The Course of Honour – by Lindsey Davis

The Course of Honour by Lindsey DavisI’ve just read my first novel by Lindsey Davis and it definitely won’t be my last! Lindsey Davis came to my attention when she appeared on both the 2013 and 2012 lists of favourite historical fiction authors. She was a guest of honour at the 2014 Historical Novel Society conference in London and the audience (including me) loved her dry wit and interesting stories about writing. Lindsey’s specialty is ancient Rome and she is well know for her Falco series of historical crime stories.

The Course of Honour is about Emperor Vespasian and his lover Antonia Caenis. If high school history had been as interesting as Lindsey’s stories, I would have enjoyed it so much more, and learned a lot as well.

Using the the top attributes of favourite historical fiction from the 2013 historical fiction survey, here’s my review.

(1) Feeling immersed in time and place – From the opening pages we know where we are and can already feel ancient Rome as we are swiftly introduced to Vespasian, Caenis and Sabinus and to the political time of Emperor Tiberius just before the fall of Aelius Sejanus, commander of the Praetorian Guard.

Ancient Rome – a time of corruption, religious superstitions, senatorial machinations, incredible wealth mixed with incredible poverty. A time where rules were rigidly followed, where men poisoned wives and brothers schemed against fathers. A time when Rome’s empire extended “from Africa to Gaul, from Farther Spain to Syria” and the gods could be capricious.

Here’s an example of time and place “the teenaged daughter being raped first, to spare the public executioner from the crime of killing a virgin. Rome had harsh rules, but they did exist.”

And another: “in the Twelfth District, law took second place to huge men with brutal tempers who trained gladiators.”

The Course of Honour takes us from AD31 to AD69 – a huge span of time that Davis masters with ease, interspersing just enough language and terms of the day to add authenticity without confusion. We experience festivals, triumphant parades, the life of a scribe, Roman baths, the pecking order from Emperor to lowly slave. We glide through magnificent palaces and step through the filthy streets of Rome. We learn about Roman dress, foods, shopping, senatorial hierarchy, social mores, Rome’s invasion of Britain, Vespasian’s struggles to conquer Jerusalem and so much more.

(2) Superb writing – Davis’ prose has an easy flow. Her scenes are well set, emotion vividly drawn. Except for a few occasions – for example, the use of Thanks and Neat! and gent – her dialogue suits my concept of the times and brings her characters to life. Caenis, Veronica, Vespasian, Narcissus were my favourite characters. While I did not underline many passages, I did note this one that occurs in chapter 1 with my comment ‘superb cadence’.

“Everywhere lay silent. The echoes of their own footfalls had whispered and died. No other sign of occupation disturbed the chill, tall, marble-veneered corridors of the staterooms on the Palatine Hill from which the Roman Empire was administered.”

I read lovely bits of imagery like: “Vespasian’s mood had clarified like a wax tablet melting for reuse.”

I also enjoyed the teasing bits of irony or sarcasm Davis weaves into the story. At times she pokes fun at Roman life, at other times her comments transcend time and are equally applicable today. “Caenis had made it her lifelong rule never to trust a man with peculiar footwear.” Or “Vespasian wondered why the most inhospitable tracts of territory were so endlessly disputed.”

Occasionally, Davis becomes the historian summarizing spans of time by listing the highlights of what occurred. While these did not take away from the story, they were a noticeable change of style.

(3) Characters both heroic and human – Emperors, slaves, senators, prostitutes, generals, high born women and men populate the pages of The Course of Honour. Some are tragic, others noble. Some are despicable. Vespasian and Caenis are the epitome of characters both heroic and human. They caught my interest immediately and that interest strengthened throughout the story.

Lindsey Davis has a knack for offering the most intriguing bits about historical figures.

(4) Authentic and educational – For the most part fact remains subsidiary to story. Most often we learn through the eyes of one of the characters. Occasionally, the narrator tells us what she feels we should know, but even then the information is so interesting that I rarely skipped any of the detail.

Here’s Lindsey Davis explaining the water-organ from Caenis’ perspective: “As far as Caenis could judge from her place in the upper gallery it was a gigantic set of panpipes, partly brass and partly reed, worked by a large beam-lever that forced air into a water box; under pressure it found its way to the pipe chamber and then to the pipes, released into them by slides which the musician operated.”

(5) Dramatic arc of historical events – there is plenty of drama in The Course of Honour as we travel from Emperor Tiberius to Emperor Vespasian and like an experienced surfer, Lindsey Davis catches and rides the big waves of that time period. At time the story leaps ahead by two years or twenty so we can catch those times when the love affair between Caenis and Vespasian changes or when their lives take a sudden turn. My imagination was completely engaged as I powered through the story in just a few days time.

A wonderful read. Highly recommended.

Men have their say on favourite historical fiction authors

Last week I published the 2013 Favourite Historical Fiction Authors list which drew over 5000 people to the blog and resulted in more than 1000 Facebook shares. An awesome result!

This week I want to follow up as I did last year with the male perspective. I’m sure you won’t be surprised to discover that men have different favourites. Quite different, in fact. With a healthy does of military adventure and war, many set in medieval or Roman times.

Subtracting the men’s numbers from the overall tally gives us the women’s favourites. In both cases I’ve listed the top twenty – all authors tied for twentieth are included.

Men's Favourite HF Authors

Completing the picture: 319 men offered at least one favourite author. A total of 301 different authors were chosen as favourites.

What do you think?

M.K. Tod writes historical fiction and blogs about all aspects of the genre at A Writer of History. Her debut novel, UNRAVELLED: Two wars. Two affairs. One marriage. is available in paperback from Amazon (USCanada and elsewhere), and in e-book formats from AmazonNookKoboGoogle Play and on iTunes. Mary can also be contacted on Facebook, Twitter and Goodreads.

2013 Favourite Historical Fiction Authors

Drum roll … here’s the 2013 list of favourite historical fiction authors.

Favourite HF Authors 1Of 2440 survey participants, 2075 people responded with one, two or three favourite authors. And a total of 1017 different authors were mentioned as favourites.

Trust me, that’s a lot of data to sort through particularly when you think of misspellings, use of initials or not, given name or surname written first! Names like Philippa, Iggulden and McCullough have many spellings – just to mention a few! And then I had to count them – well, actually, Excel counted them for me after my son-in-law showed me how to use the ‘countifs’ feature. Grateful thanks go out to him.

Favourite HF authors 2You will notice that we have 43 authors since five authors all had 21 mentions. A HUGE round of applause for these favourite authors.

Caveats: as I pointed out in the main report, the survey was initially publicized through the Historical Novel Society, a number of book review bloggers and my own efforts on Facebook and Twitter. From those original sources people then passed the survey link along all around the world. After about a week, in an effort to continue spreading the word, I posted on the Facebook pages of the 2012 top ten authors. As you can see from the results, Diana Gabaldon’s fans are incredibly enthusiastic about her writing and they came out in droves to vote!

Comparing to last year: (click here for the 2012 list)

  • The top 6 remain the top 6!
  • 31 authors are on both 2013 and 2012 lists
  • 12 authors are new to the top 40 list
  • 9 authors slipped off the list

Is the methodology statistically accurate?

As I mentioned in the main survey report, I am not a statistician and I’m sure some will argue that the results are skewed based on how those responding heard about it. But don’t forget, 2075 took the time to offer the names of their favourite authors.

In addition, many authors are on both lists (2012 and 2013) and of those authors who slipped off the list, most are not far behind the cutoff point. In addition, some who are new to the 2013 list were not far behind the cutoff for last year’s list.

Let me repeat what I said earlier in this post, a huge round of applause for these terrific authors.

Do men and women have different favourites? Is geography or age a factor in choosing favourite authors? Does it make a difference if you’ve recently released a new novel? I’ll return with some thoughts on these and other aspects when time permits.

Comments welcome as well as any thoughts on further analysis and the popularity of these authors.

P.S. For a look at gender differences in favourite authors, check here.

M.K. Tod writes historical fiction and blogs about all aspects of the genre at A Writer of History. Her debut novel, UNRAVELLED: Two wars. Two affairs. One marriage. is available in paperback from Amazon (USCanada and elsewhere), and in e-book formats from AmazonNookKoboGoogle Play and on iTunes.