The Name of the Rose, by Umberto Eco
My random historical spree kicked off with perhaps the most famous of them all. Eco’s heady and intense novel of a chain of murders at Melk Abbey. Rather self-indulgent at times, but I’ve been accused of worse myself. Blistering use of semiotics, theological studies, and the general state of the Catholic church circa 1327. In fact, though I know little of those times, Eco offered some gentle learning throughout, with a some good old-fashioned blood-and-guts killings to boot. Far too clever for its own good.
Dissolution, by C.J. Sansom
Continuing the monk-action was C.J. Sansom’s Shardlake series. A much lighter read after the Eco, this follows a hunchback lawyer into the inner sanctum of a monastery in southern England, around the time of the Dissolution, when Henry 8 was looking for an unusual solution to a break-up. Sticks to the modern crime formula, with enough of a mystery to keep that page turning. Elegant prose, very good lead character with lots of depth, lots of dodgy monks, a good slice of history – what more can you want? I’ll definitely pick up the rest of the series.
Q, by Luther Blissett
No, not the footballer, but the Italian intellectual and anarchistic collective, Luther Blissett. Fucking amazing book. Slaps down any novel you wish to give the moniker ‘gritty’. This is a full on, turn up the volume, medieval (well, early modern) gore-fest, all in the shape of one of the greatest socialist upheavals, that of the Reformation. It follows an anonymous figure through the turbulent times, the Münster Rebellion, the Battle of Frankenhausen etc., all the time being tracked / screwed over by Q, a Catholic spy. Puts a heavy socialist slant on things. Contemporary and stylish prose, which I know will piss off those hoping for authentic ye olde speak, but they can get over themselves. It jumps back and forward through time, uses extracts of letters, very jazzy structure. This is politics and sex on a grand scale, but don’t read if you’re a Tory.
Future reads: The Brief History of the Dead, by Kevin Brockmeier, 54 by Wu Ming.