When History Gets In the Way of Historical Fiction

The historical novel that I am currently reading is Pirates of the Levant by Spanish writer Arturo Perez-Reverte. This is the latest addition to a popular series by Perez-Reverte, following the adventures of Spanish soldier Captain Alatriste. I had read a favorable review of it in Publishers Weekly as well as heard good things about the writer through his readers.

I am currently more than halfway through the story. While I am enjoying it, one trait in particular has stood out to me; namely, the author’s penchant for throwing chunks of history at the reader. While he makes that more palatable by doing so through the first-person point-of-view of the sidekick character, I find the info dumps detracting, more than adding, to the story.

People who read historical fiction obviously are interested in history. However, the fact that the person is reading historical fiction instead of historical non-fiction means the reader, to me, is first and foremost looking for a good story. In Perez-Rervete’s delivery, I find that his history lessons, while adding to the historical aspect of the book, actually detract from the story itself. Halfway through the book I feel I have read more history than story. Very little has happened and the plot is sketchy at best. There is no clear-cut conflict which needs to be resolved by the end of the story. It is merely Alatriste and his sidekick going from spot to spot on the Barbary Coast, encountering different situations.

As a writer, what Perez-Reverte has taught me is to always be conscious of my devotion first to story and then to history second. While, in historical fiction, one is wedded to the other, I believe most readers want only the historical aspects that relate directly to the action taking place, not simply to the background of a region where the story is taking place. Also, such historical information should blend with the story and characters, becoming a part of them, not merely a backdrop.

Don’t get me wrong; I’m enjoying reading a successful writer whose work I’ve never before sampled. In doing so, it’s helped me realize the importance of putting fiction (story) before historical.

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