novels set in besieged cities.
April 4, 2018 9:44 PM   Subscribe

I'm having some trouble plotting a book and I want to see how other authors have done it. I need books that have characters interacting inside a siege or other enclosure in interesting ways, while the faceless enemy is outside.

I'm plotting a novel. The story - historical fiction - is about characters inside a city during a famous siege.

The enemy is outside the gates -- if they get in it will be death, or slavery, for all or most of the characters. (Although at least one of them has reason to think he'll survive ok, but it's a secret reason.) But this is a story about the people inside, and their relationships and secrets and loyalties and reckonings coming into focus and crisis. In order to structure the novel's plot and character arcs I've got to have fleshed out antagonists and conflicts among the characters. And I'm having trouble figuring out how to make their personal conflicts not seem -- trivial? - against the background of the existential threat outside. Like - just as an example - can the cruel and shortsighted commanding officer be an interesting antagonist to the young recruit when outside the walls is a giant army literally trying to get in and disembowel both of them?

I know there must be a million examples out there in literature of books with interesting character interactions inside, while the "real threat" is outside, but I am having trouble thinking of them. I want to find them and read how other authors have structured their character relationships in these settings. Help me make a list?
posted by fingersandtoes to Writing & Language (30 answers total) 11 users marked this as a favorite
Mila 18 is about the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising.
posted by J.K. Seazer at 9:57 PM on April 4, 2018

Boris is a children's book about the Siege of Leningrad during World War II.
posted by mogget at 10:12 PM on April 4, 2018

Catherynne Valente's Deathless is a psychedelic retelling of a Russian folk tale ultimately focused around the Siege of Leningrad and does a lot of very interesting and weird stuff with these themes.
posted by WidgetAlley at 10:12 PM on April 4, 2018 [1 favorite]

David Benioff's City of Thieves also takes place during the Siege of Leningrad
posted by kbuxton at 10:14 PM on April 4, 2018 [3 favorites]

Another Leningrad one: Paullina Simons, The Bronze Horseman.
posted by Catseye at 10:21 PM on April 4, 2018 [2 favorites]

Barbara Hambly's _Darwath Trilogy_ is a swords/sorcery fantasy from the early 80s where a civilization of humans is under attack from a vastly superior enemy, and to a large extent the whole thing takes place during a seige, though at times the walls are real and others they're made of fear. There's a lot of different ways the protagonists and the other characters cope with the situation.

It may be a little outside your mien if you're looking for strictly historically accurate but it's a ripping good yarn, well told, and really does play up the siege mentality of its scenarios.
posted by seanmpuckett at 10:28 PM on April 4, 2018 [2 favorites]

The latter half of Russel Hoban's Pilgermann is basically this, with the siege of Antioch during the Crusades as the backdrop.
posted by i_am_joe's_spleen at 10:31 PM on April 4, 2018

For a different approach, you might look at Under the Dome by Stephen King.
posted by drinkmaildave at 10:46 PM on April 4, 2018

The Siege by Arturo Pérez-Reverte. It takes place during the siege of Cádiz.
posted by Vesihiisi at 11:20 PM on April 4, 2018

The Siege by Helen Dunmore.
posted by shibori at 11:33 PM on April 4, 2018

Metafilter unfavorite Cory Doctorow's novella After the Seige is science fiction, but based on a grandparent's experience of the WWII Siege of Leningrad. He makes it available to read for free on his old website. It is one of his earlier works, which personally I find I enjoyed more than anything he has written recently. (Doctorow's introduction also mentions a good nonfiction account, 900 Days, that I am interested in but still haven't gotten around to reading.)
posted by seasparrow at 11:37 PM on April 4, 2018 [1 favorite]

Part of Alexander Chee's Queen of the Night takes place during the siege of Paris during the Franco-Prussian war.
posted by Violet Hour at 11:44 PM on April 4, 2018

Hm, maybe All of the Light we Cannot See by Anthony Doerr? Part of the story is about the seige of St Malo during WWII.
posted by janepanic at 11:58 PM on April 4, 2018 [4 favorites]

In addition to novels, it might be worth it to skim a relevant or comparable diary for realistic details that occasionally evoke minor human conflicts, emotions, and concerns. In A Lady's Diary of the Siege of Lucknow by G. Harris, for example, the existential threat is palpable on every page, but you can read between the lines and see a lot of things going on: jealousy that some people have more comfortable quarters, some exchange of letters to get something done about how the dead are being handled, theft of some meat left in the kitchen for dinner, or the author getting upset over a missing memento and scolding a child about it before it's found. In the circumstances she describes, at least, people look for small comforts, and life goes on:
October 30 -- We have been besieged four months to-day. This morning an 18-pounder came through our unfortunate room again, which we flattered ourselves was so safe, and which we had made so comfortable. It broke the panel of the door, and knocked the whole of the barricade down, upsetting everything. My dressing-table was sent flying through the door, and if the shot had come a little earlier, my head would have gone with it. The box where Emily usually sits to nurse baby was smashed flat: fortunately she was spending the day with Mrs. Bryden, or she would probably have been in the room. There was a sale to-day of Colonel Halford's property, and James bought some plated dishes a great bargain: they will be very useful to us if we ever set up house again in India.
Day by Day at Lucknow by Adelaide Case and The Siege of Lucknow: A Diary by Julia, Lady Inglis both cover the same siege in similar detail.
posted by Wobbuffet at 12:20 AM on April 5, 2018 [4 favorites]

Not a siege at all, but there's a similar existential threat with the impossibility of travel-- a plague and quarantine-- in Connie Willis's The Doomsday Book.
posted by zompist at 12:26 AM on April 5, 2018 [2 favorites]

Waiting for the Barbarians by JM Coetzee.
posted by rd45 at 12:37 AM on April 5, 2018

Ash: A Secret History by Mary Gentle is an amazing example of precisely what you describe; the siege constitutes the climactic quarter-ish of the novel, however, and you do really have to have the context of what's come before in terms of character development for it to work so powerfully. A long read, but an outstanding one.
posted by protorp at 12:48 AM on April 5, 2018 [4 favorites]

Jonathan Littell's The Kindly Ones is partially set in the Siege of Stalingrad.
Liana Badr's Eye of the Mirror is about the siege of the Tel al-Zaatar refugee camp.
Juan Goytisolo's State of Siege is about the Siege of Sarajevo.
Ismail Kadare's The Siege is about the siege of the Castle of Kruja (15th century)
posted by TheRaven at 1:07 AM on April 5, 2018

Like - just as an example - can the cruel and shortsighted commanding officer be an interesting antagonist to the young recruit when outside the walls is a giant army literally trying to get in and disembowel both of them?

Yeah, for sure they can ... if something can be at stake, emotionally or physically, or if the officer is obsessed with X and yet the recruit represents an idea that's the antithesis of the Y.

You know what works for me, is to come up with a situation that passes the David Mamet test:

posted by johngoren at 1:10 AM on April 5, 2018

Eclipse of the Crescent Moon. The second part of the novel details the Siege of Eger mostly from the perspective of the defenders. The book is from 1899 so it's a bit old fashioned, but it's still pretty good.
posted by kmt at 1:21 AM on April 5, 2018

Dan Fesperman's Small Boat of Great Sorrows, has its roots in, and follows on from the siege of Sarajevo. Very readable by someone who spent a lot of time in Balkans during the conflict.
posted by unearthed at 2:32 AM on April 5, 2018

The Siege of Krishnapur by J.G. Farrell is a novel of the Indian Rebellion of 1857, so an interesting companion to the diaries recommended by Wobbuffet.
posted by ALeaflikeStructure at 3:09 AM on April 5, 2018 [3 favorites]

The second book in the Justin Cronin zombie series has a plot line like this. Also not exactly analogous but close - the Diary of Anne Frank.
posted by Cocodrillo at 4:20 AM on April 5, 2018 [1 favorite]

Zlata's Diary is the diary of an 11-year-old girl during the siege of Sarajevo, and it does an amazing job of showing exactly how the trivialities of life do and do not continue in these circumstances.
posted by ChuraChura at 4:57 AM on April 5, 2018

If you want a really unusual take, Robbe-Grillet's 'In the Labyrinth' is set in a city with enemy troops incoming. It is a midcentury French avant-garde work, however, but it does evoke the contrast of these stresses.
posted by cobaltnine at 5:58 AM on April 5, 2018

"The White Guard" by Mikhail Bulgakov, which takes place in Kiev during the Ukrainian Civil War.
posted by Lazlo Hollyfeld at 6:42 AM on April 5, 2018

Mirabilis by Susann Cokal is set in the besieged medieval village of Villeneuve.
posted by carrioncomfort at 6:50 AM on April 5, 2018

The example relationship dynamic you described plays out very effectively in the play (and films) Journey’s End.
posted by Jellybean_Slybun at 6:50 AM on April 5, 2018

I don't think you should confine yourself to fiction—why not read accounts of sieges to see how people actually behave and what they actually care about? My first thought would be Harrison E. Salisbury's The 900 Days: The Siege Of Leningrad, but there are many such. I think you'll discover that people do in fact care intensely about the "little" events of their own lives, and the supposedly overwhelming fact of the siege fades into the background to some extent. Frankly, if I were reading a novel where everyone was obsessed with the Big Picture and ignoring their own little lives, I'd stop reading and figure the author didn't know anything about human nature.
posted by languagehat at 6:57 AM on April 5, 2018 [1 favorite]

Saramgo's 'The History of the Siege of Lisbon' has some passages that discuss what you are interested in. It's a good book, too, though maybe a little difficult in terms of how the narration is done.
posted by os tuberoes at 4:23 AM on April 6, 2018

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