SO THERE I WAS back in July, minding my own business at a writers' event bringing together both Indie and traditionally published authors when my excellent friend and fellow speaker Helen Hollick drew me aside for a gentle little chat. She explained that she was organising an award to celebrate, recognise, and encourage the best of independently published historical fiction through the auspices of the Historical Novel Society of which we were both long-standing members.
Helen co-ordinates the online editorial reviews for Indie historical fiction, the best of which are awarded an 'Editor's Choice' accolade. Books receiving this accolade are automatically forwarded onto a longlist for the the award. Orna Ross, founder of The Alliance of Independent Authors had very generously offered a prize for the award winner and runner up and had agreed to read the longlist of selected novels and whittle them down to a final four. More details of how it works here
twisted my arm asked me I would read the final four and choose a winner and a runner up. Now, those of you who know the, kind, enthusiastic and generous Helen Hollick, also know she is a force to be reckoned with when she wants something and that her lovely nature is only one facet. She outdoes John Wayne for true grit and bloody minded determination when she wants to get something done.
Somehow I found myself agreeing to read the shortlist, and then wondering just what I'd let myself in for.
I soon discovered that what I had let myself in for were four wonderful meaty reads, all very different that whisked me away to other times and places with such skill and involvement that while reading them, I was lost to the here and now.
But how to choose a winner. Helen told me that I should take presentation into account because that's one of the steep learning curves for an Indie writer to face. You can't just write the words onto a PC and then let the publisher do the rest. You are own publisher, marketing director and Public relations person. To stand a chance in an overcrowded market your work has to be presented both inside and out in a thoroughly professional way.
All of the novels were of a high standard in this department. Some could have been tweaked, but truly they were only nitpicks.
I organised a score sheet with 5 marks for the cover and another 5 marks for the internal presentation. Then scores out of 10 for historical feel, characterisation, plot, language and pace. So, a total of 60 marks.
I am an avid reader and this is how I looked at these four novels. As a keen reader rather than an academic literary critic. What I wanted was something that absorbed me so completely that I couldn't put it down. I wanted the sustenance of a superb story that would transport me to another time, make me think, create wonderful paintings in my mind and keep me turning the pages until the last one, where I would feel sorry it was over but satisfied too, and most importantly for the author, make me want to dash out and buy everything else he or she had written. I love books. As a reader I don't care whether they are Indie or mainstream. Just give me the story already and the words to make me live with your characters.
All of the novels had some of this element and I loved reading them, but when it boiled down to it, there was one outright winner, even though the second place gave it a run for its money.
I must add the caveat that I am only one person and others may disagree with me. It does come down to what each individual reader enjoys too, but since I was the individual asked to judge the contest this year, this is my choice.
THE WINNER OF THE 2014 HISTORICAL NOVEL SOCIETY INDIE AWARD GOES TO:
VIRGINIA COX for THE SUBTLEST SOUL.
The novel is set in Italy at the time of the Borgias and is based in part of events in Machiavelli's Prince. Indeed, Machiavelli has a cameo role in the novel as does Leonardo da Vinci. It tells the story of Matteo de Fermo, a young man struggling to survive into the violent world of the closing years of 15th century Italy.
Matteo's story is told with pace, panache and many intriguing twists and turns that are complex without ever being convoluted. The history felt real and right. It was an immersive experience. It was one of those books where I needed to know what happened next and kept having to go back and pick at it - you know like when you have that opened bar of chocolate in the fridge! How does he get out of this scrape? Oh my goodness, what's he doing now! I don't believe what just happened! The characterisation was stunning. It was a fairly long book at 450 pages, but they flew past and although it's a pity the author's name isn't on the book's spine, the internal layout and font size made it the easiest on the eyes of all the shortlisted novels.
I was also a little bit frustrated when it ended - like eating that last piece of chocolate. I now need to go out and get another bar. I sincerely hope that Virginia Cox is writing a sequel, and I shall be waiting in line to buy it!
RUNNER UP: A GIFT FOR THE MAGUS by LINDA PROUD
Before anyone says that I must have a fan thing for Renaissance Italy - I don't! Honestly I don't! It's just that the winner and runner up happen by coincidence to be set in 15thC Italy with A Gift For The Magus beings set a little earlier than The Subtlest Soul.
This is the tale of the notorious Fra Filippo Lippi, an artistic friar of supreme talent and dubious morals. His mistress, a nun and the mother of his children, was the model he used for the Virgin Mary. I knew nothing of Lippi's paintings before I read A Gift for the Magus but by the end of the novel I was eager to go exploring and discover his work. I loved the humour in the novel and the scenes of everyday life that put me right there in the heart of Padua and Florence, in the household of the Medici, in nunnery, chapel and hovel. I learned a great deal about Renaissance art, and I came to be very fond of Fra Lippi, his eccentricities and human failings, and his genius.
SAMOA By ROBERT SCHAFFER
and THE JACOBITE'S APPRENTICE By DAVID EBSWORTH
were also very worthy shortlistees (mentioned here only as they enter my brain and not as 3rd and 4th, but as equals) I loved the Mitchener-esque scope of Samoa and some of the descriptive language was breathtaking.
I enjoyed the coloured maps and the illustrations too and found them very useful for getting around in the novel. The sense of history in The Jacobite's Apprentice was palpable and it was useful to have a glossary to refer to at the back. It's told in first person present tense which gives it a strong sense of the here and now too, even though the characters are magnificently of their time. The book was also very professionally produced.
All opinions are obviously my own but I hope readers will take a chance on these books and enjoy the stories they have to tell. Congratulations to all four authors, but especially to Virginia Cox.
And a thank you too to Helen Hollick for asking me to read the shortlist. I may have thought about running away at the outset, but at some point over the course of the conference I am going to hug her!