Tuesday, May 21, 2013

What Makes a Good Historical Novel by Ben Kane (guest post)

We are pleased to welcome Ben Kane to Historical Tapestry today as part of his blog tour for his book Spartacus: Rebellion. Ben is talking about a subject that is close to all of our hearts.... What Makes a Good Historical Novel.


I’ve been a fan of historical fiction for more than thirty years. I can’t remember the exact book that started my love of the genre, but Rosemary Sutcliff’s iconic novel, The Eagle of the Ninth, was certainly one of the first novels that pulled me into the past. Although I spent many years reading fantasy as well, I never gave up on historical fiction. Books that influenced me heavily as a boy include the afore mentioned The Eagle of the Ninth, Conan Doyle’s Sir Nigel and The White Company, Henry Treece’s Viking trilogy and Ronald Welch’s series about the stories of individual members of the same family throughout history. All of these books were able to create a vivid image of the past in my mind, and were full of (what I felt at the time) was realistic characters and events.

The years have gone by, and despite the fact that my day job is as a writer of historical fiction, it is still my reading genre of choice. I love a good read, and I still find myself drawn to books that immerse me ― totally ― in the past. A good example of a novel that has done that is Hawk Quest, by Robert Lyndon. I devoured this in late 2011, and would rate it as one of the best books ― of any genre ― that I have read in the last three to five years. Indeed, it’s one of the best five historical fiction novels that I have ever read.

Why is that? First of all, it’s about a period that fascinates me. Few of us choose to read books about time periods that do not rouse our interest. Secondly, the premise was fantastic. In Europe of the eleventh century, birds of prey, notably gyrfalcons, were worth immense sums of money – so much so that men were prepared to sail to Greenland to try and trap them in the wild. The thrust of the story in Hawk Quest is that a Norman knight, taken captive by the Seljuk Turks, has had a ransom price set at four gyrfalcons. A party of adventurers is sent to capture these birds from England (recently vanquished by the Normans). They must travel by sea to Iceland and Greenland, and thence to Scandinavia, Russia, Constantinople and Anatolia. An epic journey, to say the least, yet one that was historically undertaken if not the whole way by individual men, then in large stages. All across the sea and overland, with the most incredible obstacles in the way.

Of course a richly described stage is nothing without strong, believable characters to walk upon it. With confident strokes, Lyndon paints us five of these: Vallon, a troubled Frankish knight; Hero, a naïve and idealistic Sicilian scholar; Wayland, a wraithlike and haunted Englishman; Syth, a strong-willed young English girl and Raul, a tough, brutal mercenary. They are as disparate a group of people as one could hope to find in the pages of a book, yet they come alive within a few lines of arriving onto the stage. Their interactions were what turned the incredible idea of Hawk Quest into a great story. Vallon’s cynicism competes with Hero’s idealism; Wayland’s abilities and sensitivities stand in stark contrast to Raul’s earthiness and rough joie de vivre. This is a lesson that I’ve learned in writing: that a great idea/historical happening does not a novel make. There has to be a good story, and there have to be characters in whom the reader believes. Hawk Quest provided these in spades. I tore through its 650 pages+ in a matter of days. I enjoyed it hugely and really did not want it to finish. Towards the end, I found myself in the very rare position of counting the number of pages that were left, and dreading the moment when I reached the last one. In my mind, that’s the mark of a truly great book.

Tour Details

Link to Tour Schedule: http://hfvirtualbooktours.com/spartacusrebellionvirtualtour/
Twitter Hashtag: #SpartacusRebellionTour
Ben Kane's website
Ben Kane on Twitter
Ben Kane on Facebook

About the Books

About Spartacus: Rebellion

Publication Date: May 14, 2013
St. Martin's Press
Hardcover; 464p
ISBN-10: 1250012775

Spartacus has already done the impossible—not only has he escaped from slavery, he and his seconds have created a mighty slave army that has challenged Rome and defeated the armies of three praetors, two consuls, and one proconsul. On the plain of the River Po, in modern Northern Italy, Spartacus has defeated Gaius Cassius Longinus, proconsul and general of an army of two legions. Now the road home lies before them—to Thrace for Spartacus, and to Gaul for his seconds-in-command, Castus and Gannicus.

But storm clouds are gathering on the horizon. One of Spartacus's most powerful generals has defected, taking his men with him. Back in Rome, the immensely rich Marcus Licinius Crassus is gathering an unheard-of Army. The Senate has given Crassus an army made up of ten legions and the authority to do whatever it takes to end the slave rebellion once and for all.

Meanwhile, Spartacus wants to lead his men over the Alps and home, but his two seconds have a different plan. They want to march on Rome itself and bring the Republic to its knees. Rebellion has become war. War to the death.

Praise for Spartacus: Rebellion

"The author comes into his own during the numerous battle scenes when his burly prose highlights the pain, brutality and chaos of ancient combat. Kane's Spartacus is brave, vain, ruthless and sexy, a Superman for more savage times. The author is genuinely deserving of praise for taking on this mighty subject matter in such a bold and regularly entertaining fashion. Admirers of Kane's work to date will not be disappointed and there's every chance this latest instalment will attract plenty more." (Daily Express )

"Kane succeeds in drawing a convincing picture of how it might have been, which is what a good historical novel should do." (Historical Novel Society )

Praise for Spartacus: The Gladiator

Gritty, passionate and violent, this thrilling book is a real page-turner and a damn good read. It brings Spartacus - and ancient Rome - to vivid, colourful life (Steven Pressfield, bestselling author of Gates of Fire )

Ben Kane manages to bring a freshness to the saga ... Told with Kane's usual panache and historical knowledge, this book is highly recommended (Kathy Stevenson, Daily Mail )

Eyes are merciless, blows are wicked and screams are piercing, but this is a compulsive if relentless story, vividly recounted in muscular prose. Definitely one for the boys (Daily Telegraph, 4 stars )

If you want to become familiar with the lanista and the rudus, to know your scutum from your licium, then Kane's your man ... plenty of action (Independent )

There is much to enjoy in this saga of the downtrodden triumphing temporarily over their oppressors, and the portrait of Spartacus as charismatic leader is a vivid one (Sunday Times)

About the Author

Ben Kane was born in Kenya and raised there and in Ireland. He qualified as a veterinary surgeon from University College Dublin, and worked in Ireland and the UK for several years. After that he travelled the world extensively, indulging his passion for seeing the world and learning more about ancient history. Seven continents and more than 65 countries later, he decided to settle down, for a while at least.

While working in Northumberland in 2001/2, his love of ancient history was fuelled by visits to Hadrian's Wall. He naïvely decided to write bestselling Roman novels, a plan which came to fruition after several years of working full time at two jobs - being a vet and writing. Retrospectively, this was an unsurprising development, because since his childhood, Ben has been fascinated by Rome, and particularly, its armies. He now lives in North Somerset with his wife and family, where he has sensibly given up veterinary medicine to write full time.

To find out more about Ben and his books visit www.benkane.net.


  1. Ben, thanks for all the info on HAWK'S QUEST; I'll have to add it to my TBR mountain.

    And SPARTACUS: THE GLADIATOR looks like it is the predecessor to SPARTACUS: THE REBELLION? I'll be looking for both of those as well ;-)

    Best wishes on your blog tour!

  2. @Linda: Hawk Quest is a truly magnificent read. When you get to it, I hope that you enjoy it.
    Yes, the Gladiator comes before Rebellion. I hope you enjoy them too!
    Thanks for the good wishes - regards - Ben.

  3. The only bad thing about this blog post is that I now feel compelled to add these books to my TBR list--which is, ultimately, a good thing. :) They all sound great.

  4. @Kristina: sorry! ;-)