Historical Musings #28: Battle scenes – love them or hate them?

It’s an unfortunate fact that war and conflict have played important roles in shaping the history of just about every country in the world. It’s not surprising, then, that they also have a big part to play in many historical fiction novels. From Viking invasions to medieval sieges to the trench warfare of World War I, it can be difficult to avoid battle scenes of one sort or another when reading books set in the past.

I wouldn’t necessarily complain about books containing too many battle scenes – obviously, as I’ve said, the impact of war throughout history is something which can’t and shouldn’t be ignored, and it would be hard to write about certain time periods without covering at least some of the military history of that period. However, I don’t always find battle scenes particularly interesting to read and often find myself becoming confused, no matter how hard I try to concentrate and follow what is happening. Of course, there are plenty of exceptions: I will sometimes comment in a review that “I even enjoyed the battles”, which is high praise from me! I remember being completely gripped by Sharon Penman’s portrayal of the battles of Barnet and Tewkesbury in The Sunne in Splendour – and while I much preferred the peace sections of War and Peace, I found that some of the most powerful and memorable moments occurred in the war chapters.

In general, though, it’s fair to say that I am not really a big fan of battle scenes, which is why I tend not to be drawn to authors like Bernard Cornwell or Conn Iggulden very often. It’s not just the battles themselves that I sometimes struggle to engage with – it’s everything else that goes with them: discussing military tactics, planning campaigns, learning to use weapons etc. Again, there are exceptions and some authors still succeed in holding my attention with these scenes, but I would usually prefer them to be just one aspect of a novel rather than the main focus.

Sword fighting is a different matter. I love a good fictional duel! Rafael Sabatini’s Scaramouche has some great duel scenes – and there’s one in The Game of Kings by Dorothy Dunnett which has to be one of the most tense and exciting scenes I’ve ever read, partly because by the time the scene appears in the novel we are so emotionally invested in the two participants that it would be impossible not to be on the edge of our seats. And actually, I think that is why, in terms of larger-scale combat scenes, some of them work for me and some don’t – it’s all down to the emotional connection. If I can be made to feel that I’m there on the battlefield with a character I already care about and want desperately to survive, then I’m probably going to enjoy reading that scene.

Then, of course, there are sea battles – but I think that’s a topic for another post!

How do you feel about battle scenes in historical fiction? Do you love them or hate them? Which authors do you think write the best battle scenes?


New to my historical fiction shelves this month:

* Widdershins by Helen Steadman – I can’t wait to read this new novel about the 1650 Newcastle witch trials.
* Glendower Country by Martha Rofheart – The kindle version was free on Amazon last week and as I’ve enjoyed some of Martha Rofheart’s other books I couldn’t resist this one, set in Wales. (Also published as Cry God for Glendower.)
* The Mermaid and Mrs Hancock by Imogen Hermes Gowar – This one sounds fascinating so I was pleased to receive a review copy from NetGalley, but the publication date is not until January 2018 so you’ll have to wait a while to hear my thoughts on it!
* Fire From Heaven by Mary Renault – I’ve been interested in reading Mary Renault’s Alexander the Great trilogy for a while and was lucky enough to find a copy of the first book in my favourite bookshop, Barter Books, yesterday.
* The Flower Reader by Elizabeth Loupas – Another one from Barter Books. I have read and loved two other books by Elizabeth Loupas, so I’m looking forward to reading this one.

Have you added any interesting historical fiction to your shelves lately?

26 thoughts on “Historical Musings #28: Battle scenes – love them or hate them?

  1. jessicabookworm says:

    While I love good battle in my film and television watching, I tend to shy away from them in books – mainly because I am not a fan of gore, which for some reason I find worse in books than films or TV. Clearly my imagination is too vivid!
    No new historical fictions on my bookshelf but I have just started reading The White Queen by Philippa Gregory 🙂

  2. Annie says:

    For me, I find it depends on two things: the conflict and the perspective. The conflict dictates whether I’m interested at all. For example, I’m more likely to read about World War I than Vietnam. The perspective is the more important factor. I loathe gods-eye views of battles that read like a historian laying out the order of battle. I prefer close third or first person perspectives of battles. I find they capture the reality of fighting better than the armchair general view.

    Like you, though, I usually prefer the “peace” to the “war” parts of a novel.

    • Helen says:

      Yes, I prefer to get close to the action in battle scenes – the god’s-eye view doesn’t usually work for me either, as there is less emotion involved and less sense of immediacy. You make a good point about the specific conflicts too. There are certainly some which interest me much more than others. Thanks for commenting!

  3. kaggsysbookishramblings says:

    If you’d asked me before today I would have said I really don’t like battle stuff. However, I’ve just read the first war section in War and Peace and it was absolutely gripping – maybe that’s just down to Tolstoy!

    • Helen says:

      I preferred the peace sections of War and Peace on the whole, but some of my favourite moments in the entire book were from the war chapters.

  4. Jane @ Beyond Eden Rock says:

    I can enjoy battle scenes when I’m following characters and their stories, or when I’m learning history, but I don’t enjoy the technicalities or the details. I’m doing fine with the first war chapters of ‘War and Peace’ but I’m not quite as engaged as I was with the chapters before.

  5. Carmen says:

    I don’t mind battle scenes; it’s not that I enjoy them, I just don’t mind. I’ve found that murder mysteries describe more gore and grotesque situations than do battles in books.

    I have recently added to my TBR, The Last Queen by C.W. Gortner and The Queen’s Vow: A Novel of Isabella of Castile by C.W. Gortner.

  6. Calmgrove says:

    I’m conflicted (no pun intended) about battle scenes in fiction. If it’s a male writer it usually smacks of war games with toy soldiers. The last book I remember featuring a vividly portrayed battle, full of confusion and ultimate pointlessness, was ‘Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell’ — and of course that was by a female writer.

    The historical book I bought recently that I’m looking forward to is ‘The Essex Serpent’. Again, a period novel not from the perspective of a male writer.

    • Helen says:

      That’s an interesting point – it does seem that male and female authors often approach battle scenes in different ways. I forgot about the battle in Jonathan Strange. I did enjoy that one!

      I’ll be interested to know what you think of The Essex Serpent. I read it a few weeks ago and was very impressed.

      • Calmgrove says:

        I’ll review The Essex Serpent — once I’ve finished it, of course — and let you know what I make of it.

        I’ve also started dipping into the Bronte siblings’ Angria and Gondal novels, curious to see what their young imaginations had come up with. As with the Jonathan Strange novel, a version of the Duke of Wellington appears, and it may be that some battles are featured — again, I’ll let you know what transpires as I delve deeper.

  7. elainethomp says:

    It depends on how the battle is written, of course. I love Dunnett’s duel, and the battle scenes later in the series. What I don’t love are books where plot and character advancement stop cold for a battle scene. or a planning the battle tactics scene, or training sequence or whatever. I need personal impact to make it interesting. I think that’s why Shaara’s Killer Angels worked when I read it quite a few years ago. It wasn’t just tactics it was the generals and men worrying, calculating, choosing with knowledge of what costs were going to be. It wasn’t at all like the Homeric Battle of the Ships which is just several chapters of ‘ and so-and-so slew whosis and his entrails fell out.”

    • Helen says:

      I completely agree – personal impact is very important to me where battle scenes are concerned. The tactics alone are not enough to hold my interest; I need there to be a human element as well. I haven’t read Killer Angels but it sounds as though Shaara’s battle scenes could be the sort that would work for me too.

  8. cirtnecce says:

    I am kind of ambivalent about Battle scenes! Most Conn Iggulden books I have come out confused, but I loved the battle scenes including the planning in his Conquer Series…not only could I follow them, but I could see the brilliance of Mongolian War tactics! Again, I do enjoy the whole war effort in War and Peace, but I did not follow the battle sequence much in Here Be Dragons! I think for me it really depends plot to plot!

    • Helen says:

      I have only read one Conn Iggulden book – the first in his Wars of the Roses series – and I didn’t enjoy the battle scenes in that one. The Conqueror series sounds better, so maybe I should give him another chance!

  9. Spunkyreads says:

    Super excited to check out some of your new historic fiction additions and I agree that it is difficult to follow war scenes. My imagination fails me sometimes

    • Helen says:

      I’m looking forward to reading all of my new books! And yes, I find it hard to imagine some of those battle scenes too. It takes a talented author to bring them to life for me.

  10. Karen K. says:

    Not a fan of battle scenes, or war books in general (though I’m fascinated by the war at home, or how war affects civilians). In general, my eyes tend to glaze over during any kind of extended action scene — maybe I just have difficulty imagining it as I’m reading. I love a good action sequence in TV and movies but it’s harder on the page.

    • Helen says:

      I often find my eyes glazing over during action scenes too, unless they are exceptionally well written. I agree, though, that the effects of war at home and on civilian life are usually much more interesting to read about.

  11. Yvonne says:

    Also being a reader of historical fiction, it’s hard to escape battle scenes – especially when my favourite periods in history include the Wars of the Roses, the English Civil War, the Napoleonic Wars, and World Wars I and II. I don’t mind battle scenes, but hate the long, drawn out, god’s eye view descriptions. I much prefer to be in the moment with my character. As I’ve grown older my interest in military strategy, tactics and techniques has also grown. I love reading how a large man of war engages in battle, to be in the cockpit with a Spitfire pilot, how troops were deloyed and why at Waterloo and other battles. And I agree, there’s is nothing better than a well-written sword fight!

    Recent additions to my book shelf: Forward the Baggage by Arthur Eaglestone (Napoleonic War), May 1812 by M.M. Bennetts (Napoleonic War), Crimson and Bone by Marina Fiorato (Victorian England and Florence), Airborne by Robert Radcliffe (World War II), Beyond the Wild River by Sarah Maine (late 19th century Canada) and The Fatal Tree by Jake Arnott (18th century London).

    Hope you enjoy all your new additions.

    • Helen says:

      Yes, it’s difficult to avoid them, so even though they aren’t usually my favourite part of a novel I don’t mind them as much as I used to and I do my best to understand and enjoy them!

      Your new books sound interesting. I also have a copy of Crimson and Bone which I’m hoping to read soon – and I’m curious about The Fatal Tree too.

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