In living memory, the historical novel was a mass-market genre bought by men and women. Half- remembered popular writers like Frank Yerby and Rafael Sabatini wrote books full of ripped bodices and buckled swashes that Hollywood loved, and that now sit as battered paperbacks in charity-shop bargain bins. We still read literary novels set in the past - always a handy way of lecturing us about present crises - and period romances are a handy way of putting their heroines in direr perils than currently available. A few male writers have created a niche for themselves with tales of military or naval adventure (Patrick O'Brian, George MacDonald Fraser), but the way publishers herald newcomers as the "new" O'Brian or Fraser indicates how narrow that niche is.
Much of the energy that went into the historical novel has slipped sideways into the post-Tolkien heroic fantasy. Here, creative energy goes into dwarf language or magic technique that might otherwise have been spent on researching the precise cut of a doublet. High fantasy, though, however good, is stigmatised in the popular mind as both nerdy and girlish, even in the hands of its butchest exponents - like Robert E Howard or the late David Gemmell. It is not the sort of thing executives feel happy having in briefcases.
Novels that celebrate the rise and rise of ruthless military and political leaders, on the other hand, are just the thing to be seen with in business class. Now Conn Iggulden has moved, via his Dangerous Book for Boys, from a series about Julius Caesar, that master of spin and leverage, to the story of Genghis Khan, that well-known expert in hostile take-overs. As with his Caesar series, Iggulden has a solid text to fall back on (The Secret History of the Mongols). The story of the young khan's orphaning, survival and creation of his own clan from other outcasts of the plains is a powerful but little-known one which stands retelling.
Iggulden is as intelligent about surviving in extreme environments like the high cold plain as he is informed about the niceties of horse-back archery. This is energetic ,competent stuff; Iggulden knows his material and his audience.
Teetering on the brink of fantasy, yet without any magic, is Sam Barone's attempt at reconstructing the origin of cities in his Dawn of Empire. Eskkar, who might as well be the Barbarian With No Name, is hired by the rich villagers of Orak to protect it against a marauding horde, and with help from his slave-wife Trella, and various local experts, invents the moat and wall defence, guerrilla warfare and much else besides. By the time he has finished, Orak has become Akkad and he has invented kingship as well.
Many of the pleasures of Dawn of Empire are those of watching boys play with soldiers on a table-top, but Barone reminds us just how much fun that can be. Also, his sense of how Trella's desperate situation as a woman without power makes her a ruthless political adviser is informed by values of which the rape-laden descendants of Gone with the Wind were blithely unaware.Reuse content