As 2020 and all of its dystopic qualities slowly turn into a distant memory, it’s probably time to counterbalance the increasing promise of a vaccine-enabled, normal life by recommending a few historical fiction books which can be savoured by grimdark fans throughout 2021. I’m not sure you’ll find ‘grimdark historical’ listed as a book category on Amazon, but it is my favourite genre and each of the following six titles left a lasting impression.
As always, the required grimdark ingredients of ‘violent or bleak subject matter and a dystopian setting’ are included in each of these stories, along with what I deem to be the other crucial elements of a fine read: a formidable protagonist, a nemesis (or nemeses) from hell, impossible odds and, where possible, a historical clusterf**k setting of epic proportions.
Sharpe’s Tiger by Bernard Cornwell
It’s hard not to root for an underdog, and I’m not sure you’ll get many better underdogs than Cornwell’s Richard Sharpe. The illegitimate spawn of a whore, Sharpey is forced into a guttersnipe childhood and a life of thieving and murder before he enlists. This prequel finds him a young conscript in India, the victim of his hateful sergeant Obadiah Hakeswill. Hakeswill lands Sharpey in a bit of trouble so that he is court martialled and served with punishment consisting of a fatal flogging of 2000 lashes. After a hair-curling 200 lashes and well on his way to a miserable death, Sharpey is miraculously saved by the intervention of (none other than) the Duke of Wellington, who needs an expendable soldier for an impossible mission which may topple Britain’s unassailable Indian enemy: the Tipoo of Seringapatam.
If you think that things are already looking bleak for Sharpey, he’s yet to take on countless other dangers which include the Tippoo himself, a ruler who delights in watching his pet elephants publicly mash his captured enemies into a pulp. Although this number is the first read in the lengthy Sharpe series, it was written after Cornwell penned the popular Peninsular war instalments that mainly take place in Portugal. The writing is inch perfect and not a word is wasted in this stirring romp filled with impossible odds. I cannot think of a better structured novel, this is tight, neat work by a master craftsman who needs no introduction.
Read Sharpe’s Tiger by Bernard Cornwell
Captain Alatriste by Arturo Pérez-Reverte
I’m not sure that any protagonist has ever held such a legendary and mythical stature as Diego Alatriste y Tenorio. In truth the veteran Spanish soldier Alatriste is no captain because he cannot afford an officer commission: it’s his fellow soldiers who nicknamed him ‘the captain’ when he was once forced to fill in for a slain officer of that rank in the middle of a raging battle. Despite his lack of titles, Alatriste projects an aura of quiet authority amongst the Spanish tercios, for none of the words he utters are ever idle and he’s also deadly with a sword.
Yet beneath his menacing exterior lies a deep loyalty to his comrades, especially when he promises his dying friend Lope Balboa that he’ll raise Lope’s son back in Madrid. Alatriste is as good as his word, practically becoming foster father to a young Íñigo Balboa, through whose eyes the story of Alatriste is told. Pérez-Reverte’s never-ending sentences are highly evocative in the way they describe the grit and decadence of early 17th century Madrid, capital of an Empire which is on the downward slide. When not fighting in the hell of Flanders, Spain’s soldiers are forced to hire out their blades for a few coppers on the street corners of Madrid where they eke out a miserable existence. This is the setting of Alatriste’s first adventure when he falls afoul of the highly perilous and sinister Tribunal of the Holy Inquisition, when he refuses to kill two English travellers. This book’s an awesome thriller which popularised the long-dead swashbuckler genre and imbued it with a gritty reality. It’s also got a few equally excellent sequels which have been translated into English.
Read Captain Alatriste by Arturo Pérez-Reverte
The Religion by Tim Willocks
This author is certainly the best writer listed so far, whose prose is both sensuous and savage. His protagonist is Matthias Tannhauser, a Saxon that was raised as a child by Ottoman Turks, who developed him into an outstanding Janissary (which is essentially the equivalent of a sixteenth century killing machine with a few other dazzling skills – like cooking – also thrown in). In this outing, Tannhauser has long left the (Janissary) ‘brotherhood of the spoon’ behind, having taken up the lucrative career of an arms dealer instead.
Desperate for his skills is the lady Carla, a disgraced Maltese countess residing in Sicily, whose bastard son is lost on the island of Malta. Tannhauser accepts the unenviable task of finding the boy, a decision which is more than a little crazy when you consider that the whole might of the Ottoman empire is sailing towards the little island to destroy the Knights who live there. The Great Siege of Malta is but a day away from kicking off, which will swiftly render the island the bloody mosh pit of a titanic, clash of Super Bowl proportions between Islam and Christendom.
I think this novel contains the best descriptions of the awful siege ever written in both fiction and non-fiction, since Willocks surgically describes the carnage and the lesser-known horrific consequences of the clash which probably eclipse most Grimdark writings (except that these events actually happened). It’s also a marvel to read how the freethinking (i.e. atheist), peerless killer Matthias is forced to survive both zealot knights and perilous Ottomans long enough to find the boy, during one of the worst sieges of all time which will have life-altering consequences for all those involved in it.
PS the sequel to this novel ‘The Twelve Children Of Paris’ will melt your face off, Willocks’ writing is from another planet.
Read The Religion by Tim Willocks
Q by Luther Blissett
Gert from the Well is a man on the run in this intelligent, sprawling romp by the anonymous quintet of academics from Bologna. Subversive undertones are prevalent throughout the novel which takes place following the Protestant reformation and the German peasant revolts. Gert was formerly a member of the irreverent Anabaptists (who hate other Protestants almost as badly as Catholics), formerly led by the slain, radical theologian Thomas Müntzer – he of the cry ‘ommnia sunt communia’ (everything is common).
Hot on Gert’s heels is Qoèlet (Q for short), a spy of the recently restored Catholic power, who is bent on seeking out all of Muntzer’s followers to have them all executed. Along the way Gert is forced to change his name countless times, also finding himself caught up in the siege of Münster as the story unfolds for thirty years across Germany and Italy. A cat and mouse game recounted in the first person, it’s a pioneering novel which expands the traditional bounds of historical fiction and transports the reader to places less known in the usual Anglo-Saxon historical accounts. The sequel ‘Altai’ (written by Wu Ming) is also highly recommended.
Read Q by Luther Blissett
The Savage Tales of Solomon Kane by Robert E Howard
No doubt everyone’s heard of Conan the Barbarian, yet few know of Robert E Howard’s other creation, the dour, wandering Puritan vigilante Solomon Kane, on an endless mission to set the Elizabethan world he inhabits to rights. Kane is as ascetic as he is lethal, armed with a brace of flintlock pistols and a blade as he fights Arab slave traders, Barbary pirates, gangs of brigands, vampires, shadowy ghost riders, magical severed hands and any other illicit force of evil he finds in his path. The movie with James Purefoy playing Kane met with mixed reviews, however the stories remain high on pulp fiction fun and originality, as well as some long-forgotten Grimdark inspiration.
Read The Savage Tales of Solomon Kane by Robert E Howard
The Whale Road by Robert Low
Low burst onto the scene with this dazzling debut in which a young Viking, Orm the Bear-Slayer, must grow up in a hostile and fast-shifting world. The tang of sea salt can be tasted on every evocative word as Orm and his band take up a quest on both sea and land to find the hidden treasure hoard of Attila the Hun. As expected, there’s gallows humour aplenty to go with the coarse swagger of Orm’s band. Their life aboard their Viking ship is also grittily and convincingly realised, to the point that you may at times feel seasick.
Which is not to mention the unexpected twists and fantastical ending which will leave you stunned. Low’s Achilles’ heel remains the infinite number of names that he throws at the reader with little introduction (he’s not one to spoon-feed anyone) but in this first outing the constant travels of Orm’s party means that you quickly get across who’s who in the band, especially since a fair few are lost along the way…
Read our review of The Whale Road.