A funny thing happened to me recently. First of all, a friend lent me a book by Margaret Mazzantini which she praised as a beautifully written novel. And then another friend gave me a bag of historical novels to read.
I read the Mazzantini novel first.
I read the original language, so I can’t vouch for the translation, which is called Twice Born, but I presume if it’s good, it should have the same lyrical quality. To be honest, I hated the main character at first, finding her immature and irritating. However, I realised in retrospect that the slow chapters at the start of the book are a vital part, establishing character and motivation for the later action.
A large part of the story is set during the siege of Sarajevo and if I hadn’t been fascinated with the main character by then, I would probably have put the book down. But I was hooked, and laboured through the painful matter-of-fact descriptions of daily life and degradation in the city. It was this matter-of-fact attitude that hit me in the gut, increasing my shock and outrage. But this book is more than the siege, and the story twists and turns before reaching its end and a satisfying catharsis. This is one of those books where every word matters. Every action, thought and dialogue carries the account towards that final moment for more than one character.
Would I recommend this book? Definitely!
The next book I picked up was Sword & Scimitar by Simon Scarrow.
Without realising it, I had chosen another siege novel! This one was set in 1565 during the great siege of Malta. At that time, the Ottoman empire besieged Malta in an attempt to wipe out the Christian Order of St. John whose knights used Malta as their base and were constantly hampering and fighting the Ottoman forces. The principal character of this novel is a disgraced knight who has been summoned along with all knights of the Order to protect Malta. The novel was full of graphic descriptions of the fighting, which gave it a sense of reality, and a quick websearch showed that much of the action depicted was recorded in historical annals of the time. It was too much for me, however, and I must confess to skimming large parts towards the end just to find out what happened.
The writing was good, if not spectacular. I would recommend this book if you really like historical novels, and particularly war novels.