The Inquisition, the Jews of Andalus, and Columbus: 'By Fire By Water' review

Historical novels vie with crime and romance novels for the titles of most derided and most widely read literature. They've had a bad rap ever since the 19th century, when the swashbucklers of Alexandre Dumas looked pretty wooden next to Dickens, and cartoonish in comparison to the depth of Victor Hugo or George Eliot. There have always been marvelous exceptions, such as Mary Renault's amazing novels of ancient Greece, but for much of the last century, historical fiction was seen as pure escapism, barely distinguishable from bodice-ripping romance.

Since the publication of "The Name of the Rose," in 1980, the genre has gained gradual legitimacy. Much snobbishness still abounds, however, over the commercial success of historical fiction and the perceived tendency of genre writers to simplify bygone eras. Still, though Umberto Eco's book has sold 10 million copies, it undoubtedly takes some brains to appreciate it, and no one could accuse Eco of writing simplistic books. Literary highbrows came down to mix with the hoi polloi long enough to award last year's Man Booker Prize, the most notable British book award, to Hilary Mantel's "Wolf Hall," a wonderful evocation not just of Tudor England but of the contrast between a steely self-made man and a bunch of spoiled, weak upper-class brats. The legitimacy of the genre progresses this year with the deification in both the United Kingdom and the United States of David Mitchell, whose novel about Japan in 1799, "The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet," is a candidate for the Booker and who, even before this latest work, has routinely been referred to as a genius by reviewers.

Read the rest of this post on my blog The Man of Twists and Turns.

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