The Lost World, by Arthur Conan Doyle

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s contribution to literature is so well-known as to require little introduction, yet it’s difficult to judge which of his works is the more influential. While Sherlock Holmes is certainly enjoying a popular period (when hasn’t it?), the number of adaptations of the Sherlock Holmes stories could probably be outstripped by the number of novels, films, TV shows and other media which have been inspired by The Lost World – although we must of course give due credit to Jules Verne.

The Lost World is essentially an adventure story, written engagingly, with compelling characters and plenty of cliff-hangers to keep the reader hooked and wondering what misadventure will strike next or what brilliant plan the characters will devise. No doubt this is what ensured its success at the time of publication, and succeed it did; The Lost World launched Professor Challenger as a much-beloved character of Conan Doyle, a character as bizarre and distinctive as Holmes himself. The Professor recruits a small band of explorers (including an adventure-thirsty journalist, sceptical rival academic, and a game hunter) to journey to the ‘lost world’, an isolated plateau deep in South America. What the band finds there is well-known to all of us, but besides the dinosaur inhabitants, the group also encounter a tribe of primitive humans, and a society of ‘ape-men’. This introduces the tricky subject of race. Although the objective of the Professor’s quest was to find proof of the survival of ancient beasts, when engulfed in a war between the apes and the primitives the group has no qualms about destroying the ape-men entirely. This seems to run contrary to the scientists’ creed. Perhaps even more intriguingly, Professor Challenger is described as being very alike to the king of the ape men, almost a twin. It is difficult to divine what Conan Doyle intended to say with this – the human race is not so different from the ‘missing link’, the ape-men? And yet must destroy them, brothers though they may be? It’s entirely possible that Conan Doyle is throwing out ideas, arguments and challenges (look to his aptly named character) to the society he was writing for, and to seek perfection in one theme presented in the novel might be folly.

The Lost World’s cultural permeation is such that it is easy to miss reading it, purely by mistake; there are probably a few books about which you think ‘I must have read that,’ without being sure. If The Lost World is one of them, why not make it your next book choice? It may even leave you wondering if dinosaurs are still alive today…

Mistress of Rome, by Kate Quinn

MistressofRomeIt’s time to explore the don’t-judge-a-book-by-its-cover mantra a little bit more. I hesitated to review this novel, as I think it is important that a reader should choose to read what they enjoy, and I am sure that there are many people out there who would enjoy this novel and find it sufficiently complex for a holiday read. However, while it may be more complex than several romance novels, it makes no pretence to a great deal of sophistication. The history is admittedly accurate, but remains a prop, suggestive of a dressing-up box. The main character, Thea, has a few points of interest, notably her past as the sole survivor of a massacre/mass suicide pact, but the writing falls short of making her ‘real’. Her foil, her previous mistress and rival in love, Lepida, is no more than a caricature, and is the real low-point of this novel. For the story to have any real meaning there should be more life in their rivalry, more tension, and more potential. Instead, Lepida exists merely to make Thea’s life a misery, and has no greater role than to be a plot device and somebody for Thea to triumph over in the end.

I would like to repeat that this book would be perfectly enjoyable for readers who prefer an easy read; but I wish to use this opportunity now to confront the topic of book covers, genre, and audience. Historical fiction is not the only genre which suffers in terms of book covers, but it is a case in point. Female-orientated books will as a rule have emblazoned upon them a generic picture of a woman, frequently cut off at the neck (ironic in some cases; i.e. The Other Boleyn Girl) – presumably so the reader can imagine the character’s features themselves (or, to be less generous, so that the publication process is made easier and the image doesn’t have to actually match the character description!) Male-orientated books will show an armoured man, often mid-shout, or they will show various weaponry arranged upon a suitable background. Much as I would try to avoid judging a book by its cover, these things do indicate the type of book you are about to read. Quinn’s book not only has a feminine title (albeit one which alone, I would hope would not put off a male readership), but coupled with a cliché cover, which attempts grittiness by including a smattering of blood, it clearly indicates that this is a novel which will not require too much effort.

Is there a way to avoid pigeon-holing historical fiction? Yes – by having more abstract titles, which ideally remain snappy. Yes – by having cover designs which are more conceptual, less standardised. One example could be the current publications of Robert Harris’s books. (I’ve reviewed these already in this blog, but here is a suitable place to praise their publication design.) Their titles are snappy yet gender-neutral. The covers are bold, striking, and gender-neutral, either using a symbol, or silhouette. Another example is Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall. It is a shame that for a book to succeed with both men and women a wholly gender-neutral approach must be made – but it is a truth.

Like all fiction, historical fiction has been heavily affected by the rise of the e-book market. Let’s focus on just one aspect for now – the title (covers have less impact in the world of e-books). While titles have always been important for the browsing of bookshelves, they have more of a role online; this is the age of the search-box, after all. As a result, authors are increasingly have to title their novels with key words. This is why we have series after series entitled ‘the “something” of Rome’, or some such historical period or buzz word. And this is one reason why historical fiction is sometimes accused of all being the same; it is a fate forced upon it not only by the publishers but by its own internet-bound readership.

As for Mistress of Rome, I think one could safely say that it is a ‘female’ novel, not designed to challenge the reader at all (and by this I do not mean that it is aimed at women because it is unchallenging). It’s suitable if your favourite literature is romance and you want a change from modern romances, or those set in the ubiquitous Tudor period, but I might advise you to go against our mantra for the time-being, and judge it by its cover.