There seem to be two main problems with books that claim to be ‘historical fiction.’ The first is, you’ll be pleased to know, simple: that of categorisation. What should be included? Why? Or, more specifically: how historical does historical fiction need to be? How fictional? Where’s the line, and exactly how far over it did Wilbur Smith ultimately go? It seems that ‘historical fiction’ has become something of a nebulous category, regardless of where it started, and so it can be difficult to determine what pieces of literature might rightfully belong to it.
The second problem (I hope you’re appreciating this breathtaking example of my organisational skills) seems to be that ‘historical fiction’ brings to mind – or, at least, to my mind – visions of elderly gentlemen, probably wearing spectacles, and not anything particularly extraordinary.
But that doesn’t have to be the case.
Historical fiction can be exciting. It can be groundbreaking. It can be the best thing you’ve read all week. Maybe it’s not always those things, and like every other genre there are good examples and there are poor examples, but the point here is that it can be. There are no rules against it.
John Wilcox’s historical fiction is a prime example of the good stuff. They focus primarily on British Imperial history, but they read like pure, undiluted adventure stories. They’re interesting, entertaining, clever, and fun, and they take the reader on a journey of discovery as they bring each period to vibrant life. More importantly, however, they never scrimp on the historical fact, ensuring that each novel, while undoubtedly fictional, has a strong foundation in real events. Rich with a winning combination of fast-paced action and quieter, reflective scenes, Wilcox’s novels go the whole nine yards, and then at least three more, at the double.
The Shangani Patrol is a particularly good installment in a series of particularly good books. The main character, Simon Fonthill, and his omnipresent best friend, Jenkins, return to Africa initially out of a somewhat misplaced desire to go on holiday – ‘somewhat misplaced’ since Simon and Jenkins are well-established trouble magnets – but wind up becoming involved in the escalating local conflict, and soon enough, Fonthill and his accompanying band of merry men (and women) are thoroughly immersed in the action.
Anyone familiar to the series will recognise the formula, as the same formula structures the entirety of the Fonthill series. It is not, however, tedious, because Wilcox’s application of the formula is, with each book, given fresh life through his considerable attention to detail, historical fact, and Wilcox’s intriguing characterisation.
Alice, in particular, is a favourite of mine. A childhood friend of Simon’s, she follows her dream to become a freelance reporter despite significant and constant disapproval, subsequently proves herself on a number of difficult campaigns, marries Simon, and continues to do exactly what she wants to. Their marriage is nothing less than a partnership, and although Simon frequently despairs at how readily Alice will wander into danger, he soon realises that his protests are falling on deaf ears.
Alice is something of an unusual character, given Wilcox’s chosen time period, but she is not unbelievable, and to read about a young, talented women finding her way in a world undoubtedly made for men, in a book that claims to be historical fiction, is certainly something I’m willing to support.
Wilcox deals with other stereotypes in a similar fashion. Fonthill and Jenkins are undoubtedly the heroes of the series, prevailing against terrible odds in equally terrible conditions, but they are not the all-powerful British soldiers one might expect, but, rather, ordinary, fallible men with both strengths and weaknesses. Fonthill is a gifted strategist and leader, but a mediocre shot and even worse brawler, for example, and Jenkins, in turn, is a crack shot and excellent horseman, but has a tendency to get badly lost, and isn’t particularly fond of large bodies of water. Heroes they might be, but gods they are not, and in characterising them thusly, Wilcox arguably brings greater believability to his novels.
To conclude: these books deal with historical events, but they do so in an entertaining, accessible, intelligent manner, and they’re well worth a read for anyone interested in the genre, but hoping to avoid a textbook full of names and dates.