Archive for history

Meet an Author You’ve Never Heard Of: Gillian Bradshaw

Posted in Imaginary Book Club with tags , , , , , , on December 19, 2007 by tigereye

I’ll read just about anything. In a spinner rack in my living room — which is the on-deck circle for books I plan to read next or soon — hard noir sits next to romantic comedy, sports nonfiction rests beside historical fiction, and a story of Iranian childhood backs up against a novel I bought three years ago and just found, about an epileptic rock star. I can be indiscriminate.

However, sometimes I realize that an author I’ve glommed onto like a barnacle is completely unknown outside my bookshelves. At my old bookstore, I’d try to coax customers into reading them, and their eyes would glaze over and drift toward Clive Cussler or James Patterson, away from the book I was practically waving in front of their faces. You can lead a customer to a book, but he might pick up a copy of Maxim instead. I mean, what’re you gonna do?

Write something about these authors, that’s what. I’m going to wave some books under your nose here. Don’t get distracted by the TV, or the cat, or the funny sound the washing machine is making. You might love these books. Or anyway, one of them might make somebody very happy, which is the best you can ask of a book.

Gillian Bradshaw

I first discovered Bradshaw by accident. I’m a sucker for everything written about or based on the Arthurian legends, and I was paging through a discount catalog that my bookstore received when I read a blurb about one of her books, Kingdom of Summer. It was a love story, it was at least partly about Arthur, and most importantly, it was two bucks for a hardcover first edition. (Man, do I miss that discount catalog.)

When my copy of Kingdom of Summer arrived, I learned it was actually the second book in a trilogy. I don’t know about you, but I can’t deal with a series that’s already underway. Maybe it’s the OCD. I don’t know. But this meant I couldn’t read my fascinating-looking two-dollar bargain book until I got my hands on the first and last of the trilogy.

They were out of print. I had an out-of-print search company track them down for me, at only moderately exorbitant prices, and the rest of the trilogy arrived on my doorstep in November, months after I’d ordered the first one, which was really the second one. Oh, well, you know what I meant.

They were wonderful.

This trilogy was so good that I read it in a week and then reread it immediately, which I almost never do. Very few individual books have bowled me over like this, let alone three in a series. The stories centered on the character of Gwalchmai — Sir Gawain to those of us who hadn’t researched the legend thoroughly — and were narrated by Gwalchmai himself in the first book, a servant in the second, and Guinevere in the final volume. The characters were more real to me in those books than in any other Arthurian-based story I’d ever read: Mary Stewart, Marion Zimmer Bradley, anyone else who had tried to tell this story. And the history was amazingly correct. This was the first Arthurian tale that felt as if it might have actually happened, and to real, fallible, flawed and interesting people.

So after rereading the trilogy (which I now do every other year or so), I set out to find anything else I could by Bradshaw. I’d learned, via author blurb on the back cover, that she’d been a student at the University of Michigan (classics, of course, which explained the depth of her research) and won a prize there for the first book in the trilogy, Hawk of May (the final volume was titled In Winter’s Shadow). Then I learned of the first barrier between me and anything else she’d written. Everything was out of print.

I chanced across one novel a year later, in a closeout book warehouse, of all places. I was juggling a stack of dusty mysteries when I saw Beacon of Alexandria, a story about a woman of the Roman Empire who disguises herself as a eunuch to study medicine.  I think I dropped everything else in my hands to get at this book. Again, not only was the research remarkable (several ancient cures and texts were cited during the story, which I found fascinating), the characters seemed utterly real, caught up in religious battles of the times as well as suffering the Huns’ and Goths’ invasion of the empire. So the trilogy wasn’t a fluke, I thought — this woman really is that good.

It’s difficult even now to get hold of Bradshaw’s books. She lives in England, so you can find some of them on, but I’ll warn you, the shipping right now amounts to just doubling the price of the hardback book. Most of her titles take a year or more to arrive in the U.S.; I’ve given up on many of them and asked a friend who does book searches to track them down for me. Bradshaw writes mostly historical fiction, like the books I listed, but she also writes very hard, cutting-edge science fiction that I find more difficult to read.

If you can scare up a Bradshaw book, in the library or at a book warehouse or online, give it a try. Her writing is magnificent, her stories and characters ring true, and you’ll be fascinated by the depth of her research into ancient cultures.

Below are some of her titles. If I’ve read them, I’ve included a brief description. There are also a few I’ve not read yet; I’m saving them like the last few Godiva candies in the box, to enjoy later.

Hawk of May — story of Gwalchmai, otherwise known as Sir Gawain, growing up and becoming one of Arthur’s knights. That’s the story, just as “girl and dog have adventure” is technically the story of The Wizard of Oz. There’s great evil to overcome in this book, and a very light touch of Christianity to the story. Bradshaw is a master at never preaching, although faith is a common theme in her novels.

Kingdom of Summer — Gwalchmai later on, as a knight, in a doomed love story.

In Winter’s Shadow — Guinevere tells the story of the fall of Arthur. It’s another doomed love story, beautiful in its sadness.

The Beacon at Alexandria — a young girl disguises herself to study medicine in Alexandria, near the end of the Roman empire. The history of medicine never interested me before this book, but the narrator describes cures and herbal remedies that I found fascinating. The empire’s social and governmental troubles play out in a way your Western Civ 101 classes never described so clearly.

Horses of Heaven — in one of my favorite love stories, a young woman sent to be queen of a culture she doesn’t understand must marry a barbaric king in a political arrangement. How and with whom she finally falls in love is epic. Set in ancient Persia.

Island of Ghosts — the leader of the Sarmatian people, defeated by Romans, guards against intrigue in his new culture. The research in this novel is probably her most impressive, as the Sarmatians really existed but their culture had no written history. Plots and roadblocks abound in this story. It’s another favorite.

Wolf Hunt — legend of a French knight who could turn himself into a wolf, told at more length and with more fascinating characters. The end is a nail-biter.

Cleopatra’s Heir — if the Queen had had a son, he was a sickly young man who would be at the mercy of all Rome, and in this novel, he is.

Render Unto Caesar — a young Greek man has to challenge the prejudices of Roman-born citizens of the empire to receive justice when his father is murdered. One of my favorite characters here is a former gladiator who befriends and helps the narrator on his quest.

The Sand-Reckoner — novelization of the life and genius of Archimedes, with some love and some intrigue. Like any genius, Archimedes fascinates.

The following are more historical novels by Bradshaw that I’ve not yet read: The Bearkeeper’s Daughter, Alchemy of Fire, Imperial Purple, and Dark North, her latest.

Science fiction by Bradshaw: Bloodwood, The Somers Treatment, Elixir of Youth, and The Wrong Reflection.