post-baroque cycle reading
February 9, 2006 5:38 PM   Subscribe

I've read everything by Neal Stephenson (and other cyberpunk authors) and most recently finished the baroque cycle. I am looking for recommendations for interesting historical fiction that has that same sort of feel--convoluted, anachronistic, sprawling, adventuresome, but not too adolescent. I need to leave science fiction for a while and need some direction. Thank you!
posted by craniac to Writing & Language (48 answers total) 10 users marked this as a favorite
I'm going to recommend historical nonfiction that "reads like fiction" instead--I hope you don't mind. I think you'll be pleased by--

Edward Gibbon--The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire
William H. Prescott--The History of the Conquest of Mexico; The History of the Conquest of Peru
Francis Parkman--France and England in North America

The above authors all wrote before the 20th century. As far as contemporary authors--recently, Fred Anderson's Crucible of War struck me as readable in the way that you found Stephenson to be readable.

And, finally, some fiction, just so I answer the question as stated: try William T. Vollmann's Argall, or Europe Central.
posted by Prospero at 5:45 PM on February 9, 2006

Umberto Eco--Baudolino and The Name of the Rose

Medieval goodness.
posted by fatllama at 5:51 PM on February 9, 2006 [1 favorite]

Q by Luther Blisset should be up your street.
posted by bonaldi at 6:01 PM on February 9, 2006

Try Killer Angels but Michael Shaara. It's a fascinating read bout the battle of Gettysbug in the American Civil War. An amazing read, but not as long as the Baroque cycle. I did a book report on it in 8th grade.
posted by bkudria at 6:05 PM on February 9, 2006

Susanna Clarke's Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell is an obvious choice. You might also like Iain Pears' An Instance of the Fingerpost which isn't anachronistic, but set slap-bang in the era of the Baroque Cycle.
posted by holgate at 6:07 PM on February 9, 2006

err, "by Michael Shaara". Must...use...preview! Cannot...resist!
posted by bkudria at 6:09 PM on February 9, 2006

Mason & Dixon by Thomas Pynchon.
posted by A dead Quaker at 6:09 PM on February 9, 2006

Umberto Eco's The island of the day before
posted by dhruva at 6:15 PM on February 9, 2006 [1 favorite]

Just a note regarding bkudria's suggestion:

Killer Angels served as the basis for the historical movie Gettysburg, starring Martin Sheen... and Jeff *freaking* Daniels, directly before he went on to do Dumb & Dumber with Jim Carrey!

Talk about genre shift.
posted by The Confessor at 6:21 PM on February 9, 2006

Robert Graves' Claudius Novels if you haven't read them. The Sharpe series and the Warlord Chronicles by Bernard Cornwell are great, although not quite as convoluted or anachronistic...

I second Jonathan Strange & Mister Norrell, which was fantastic. You could also try The Prestige by Christopher Priest - an amazing book.
posted by gemmy at 6:33 PM on February 9, 2006

Try Tim Powers - Declare, Last Call, The Anubis Gates, and The Stress of Her Regard are all good bets, weaving substantial amounts of research and historical fact in with the fantastical elements.
posted by Wolfdog at 6:40 PM on February 9, 2006 [1 favorite]

Mark Helprin's "A Soldier of the Great War" and "Memoir from Antproof Case" are richly written fictional autobiographies of older men who lived remarkable lives.

He is an outstanding writer. Just like the Baroque Cycle, these books are vast and sprawling -- plus his prose is intoxicating.
posted by i love cheese at 6:45 PM on February 9, 2006

1610, A Sundial in a Grave, Mary Gentle. Neither vast nor sprawling, but I think you'll like it.
posted by Leon at 7:09 PM on February 9, 2006

I haven't read them, but from what I've seen, William T. Vollmann's Seven Dreams books [several dreams still pending] are about as convoluted, sprawling, and non-adolescent as it gets.

I loved Kevin Baker's novels of old New York, Dreamland and Paradise Alley, and I'm looking forward to Strivers Row, which just came out.

Seconding The Name of the Rose. I have to reread that soon. Great book.

The Confessor, speaking of Shaara-related cinematic trivia, did you know he wrote For Love of the Game, a baseball novel which became a Kevin Costner movie?
posted by staggernation at 7:10 PM on February 9, 2006

I'll third both Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell as well as the Name of the Rose
posted by poppo at 7:21 PM on February 9, 2006

Patricia Finney's Elizabethan spy thrillers might be your thing (Firedrake's Eye, Unicorn's Blood, Gloriana's Torch); see also Michael Moorcock's Gloriana (a very bizarre take on Spenser's The Faerie Queene) and Keith Roberts' alternate history, Pavane.

T. C. Boyle's historical fiction often goes down somewhat odd paths--Water Music, for example.

Iain Pears' An Instance of the Fingerpost is one of those novels that people either really like or really loathe.
posted by thomas j wise at 7:24 PM on February 9, 2006

I'm going to suggest Carlos Ruiz Zafon's Shadow of the Wind--Eco-ish literary detective conspiracy romance in 1950s Barcelona.
posted by Jeanne at 7:26 PM on February 9, 2006

I know you said no scifi, but I love Harry Turtledove. He writes a lot of alternative history stuff. I'm sure you'd like it as his books are epic and have lots of characters. And also you get the nice cameos of famous historical figures in the context of some parallel universe.
posted by CrazyJoel at 7:28 PM on February 9, 2006

I second Pynchon's Mason & Dixon. I find it very similar in tone and style to the Baroque Cycle. (Or rather vice versa, since Pynchon's work is older.)
posted by MsMolly at 7:47 PM on February 9, 2006

Kage Baker's Mendoza books are pretty cool. Time-travel to historical eras with plenty of futuristic conspiracy as well.
posted by Rubber Soul at 8:04 PM on February 9, 2006

Wow, what a great list!

Metafilter: What collaborative filtering should have been, but isn't.

I have read Name of the Rose and a little Helprin, and made the terrible mistake of reading Killer Angels shortly after moving from Kentucky to Utah. Bad timing, that. I appreciate the non-fiction references as well. I remember Stephenson saying that SF readers eventually become history geeks, and I can see the truth in that. Thanks!!!!
posted by craniac at 8:23 PM on February 9, 2006

Perhaps too obvious a suggestion, but Gibson/Sterling's "The Difference Engine" fits your bill.
posted by ook at 8:34 PM on February 9, 2006

you could just re-read the baroque cycle. I'm on my second reading of system of the world right now, and it just gets better the second time through.

I second (third? fourth?) name of the rose, and I've heard very good things about foucault's pendulum as well - last time i tried to read it, i got distracted and moved on to something else. it's on my pile of "read this soon" books though.
posted by chrisege at 8:46 PM on February 9, 2006

I can't think of anything more perfect for your needs than Stanley Kim Robinson's The Years of Rice and Salt.
posted by Falconetti at 9:20 PM on February 9, 2006 [1 favorite]

Patrick O'Brian's Aubrey/Maturin saga. Dorothy Dunnett's Lymond and Niccolo books. Vikram Seth's awesome A Suitable Boy.

Oh, and Tolstoy's War and Peace is pretty good, too.
posted by rdc at 9:37 PM on February 9, 2006 [1 favorite]

Second Rice 'n' Salt — I was gonna post it. Don't be dissuaded by KSR's usual stuff; this is in no way sci-fi.
posted by rob511 at 9:38 PM on February 9, 2006

The Gold Bug Variations

Second The Anubis Gates
posted by Hildago at 9:39 PM on February 9, 2006

I'll fifth or sixth or whatever Eco; Stephenson gets a lot of flack for his expository digressions ("Well, as you know, in 1547... ") but that's actually what I like about his writing, and you get that in spades with Eco.
posted by Alvy Ampersand at 9:45 PM on February 9, 2006

Second on Dorothy Dunnett's Lymond Chronicles.
posted by ottereroticist at 9:58 PM on February 9, 2006 [1 favorite]

I'm surprised nobody mentioned Eco's Foucault's Pendulum. My favorite by him, and very much what craniac's looking for, I think. And massive thumbs up for Helprin's work from me, as well.
posted by stavrosthewonderchicken at 10:13 PM on February 9, 2006

Whoops. I see someone did. Bad skimming, sorry.
posted by stavrosthewonderchicken at 10:14 PM on February 9, 2006

I'll second (and even amplify) rdc's recommendation of War and Peace. Tolstoy obviously has a somewhat different style from Neal Stephenson, but it is suitably vast, sprawling, and historical, and it's just an utterly delicious book. It is like Stephenson's stuff in that it never feels like you're working through a long book: it's just a really good read that keeps going long enough for you to really get into it.

(I'll also third or fourth or whateverth the Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell recommendation. Since you're looking to get away from science fiction, I don't know if you want to read fantasy either, but it would be a real shame to miss this one.)
posted by moss at 10:18 PM on February 9, 2006

Arturo Perez-Reverte writes historical art crime novels that come across as classic literature. The Flanders Panel was a good one. I believe Cardoso (lord love him) had something against him, which would make Perez worth looking into. Foucault's Pendulum, while difficult to get into, was worth the effort.
posted by ashbury at 10:23 PM on February 9, 2006

I can't think of anything more perfect for your needs than Stanley Kim Robinson's The Years of Rice and Salt.

I really, really like KSR. RGB Mars, great stuff, even the digressions into technocratic details and the occasionally atrocious science. The 3-Californias, great or even better.

But I got partway through YoRaS, got bored, and read something else. I found it sort of boringly predictable preachiness for the most part, though of course it could have picked up after that. Second only to Robert Sawyer in "Books that might have been written by an annoying Alan Alda character."

Now I think of it, you might try the 3-Californias books (The Wild Shore, The Gold Coast, and Pacific Edge). The basic idea is that they present three different futures for the same place and, to some extent, the same people -- post-nuclear-war (but a weird one), high-tech big-money corporate, and deep green commie. They're all definitely SF at the same time, though, but if you read them together they might fit the bill.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 10:35 PM on February 9, 2006

Lempriere's Dictionary is also a wonderful read. I have always enjoyed reading Mr. Norfolk's work.
posted by Dagobert at 11:33 PM on February 9, 2006

You might like some of Haruki Murakami's books - in particular "The Wind Up Bird Chronicles". This is a little like Stephenson's "Cryptonomicon" in its structure - both books feature a contemporary and WW2 plot interweaved cleverly.
posted by rongorongo at 1:11 AM on February 10, 2006

Cloud Atlas
posted by Dag Maggot at 1:29 AM on February 10, 2006

Got to second Q by Luther Blissett, which has a similar sprawling feel to the the Baroque Cycle.

It covers 30 years, and the action travels across much of Europe, as the characters witness and get involved in various movements/incidents resulting from the 16th century Protestant reformation.
posted by drill_here_fore_seismics at 2:13 AM on February 10, 2006

Seconding Perez-Reverte (Club Dumas) and Powers (Annubis Gates)

Christopher Priest's The Prestige has been reprinted and is a worthy read. Hard to explain, but it involves drawingroom magicians, rivalries, and a splash of Tesla.
posted by robocop is bleeding at 5:16 AM on February 10, 2006

Oh, a trip by the bookshelf also revealed The Grand Complication by Allen Kurzweil.
posted by robocop is bleeding at 5:21 AM on February 10, 2006

Any Pynchon novel, especially V. and Gravity's Rainbow.
posted by rabbitsnake at 6:47 AM on February 10, 2006

Two books I thought were Stephenson-esque in style and scope were The Angle Quickest for Flight and A Scattering of Jades.
posted by steef at 7:02 AM on February 10, 2006

I'll third Dorothy Dunnett - I preferred her Lymond Chronicles, but the other historical series, House of Niccolo, was also very good (it's the second series, and you should read it second). Both series definitely fit the "convulted, sprawling, adventuresome, not adolescent" criteria. They're very dense, and you either have to be willing to look up the historical references or just assume that you can understand the story without knowing every political nuance from the 16th century (which you can). There's actually a pair of companion novels written that explain all the inside political stuff.

When I finished the last of the House of Niccolo series, I nearly cried - I'm not sure I'll ever find something so entertaining and well-written again. Best. Characters. Ever.
posted by bibbit at 7:07 AM on February 10, 2006

Anthony Powell's A Dance To the Music of Time fits historical (just - it starts in the first half of the 20th C and runs through to the 60s), spawling (12 books), and convoluted.

It's an amazing piece of work - characters come in and out all through the series, and you pretty much get to see the main protagonists' whole lives played out. Not very adventuresome maybe.

Don't be put off by there being 12 books. You can read it in bits, and the individual novels are pretty short.
posted by crocomancer at 7:30 AM on February 10, 2006

I second Water Music; it has some of the same picaresque tone as the Baroque Cycle. JS&MR was great, too, and appropriately sprawling. Am I the only one who found Dunnett mostly dull, though? The characters were not as interesting as Stephenson's, and characterization is not his strong suit.
posted by amber_dale at 7:53 AM on February 10, 2006

David Liss has written three novels that are historical fiction and actually cover some of the same time period as the Baroque Cycle. My favorite is The Coffee Trader. However his other two are also both good. They are A Conspiracy of Paper, and A Spectacle of Corruption.
posted by bove at 8:38 AM on February 10, 2006

Surprised that nobody mentioned James Clavell. The first 3 of his "Asian Saga" books, Shogun, Tai-Pan, and Gai-Jin are all like crack and sprawl with the best of them. I'm pretty fascinated by culture clashes and the European/Asian mix in the 1600's-1800's range is pretty fascinating. If you like Shogun, or would rather stick with straight history that reads like fiction, check out Samurai William by Giles Milton, which tells the "true" history of Shogun's main character.

And if you don't mind plots a little bit too adolescent and a little too close to romance (but hey, there are no busty ladies or muscled men on the covers!) check out Wilbur Smith's books. I'm not proud, but they sure read like crack, plus plenty of pirates!
posted by lips at 12:07 PM on February 10, 2006

I, like CrazyJoel, am also a fan of Turtledove. Guns of the South (alternate reality - what if the South had AK-47's during the Civil War) is good.

As are the first couple of books in the Great War series (alternate history - what if the South had won the Civil War [not a sequal to Guns of the South - just a what if the South had won]) (the 2nd wasn't as good as the first, the third was pretty crappy).
posted by PurplePorpoise at 2:10 PM on February 10, 2006

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