Favourite books

The Three Musketeers

The Three MusketeersMixing a bit of seventeenth-century French history with a great deal of invention, Alexandre Dumas tells the tale of young D’Artagnan and his musketeer comrades Porthos, Athos and Aramis. Together they fight to foil the schemes of the brilliant, dangerous Cardinal Richelieu, who pretends to support the king while plotting to advance his own power. Bursting with swirling swordplay, swooning romance, and unforgettable figures such as the seductively beautiful but deadly femme fatale, Milady, and D’Artagnan’s equally beautiful love, Madame Bonacieux, The Three Musketeers continues, after a century and a half of continuous publication, to define the genre of swashbuckling romance and historical adventure.

I love The Three Musketeers. It’s one of my favourite books–my 35th favourite book, to be specific. I love the story of d’Artagnan, Athos, Porthos and Aramis. (My grandfather loves to complain about the fact that the book follows the adventures of four musketeers.)

But whenever I picture the story in my head, d’Artagnan isn’t a dashing young Frenchman. He’s a grey-furred beagle in a bright red suit.

I’ve known the story of The Three Musketeers my whole life. I’ve loved it my whole life. Because it got told to me, when I was four or five years old, in the 26 episodes of Dogtanian and the Three Muskehounds.

Dogtanian and the three MuskehoundsI used to play Dogtanian in the back garden with the kids from across the road. (I was always Dogtanian.) For a five-year-old, that cartoon retelling–which, as far as I can tell, never aired in the United States–perfectly captured all the excitement and adventure of Alexandre Dumas’s story.

I read the novel The Three Musketeers for the first time when I was thirteen. It was pretty thick prose at that age, though I still loved it. But I’m absolutely serious when I say that I pictured d’Artagnan as a beagle. And Milady de Winter as a cat, and Athos, Porthos and Aramis as they were depicted in the cartoon. It even extends to any time Cardinal de Richelieu in historical accounts–in my head, the Thirty Years War was totally masterminded by an anthropomorphic doberman in a cardinal’s garb.

If you’re reading this somewhere that you can’t see the video embedded below, check it out at the original post:

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Diplomacy

Diplomacy by Henry KissingerIn this controversial and monumental book–arguably his most important–Henry Kissinger illuminates just what diplomacy is. Moving from a sweeping overview of his own interpretation of history to personal accounts of his negotiations with world leaders, Kissinger describes the ways in which the art of diplomacy and the balance of power have created the world we live in, and shows how Americans, protected by the size and isolation of their country, as well as by their own idealism and mistrust of the Old World, have sought to conduct a unique kind of foreign policy based on the way they wanted the world to be, as opposed to the way it really is.

Spanning more than three centuries of history, from Cardinal Richelieu, the father of the modern state system, to the “New World Order,” in which we live, Kissinger demonstrates how modern diplomacy emerged from the trials and experiences of the balance of power of warfare and peacemaking, and why America, sometimes to its peril, refused to learn its lessons.

Henry Kissinger’s Diplomacy, my 35th favourite book, played a huge role in how I see history and international relations. (The other big influence was my high school history teacher.) Richard Nixon’s secretary of state has a firm view as to what guides the interactions of nations, and it’s a decidedly pragmatist one. Therefore he lauds statesmen who have pursued their countries’ national interests and made their decisions on cold calculations of relative power–Cardinal Richelieu, Lord Castlereagh, Otto von Bismarck–and derides those who allowed themselves to be guided by wilder, more romantic interests, like Napoleon III.

He then relates this principle to American relations. The American people, he argues, have generally eschewed the idea of the balance of power or the national interest; they would rather construct the world into moral and immoral nations–with the United States of course at the centre of the moral side. It’s easy for Americans to cling to this idea of themselves as the barometer of world morality, as they have generally managed to hold themselves aloof from the more morally neutral cut and thrust of world affairs, like the creation of the power blocs before the First World War and the appeasement crises before the Second. But Kissinger deprecates Americans for seeing this as evidence of their moral superiority; what allows the United States this freedom from compromise, he points out, is the very pragmatic facts that America’s borders comprise two countries who could never be military threats to it, and two vast oceans.

According to Kissinger, the challenge of the American President is to strike a balance between the moralistic demands of the American people and the need for pragmatism in American foreign relations. He applauds those Presidents who have done so–Theodore Roosevelt and Richard Nixon–but reserves special derision for Woodrow Wilson (who probably did more to set the direction of American foreign policy than any other President) for allowing himself to get lost in the arrogance of the idea of America’s special mission in the world, and therefore of America’s superiority to the rest of the world, with disastrous results.

The sentiment of American moralism has produced some exceptional accomplishments: its crusading element sustained the United States through four decades of the Cold War (a conflict where it would be very easy to paint Soviet expansionism as no more than a continuation of the same expansionist tendencies, based on national interest and calculations of power, Russia had been showing in Europe, Central Asia and China for centuries), and without American involvement the Western European democracies surely would not have survived that time. But its isolationist element–what historians have called America’s desire to be a “beacon” of world democracy–has also led to withdrawal after the First World War and again after the end of the Soviet bloc, a willingness to let the world burn rather than get involved.

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The Scholar and the Concubine
Words yesterday: 2106
Words total: 17,904

Time spent writing: 12.30-2.30
Reason for stopping: End of chapter
Darling: The handmaid could see only the back of her mistress’s head, and therefore did not see the tears glistening on her cheeks.
Words that boggled Word: formulaically, tablion, raiments, unbefitting, porticoed, footsoldiers
Tyop: disipline
New words today: haunches, rump, whimpered

The First Man in Rome

The First Man in RomeIf nothing else, this hefty tome, the first of a projected series, proves that McCullough (The Thornbirds) can write a serious historical novel that edifies while it entertains. Evoking with impeccably researched, meticulous detail the political and social fabric of Rome in the last days of the Republic, McCullough demonstrates a thoroughgoing understanding of an age in which birth and blood lines determine one’s fate, and the auctoritas and dignitas of the Roman family mean more than any personal relationship. When the narrative opens in 110 B.C., this rigidly stratified social order has begun to erode. The protagonist, Gaius Marius, is the symbol of that gradual change. He is the embodiment of the novel’s title, a genuine New Man who transcends his Italian origins and earns the ultimate political accolade–the consulship–for an unprecedented six terms. A brilliant military leader, Marius defeats the invading barbarian German tribes. Wily, shrewd and pragmatic, Marius is not above using bribery and chicanery to achieve political ends. Nor, indeed, are his fellow officials, whose sophisticated machinations are in odd juxtaposition with their penchant for jeering at one another, which leads to fisticuffs, brawls and even assassinations. As usual, McCullough tells a good story, describing political intrigue, social infighting and bloody battles with authoritative skill, interpolating domestic drama and even a soupcon of romance. The glossary alone makes fascinating reading; in it, for example, McCullough reasons that Roman men did not wear “under-drawers.” The narrative’s measured pace, however, is further slowed by the characters’ cumbersome names, which require concentrated attention. Those willing to hunker down for a stretch of close reading will be rewarded with a memorable picture of an age with many aspects that share characteristics contemporaneous with our own. Maps and illustrations by the author.

(From the Publisher’s Weekly review.)

I read Colleen McCullough’s The First Man in Rome, my 37th favourite book, without any foreknowledge of that period of Roman history, so I know it works on its own as a great book, one that can be read and be enjoyed by anyone who likes great drama. But I think it significantly heightens the experience if you do know the context of this story, if you know what happens to Marius and Sulla after the events of the book.

Marius and Sulla are archnemeses; they are the first of the three pairs of legendary historical figures who fought a series of bitter, vicious civil wars that marked the death of the Roman Republic and the birth of the Emperors. Marius, the upstart military genius who saved Rome but toppled her government, and Sulla, the aristocratic champion of the Senate who defeated him–they are irreconcilably opposed in history, just like Caesar and Pompey the Great, just like Octavian and Mark Antony.

But it’s McCullough’s thesis that far from always being enemies, Gaius Marius and Lucius Cornelius Sulla actually started out as close friends and political allies; that it was Marius who gave Sulla his start in Roman politics and mentored him through his early years, and that Sulla repaid him with the support without which Marius could neither have defeated the German hordes nor achieved the unprecedented feat of winning election to the Roman consulship for six consecutive terms. And she defends this thesis in the book’s glossary, under the entry for Julilla (the fictional aunt of Julius Caesar whom she creates to serve as Sulla’s first wife).

The narrative arc of The First Man in Rome and its sequel The Grass Crown (depicting the civil war between the two men) is one I find fascinating, and one I’m always trying to replicate. The closest of allies who then evolve into the bitterest of enemies–it requires first establishing the two characters as the closest of allies, so that the reader will feel real emotional involvement once they become enemies. As such, it’s difficult to do, because it’s not a process that lends itself to a quick-paced read. And certainly McCullough takes her time with it, devoting a four-hundred-thousand-word novel to the friendship and a second one to the enmity, but it’s well worth the read.

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America’s Game

America's GameIt’s difficult to imagine today–when the Super Bowl has become a virtual national holiday and the National Football League is the country’s dominant sports entity–but pro football was once a ramshackle afterthought on the margins of the American sports landscape. Yet in the span of a single generation in postwar America, the game charted an extraordinary rise in popularity, becoming a smartly managed, keenly marketed sports entertainment colossus whose action is ideally suited to television and whose sensibilities perfectly fit the modern age. Pro football’s ascent is an epic American story, and America’s Game does it full justice.

Beginning with the World War II years, when the NFL was fighting for its very existence, Michael MacCambridge traces the game’s grand transformation, with particular attention paid to six key franchises–the Rams, Browns, Colts, Cowboys, Chiefs, and Raiders–and how their fortunes reflected the larger growth of the game itself. Along the way we meet the sport’s legendary architects, men such as Pete Rozelle, George “Papa Bear” Halas, Bert Bell, Tex Schramm, and Lamar Hunt, as well as a wide range of its memorable characters–including Johnny Unitas, Paul Brown, Vince Lombardi, Jim Brown, Al Davis, Joe Namath, Bill Walsh and Deion Sanders. In the process we witness the rivalries, the games themselves, and the passion that had made professional football the nation’s signature sport.

As a rule, I’m unattracted to sport writing. I like sports book for reference use, but I don’t typically feel any desire to read extensive prose about the history or theory of sports. I make an exception, though, with America’s Game: The Epic Story of How Pro Football Captured a Nation, my 38th favourite book, by Michael MacCambridge.

MacCambridge locates the beginning of the NFL’s rise in Cleveland just after the Second World War. The most famous football coach of the period, Paul Brown, has created a team, the Browns, who will so thoroughly dominate the upstart All-America Football Conference that within five years, the AAFC will have to fold due to lack of competition, with three of its teams (the Browns, the Colts and the 49ers) moving on to the NFL. The Browns’ superiority to their AAFC opposition, in the meantime, will have stolen so much of the fanbase of Cleveland’s NFL franchise, the Rams, that Rams owner Dan Reeves insists on moving the team to Los Angeles, taking the NFL for the first time outside the box of East of the Mississippi and North of the Ohio.

The largest section of the book is devoted to the rivalry between the NFL and the AFL in the 1960s, the NFL’s most tenuous period of the postwar era. But the book continues on up through the rest of the twentieth century, always highlighting how the NFL leadership consistently chose the option that would lead to increased interest in their league in the long term, from the creation of the draft in the 1930s (made possible because the owners of powerhouse teams like the Redskins and Bears understood that their teams were better served by losing their competitive advantage), to the creation of the NFL’s scheduling formula in the 1940s and 50s (whereby successful teams face tougher opponents than unsuccessful ones), to the creation of NFL Films.

My background, and my first love in sports, will always be association football in England–the Premier League, the Football League and the FA Cup. As such, I’m used to sports traditions that stretch back into the mists of time, that have been in place since before my great-grandparents were born. The Football League championship was first awarded in 1889; Manchester United were founded in 1878; the Football Association was founded in 1863.

So the newness of much American sport is something I find fascinating. The idea that the Redskins and the Cowboys can contest such a passionate, vitriolic rivalry when I’ve known plenty of people who have been Redskins fans since before the Cowboys existed. The idea that an NFL coach whom I’ve seen coach (Mike Ditka) was hired as the Chicago Bears’ coach by someone who was a delegate to the meeting at which the NFL was founded (George Halas). The idea that names that are intimately bound up with the creation of just what the NFL is today, like Tom Landry and Chuck Knoll, were still coaching in the league when I immigrated to the United States.

The NFL is still so young that it’s possible to feel a sense of contact with its formative era, in a way that it’s not with association football. And in America’s Game, MacCambridge captures that.

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A Woman of the Iron People

A Woman of the Iron PeopleIn the great tradition of SF world-building, a human woman scientist contacts an alien people and discovers the varied richness of their civilization on a carefully conceived and depicted planet circling the star Sigma Draconis. Comparable in conception and scope to Joan D. Vinge’s The Snow Queen, Joan Slonczewski’s A Door into Ocean, and Nancy Kress’s An Alien Light, A Woman of the Iron People extends that tradition of strong characterization in a unique science fiction setting.

A Woman of the Iron People is concerned with anthropology and politics: Hovering over the planet throughout the book is the mother ship from Earth, torn by factions, sometimes an unreliable source of support for its field team. Yet all humans are sincere in their mission of exploration and in their determination not to harm the aliens whom they contact. Central to the story is Lixia, a woman whose quest for knowledge and analysis of her experiences, even in the face of the dangers of an unknown planet, give a sharp, vivid focus to the panorama of exploration. Her odyssey, and the way in which she confronts and interacts with the native cultures as she travels across the landscape, make A Woman of the Iron People a monumental work of contemporary science fiction. And with the publication of this book, Eleanor Arnason establishes herself as a significant and ambitious force in SF in the 1990s.

I said when I reviewed my 48th favourite book, Ring of Swords, I said that Eleanor Arnason transcends the label of being a feminist writer. You can always ensnare me if you can create a fictional society that makes me look our own society in a new way, makes me re-examine assumptions that we’ve always taken for granted. And that’s just what Arnason does, making her readers take a long, hard look at gender roles and at our attitudes towards gender.

In A Woman of the Iron People, my 39th favourite book, the human researchers find a civilization in which men, when they reach puberty, become too wild and aggressive to remain in society, and therefore must spend their adult lives wandering, solitary and feral, through the wilderness, returning only to mate. The adult females, then, are forever locked in a primitive, pastoral way of life; they can never advance to the point where their settlements would become anything larger than small villages, as larger settlements would prevent men from approaching when in heat. It’s a fascinating world, and I love how Arnason explores it–and how she explores what effect contact with it has on the human researchers.

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Encyclopedia of the Third Reich

ENCYCLOPEDIA OF THE THIRD REICH book coverIn the thirty years since the collapse of the Third Reich, books on Hitler and the Nazi regime have proliferated. But until now there has never been a complete Encyclopedia of the Third Reich, covering people, places, events, and slogans, and also political, social and cultural movements. Professor Snyder’s book does this.

The scope, the scholarship and the precision of this book are extraordinary: included are a chronology of every important date from the fall of the Weimar Republic to 1945; a bibliography of every important book on the Third Reich; a bibliography of articles; entries on every important person; translations of every relevant German word; entries on every facet of World War II from the point of view of the Reich; general essays on art, architecture, film theatre, music, sports, religion and education in Nazi Germany; and documents, many hitherto difficult to find, such as the Hossbach Memorandum of 5 November 1937, Hitler’s Last Will, and his Political Testament of 29 April 1945.

I really love a good, specialised, in-depth reference work. I own several, and I can’t begin to quantify everything I’ve learnt from the hours spent leafing through Encyclopedia of the Third Reich, or The Oxford Classical Dictionary, The Harper Encyclopedia of Military Biography and The Blackwell Encyclopedia of Anglo-Saxon England–eyes scanning the article titles until they fall on whatever topic catches my interest today.

Louis L. Snyder’s Encyclopedia of the Third Reichmy fortieth favourite book–is the first such book I owned, and it was critical to the writing of my first novel, A Traitor’s Loyalty. Simply, A Traitor’s Loyalty couldn’t have been an entertaining, readable story without Encyclopedia of the Third Reich. I did a lot of research on Nazi Germany for that novel, but fundamentally my picture of what a victorious Reich could have looked like in 1971 rests on the Encyclopedia.

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The Lions of Al-Rassan

The Lions of Al RassanOver the centuries, the once stern rulers of Al-Rassan have been seduced by sensuous pleasures. Now King Almalik of Cartada is on the ascendancy, adding city after city to his realm, aided by his friend and advisor, the notorious Ammar ibn Khairan–poet, diplomat, soldier–until a summer day of savage brutality changes their relationship forever. Meanwhile, in the north, the Jaddites’ most celebrated–and feared–military leader, Rodrigo Belmonte, and Ammar meet. Sharing the interwoven fate of both men is Jehane, the beautiful, accomplished court physician, whose own skills play an increasing role as Al-Rassan is swept to the brink of holy war, and beyond….

I’ve talked before about my love for the work of Guy Gavriel Kay. At three, he has more books on my list of favourite books than any other author, fiction or non-fiction. We’ve now reached the first of those, no. 41, The Lions of Al-Rassan.

Kay isn’t my favourite fantasy writer (though he’s in the top two or three), but he does write the most thoughtful and intelligent fantasy I’ve ever read. You won’t find any dragons in his books, and generally you’ll find next to no magic–Al-Rassan, to the best of my recollection, doesn’t have a single instance of magic in it. But you’ll find examinations of characters and of the societies they form.

Kay’s written at length about fantasy’s potential as a genre of literary, rather than adventure, fiction. He made another great point about this on his website earlier this week (scroll down to the 12 April entry if more have appeared above it), after finding that Gerald Martin’s new biography of Gabriel Garcia Marquez defines magical realism as a genre in which the world is as the characters believe it to be … without any indication from the author that this world-view is quaint, folkloric or superstitious.

This is very close to language Kay himself has used about the potential of fantasy, again and again–that by casting his characters in fantasy settings, rather than historical ones–he can make his worlds match his characters’ perceptions of it. Thereby he can remove the condescension we feel towards these characters for believing in witchcraft or fairies or the evil eye–and remove a mechanism we use for separating ourselves from the characters.

His books are often wrapped up in the atmosphere and culture of historical societies. Tigana is redolent with Renaissance Italy; Sailing to Sarantium and its sequel are set against Justinian’s Byzantine Empire; his new book, Under Heaven, is apparently based on medieval China (so I might soon have to revise that statement about a lack of dragons).

The Lions of Al-Rassan is steeped in Spain under Moorish rule, just before the Christian rump states in the north launched the Reconquista. (The book is in no small part a re-telling of the story of El Cid.) The Asharites (Moors) have ruled Al-Rassan for centuries, but have grown decadent and weak; the Jaddite (Christian) kingdoms are poised to launch an invasion. Amidst this, the greatest warlords of each side offend their respective kings and are exiled, turned into swords for hire. And then they find themselves drawn to the same woman, a healer of the despised, outcast Kindath (Jews).

In these posts, I talk about my favourite books, and discuss why I like them so much; this implies a recommendation, of course, but recommendation isn’t my main purpose. But today, I am actively recommending that if you haven’t before, you check out Guy Gavriel Kay.

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Shanghai
Words yesterday: 1356
Words total: 5061

Time spent writing: I don’t know I can really answer this. I wrote from noon to 2pm, but then I also managed to keep writing for much of the afternoon while the kids were awake. But of course it was haphazard at that point, because I kept getting called away every five minutes. I’m sort of impressed with myself managing it.
Darling: He wore a suit that looked finely made and that had probably fetched a handsome price at the time it had first been tailored, but now it looked threadbare and distinctly old fashioned.
Words that boggled Word: knifeblade
New words today: switchblade, coolies

Caesar

Caesar book coverOne of the most fascinating figures in history, Julius Caesar was the conqueror of an immense empire, an outstanding strategist and military leader, an important writer, a great organizer, a politician, diplomat, and heartbreaker–a man of relentless determination whose life ended in a brutal public murder. Soon after his death, for the first time in Roman history, a human being was deified; in the process, Caesar the man was lost to history.

In his now-classic Caesar: A Biography, internationally renowned historian Christian Meier brings the most famous Roman of them all unforgettably to life. History leaps off the page as Meier tells the riveting story of a brilliant, complex man and the political and social forces that both shaped and challenged him. Filled with psychological insight and wonderful character analyses, Caesar: A Biography reconstructs the rich political and social background of the Late Roman Republic. It demonstrates how limitations were deliberately imposed on the development of talent and personality in young Romans. Within this context, Meier reveals how Caesar established himself early on as a man whose unique drive and self-confidence would bring him into continual conflict with established institutions that were obsessed with the denial of the individual.

From Caesar’s birth to the inevitable Ides of March, Meier paints a full and vivid picture of how this larger-than-life leader truly affected the fate of the Roman republic and the course of history. Authoritative and accessible, this masterful biography has long been acknowledged as the definitive modern account of Caesar’s life, career, and legacy.

I was surprised to learn the tremendous volume of scholarship the German language has produced about the classical world, considering Germany–apart from a narrow frontier strip west of the Rhine–is one of the few mainland European nations that was never a Roman province. But it was, after all, a German who founded modern archaeology, when he excavated the site of Troy, and German has produced a body of classical scholarship that–certainly up until a few decades ago, if no longer today–equals and even surpasses that produced by English. Amongst that body is my 42nd favourite book, Caesar: A Biography by Christian Meier.

It’s a work of psychobiography, so all the usual caveats apply about being leery of conclusions about the inner workings of the mind of someone from whom we’re separated by two thousand years, and who left us no actual discussion of what was going on inside his head.

Meier’s central thesis is that Caesar positioned himself as an outsider toward Roman aristocratic society. As such he was able to see things about the culture of Roman aristocracy to which his contemporaries, who only saw things from inside the culture, were blinded. A male Roman aristocrat of the Late Republic structured his adult life around a political career, climbing the cursus honorum–the progression of successively more prestigious elective offices, culminating in the consulship, of which only two were elected each year, after holding which the aristocrat could expect to spend the rest of his days as one of the Senate’s revered elder statesmen.

But while his peers saw this as the Way the World Worked, Caesar saw it as an artificially constructed system–a game, essentially, and a game that he was playing to win. Such an outlook gave him a critical advantage, because looked at like that, he was much better able than his competitors to find and exploit loopholes in the way of things–to game the system, as it were.

Caesar wasn’t an outsider to the Roman aristocracy, by any means–the gens Julia was one of Rome’s two or three most ancient and revered clans, descended from the goddess Venus and her son Aeneas of Troy, founder of the Latin people. And his uncle was Gaius Marius, who in his day was so powerful he took the title Third Founder of Rome.

But he still seemed to have an ability to remove himself mentally from the system in which he lived. When Caesar and his legions marched on Rome, for instance, the republican faction that opposed him made it quite clear that anyone who didn’t come to their aid would be seen as siding with Caesar–if you’re not with us, you’re against us. Caesar, though, seemed to see it instead as a private feud between himself and the rest of the aristocratic class, since the Senate and high political office were the aristocracy’s province. Caesar issued statements to the Roman and Italian populations that he asked not that they side with him, but simply that they stand aside and not throw in their lot with the republicans. So along as you’re not against us, you’re with us.

Whatever the truth behind the innermost workings of his mind, Julius Caesar has always seemed to me one of the most brilliant and fascinating individuals in the history of this planet. And you won’t find a better examination of him than in Meier’s biography.

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Cavalry

Cavalry book coverFor centuries the possession of weapons and a horse was a sign of nobility. From the relationship between warrior, horse and weapons grew the ideal of knighthood and the romantic image of the dashing cavalryman. Behind this familiar myth, however, lies a hard-edged reality. Cavalry were the shock troops of ancient and medieval warfare–a warrior on horseback was, in general, more powerful, better armed and more manoeuvrable than a soldier on the ground. The possession of arms and a charger ensured the cavalryman his status, while the possession of cavalry ensured a ruler both spectacle and power.

Cavalry describes the history of the soldier on horseback, from the early horse archers of the Middle East to the Italian mounted crossbowmen of the fifteenth century, and from the sixteenth-century Muscovite boyars to the 7th US Cavalry.

My 43rd favourite book, Cavalry: The History of a Fighting Elite, 650 BC-AD 1914, is a beautifully illustrated work. It moves chronologically through human history, with entries on different types of cavalryman from Europe, Africa, Asia and North America–Assyrian horse archers and Canadian mounties. Each turn of the page brings a new entry: on the left side, the text; on the right, a beautiful, full-colour, full-page illustration of the cavalryman in question.

It’s a great casual reference for an amateur historian, but for me as a writer it’s very useful. If we only ever wrote about things we’ve lived, we’d produce pretty boring stuff indeed (unless we happen to be Harper Lee, or Truman Capote depending on how into conspiracy theories you are). My own books–whether we’re talking about a victorious Nazi Germany, a fantasy world eerily reminiscent of the first-century AD Roman empire, or Shanghai in the 1930s–certainly aren’t about things I’ve lived.

But to write about things outside our experience, it’s critical to widen our horizons as much as possible. Ideally this would be through experience–actually learning to ride a horse, or spending a night in the woods, or visiting Istanbul, or whatever–but in lieu of that, we’ve got to rely on finding what we need to know in the pages of as wide a range of books, both fiction and nonfiction, as possible.

Specificity and detail are the key, and Cavalry is one of those books that has just the sort of specificity and detail that we need. Destriers and chargers and geldings and mares–much better words than horse. Minerva helmets and Adrian helmets and Maximilian armour. Why a heavy cavalry charge didn’t look remotely like it does in a Hollywood movie, because a horse that big, carrying that much armour, and carrying an armored rider to boot, doesn’t move at a gallop; it moves at a trot.

Every time you open Cavalry to a random page, there’s something new to learn.

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Eaters of the Dead

Eaters of the DeadThe year is A.D. 922. A refined Arab courtier, representative of the powerful Caliph of Bagdad, encounters a party of Viking warriors who are journeying to the barbaric North. He is appalled by their Viking customs — the wanton sexuality of their pale, angular women, their disregard for cleanliness . . .

their cold-blooded human sacrifices. But it is not until they reach the depths of the Northland that the courtier learns the horrifying and inescapable truth: He has been enlisted by these savage, inscrutable warriors to help combat a terror that plagues them — a monstrosity that emerges under cover of night to slaughter the Vikings and devour their flesh . . .

It’s the very idea behind Eaters of the Dead by Michael Crichton that reserves it a spot as my 44th favourite book, even before the idea’s compulsively readable execution.

Eaters of the Dead (you might also find it as The Thirteenth Warrior, the title of its rather good film adaptation starring Antonio Banderas and Omar Sharif) is an intellectual exercise: it takes as its starting point the premise that the mediaeval English epic poem Beowulf is a retelling of actual historical events, albeit one that has been embroidered and heavily mythologised over the centuries during which it has been passed down through aural tradition, much the same way that the Iliad is a retelling of a historical episode from Mycenaean Greece. The novel presents itself as an account of the actual events that gave rise to the Beowulf legend, in the form of the journal of an Arab functionary caught up in them.

It’s something that catches my imagination instantly–stripping down a myth to its origins, so that we can appreciate both its truth and its fiction. I have a dark fantasy cycle whose central character is built around just that. It’s one of the chief things I love about my second-favourite-ever books, Tad Williams’s Memory, Sorrow and Thorn trilogy.

Also, Eaters of the Dead is what first introduced me to ibn Fadlan, the mediaeval Arab writer who travelled throughout Russia. I now own his account of his travels–his actual account, in addition to the account where he travels to Denmark with Beowulf to fight that blight that has afflicted Heorot.

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