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.

Anne Perry’s WWI Series

At Some Disputed BarricadeWhen I first read one of Anne Perry’s WWI novels – At Some Disputed Barricade – I was looking for colour and context for my manuscript, UNRAVELLED. The nitty, gritty of war in and around the trenches. As I read, I underlined little phrases and descriptions that might prompt my own writing.

Far better than being gassed, coughing your lungs up, drowning in your own body’s fluids, or being caught on the wire, riddled with bullets and hanging there for days till you bled or froze to death.”

“Every now and then star shells went up, lighting the landscape, with its jagged tree stumps, erratic gouges out of the clay now filled with mud and water … broken gun carriages and burned out tanks showed up in the glare, and once the barrel of a great cannon sticking up out of a crater, angled at the sky.”

“A grey dawn saw them creeping forward through shattered villages. The houses were gutted by fire and bomb blast, some little more than mounds of rubble scarred black…

Perry’s series consists of five books: No Graves as YetShoulder the SkyAngels in the GloomAt Some Disputed Barricade and We Shall Not Sleep. With a cast of characters from the Reavely family, Matthew, Joseph and Judith, all in their own way serving the war effort, Anne Perry weaves a tale of war with one of espionage and betrayal at the very highest levels of government. Whether you read one or all five – which I would encourage you to do – the plots are well crafted and move at a brisk pace, exploring questions about war without sermonizing, even though Joseph Reavely is a war chaplain.

My underlined sections also include notes about craft – examples of how Perry created backstory, interesting sentence structure, a segue from description to thought, pithy dialogue. There are also examples of chapter endings that make the reader turn the page and chapters that begin with a bang. Is Perry’s work fine literature? No. Is it good story telling? Yes. Do the novels hang together well? Yes. Can you enjoy them as distinct entities? Yes.

I learned a lot from Anne Perry. Not surprising, as she is one of the authors on the top forty favourite authors list.

Madame Tussaud by Michelle Moran

Madame Tussaud by Michelle MoranOver the past few days, I read Michelle Moran’s MADAME TUSSAUD from cover to cover. An exciting story of the French Revolution presented from Marie Grosholtz’ point of view. (Marie ultimately becomes Madame Tussaud). Here’s my perspective on how it stacks up against the ingredients of successful historical fiction I developed several months ago.

Superb writing – Moran’s prose, pacing, emotional resonance, and plot twists are wonderful. In the first few chapters I was impressed with how each chapter gradually introduced the main characters and set the political and social context of that era. The author’s prose is straightforward; it flows easily and is descriptive without going over the top. During the height of the power struggle which brought so much sorrow to so many people, the pacing lagged a bit but that is my only complaint. Rating 8/10

Dramatic arc of historical events – we follow the buildup to revolution, its heady early days and then the descent into tyranny and terror at the hands of Robespierre and others who began their conflict with royalty wanting only the best for French citizens. Throughout, Marie Grosholtz and her family struggle to survive the tangled path of conflicting loyalties to both crown and the new French state until circumstances spin out of control. Moran’s use of present tense adds to the tension as though we are experiencing the events alongside Marie.  Rating 9/10

Characters both heroic and human – the characters that stand out for me are Marie Grosholtz (Tussaud), Philippe Curtius, Henri Charles (the love interest for Marie) and Princesse Elizabeth (sister to King Louis XVI). Moran makes each of them totally believable and each a hero in their own way. Dramatic scenes with minor characters such as Marie Antoinette, Jean-Paul Marat, Maximilien Robespierre, Camille Desmoulins and the Marquis de Lafayette are very effective although occasionally I lost track of players with more minor roles. Rating 8/10

Immersed in time and place – Moran gives us superb descriptions of Versailles, court fashion, Paris streets and public executions. She brings to life the sights, sounds and smells of late 18th century Paris and offers small historical details to help us understand the customs of that time. She also introduces us into the world of wax making and the role that Salan de Cire plays in bringing news to ordinary citizens. Rating 8/10

Corridors of power – as events unfolds, the royal corridor of power gives way to revolution and the revolutionaries. When Marie goes to Versailles to tutor Princesse Elizabeth, we are shown how that world operates. Given that the novel is told from Marie Grosholtz’ point of view, Moran describes the happenings of the National Assembly, the Legislative Assembly and the Committee of Public Safety primarily through conversations with people who were present. This approach did not work as well for me. Rating 7/10

Authentic and educational – Moran places the reader at a time of great chaos and change and traces the events that occurred from 1788 to 1794. Her novel allows the reader to understand the hardships faced by ordinary French men and women, the privileges enjoyed by royalty and nobility, and the revolutionary zeal that overtook France and, in particular, Paris. She includes all major events that occurred from the rise of the Third Estate to the fall of Robespierre. At times the forward action slows with a bit too much history. Rating 8/10

Ageless themes – here are a few of the themes that jumped out for me: neighbours turning against neighbours, the corruption of power, the violence of an unleashed mob, the desire to live trumps morality, freedom and justice for the common man, the vast separation between rich and poor. Rating 8/10

High stakes – not only does every character fear for his or her life but a country’s future is at stake. Michelle Moran dramatizes these stakes extremely well. Rating 9/10

Sex and love – Henri Charles is in love with Marie Grosholtz, however, I felt that this attribute did not contribute as well as it might have to the novel’s success. Rating 6/10

Dysfunctional families –  if we were to consider the country as a family, then France is highly dysfunctional in Madame Tussaud. Beyond that, we have the Duc D’Orleans willing to depose his cousin Louis XVI and the estrangement of Edmund, Marie’s eldest brother, from the Grosholtz family. Rating 9/10

A few other comments:

  • the prologue is distracting and did not grab this reader’s attention.
  • scenes concerning French fashion and court life give detail without being overdone
  • immediacy of events associated with the French revolution comes through very well
  • despite knowing which characters would not survive, I found myself hoping otherwise
  • the ending left me feeling vaguely unsatisfied. Yes, the revolution was over but by then I was so attached to Marie/Madame Tussaud I wanted more about her struggle to rebuild her life.

Overall – 8/10 

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M.K. Tod writes historical fiction and blogs about all aspects of the genre at A Writer of History. Her latest novel, TIME AND REGRET will be published by Lake Union on August 16, 2016. Mary’s other novels, LIES TOLD IN SILENCE and UNRAVELLED are available from Amazon, NookKoboGoogle Play and iTunes. She can be contacted on Facebook, Twitter and Goodreads or on her website www.mktod.com.