Today the Broke and the Bookish queries their readers: what are your favorite books set outside the United States? For my list, I am purposely avoiding ‘classics’, and am casting my net wide as as not to simply present a list of ten books by Bernard Cornwell. I am, however, focusing on historical fiction, and not just because my contemporary fiction consists of…er, novels by Michael Connolly and John Grisham.
1. The Blood of Flowers, Anita Amirrezvani. Blood of Flowers gives life to an anonymous artisan of Persian rugs, a young woman who is a master of intricate design. The novel is set in 17th century Persia, near Isfahan, and was the first bit of historical fiction I read outside of Civil War novels. What really stood out about Amirrezvani’s writing for me was her use of Persian folk stories — this joining together of story and oral history also appeared in her Equal of the Sun.
2. A Far Better Rest, Susan Alleyn. A Tale of Two Cities told through the eyes of Sidney Carton, set largely in France.
3. December 6th, Martin Cruz. The story of an American who grew up in Tokyo, and is torn between his two countries as Japan stirs restlessly, drawing Anglo-American ire for advancing into China and threatening their own territories in the South Pacific.
David Liss has discovered a niche in the historic business-mystery thriller, with novels set in Age of Discovery-era England and Holland, and featuring those countries’ Jewish communities heavily. Liss is an aesthetic-conscious writer, using elegant fonts and attempting to invoke the flavor of 17th century conversation in his narrative.
5. The Revolutionist, Robert Littell
A disgruntled son of Russian immigrants returns to his parents’ home when it collapses in revolution. All afire with purpose, Alexander Til becomes a propagandist for the Communists, living in a communal home with some fellow travelers. Virtually all of them become disheartened by the men who emerge from the revolution, by the quick establishment of a new elite; one monster simply breeds another. Very much the thriller, philosophically interesting, haunting at times, but also funny:
Before the evening was out she had seduced him into seducing her, a conquest that the young Tuohy lived to regret when he discovered, at roughly the same time as the dean, that his latest mistress was the dean’s youngest daughter. Which is how Tuohy, despite his passing grades, came to be expelled from the Columbia University School of Mines.
6. The Lords of the North, Bernard Cornwell. I’ve been trying to restrain myself in regards to Cornwell. Once he appears on the list he’ll take over it — but The Lords of the North is possibly my favorite of the Saxon Stories series. The main character, Uhtred, is a Saxon prince turned Danish warlord, adopted by them in his youth. His loyalties are neither to the Danes nor to England, but to his friends — and with good reason, for here he is betrayed by ‘lords’ and abandoned to slavery. Lords is the most fatefully dark moment for Uhtred of Bebbanberg, but it is there he is most appealing.
Also by Cornwell: ANYTHING! ..but I also considered including his King Arthur trilogy here, beginning with The Winter King. The second novel is set near the Celtic holiday of Samhain, and is creepy in the best horror-movie sense.
7. Pompeii, Robert Harris. In truth, Harris’ Cicero trilogy is more impressive from a creative point of view, as Harris was able to work in Cicero’s courtroom oratory and his philosophic writing into the account of that defender of the Republic’s life. Pompeii, however, has explosions, and towns being buried under ashflows.
8. Roma, Steven Saylor. I was hard-pressed to pick one of the Gordianus books — which one could take precedence over the other? So let’s bypass our Roman detective altogether for this massive novel, telling the story of Rome from its beginnings as a meeting ground for salt-traders until the rise of Augustus.
9. The Kite Runner, Khaled Hosseini. The story of a timid boy who betrays his best friend through cowardice, who later returns to an Afghanistan caught in the grips of the Taliban to redeem himself. It is beautiful, but disturbing. One line in the book — “For you, a thousand times over!” — still carries me away.
10. Here be Dragons, Sharon Kay Penfield. The daughter of King John, married to a Welsh prince to keep the peace…..what can go wrong? There’s a lot of historical exposition in here for a novel, which — having been a history major, — I didn’t mind, but it’s worth it for the way Penfield handles King John. You know he’s awful, but he’s the main character’s daddy-dear, so it is possible to look on him with long-developed but now-fading affection.