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Reading: Endless Crossovers

 

These two covers actually have fairly similar, understated designs.

Image sources: World Without End and Harlequin

I don’t read a great deal of historical fiction, novels that insert fictional characters and events around real historical ones. I don’t have anything against them, my preferences have just always revolved around fantasy or science fiction and those two genres cover most of the books I read (and the entertainment I consume in general). Something happened in the book I’m currently reading – World Without End by Ken Follett – that helped me see something of the appeal to historical fiction.

In it I reached a point where one of the characters (fictional) was attempting to catch up with the army of King Edward III (historical) as he rampaged across France in the 1340s. The invasion started to go badly, with the English cut off from any resupply or reinforcements and forced into retreating from enemy forces that severely outnumbered them, and it all started to feel very familiar, as if I already knew about these events. Then the army reached a place called Crécy and I realised that I had indeed been here before, in Harlequin by Bernard Cornwell.

The battle of Crécy was a significant one because the English were seemingly doomed, being poorly supplied, outnumbered, weary and demoralised. About the only thing they had in their favour was the location, being up a hill that gave them the advantage of higher ground and some opportunities for defence. However, the French force was so great that all they had to do was wait until everybody had gathered and then slaughter the British, including their king. That’s not what happened though.

The French nobles at the base of the hill started the fight early, slaughtering their own crossbowmen (who had been sent in without the shields essential to their protection) when they were routed by English longbows, then charged up a long, muddy slope through a hail of arrows. By the time the full force was gathered much of the initial force had been slaughtered, the hill was a mess of mud, blood and corpses and whole groups were leaving. Ultimately King Philip of France ordered his forces to retreat and the English were victorious.

 

This image dates back to 1410, which I think is the oldest image I've used on the blog. Click the image for a link to the source.

I already knew all of that from Harlequin, where archer Thomas of Hookton fights for the English with the other bowmen, so while I knew how the battle itself played out I had no idea how it would affect the two World Without End viewpoint characters who were involved, one fighting with the English knights and  the other tending to the wounded on the French side. Nothing significant happened that meant World Without End‘s account clashed with Harlequin‘s, so essentially the two unrelated novels can easily co-exist and there’s no reason why Thomas couldn’t have been there, caught up in his own story without it having any affect on what was happening in this new book.

It means that reading multiple pieces of fiction set around the same events can almost be like reading spin-offs or expanded universe content, where all these separate stories exist in the same world. That’s something that could almost never happen in pure fiction, reading one series only to have the characters unexpectedly caught up in events you read about in a wholly different series by a different, unconnected author.

So in that way I can see the appeal, as it would surely feel like every new book complements the others and enriches existing events, providing a level of endless connection that just isn’t available to pure fiction. I’m not about to abandon my preferred genres, but it does help me understand how certain family members can read book after book about the same kings and the same events without feeling like they’re just experiencing the exact same things again and again. Every book adds new characters, new peripheral events and the whole thing becomes that little bit more fleshed out.

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