I like reading historical books for the same reason I like reading (some) sci-fi and fantasy: I enjoy visiting other worlds. Hence worldbuilding is a key element in my reading preferences. I like to believe in the world the author provides, meaning that it has to be, all other factors excluded, internally consistent.
In books with historical settings, this means more than getting dry facts correct (because if you stray from them, you can always just call it alternative history). It’s more a matter of getting the characters sounding like actual people from their time period. Inevitably these characters, or at least the protagonists, will be somewhat progressive for their times, lest they offend our modern sensibilities and lose us. It’s possible to write a hero or heroine that believes strongly in slavery, for example, but it’s a writer of rare talent who can make such a person otherwise palatable.
What I especially dislike is characters from, say, the 18th or 19th centuries holding beliefs that sound more like ones from the 21st. Take the absolutely retarded Demi Moore ‘adaptation’ of The Scarlet Letter, where her character stands up to her Puritan, patriarchal oppressors and spews cant that is, pretty much literally, impossible for anyone (especially a woman) from her time period and class to even formulate, much less express so forthrightly.
Aside from its inherent historical sins, it’s first of all pretty lame to attack the past so smugly when you never lived there. Yes, people lived by strict codes back then, ones that strikes us now as entirely alien and often quite abhorrent. Still, they also lived in a time period where small mistakes could not only result in death but in a general extinction of the local populace.
Second, rewriting the past to make it more pleasing to our own prejudices (what makes us think people from a hundred or two hundred years from now aren’t going to find us just as barbaric as we find these people), but it blurs the very real distinctions between times and also erases any sense of exactly how far we’ve come in some regards. Especially in a society where not many people have a very firm grasp of history to start with.
Anyway, one of my favorite modern writers is David Liss, who is the master (and possibly the sole practitioner) of what might be called the historical economic thriller. This sounds deadly dull, I know, but it’s not. Watching the formation of Capitalism itself in England and (in other books) the States is as enthralling, at least in Liss’ hands, as the formation of our political processes.
And just like with politics, the early days of capitalism were more fraught with peril and intrigue than we can even understand now. The entire course of Western civilization could have so easily been fundimentally changed. As an obvious example of the former, say George Washington had allowed himself to be made the King of America, a role that would have been his for the asking. Think how that would have changed the entire world as we know it.
Nothing that baroque happens in Liss’ novels, but the stakes are yet high. Moreover, his worldbuilding is just tremendous–Liss knows of what he writes, and communicates it with adroit skill–his characters are rich, and his writing is clean and exciting. Just good stuff all around.
It’s 1722, and The Devil’s Company refers to the then nearly all-powerful East India Company of England. Series hero Benjamin Weaver, an ex-pugilist Jewish thieftaker–sort of a combination of a private eye and a bounty hunter–again finds himself entangled in vast schemes and conspiracies that threaten to rock the very nation itself.
One of the hardest tasks in a series like this is to explain why the hero would choose to involve himself in such matters. Here, Weaver has no choice. He is drawn in against his will when he finds his friends and relatives threatened in an all too believable manner. His rage at being so manipulated provides one strand of the story, the other his attempts to differenciate his enemies from his friends, or at least temporary allies, as he gets to the bottom of matters.
I don’t want to get too much into the plot, but I can say I love this series. Liss seems on course so far (at least following his five historicals) to writing one Weaver book followed by a non-Weaver novel and then back again. I thus strongly suggest starting with the first Weaver tome, A Conspiracy of Paper.
So, what are you guys reading?