Friday, April 18, 2014

9 Great Historical Adventure Novels

The historical adventure novel, and really the entire historical fiction genre, have gone out of fashion in our technology-obsessed age, but who cares about being fashionable? (Or should I say, "trendy," to use a more fashionable turn of phrase.) Few genres are as enduringly entertaining as the historical adventure novel and thus here are nine wonderful examples. In order to keep this list at a manageable length (I do tend to get carried away), I'm not including any fantasy or science fiction.

9. The Call of the Wild - Jack London
Together with White Fang, this stirring novel is Jack London's most famous, a supremely American story about a sled dog in the Yukon whose brutal struggle for survival leads him to revert to the ways of wild dogs. London's visceral descriptions of the merciless Alaskan natural world were derived from his experiences at the height of the gold rush, experiences cut short only when he became too ill with scurvy to remain. Buck, the dog protagonist of the novel, is stolen and sold from a cushy life in California and becomes a sled dog, eventually challenging the leader of the team to a fight in which he makes a claim to dominance.

8. The Scarlet Pimpernel - Baroness Orczy
Set at the height of the Reign of Terror in France, this bestselling novel by the very aristocratic Baroness Orczy (who leaves her reader in no doubt as to the direction of her sympathies) is about British fop Sir Percy Blakeney, the silly and affected husband of French actress Marguerite, who can't bear her husband's frivolous interest in dress and gossip. English society is abuzz with rumors about the identity of the Scarlet Pimpernel, a nobleman and master of disguise who is smuggling French aristocrats into the safety of England. More than a hundred years later and long past the age of a politically relevant aristocracy, this novel remains a thrilling read.

7. The Enchantress of Florence - Salman Rushdie
Though there are fantastic elements in this gorgeous novel, they are part of what makes it such a fascinating work of historical fiction, as the various narrators embrace beliefs that today we would consider "untrue," but that at the time the novel is set, were accepted as true representations of reality. A European stranger arrives at the court of the Mughal emperor Akbar, claiming that he is a member of the royal family, descended from an exiled princess. Rushdie's critically unappreciated work is a potent mixture of erotica, epic, and romance, a brilliant work that owes much to the great Italian poets of the Renaissance and is something of a brother to the novels of Umberto Eco.

6. A Tale of Two Cities - Charles Dickens
A strong candidate for the illustrious title of Dickens's most popular work, A Tale of Two Cities is set during the French revolution and it depicts both the miseries that led to the overthrow of the monarchy and the increasingly random brutalities of the Terror. Charles Darnay is an exiled French aristocrat, whose untimely return to France puts him in dire peril, while his friend, Sydney Carton, one of Dickens's most fascinating characters, is a debauched English barrister, hopelessly in love with Darnay's wife, the virtuous and lovely Lucie. A suspenseful and politically nuanced portrait of revolution by one of the great masters.

5. The King's General - Daphne du Maurier
Set in Cornwall during the English Civil War, this deeply romantic gothic novel follows Honor Harris, a headstrong young woman with an incurable habit of eavesdropping who on the eve of her marriage to her lover, Richard Grenvile, is crippled in an accident. Despite the physical limitations imposed by her injuries, Honor nevertheless finds herself at the center of the political and military maelstrom that threatens to overwhelm all of England and shake the monarchy to its foundations. Richard Grenvile should be counted among Rochester, Heathcliff, and other similarly tortured, cruel, wounded, and deeply in love anti-heroes of gothic literature.

4. Baudolino - Umberto Eco
Umberto Eco is one of the greatest living writers and this novel, published in 2000, is a dizzyingly erudite and witty epic, written in prose but with the decided influence of Ariosto whose Orlando Furioso tells a similarly fantastic heroic story. As usual, Eco plays with language in a way that makes any translation monumentally difficult; as an example, the early chapters are written in a pidgin language created out of Latin, medieval Italian, German, and a number of other languages. The story begins in 1155 when Baudolino, an unlettered peasant boy, is sold to Frederick I. The recounting of his life takes us through a vibrant pageant of medieval life, through both Christian and foreign lands, in an astonishing blend of myth, philosophy, and theology.

3. The Three Musketeers - Alexandre Dumas
The inspiration for countless swashbuckling adventures since its publication in 1844, The Three Musketeers is an enthralling and suspenseful novel, following the heroic d'Artagnan and his doughty companions, Athos, Porthos, and Aramis, through their many adventures, dueling, drinking, and romancing, not to mention tangling with the convoluted and sinister political schemes of the Cardinal Richelieu. This novel set the standard for historical adventure novels and remains one of the most popular works of French literature.

2. Treasure Island - Robert Louis Stevenson
The grandpappy of all pirate literature and films, Treasure Island is so influential that many, if not most, of the pirate cliches, from the salty-tongued parrot to the black spot and the treasure map marked with an X, that still exist in contemporary films like The Pirates of the Caribbean, can be ascribed to it. Stevenson's most popular novel, though really a coming-of-age story meant for young boys, is unusually morally complex, particularly as regards his brilliantly rendered character, Long John Silver, the one-legged pirate captain whose friendship with our hero, Jim Hawkins, tests both of them, morally and emotionally. It's also enormous fun.

1. The Name of the Rose - Umberto Eco
One of my all-time favorite books, Eco's incredibly brilliant novel (like Baudolino, an absolute monster to translate) is set in a Benedictine monastery in 1327, where Franciscan friar Guglielmo and his protegee Adso of Melk arrive for a theological debate, just as a series of monks die in increasingly bizarre circumstances. Guglielmo, a sort of Medieval Sherlock Holmes, soon associates the murders with Aristotle's long-lost second volume of the Poetics. As in all of Eco's wonderful work, the book is chock-full of theological and philosophical disputation, linguistic acrobatics, and Borgesian intertextuality, among other intellectual delights. The brilliance of this book cannot be overstated and it is a credit to Eco that it is not merely brilliant - it is also incredibly diverting.

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