Tuesday, August 11, 2015

Tom Harper

Tom Harper has written a dozen thrillers, including The Orpheus Descent, Lost Temple, and Secrets of the Dead. He grew up in Germany, Belgium, and America, and studied history at Oxford University. His first novel was a runner-up for the CWA Debut Dagger Award.

Harper's latest novel is Zodiac Station.

Last month I asked the author about what he was reading. His reply:
I’ve been reading Maurice Druon’s The Iron King, the first book in his Accursed Kings series about the Capetian monarchs of France in the fourteenth century. I only needed one reason to pick it up: the cover quote from George RR Martin that said, ‘This is the original Game of Thrones’.

I’m a big fan of Game of Thrones, both the TV series and the books. As lots of people have commented, it’s really historical fiction about history that didn’t happen (with dragons) – with the advantage that as it’s made up, you live it forwards, rather than through the distorting lens of known historical outcomes. That gives it a shock value you don’t get with real history: it reminds you that at the time, no-one knew who was going to survive, let alone win. I never really felt I understood the Wars of the Roses until I read A Game of Thrones. In 1485, the battle of Bosworth must have been as surprising to contemporaries as the Red Wedding is to us now.

Druon’s books share some of that shock-factor, because unless you’re a bigtime medieval French history buff, the history is pretty much unknown (in fact, I did an essay on it at university as part of my history degree, and I still don’t remember how it turns out). The Iron King is more economical than Game of Thrones, with fewer characters and a much more focussed storyline (also: no dragons). The historical detail is used sparingly, but to vivid effect. Druon writes in a detached, almost ironic style, which makes the sex and violence all the more shocking when it comes. He has some dry character insights, and an elegant turn of phrase. Contrary to what you might expect from a member of the notoriously uptight Academie Francaise, the story cracks along, unfolding its crazed sequence of jealousy, revenge, torture, black magic, sex and death (sound familiar?) Even when it seems to linger on some unimportant scene, and you think the author’s taken his eye off the ball, a quick aside always tells you these inconsequential events will have devastating effects later. And so you read on.

It’s gripping stuff. At 330 pages, it’s also better for public transport and less likely to give you carpal tunnel syndrome than any of the Game of Thrones books. But it’s also fascinating to read it knowing its influence on Martin, trying to guess exactly where those influences took root. The queen who flirts with incest; the princesses shaved and shamed for their sexual misdeeds; the king’s small council riven with factions: they all have their analogues in King’s Landing. When one of Druon’s characters contemplates the untimely fates that can befall kings – ‘there were, too, such things as hunting accidents, lances that broke accidentally at tournaments, and horses that came down’ – you can’t help thinking that Westeros’ King Robert Baratheon was killed in a hunting accident, and his assassin then died skewered by a broken lance in the joust. Spotting the parallels, and wondering, is part of the fun.

But ultimately, literary parlour games only take you so far. The Iron King is a fantastic book in its own right, and deserves to be read by any fan of great historical fiction. I finished it last night, and I ordered the next two books in the series this morning.
Visit Tom Harper's website.

My Book, The Movie: Zodiac Station.

The Page 69 Test: Zodiac Station.

--Marshal Zeringue