties indicate. But do not be fooled by the title – the book is neither about the last emperor of Rome (which one might have thought), nor Nero himself (who technically was the last member of the Caesar family). Severus appears to be at best a marginal figure in the imperial struggle and spends the whole book in the provinces and nowhere near the heart of the action in Rome. The front cover image has essentially nothing to do with the story but has the appearance of a boilerplate Roman image from a photo stock agency.

To my eyes the fictional Severus is a rather improbable figure, who succeeds in regularly rising above a whole series of problems and challenges without too much difficulty. This causes a mixture of admiration and envy in other people, but incredibly the surrounding characters who might have most reason to distrust or turn on him inevitably accept his unlikely explanations and receive him back into their collective fold. His chief flaw is a rather unwavering trust in his superiors (until they betray him), which leaves him vulnerable to their machinations.

That book is totally dominated by male characters. The few women who appear are either buxom, conveniently available tavern wenches of uneasy virtue, or else extraordinarily beautiful wives, typically with slightly sinister ambitions. The overall effect is to give the impression of a laddish game being played out without feminine counter-balance, and without any real concern for the human impact following on from the rough and tumble. Again, this might possibly be a fair reflection of the Roman world, but it left me cold.

The Last Caesar also stops quite abruptly, and you discover a page or two from the end that actually you only have half a book in your hands. The story continues in another volume (The Sword and the Throne), but I have not been wooed into acquiring it and will cheerfully let the story remain unfinished.

Readers who like Roman history might possibly get more out of this than I did. Or maybe readers who like books which don’t involve women to any real degree. If you like subtle books with a good balance of the sexes, or writing of flair and beauty, it would be well worth looking elsewhere. For me, it just didn’t work as a book. I am, however, prepared to give it three stars despite all this, because it was well researched, well produced and friends who know the period assure me there are no glaring historical errors.

The Last Caesar front cover

Men and women in Late Bronze religion

This post is another in my occasional series looking at aspects of second millennium BCE religion in the Levant – Canaanite religion, if you like. I am going to start with what we can infer from particular kinds of archaeological remains, and then move on to text afterwards.

University of Pennsylvania Museum figurine
Interpreting the significance of archaeological finds is not always easy. A few decades ago there was a tendency for items of obscure purpose to be simply classified as “cult objects” with an assumed religious function… after all, if you didn’t understand what it was for then it must be religion! The best-known case of this is, perhaps, the considerable number of nude female figurines that have been found throughout the area. Perhaps because of presuppositions about Canaanite religion, it was assumed that these were goddess figures used in some interesting way in worship. Since those days a whole variety of other explanations have been proposed, including fertility objects given as part of a marriage ceremony, goodwill offerings during pregnancy, and even educational devices for teaching the young. We just don’t know for sure, and simple single explanations are improbable. The picture is of an item from c.1400 BCE, now in the collection of the University of Pennsylvania Museum and originally found at Beth She’an.

If we look at the designs carved into personal authentication seals we find an interesting story. There were several common forms of these – some based loosely on Egyptian scarabs, others on oval amulet designs, and others of cylindrical form. The first two have a design typically on the flat surface, the last one around the outside curve to be rolled onto clay. This last kind, having more surface area to play with, usually has more elaborate and detailed designs worked around the circuit. They are also a common pattern from the Mediterranean across to Mesopotamia, whereas the others were more localised. At this early time, almost all are pictorial, with little or no textual content.

Now through the Late Bronze Age (so roughly from 1550 to 1200 BCE in this area) we find certain recurring patterns. Male and female figures, whether men and women, male and female priests, or gods and goddesses all appear in roughly equal numbers. The Canaanite tales that have become popularised tend to favour the interactions of gods such as El, Ba’al, Mot, Kothar etc. Goddesses such as Anat, Athirat etc appear to take a secondary role in these accounts. But the material evidence we have suggests a more even-handed balance between the sexes, and even in the tales a careful read finds women or goddesses playing key roles. Two of the longer tales (Keret and Aqhat) present women (Hurriy and Dantiy) holding a central position alongside the male figures that we name the stories after. The secondary details surrounding these stories are full of feminine figures including groups of midwives or goddesses, such as the Kotharat, a collective name for a group of “skilful goddesses’.

As we move into the Iron Age (from 1200 until the time of Alexander the Great, but here I am only really concerned with the first few centuries) then this changes. Firstly, representations of female figures diminish quite dramatically in comparison to their male counterparts. Secondly, female figures are more likely to be represented by some abstract symbol such as a star or tree, rather than a human shape. In earlier designs these symbols typically appeared beside the figure, but as time went on the symbol displaced the person. Something happened to the way women were portrayed – and quite probably the roles they played in society – over the transition from Late Bronze to Iron.

What about the text of the Hebrew Bible? There are huge and ongoing debates as to when the various parts of this were first committed to writing, and subsequently collated into a unified text. On the surface, the historical narrative from Exodus to the end of Kings and Chronicles claims to derive from a wide span of time, including both second and first millennia BCE. There are very good reasons for thinking that the text was assembled into a coherent story somewhere in the first half of the 1st millennium. However, there are also very good reasons from analysis of both prose and poetry to think that some parts go back into the second millennium. If so, can we see any trace of the earlier higher profile of women?

The short answer is ‘yes’. The opening chapters of Exodus have a much higher concentration of women actively participating in events than any other part of the Hebrew Bible – there are the midwives who covertly spare baby boys’ lives from execution. Their prominence is comparable to that of female human and divine figures associated with birth in Ugarit. Beside them, we find Miriam and other significant women in Moses’ birth family, the pharaoh’s daughter who raised him, and so on. The images associated with the departure from Egypt deliberately ascribe giving birth and breast-feeding to God, presenting a distinctively feminine aspect to a figure often perceived as male.

The book where the decline of women’s fortunes is presented most starkly is Judges. Within a few chapters (covering at minimum a couple of hundred years) their position declines from an initial ability to inherit land and lead tribes in a prophetic role, down to widespread subordination and exposure to rape, humiliation and death. In terms of historical periods, Judges spans the time from the end of the Late Bronze age through Iron I – exactly the time when images on material artefacts undergo a radical change. Does this reflect increasing situations of personal danger and social anarchy? Or substantial revisions in the framework and basic assumptions of society itself?

In terms of my own writing, In a Milk and Honeyed Land and Scenes from a Life are both set at the tail end of the Late Bronze. They present societies where women have defined and important social roles, and in Kephrath and her three sister towns, inheritance passes through the female line. Households are defined in terms of the mother of the house rather than the father. This reflects what we know of the Late Bronze Age from artefact and text. If I continue writing forwards in time then at some point this happy state has to decline… by the turn of the millennium, so far as we can tell, women in the Levant were routinely in a subservient and threatened position. But there are a lot of books between 1200 and 1000…

Review – Mistress Angel

Mistress Angel, by Lindsay Townsend, was one of those “if you liked this then you might like that” recommendations for me. In fact I didn’t really enjoy this book, mainly I think because I am too serious a reader of historical fiction to warm to its approach. Readers should be aware that this is essentially a light romance, which happens to be set in the past. Take it on that level, and if you like romances then this might be for you. But if you are wanting to immerse yourself in a past era, full of details and people unique to that time, perhaps another book would be better.

Buy Mistress Angel from Amazon.co.uk
Buy Mistress Angel from Amazon.com

The story itself is straightforward. A young widowed mother is exploited by her guardians, and is rescued by a coincidentally widowed eligible young man. Characters are pretty much black and white, and change little during the plot. The historical elements come in predominantly through the social setting – guilds, horses, blacksmiths, processions and the like. The couple themselves are of high enough rank that they can challenge the system successfully, but not so high that their actions are in any real way constrained by social convention. The consummation is obvious from the first time they meet, and the only complexity is how the male half is going to be able to sort out the potentially destructive legal backlash. However, he happens to have plenty of money, good friends, and considerable knowledge of a bunch of disparate but pertinent facts.

One of my biggest complaints is about the length of the book. The kindle progress bar makes it look as though the story is of a typical length. However, it stops at 62%, and Lindsay has filled the rest up with short extracts from no less than six other books. Regardless of my feelings about Mistress Angel, I felt slightly cheated by this. On the other hand, the book is very economically priced.

For me, three stars. It lacked most of the things I enjoy in a book, and the snippets from quite different stories could not make up for the abrupt end to a very short book. Worth checking out if you like short romances with a thin layer of historical setting.

Review – The Garden of Evening Mists

I was introduced to The Garden of Evening Mists, by Tan Twan Eng, at a book club I frequent. I have enjoyed a good fraction of the books we have selected there, but this was the first one I thought was beautiful. Well-researched historical fiction often ends up being thorough and workmanlike, rather than elegant or stylish: this book definitely bucks the trend.

It is clear from comments at the book club, and those of other reviewers, that many people have disliked the deliberate ambiguities of time and memory in which Eng delights. The book shifts frequently, even within a chapter, often without overt clues, between several time periods in the life of the central character. The uncertainty is strengthened since she is also struggling with progressive memory loss as she ages, and has an understandable and deep-rooted desire to keep certain episodes concealed. Themes of both ordinary and wilful forgetfulness thread through the book, and the author plays his own part in this by refusing to give some issues the prominence which in inter-personal or plot terms they probably deserve. This book invites the reader to engage carefully and deeply.

Superficially the book is about the garden of the title, but both the garden itself and the act of designing it are used as metaphors of personal and social transformation. The garden, the gardener, the novice herself, and the various other people living nearby, all hide important issues within a facade of surface detail. The Second World War and its aftermath was experienced very differently in south east Asia as compared with Europe, and the tensions and traumas of those years have left indelible marks on the people and the land. They emerge in the lives of the characters of this book.

For me The Garden of Evening Mists was without doubt a five star book, and one which has continued to exercise both my imagination and family conversations for many weeks. However, it is clear that it will not appeal to all comers. If you are looking for an action book, or one in which the story flow is clearly signaled and unambiguous, you will not find it here. However, if you like exploring the psyche after it has survived trauma, and do not mind coping with the indeterminacies of memory leading you to and fro in time, this could be a great discovery.

Cover image - The Garden of Evening Mists