“The Black Tower”

September 16, 2008 at 3:21 pm | Posted in Fiction | 2 Comments

The Black Tower is the latest from Louis Bayard, who is carving himself a niche as a writer of novels set in different historical periods with characters from literature.  Mr. Timothy draws on Dickens and The Pale Blue Eye draws on Poe (I haven’t read either of these yet, though Mr. Timothy is on my list and got very positive feedback).  The Black Tower actually features a real historical figure, Eugene Francois Vidocq, though everything else about the story is fictional.

When you think historical novel, you probably think three inches thick and full of dry, dusty detail.  On the contrary, The Black Tower is fast-paced and full of witty dialogue.  It’s easy to visualize as a movie.  It can be enjoyed whether someone knows anything about Restoration-era France or not.  If you read for entertainment, you will be relieved to find that this isn’t the sort of “historical novel” with a bibliography.

Now, speaking as a historian, I have mixed feelings about this.  I realize not everyone is going to read a book like Ancient Danish Textiles from Bogs and Burials (and if you can get a copy, please sell it to me right away), but it couldn’t hurt to put in a wee bit more history.  Our impressions of 18th century France in The Black Tower are painted mainly through details of costume, transportation, and interior furnishings.  Plaiting actual events with a fictional story line is fine as a literary device, but can be confusing if this is someone’s only exposure to the period in question.

My biggest complaint about historical fiction in general is that it’s too modern.  The dialogue is inaccurate, the characters think like modern people, and there’s too much sex.  (I’m not against sex scenes, by any means, and obviously people in the past had plenty of it, or we wouldn’t be here, but it is my firm belief that people born after about 1920 see things in the context of sex that people born earlier simply did not, thanks to Freud and other cultural changes).  But anyway.  It’s better than nothing, and it’s certainly free of many of the egregious, howling errors in “historical” movies.



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  1. Ever read any Patrick O’Brian? The Aubrey-Maturin books have TONS of history and are very far from being too modern. They are simply stunning. O’Brian is a brilliant exception to what you said in the last paragraph, which otherwise I agree with completely.

    I will have to check out this Bayard guy…

  2. I haven’t, but Rocket Scientist is reading through them all. I think he’s on #16 or 17.

    I know there are exceptions out there; I’m just used to the rigors of nonfiction.

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