To start off: I mostly avoid the more commercial fiction on steppe topics. I come with an inbuilt distrust of bestsellers, and when the subject is dear to me, I expect to be dismayed and upset. Right, that’s honest.
But I read William Napier. I’ll be terribly honest about him: I thought his trilogy an opportunity lost.
He’s an uneasy cross between action/adventure bestseller-style, and a fiction that I see as more ambitious, and that takes artistic licence such as removes him from the mainstream. He does weird things. Beyond what I’d do, although I defend him in my reviews (the ‘right to write’). He’s an old Yeats PhD and he can’t keep Yeats out of his fiction – or other 19thC poets, or Shakespeare. I understand this. It’s the language he talks in. If he excised that – the phrases spontaneous to his lips – then what’s he doing? Writing from a front, a censored front. Not from his self. – I just thought up that argument, on his behalf. I’m wary of fiction that… is self-limited, is from a part of the writer. “I can’t do this because action/adventure doesn’t let me. Maybe I’ll write another book freestyle.” In his trilogy William Napier oscillates between freestyle and conventional. Guess which I liked. I’ll live with him giving Attila quotes from William Blake, if that’s what the author needs to do to say what he has to say, spontaneously. If that’s how the words come to him, and sound to his ear true.
It’s radical, and again I’ll mention, my Tchingis doesn’t express himself in Percy Bysshe Shelley, much as I like the old poets. My narrator has been known to, because I do zoom out to an ‘I’ that’s me, now and then. But I’m not here to talk about my techniques, that’ll only get me into trouble.
I didn’t grow up on historical fiction. I grew up on speculative fiction and great books of the past. If that’s left me with a pref for the unconventional in hf, or an attitude of ‘rules? what rules?’ then, fine. Neither sf nor the greats are known for rules. Mine is, whatever works.
Napier’s other sin is against history and occurs in book Two. Two is the steppiest book, by far, thus guaranteed my fave. I defend his historical stretches, too:
“It draws on history before and after. I think he has drawn on Attila’s later distant cousin, Genghis – both for Attila’s life story, and for this grand conception of conquest east and west. These Huns can sing the Mongols’ origin legends, and the Turkic epic Manas. Of this I’m going to say, Napier widens history. He fits more history in. He has a time period, but he draws into that strands from before and after, because he wants to talk about historical issues – large ones. He wants to talk about the settled and the steppe, and to that end Attila, steppe spokesman, knows things he can’t have known, travels further than in any likelihood he did. As I say, this is fine by me, and makes for a fiction that comments on history.”
In Three he abandons both poets and ahistoricism. I hated Three. It was so average.
Even his style, I felt, lurched from cliché to originality, from ordinary to art. These books had the potential to cut loose from action/adventure, to contemplate history, with a prose he might have learnt from Yeats – and sell atrociously, no doubt. I regret them.
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Painting of Attila by Delacroix
My reviews on Goodreads:
Three Attila: The Judgement
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