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Genesis of a Historical Novel

Thursday, April 21, 2005

the writer reads

Hadrian's Wall is due back at the library today. I made it to page 137, but am not interested enough to go further. I plan to return it.

I took it out 3 weeks ago because it was recommended by Andy Brozyna, the ancient-warfare buff who runs the website RedRampant.com, where I go for some of my military information. Of the Roman-historical novels he's read, he feels this one by William Dietrich is the most accurate and well-researched with regard to its military details. Readers at Amazon.com gave it only 3 out of 5 stars, but I was impressed enough with Mr. Brozyna's recommendation to check it out for myself. I might learn something.

Dietrich, a Pulitzer Prize-winning author of both fiction and nonfiction, is a good writer, but I suspect he's a better nonfiction writer than he is a novelist.

I dislike most fiction, and to save time I assess a novel quickly based first on its overall idea, then by how it opens. Hadrian's Wall is a nicely produced book published by HarperCollins; it's a full-on A-level product with nice paper, binding, artwork (cool cover painting of the vacant, blackened wall burning on a wintry day), and design. The idea of a kind of love-triangle set on Hadrian's Wall seemed like a decent one, a bit unusual, and written by a man so possibly offering a fresh perspective.

Next: the writing itself. The novel, set in the 4th century AD, begins with a prologue in AD 122. As a rule, I don't like prologues. Most often they are merely gimmicks to try to grab the reader's attention, which is presumed to be deficient and short-lived. The typical prologue has a psychopathic stalker following an unsuspecting young girl and then brutally raping/killing/abducting her. Chapter 1 then opens with good guy cop, hassled by his day, who comes to learn about the crime. The implication is that chapter 1 is too boring to launch the story, and the reader needs a shot in the arm in the form of jolting violence to get him interested. I believe the cure should be looked for not in a lurid prologue, but in a better-written chapter 1.

Having said this, I've opened my own novel with a prologue. I didn't want to, but I felt that a certain amount of background information is indispensable to make sense of the story that follows, and this information would be impossible to provide in chapter 1. I've written a 2-page expository prologue briefly describing the history of the monarchy in Israel from its beginning in 1025 BC to its supposed end just after the return from Exile in 539 BC. It does end with a tease:

But the seed of David lived on, in hiding, awaiting the opportunity to restore the King of the Jews to his rightful throne.

To me this is an acceptable prologue, because:

1. it is short and expository

2. it provides information necessary to understand what follows

3. it gives some sense of why the story is being told

Dietrich's prologue runs 8 pages in the finished book. It's a dramatic prologue, playing out the scene of the emperor Hadrian visiting the northern frontier of Britain and shocking his subordinates by ordering the building of a mighty wall to hold out the savages of Caledonia. We learn things about Rome, about its empire, how it's defended, and so on. But in terms of the story that follows, the prologue merely establishes that a big wall was built in northern Britain to keep out barbarians. Although presented in dramatic form, with characters interacting, its purpose is expository--providing information to the reader. I believe that most readers already know what and where Hadrian's Wall is. Those who don't could be informed in a sentence or two in chapter 1 without slowing down more knowledgeable readers.

In short, I think the prologue is redundant.

Next: the opening sentences. The prologue opens:

The northern wind blew across the ridge with a howl like an army of barbarians.

The metaphor pleased the emperor, who considered himself a scholar as well as a soldier.

This already bothered me. Technically, what the emperor has invented is a simile, not a metaphor. I wasn't sure whether Dietrich was making fun of Hadrian for "considering himself" a scholar when in fact he wasn't one (and yet I think Hadrian was no doubt a scholar--a genius whose reign is considered to be second only to that of Augustus in greatness and achievement), or whether Dietrich himself doesn't know the difference. (As a teenager I saw a talk on TV by Leonard Bernstein on the difference between metaphor and simile as an introduction to a performance of Beethoven's 5th Symphony, and it's always stuck with me.) With the intensive literary education that all upper-crust Romans got, it seems very unlikely that Hadrian would not know his basic figures of speech. Which would mean that if Dietrich were making fun of Hadrian, then he doesn't know Hadrian very well. Either way, it makes the opening problematic--at least for me.

If I were simply perusing the book in the library, without a recommendation, I would have put it back on the shelf at that point. But since I was reading it mainly for insight into Roman militaria, I read on.

My impression improved. Dietrich is very good at description, in some places more than others, and good at characterization. His depiction of the tribune Galba I thought was especially good and believable. Galba fills the role of love-interest for the beautiful Roman heroine, but with much more dimension and plausibility than the run-of-the-mill beefcake in romance novels. Other characterizations are also, over all, good.

But here I am at page 137, not having picked up the book for over a week. I know I never will. For me, there's not an urgent sense of purpose to the story. It's not clear why Dietrich found it important enough to tell. It's not even clear who the main character is--Valeria, the young Roman dish? Galba, the tough but frustrated soldier? At page 137 out of 347, I don't know. And I still haven't been shown too much military insight as yet.

Back to the shelves it goes.

I finished chapter 14 at 23 pages, and started making notes toward chapter 15.

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