The fact is, I never do it.
Well, almost never. And never for pleasure…
As to the whys of that, well, for too long, reading the stuff was my job and analysing whether plot, character, setting and writing all combined in one harmonious whole had become second nature. And that can completely sap the fun, let’s be honest.
Then too, there’s the problem that I write the stuff myself and so I strenuously avoid reading any fiction at all that’s set in or near my period of expertise because I don’t want to be influenced or inadvertently copy another author.
And there’s always a veritable stack of histories and biographies that I must read for research in preparation for my next novel.
But yesterday, I made an exception. I picked up the newest novel–The Lion Wakes–by Robert Low, a great bear of a man with a laugh like springtime, an author who is every bit as besotted with language as I am.
And do you know what? I’m loving it.
I am revelling in his similes. I love these turns of language so much I could kiss the page.
Listen to this: “It was grim and worn, that face, etched by things seen and matters done, honed by loss to a runestone draped with snow.”
Or this: “He lifted the empty glass in a toast to Bruce, who acknowledged it with a nod, then smiled a shark-show of teeth at Hal.”
It’s a ripping great story, of course, all about the events leading up to Falkirk, that clash between the Scots and Longshanks, and the crowning of Robert the Bruce. And to my surprise, I’m enjoying it immensely.
Which is in itself no mean achievement as I (formerly a mediaevalist) some years ago abandoned all study of the period because I couldn’t stick another history of pious morbidity or another lecture on the Black Death or flagellation…
Much of the pleasure comes from the cast of mediaeval characters with which Low peoples the pages. Yes, the usual suspects are all present and correct–the Bruce, Longshanks, William Wallace et al. But it’s the secondary characters who bring the story to life, to real.
There’s the Comyn and his malevolent sidekick (a slimebucket who makes Shakespeare’s Iago look like a big girl’s blouse.) Together, they have me flinching from their presence, as they use the war with Longshanks as a pretence to settle private scores. There are the Welsh archers too, brought to Scotland by Edward, caught up in a conflict which isn’t their own.
And at the bottom of the heap is Dogboy–filthy, illiterate, bullied and abused by many, observing all–the child brought to a castle to live with the dogs in their kennel, to care for them as his family. Through him Low demonstrates just how thoroughly he understands mediaeval life from bottom to top, its joys, its brutality, it’s values, its humanity.
This is, quite simply, historical fiction as it’s meant to be written. It’s grand–lively, colourful, heavy on the reeking, captivating, saucy, villanous, honest. And as I say, I’m enjoying it immensely–a thing which I haven’t felt about a book in just yonks.
(Oh, and the history’s quite good as well.)
And the language? Well, the language just cries out to be eaten…with a spoon.