Monthly Archives: February 2009

David Blixt, The Master of Verona

You’ve all read Romeo and Juliet. But did you ever wonder just how that famous feud between the Capulets and the Montagues got started? Blixt did, and his answer to that question is just one of the threads that makes up his spectacular debut novel, The Master of Verona

It’s not Shakespeare who is at the centre of this book, however. It is Dante Alighieri, or Alaghieri, and especially his eldest son Pietro through whom we witness the desperate battles between the Guelfs and Ghibellines and the slow-motion tragedy that is the beginning of Verona’s fall. Pietro is an enormously engaging and sympathetic hero whom we follow as he strives to come out behind the shadow of his famous father and make his own way in the world.

And what a world it is. It isn’t fair to compare any author to another, and Blixt’s contribution is wholly original, but I couldn’t help be reminded of the work of Dorothy Dunnett when I read this novel. Like Dunnett’s, Blixt’s characters are larger than life — in a good way — and his battles have real consequences. No one escapes unscathed, either in body or in mind. Astrologers, diviners, illegitimate children, mysterious foreigners, and shrewd teenage girls crowd the page. It is a wild and completely satisfying ride.

Eleanor of Aquitaine and the Second Crusade

Amy Kelly’s engaging and evocative biography of Eleanor of Aquitaine, Eleanor of Aquitaine and the Four Kings says about Eleanor’s participation in the Second Crusade, citing Michaud’s History of the Crusades as her source:

With the queen came “many other ladies of quality,” Sybille , Countess of Flanders, whose half brother was King of Jerusalem, Mamille of Roucy, Florine of Bourgogne, Torqueri of Bouillon, Faydide of Toulouse, and scores of others whom the chroniclers could not afford the parchment to enumerate.

Do a google search for a few of those names. Go ahead, I’ll wait. You’ll find that scores of other writers, both in published non-fiction and fiction, as well as web-based sources have taken those words as gospel truth and have published that list of names almost word for word — Allison Weir, Norman Cantor, Antonia Fraser, etc.
Problem. Not one name on that list actually accompanied Eleanor to the Holy Land — and as it happens, Michaud mentions none of them. Let’s take a look at them one by one:

  • Sybille of Anjou, countess of Flanders: She did eventually make it to the Holy Land, travelling with her husband on his third pilgrimage there, at which point she refused to return home and spent the rest of her days as a nun in the convent of Bethany. But during the Second Crusade she stayed in Flanders to run the county, leaving her husband to go to Jerusalem alone.
  • Mamille of Roucy: Died around 1122.  The Second Crusade began in 1147
  • Florine of Bourgogne: There is a Florine of Bourgogne who was married to Prince Sweyn of Denmark and apparently they both went on the First Crusade where both of them died in 1097.  One source suggests she remarried and died in the Holy Land in 1102.
  • Faydide of Toulouse:  She, at first, seemed the most promising because her husband, Alfonso Jordan of Toulouse did go on the Second Crusade.  But it seems Faydide died long enough before the crusade that Alfonso was able to marry and then separate from Ermengard of Narbonne before he left for the east.
  • Torqueri of Bouillon:  Not only can I find no evidence of anyone of this name, “Torqueri” does not even seem to be a woman’s name.  Or a man’s name.

So, frankly, shame on all these authors for simply accepting Kelly’s words as fact, especially the ones who claim to be writing non-fiction. But the lie has been repeated so many times, it has become a commonplace. Faced with that, what does the historical novelist do? Work the myth into the story — or change it?

Judging Books by their Covers, part 2

Last April I wrote a post on what makes a good cover, and I mentioned that I especially liked the cover for Laurie Groff’s The Monsters of Templeton

Turns out I was not the only one. My friend Tamara alerted me to a fascinating article called 30 Books Worth Buying for their Covers Alone, and I was delighted to see that Ms Groff’s book made the cut. The other 29 covers are worth checking out as well. I own Heaney’s Beowulf and Cooley’s The Archivist and have been drawn to many of the others. It is interesting to note that, with the eexception of the Heaney, the Cooley, and the cover for Murakami’s South of the Border, West of the Sun, all the books on the list use illustrations rather than photographs for their cover art. Which was kind of the point of my original post.


Why do you buy?

Julianne Douglas is seeking some help with market research, and I’d like to know the answer too. She wants to know what makes people choose to buy the historical novels that they buy.  Which factor plays the biggest role in causing you to part with your dollars to buy a historical novel written by a new author?

  • Is it a pretty cover and convincing author’s blurbs?
  • Is it the presence of a “marquee name”, that is, a famous historical figure as its subject?
  • Is it an intriguing setting or time period?
  • Or is it the promise of a gripping plot?

Hop on over to her blog and answer the poll question on the top right hand side. And if you can’t decide (or even if you can) and want to comment about these or other reasons for buying a book, I’d love to read your comments, either here or over there.

I’m posting this here because I know I have many non-novelists but fervent readers who read this blog. I would love to learn your views.



It’s not just your imagination. Everyone really is on Facebook these days.
Including Virgil.

h/t Dr. B.

This gives me a chance to say some things about Facebook that I’ve been thinking of writing down somewhere since I got back from Barcelona about my “friending” views when it comes to students. Basically, I’m happy to friend most of those who ask, including my students. I regard my Facebook page as pretty much a public space. I have zero confidence that what I write on Facebook will remain private, whatever privacy settings I may use, and I advise all of you to regard it the same way (and that goes for PMs — I recently found a PM in my message box that was sent from one friend to someone I don’t know. Not to me — but I received it. Be warned.).

That being said, think hard first about whether you *really* want to friend me, especially if you are currently taking or planning to take a class of mine, especially if it is a college class. Because I will notice if you unfriend me. And I do look at my friends’ profiles.

And fear not, students, I will not be putting you in an awkward position by attempting to friend you. I think it is unethical for a professor to friend someone who is still a student at her institution. What is a student supposed to do, refuse the professor’s request? I don’t think you should friend anyone who isn’t in a position to turn the request down if he or she wants.