Book Recommendation: River of Stars (Guy Gavriel Kay, 2013)

RiverOfStars

Hello everyone! Today, I will be doing a post on River Of Stars
, a semi-historical fiction novel by Guy Gavriel Kay, a Canadian author. River of Stars is the sequel to Under Heaven, which I can recommend but not fully, as I read it some time ago and have forgotten a great deal about it. Both novels, however, are set in a fictionalized version of China, named Kitai. River of Stars is set during the end of the Northern Song dynasty, and approximately chronicles the events of that period as they took place, with the names of important figures and some events fictionalized.

However, the brilliance of this novel does not lie in this fictionalization, although it is impressive. Rather, the brilliance of this novel lies in the method with which it conveys the sweep of history; several chapters jump multiple years in the life of the protagonist, and the writing is some of the best I have ever seen. Although there are better passages than this one, any readers should discover them themselves; there is no point in giving away the best parts of the book and then telling you to read it. Nonetheless, this passage is emblematic of the overall writing style contained in the book; “The day gone, the evening, the night to come. The bird outside, he thought, was not brave or gallant. It was foolish, beyond words. You couldn’t deny the coldness of the world just by singing.” (Kay, 2013, 121.)

Kay.
Kay.

Perhaps that passage didn’t seem special to you, and if so perhaps this novel is not for you. However, it is my opinion that the writing contained in this novel may be some of the best historical writing ever conceived. To be sure, Norman Davies remains my favourite historian, and Umberto Eco’s historical accuracy cannot be faulted, but the writing of Guy Gavriel Kay is some of the most hauntingly beautiful I have ever come across. The end of the novel, though I will do my best not to spoil anything, is excellent; although it is bittersweet, it is easy to recognize that the story truly could not have ended any other way. Quite simply, I wholly recommend this book; even if you never read another historical fiction book, this one deserves your attention. The first book in the series, Under Heaven, is perhaps also worth a read; but coming from someone who had entirely forgotten that novel by the time they read the second, I can say with certainty that it is not necessary to do so before reading River of Stars. Certainly, the two complement one another, however, and so if you do feel like reading both I would not stop you.

In conclusion, this is one of the best books I have ever read. I hope that you all read it too, so the same may be true for you. I hope you all enjoyed this post, and have a wonderful day.

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How Accurate Is: The Tudors (TV Show, 2007-2010) S1E2

The Field of the Cloth of Gold
The Field of Cloth of Gold

Hello! Today, I am going to do a second post on The Tudors, this time on episode two of the first season. This was quite a strong episode; the costumes in the treaty scene were well done in particular. The plot also moved along at a nice pace, and continued several of the key storylines begun in the last episode, including the downfall of Edward Stafford, the Third Duke of Buckingham. However, this episode was also over reliant on purposefully confusing the timeline; the result being that it was difficult to ascertain the year at any point in the show, a strategy that was also utilized in the previous episode. Therefore, there are quite a few things to discuss regarding the historical accuracy of this episode.

  • First of all, while the episode opened with the signing of the Treaty of London (which historically took place in 1518), the Treaty should have been signed in London, as the name suggests; the location in the show is Calais.[1] This is because the show is merging the original signing of the treaty in 1518 with the more famous meeting of the two kings (Henry VIII of England and François I of France) at the Field of Cloth of Gold in Calais in 1520. This second meeting was designed to repair the original treaty, which was already in danger of falling apart.[2]
  • This leads into the second point; if one assumes the meeting took place in 1518, as the first meeting did historically, then the execution of the Duke of Buckingham in what is apparently the following year is inaccurate, because he was executed in 1521; however, if one assumes the meeting was in 1520, accuracy is maintained.[3] Therefore, it can be seen how these inaccuracies aid the showrunners, somewhat ironically, to maintain some semblance accuracy in the end.
  • To look at something that is accurate, the wrestling match between Henry VIII and Francis I did actually take place at the Field of Cloth of Gold in 1520.

For more, continue past the link.

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How Accurate Is: The Tudors (TV Show, 2007-2010) S1E1

Henry VIII, by Hans Holbein the Younger.
Henry VIII, by Hans Holbein the Younger.

Hello everyone! Today, I will be posting about the show The Tudors, which aired 2007-2010 on Showtime. As has been said by just about everyone who reviews this show, the true standout is the costuming; it is brilliantly done and appears (based on the many paintings of Henry VIII, I am no expert on court fashion) to convey the style of the period accurately. The actors are also impressive, and the storyline, at least as of the very first episode, is fairly compelling. Historically, as always, there are several things to discuss.

  • First of all, the opening event of the episode, the murder of the King’s Uncle, the English Ambassador to Urbino, by French soldiers, does not appear to have occurred historically; the Treaty of London of 1518 was not signed in response to a direct threat of war between France and England, and in fact was signed four years after a conflict between the two ended.[1]
  • Mary appears to be between five and ten in this episode; historically, she was born in 1516 and so could not have been older than two when the Treaty of London was signed in 1518.[2]
  • In a similar note, while Henry says in the episode that they have had five stillborn children (though in fact only one of Henry’s children was actually stillborn; the others all lived at least a few days), the fifth has yet to be born at the point the show has reached.

For more, continue past the link.

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How Accurate Is: Prague Cemetery (Book, Umberto Eco, 2010) Part 2

The Battle of Sedan
The Battle of Sedan

Hi everyone! Today I will be doing another post on Umberto Eco’s The Prague Cemetery. Last time I wrote about the Italian Unification; today, I will be writing about the French sections of Prague Cemetery, specifically the Franco-Prussian War and the Dreyfus Affair. The first, historically, was an 1871 war between France and Prussia. The war resulted in the death of an empire- the French Empire of Napoleon III (Louis-Napoleon, a cousin of the original), which collapsed after the capture of the Emperor at the Battle of Sedan- and in the birth of an empire- the German Empire under Kaiser Wilhelm I, formerly King of Prussia and of the North German Confederation. The second was a major political scandal of the Third French Republic which, in the 1890s, saw a French Lieutenant, Alfred Dreyfus, accused of spying (falsely) and imprisoned; the scandal was notable principally because Dreyfus was Jewish and so the event stirred up Anti-Semitic sentiments across France.

For more, continue past the link.

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Book Recommendation: Europe, A History (Norman Davies, 1996)

Europe

Hello everyone! Today I will be doing a book recommendation for Europe: A History
by Norman Davies. Yes, I know what you are thinking- you have heard that name before! I have already done a book recommendation post for one of his books, but they are so good I just had to do another. So, here goes.

Europe: A History is (along with Vanished Kingdoms, the other Norman Davies book I have posted about) one of the finest examples of narrative history that I have read. Europe is, quite simply, the story of a continent- the book takes the history of Europe from prehistory to the present day (or, rather, the early 1990s) and sums it up into a single, 1200 page volume. This may seem long, but it is small compared it to previous attempts to write such a history; all tend to run into multiple volumes, to say the least. Perhaps the most surprising accomplishment this book brings to the table is that it is the rare volume of European history that treats East and West as (essentially) equal; true, certain sections contain a larger perspective from one side or the other, but overall I would argue that on average the book succeeds at maintaining its balance.

But you shouldn’t think that it is just in length (or lack of it) and fairness that this book excels; nearly all aspects of it do. The writing style, just as in Vanished Kingdoms, is both approachable and informational, while the small asides contained in most chapters bring a more personal touch to a history that would otherwise be at risk of feeling too remote. Both of these sections were brilliantly done, so much so that I don’t think I could choose which I enjoyed more. On the one hand, the asides often contained information that was entirely new to me- for example, Matthias Corvinus, the last Hungarian King of Hungary, amassed one of the largest libraries in Europe before his death- but on the other, the more general sections contained beautiful writing and conveyed the sweep of history more effectively than any non-fiction book I have ever read. One of my favourite (though certainly only one of many) examples is from the end of the chapter on Ancient Greece: “There are certain events which happened, and whose consequences are still with us. One cannot pretend otherwise. If Moersicus [the man who betrayed Syracuse to Rome] had not opened the gate; if Syracuse had resisted the Romans as it once resisted the Athenians; if Hannibal had destroyed Rome as Rome would soon destroy Carthage… then history would have been rather different. The point is: Moersicus did open the gate.”

This is the style of writing that I love. It succeeds at being poetic and academic, as so few others do; it also manages to bring the currents and eddies of history to life like nothing else I have ever read. Truly, if you are at all interested in European history, I would recommend this book; really, if you are interested in history at all. Europe, and Norman Davies, have my highest recommendation. If you don’t believe me, read it, and you will see for yourself.

I hope you all enjoyed today’s post, and I will see you next time!

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