Monday 12 November 2012

Winter King

The Dawn of Tudor England
Thomas Penn, 2011
(November 2012)

So I’m going to start this by ragging on the blurb again. It’s becoming something of a habit, for which I can only apologise. There’s an interesting twist to the usual SPOILERZ!!! NOES!!!11!!! complaint this time around though, what with this being REAL HISTORY and so, theoretically, being immune from spoilers. Unless your name is Biff.

Specifically it’s a quote from this review: ‘Imagine Wolf Hall written by John le Carré…’ which is placed not so subtly below a quote from the author of Wolf Hall herself. I get that there’s a need to sell these books, and I certainly don’t begrudge someone trying to make an honest buck, but is it really that necessary to jump so slavishly onto the popular culture bandwagon to promote a book largely about the 16th century? If we’re having to explain REAL HISTORY by comparing it to works of fiction, are we not putting the cart before the horse? ‘Jeffery Dahmer? Imagine Hannibal Lecter being played by Heath Ledger.’ The tail, I feel, is wagging the dog, and other animal based metaphors.

I know it’s hardly an original complaint, but in the case of this book it’s especially relevant, because what’s striking here is the depth and endless, almost fractal, levels of detail and connection that actually occur in the REAL HISTORY. The more epic High Fantasy stuff often gets lauded for its depth and complexity, but that’s nothing compared to how it actually was during REAL HISTORY. There are more characters, intrigue, politicking, and betrayal in a single chapter of Winter King than in an entire volume of A Song of Ice and Fire, just to pick the most currently visible example.

‘It’s so complex, just like real life!’ Bollocks. It’s got nothing on real life. Holding grimdark medieval fantasy fiction up to REAL HISTORY only serves to highlight just how much of a pale, diluted interpretation it really is.

Of course, complexity doesn’t necessarily make for a good story, and I’m certainly not trying to lay claim to non-fiction being inherently superior to fiction in that (or any other) regard. The comparison is unfair both ways, but in slapping that quote on the cover the comparison is explicitly invited and does the author a huge disservice.

Penn handles his material very well, and all that mass of detail only rarely becomes overwhelming, as can often be the case. He manages to carve the blocky mass of material at his command into a clear narrative, which is easier said than done; real life, REAL HISTORY, doesn’t come in neat chapters with beginnings, middles, and ends. The scholarship is used to reinforce the story being told not the other way around, which for a popular history is exactly as it should be.

It would have been even better with dragons, though. Everything’s better with dragons.


  1. You're absolutely right. REAL HISTORY is freaking amazing. When you can see the past alive in the present, sometimes it can make you sick to your stomach, 'cause no, it ain't no neat and clean little narrative served up on clean little plates.

    Most of the time, we're tuned into nothing more than our own little frequency of a daily grind, or rat race, going after that cheese we think we smell. And we need to escape. Escape...

    For a taste of what's out there in terms of the horrors, peine forte et dure (Wiki it for starters).

    As far as history and spoilers go, if, while talking about WWII internment (and a lot of relocation), if you talk about something like the Niihau Incident, you may need a quick escape route if you don't have an iPad on hand. And mentioning Tomoya Kawakita is probably just as risky.

    What's really cool about this day and age is how much material is being made readily available online. Definitely better than porn, but not quite as good as dragons.

    Yet, somehow, deep in my heart, I know my hopes that REAL HISTORY will decimate our ideas of the way it never was is perhaps just wishful thinking.

    1. No need to wiki that first one at least, still have fond memories - well, memories at any rate - of studying 'The Crucible' at school. Which inadvertently raises the side issue of when structuring the facts to provide a compelling narrative shades over into just making stuff up.

      Anyhow, the real question your comments raises is this: Porn with dragons, how good would that be?

    2. Sizzling hot action with cameo appearances by Denton van Zan and the Kentucky Irregulars.