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Why the past sells
The Emperor Jahangir is dead. In Lahore, his chief wife Mehrunnissa is plotting to retain power. She is determined that the dimwitted but biddable Prince Sheriyar - her son-in-law - should inherit the throne. In Gwalior, Prince Khusrau has emerged from imprisonment and darkness after decades. He has gathered a force of 10,000 supporters and is marching towards Agra.
In faraway Burhanpur, Prince Khurram has to find a way to reach Agra undetected. He hides himself in a coffin and approaches his destination as part of a funeral cortege.
Hindustan is in turmoil, as three halfbrothers fight for the richest crown in the world. Like their ancestors before them, these princes live by an unyielding code of taktya, takhta - throne or coffin. And this time the stakes are ludicrously high: an empire that extends from Kandahar to Bengal, a treasury heaped with jewels and power that would please a god.
This dramatic face off is the climax of the just-released The Tainted Throne (Hachette), Alex Rutherford's fourth book about Moghul emperors who ruled large swathes of India in the 16th and 17th century. In this new novel he tells the incredible story of Emperor Jahangir, perhaps the most powerful man on earth, who is becoming increasingly dependent on opium and his devious wife, Mehrunnisa. Packed with battles and betrayals, glowing rubies and bloodied swords, the book amply demonstrates why historical fiction has been galloping onto bestseller lists over the last few years.
After all, if a regular novel were so stuffed with plotting princes, casual murders and glittering treasures, it would be dismissed as utterly unrealistic. But given that the Mughals - like the Romans, the Tudors, the Bourbons - were truly over-the-top types, their stories are permitted all manner of excesses.
Moreover, although many characters and incidents are familiar, the clever novelist infuses them with new insight. Take, for example, Hilary Mantel's devastating description, in Bring Up the Bodies, about the beheading of the vivacious Anne Boleyn: "There is a groan, one single sound from the whole crowd. Then a silence, and into that silence, a sharp sigh or a sound like a whistle through a keyhole: the body exsanguinates, and its flat little presence becomes a puddle of gore. "
Or Philippa Gregory's cruel description of Anne Boleyn's husband-murderer, Henry VIII in The Boleyn Inheritance. "A fat old man, a vulgar old man, like a drunk sheep farmer on market day. His face is terribly bloated, like a great round dish of dripping, his hair is thinning and grey, he is monstrously fat, and he has an old injury on his leg that makes him so lame that he rolls his walk like a sailor. "
Little wonder then that such moments and monsters from the past have become favourites with both publishers and readers. The Moghul series has proved an unexpected hit in India. Conn Iggulden's five-book blockbuster on Genghis Khan and Kublai Khan has made those remote figures into familiar household names. Philippa Gregory's delightfully accessible books - seen through the eyes of various Tudor and Plantagenet queens and ladies-in-waiting-are big in lending libraries from Mumbai to Manchester. While Bernard Cornwell is confident that readers will follow the story of King Alfred of the 9th century, through seven or eight novels.
Readers apart, however, historical fiction is also enjoying newfound respectability. For the longest time, this 'gimcrack genre' was viewed as a skeleton of facts draped in elaborate lies. Historians who dared to stray into the realm of popular fiction were said to be 'slumming'. While the tremulous tales of soon-to-be-beddedor-beheaded English queens were dismissed as 'chick-lit with wimples'.
After all, how could mere novelists know what happened to the Princes in the Tower when generations of historians had failed to solve the disappearance of Prince Edward and Prince Richard in 1483. Or to describe the boyhood of Julius Caesar, about which such few records survive. Or attempt to imagine how a young boy, abandoned on the harsh Mongolian plain, survived to become the great Genghis Khan and to weld together a nation across Asia. Or even to imagine the feelings of 15-year-old Katherine Howard while she waited dutifully in bed for her constipated, pus-smelling, wife-killing husband.
The 'mishmash of factoids and fiction' was regarded with such scorn that writer Leon Garfield once observed that historical fiction was "something of an embarrassment, like an elderly relative, to be tolerated out of a sense of duty and reluctantly supported in a condition of genteel poverty".
That, though, is no longer the case. In 2009, Hilary Mantel's Wolf Hall - the story of Thomas Cromwell's astounding rise to power in the dangerous court of Henry VIII - won the Man Booker Prize and suddenly genre was accorded literary status. Almost simultaneously, the Walter Scott Prize for historical fiction was instituted with a plump purse of 25, 000 pounds. And before you could say "Chop off his head", these once-derided books were even the subjects of academic theses and seminars. So widespread is this renaissance that The Guardian organised a historical fiction workshop to be conducted by Sarah Dunant, the queen of the Italian historical thriller.
Nevertheless, writers of historical fiction still face a considerable challenge. For more than plodding though research materials they have to imagine a world that is 'credible and whole'. If their characters are travelling from Gwalior to Delhi in 1450 CE, they have to know where they would stay on the way, what they would eat for breakfast and what they would yell if bandits attacked them.
One small slip, and the writer will end up like the dispensable sidekick in those bloodthirsty days - dead meat.
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