The Clan of Novels Set Far in the Past

Jean M. Auel

Every novel is a work of imagination, but sometimes the imagination can be more striking than usual. That’s certainly the case with fiction set way back in time.

By “way back in time” I don’t mean several centuries. I’m talking about novels written in our modern age that are set millennia ago, perhaps MANY millennia. When a story is that far in the past, there are usually few or no documents for an author to draw on during the research phase of writing — and life was VERY different then. So, more imaginative leaping is needed by the novelist.

I’m currently reading Jean M. Auel’s impressive prehistoric saga The Clan of the Cave Bear, which takes place more than 25,000 years ago — a time when the Neanderthal race was reaching the end of the line and Cro-Magnon people were becoming ascendant. Auel did plenty of research, but obviously had to make up and theorize about many things relating to her characters’ thoughts, day-to-day existence, etc. I have no idea how accurate it all is, but The Clan of the Cave Bear is well done, compelling, and often absolutely riveting. It helps that human emotions never really change — quite recognizable in the 1980 novel is the infighting among some of the Neanderthals, the tension between them and adopted Cro-Magnon orphan girl Ayla, the interactions between women and men, the interactions between younger and older characters, and more.

Auel’s book was followed by five sequels in the “Earth’s Children” series.

Another novel set early in human evolution is Jack London’s 1907 book Before Adam, although that setting is in a dream by a modern character tapping into distant ancestral memories. Still, ancient people and their lives are the focus of what is one of London’s lesser — but still interesting — books.

Set not as far back in history but still pretty far is Anita Diamant’s 1997 novel The Red Tent, which unfolds not quite 4,000 years ago in the time of Jacob and Leah. Told from the vantage point of their daughter Dinah, the book obviously relies on the Old Testament (fact, fiction, or both?) for some of its source material even as Diamant uses plenty of imagination to envision the life of the historically little-documented Dinah.

Then there’s Anthony Burgess’ The Kingdom of the Wicked, set around the time of Christianity’s birth 2,000 years ago. This 1985 novel relies a lot on the New Testament (fact, fiction, or both?), but, again, the author makes up plenty of things to help advance the story.

Taking place during roughly the same period, in the early days of the Roman Empire, are the events in Robert Graves’ 1934 novel I, Claudius (perhaps best known for the 1970s TV series). The book is yet another example of partly fictionalized history, as is often the case in works with way-back settings.

Novels you like that were written in modern times yet set long ago?

My literary-trivia book is described and can be purchased here: Fascinating Facts About Famous Fiction Authors and the Greatest Novels of All Time.

In addition to this weekly blog, I write the 2003-started/award-winning “Montclairvoyant” topical-humor column for Baristanet.com. The latest weekly piece — about my town’s elementary schools reopening, a new local LGBTQ organization, and local reaction to another horrific murder of a Black citizen by a white cop — is here.

101 thoughts on “The Clan of Novels Set Far in the Past

  1. I swear History can be as scary as Maths. The subject though very cute for some was a monster to me… how do I forget the nightmares I had before the examination when innumerable events , dates, personalities all got together to crack my head but now I seriously advice my children to read historical novels to know the past better and with delight. Under the powerful impact of literature History takes a different hue . The apparently dull subject consisting of stultifying details hard to memorise and remember, leaves an imprint in the mind of the reader when studied in the light facts true stories described in novels. Of the very few that I read, Anne Frank impressed me the most. What we cannot feel from textbooks are easily fulfilled through novels.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you, Kakoli! Very well said! Reading history, whether via nonfiction or novels, is indeed totally worth the time even as it can be dull on occasion — and often depressing. But often inspiring, too. It’s an important education that offers a template for not repeating the same mistakes in the present and future. A template not often followed, but sometimes… 😦 🙂

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  2. Hi Dave, I loved the Earth Children series up until The Mammoth Hunters. After that, for me, it became to much of a love story endlessly fraught with unrealistic problems, but I agree the research and depictions are very good. The Clan of the Cave Bear was the best book in the series for me. One of my writing friends, Jacqui Murray, also writes about this same time period. Her novels are also very well researched and enjoyable to read.

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    • Thank you, Robbie! Good to know; I’d like to continue with the series, but perhaps won’t read all six books. Interesting how some series get better as they go along, while others “peak” with the first installment. And great that Jacqui Murray writes about the same long-ago time period; that can’t be easy!

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  3. Fascinating!
    I suppose the bible is one of the few references from that far back… but cave men. Wow, some cave drawings, archeological info and the scientific minds are all there is to go on.
    I can’t think of a book of fiction written in modern times, about ancient times or older, that I’ve read.

    Although, there are many non fiction/research books. I have a lot of those. I find them useful for designing.

    You write the most interesting articles, even for someone like me, who reads infrequently. Thank you!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you, Resa, for the comment and kind words!

      So true that there is little historical record when it comes to cave people. Yet Jean M. Auel made them come alive — quite an imaginative accomplishment. (I think she did some “research,” such as personally learning how to get a fire started and so on.)

      And, yes, whether the Bible is fact or fiction or a combination, it is indeed one of the older documents out there.

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      • Ahh, starting a fire… killing an animal (not that she did that) research is not as limited as I thought.
        In my costuming, I have done research something like that.
        I did a TV series “Little Mosque on the Prairie”
        We did an episode “Ban the Burka.” There were other episodes with the niqab.
        So, I wore one of each, to see what it was like.
        Without prejudice, I say it was an awful experience. Suffocating, bad breath and visual impediments come back to mind.

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        • I hope Jean M. Auel didn’t kill any animals, Resa, though there was unfortunately a good deal of that in the novel. Neanderthals and early Cro-Magnon people were apparently not vegetarians. 😦

          That clothing “research” you did does sound onerous, albeit worth doing to viscerally experience what being in those outfits was like. Awful what women in some cultures are pressured to wear.

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  4. Late entry, a poem, among, if not the world’s shortest, alluding to one man’s (the first!) hosting abilities:

    Lines on the Antiquity of Microbes

    Adam
    Had ‘Em

    —by Strickland Gillilan
    (this poemette is also known by the title “Fleas”)

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Quest For Fire by Rozny. Don’t know if anyone has mentioned it yet. To be clear, I’ve never read the book, but movie was great. And so another book to add to my TBR list. Acch! Would like to believe that human emotions have changed to a degree, that we have, indeed, learned quite a bit re: how our thoughts effect our emotions, re: cognitive science and all. But, I don’t see how we’re ever gonna evolve as a species as long as we still have these mouth breathing knuckle draggers among us, aka GOP. Jes my personal opinion. Great post Dave. In addition, I was considering some of Robert Howard’s novels, that they might fit this theme, as well. In the meantime, since I’m never gonna subdue my emotions completely I have decided to mark at least one book off my list, I’m currently reading On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous by Vuong. But I’m gonna need a coupla boxes of tissues. Ha!

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    • Thank you! “Quest for Fire” (which I also haven’t read) is a great mention!

      I also wish the human traits that include aggression, intolerance, etc., had changed over the years. Many of today’s Republicans unfortunately seem less “evolved” in their attitudes than nasty people of centuries ago. 😦

      “On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous” sounds like it’s making a big impression on you. I love the title of that novel!

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      • Yes it is, and the other books I’ve recently ordered are sad too. Can’t wait to read Lincoln In The Bardo. Re: less evolved and GOP, always reminds me of those individuals who say “if we evolved from monkeys, why are there still monkeys” … Mystery solved, I think someone needs to dose them with lots and lots of shrooms. Anglo-Saxon Caucus, lol. They really shouldn’t use the term caucus which is derived from Native Americans. I imagine this would be a funny example of perhaps the first Anglo-Saxon ‘Caucus’, ha: https://youtu.be/t2c-X8HiBng

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        • Ooh, I love “Monty Python and the Holy Grail” and that scene in it you linked to. One of the funniest films ever made!

          And great line about evolution and monkeys. Today’s GOP is so un-evolved that Darwin, if he were alive today, would have had to revise his Theory of Evolution…

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  6. As I recall, you haven’t read much of Michener, Dave. I know it’s a huge investment of time because his novels are long and sprawling, but they are worth it.

    “The Source” goes back and forth in time from a present day archaeological dig to the people who lived during that time. It details the beginnings of religion and Christianity as we know it today.

    “Centennial” goes all the way back to some prehistoric beavers on the Platte River. Fascinating novel, spanning centuries!

    As I remember, “Chesapeake” and “Texas” did the same thing.

    It takes a while to get used to his writing style, but his novels are riveting!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you, lulabelle! I can see that Michener went way back (at least in parts of some of his novels) multiple times! I appreciate the great mentions and descriptions!

      I’ve now read three Michener books: “Tales of the South Pacific,” “Caravans,” and “Mexico.” I liked all of them a lot; I guess “Mexico” was the one that had some centuries-old history in the mix. He IS an excellent writer.

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  7. Another great theme, Dave. And you must have some of the best commentary threads around, which makes sense among book lovers! I can only add the Iliad and the Odyssey, Lynn Austin’s Chronicles of the Kings series (Hezekiah, etc), and one of my all time favorites, The Dove Keepers by Alice Hoffman about women and the siege at Masada.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you, Liz! “I, Claudius” is quite a novel (and was quite a TV series)!

      I never read “Siddhartha” — I guess I wasn’t cool in high school; funny parenthetical line by you. 😂 But I did finally read Hesse’s “Steppenwolf” a couple years ago and found it very compelling. (The band Steppenwolf wasn’t bad, either, back in the day. 🙂 )

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  8. I don’t have much depth on the topic of the week, but I see no one else has mentioned the 1880 novel “Ben Hur”, made into memorable screen extravaganzas twice since, and concerning events and persons around the time of Christ, as recounted by narrator Judah Ben Hur, Jewish prince, galley slave and charioteer.

    Bonus factoid: “Ben Hur” supplanted “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” as the best-selling American novel, and remained at the top of the all-time best-seller lists until it was supplanted by Margaret Mitchell’s “Gone With the Wind” in 1936. So, Lew Wallace’s novel, as a sales phenomenon, is bracketed by the best-selling books about slavery and antebellum life written before the Civil War and after.

    Lew Wallace was an Adjutant General and commanded an Indiana regiment in the Civil War. Later, he served on the military commission for the trials of the conspirators involved in the assassination of Abraham Lincoln.

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    • Thank you, jhNY! Great mention! I was thinking of including “Ben-Hur,” but I haven’t read the novel. (Though I did see the 1959 movie many years ago starring Charlton Heston.) It was indeed a huge bestseller — and that’s a fascinating bracketing between two novels (“Uncle Tom’s Cabin” and “Gone With the Wind”) that depicted slavery so differently.

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  9. Reblogged this on Words Deferred and commented:
    This post is one of those perfect coincidences, as I work on prepping a serial novel whose timeline ranges from prehistory to modern day.

    It is interesting delving so far into the past that we have little idea what life was actually like. I’ll have to check out these recommendations.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you, Mike! Totally agree — great characters, including Creb, the wise and compassionate medicine man with severe physical issues. And Jean M. Auel’s research does seem off the charts!

      I hear you about the thrill of reading certain novels for the first time. 🙂

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  10. I actually have really enjoyed my few reads that take place during the ancient times. Two of them have been at your suggestion, Dave! 🙂 “Before Adam” and “I, Claudius” 🙂 Sounds like I better get my hands on a copy of “the Clan of the Cave Bear.” One of the other ones I read was called “Naamah,” a book about Noah and the flood told from the perspective of his wife. The writing was very vivid and striking, but with a very abstract style that was a bit hard for me to connect with. However, I think it did pretty well with the critics and reviewers.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Thank you, M.B.!

      Using the wife’s perspective for “Naamah” sounds intriguing; sorry the book’s style was so abstract.

      Nice that you’ve read “Before Adam” and “I, Claudius”! The former was a real change of pace for Jack London, though there was still his trademark theme of humans (or dogs) dealing with a harsh environment and/or other difficult challenges.

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  11. This post was indeed serendipitous for I have just finished reading Helene Hanff’s 84, Charing Cross Road this morning which deals about books from the past. For anyone who loves looking back into old books, you will find a kindred spirit in Helene. Why do we like to revisit the past? Probably because we want to learn from the past and find a sense of belonging to the wider narrative of humanity. Whether we accurately reflect the truth of the past (even in non-fiction books) is debatable, simply because we didn’t live in that time. As well, history is evolving as more evidence comes to light (think Sapiens). And we have a bias – we may create the past so that it aligns with our understanding at the time of reading. That way we can more easily understand and integrate two time periods. I like to revisit books because I recognize changes in my thought process as I become more knowledgeable and as history reveals itself. I will close with a quote from 84 Charing Cross Road. “I just threw out a book somebody gave me, it was some slob’s version of what it was like to live in the time of Oliver Cromwell – only the slob didn’t LIVE in the time of Oliver Cromwell so how the hell does he know what it was like? Anybody wants to know what it was like to live in the time of Oliver Cromwell can slop on the sofa with Milton on his pro side and Walton on his con, and they’ll not only tell him what it was like, they’ll take him there.”

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    • Thank you, Rebecca! So many great lines and insights in your comment!

      I concur with your reasons for why many of us like to revisit the past, and also concur with your thought that some people reshape the past to fit their narrative/worldview at the expense of accuracy. (Though, as you allude to, we can’t describe the past in a totally accurate way no matter how hard we try; even contemporary chroniclers, while getting closer to the truth, bring their own biases and interpretations to that time’s current events and the actions of their contemporaries.)

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      • I agree wholeheartedly- even those writers of the past had biases and interpretations. It makes it much more interesting to analyze our thought. By the way, I am reading “The Weight of Ink” by Rachel Kadish. I am enjoying every moment of this slow read and will probably be finished in a couple of months. So far, a fantastic read.

        Liked by 1 person

        • True, Rebecca — analyzing biased thought of the past IS interesting, going through layers to see if nuggets of actual truth can be found. 🙂 And even then it’s hard to know for sure if that truth IS truth.

          Glad you’re enjoying “The Weight of Ink”! Good luck with it as you continue!

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  12. Clan Of The Cave Bear has been a frequent subject of discussion in my Novelist Circle group of published authors. We considered it to be a breakthrough novel (and subsequent series) before there was such a thing as speculative fiction.

    Liked by 3 people

    • Thank you, James! I guess “The Clan Of The Cave Bear” WAS a breakthrough novel of sorts back in 1980. I certainly haven’t read many novels like it. And I usually think of speculative fiction being set somewhere in the future (as is the case with several stellar Margaret Atwood books, including “The Handmaid’s Tale” and “Oryx and Crake”) but I guess speculative fiction can focus on the past, too. 🙂

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  13. Great review! I remember anticipating the release date of every one of Jean M. Auel’s impressive prehistoric saga Earth’s Children. After The Clan of the Cave Bear, Ayla and Jondalar changed the tone and increased the intimacy but maintained a fascinating prehistory thread.

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    • Thank you, ThoughtsBecomeWords! Great memory to have anticipated each new book in Jean M. Auel’s series! I’m liking “The Clan of the Cave Bear” so much (about 80% done) that I’m sure I’ll continue with the series (interspersed with other novels). Ayla is a tremendous, fascinating character creation. I haven’t “met” Jondalar yet; a quick look at Wikipedia indicates he is introduced in the second book, “The Valley of Horses.”

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  14. When I read your interesting challenge, I immediately thought of Yuval Harari’s SAPIENS, which the renowned historian wrote in such a captivating way that it seems to be fiction. He describes the creation and evolution of the human being, starting in Africa and with the first stone tools and comes up to the 21 century. I remember to have read that he considers the hunter and gatherer to have been the most intelligent human being, because always forced to search new places and new food and adapt to them.
    Harari argues that Sapiens came to dominate the world because it is the only animal capable of cooperating in a flexible way and in large numbers and that we can do this because with believe in gods, money or human rights!

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    • Thank you, Martina, for the mention of “Sapiens”! While I’m reading few nonfiction books these days, I LOVE nonfiction that’s captivating like the best fiction. And I really enjoyed your fascinating description of Yuval Harari’s book. “The Clan of the Cave Bear” also certainly shows how early people were highly intelligent and used that intelligence to (partly) dominate the animal world. Of course, those early people, like people today, also had plenty of negative attributes compared to animals.

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      • The Clan of the Cave Bear must be an absolutely wonderful book for children and adults, because we are shown how important it can be to help also those, who do perhaps not belong to our own group and that with a little bit of help they can find their place, despite the fact that they may be a little different. Many thanks and have a good day.

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        • “The Clan of the Cave Bear” is definitely one of those novels that appeal to various ages, Martina! (Though some parts — the occasional scenes of sex and of violence — might be a bit “mature” for very young readers.) And, yes, there’s definitely an important and inspiring message in the book about accepting “the other,” even as one Neanderthal character makes life hellish for the Cro-Magnon girl Ayla.

          Have a good day, too! 🙂

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      • Yuval Harari writes, for example, in his Sapiens that in the first recorded encounter between Spaiens and Neanderthals, the Neanderthals won! I completely agree with your brother and mother, Rebecca, and wish you, therefore, a good read.:)

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  15. I love a good ancient history book. I am currently reading George Mackay Brown’s novel Magnus, about the man who was Earl of Orkney 1106-1115. I am also participating in a ‘Quo Vadis Readalong’, which is set in Rome during the reign of Nero cAD64. There are two highly memorable novels that I read years ago and which have stayed with me: firstly Ken Follett’s Pillars of the Earth which I see from checking is set in medieval England around 1135, so it would be interesting to revisit this after I have finished Magnus to get a sense of the two authors’ account of a similar time. The second is Sarum by Edward Rutherford, which is a sweep of the history of Salisbury Plain (the location of Stonehenge, amongst other things), from the Ice Age to the nineteenth century. I notice that there are some reviews on Amazon which suggest this has not aged well since it was first published in 1987, but I would be interested to give it another look to see for myself. Thanks so much for prompting these reminders, Dave! 😀

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    • LOL, Bill! 😂 Thank you! Well, the Cubs finally did win the World Series in 2016 while still using a stadium (Wrigley Field) that may date back more than 25,000 years — give or take a millennium or 25…

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  16. ‘It helps that human emotions never really change —’. Spot on Dave. I personally love reading books set in the past but also one of the reasons I like to write them there is for that very reason. We are all the things that were then.

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    • Thank you, Shehanne!

      “We are all the things that were then” — that’s a terrific line. And it really is true (the similarity in human emotions today vs. long ago), even as cultural norms, technology, etc., change greatly over time.

      Liking to read and write novels set in the past is a nice combination. 🙂

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      • Too kind as always. BUT right after this I read a fabulously well written article from 2000 written by the wonderful, sadly just died too soon, actress, Helen McCrory (which was why the Guardian reprinted it). It was all about when she was cast as Anna Karenin–which we watched. And t the things that make the novel spot on today. The emotions, the life choices, what women in particular were up against then especially in the society that Anna lived in , but not just because certain things hold good, or should we say bad, wherever and still do. Aye. No such thing as a fusty old book.

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        • Such a shame about Helen McCrory’s untimely death, Shehanne. I saw her great work in movies such as the 2002 version of “The Count of Monte Cristo” and several of the “Harry Potter” films (Narcissa Malfoy!) but unfortunately not as Anna Karenina on TV. You’re right that Tolstoy’s novel says and depicts so much that is timeless.

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          • I know so sad re Helen McCrory. She was excellent in Anna. I’d have to say the all time fav aunty in Peaky Blinders–oh for an aunt like her–Fearless, Casanova, Skyfall, and more recently Roadkill where she just demolished the screen and stole the show with the bat of an eyelid. And yes the novel does depict so much that is timeless including the terrible hypocrisy of people as in the fact that it was quite acceptable to have an affair in an unhappy or unfulfilled marriage …jstu don’t fall in love, the knives prob, on reflection, coming out as much for jealousy as anything. . .

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            • Wonderfully descriptive comment, Shehanne!

              I need to at least look at YouTube clips of Helen McCrory in “Anna Karenina,” “Peaky Blinders,” and other roles.

              And, yes, the depictions of hypocrisy and nastiness in “Anna” and many other novels can make one’s blood boil. 😦

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                    • Oh same here. I thought WOW. In terms of the usual historical style drama on TV–it just cleared the park and as it has gone on it has given two fingers to every other one–think of Tommy Shelby loving in that huge baronial house for a start with a camp of gypsies on the front lawn. Episode one,
                      I was very interested in the returning soldiers back in a world they no longer belonged in –my grandfather was one– and also I’d just signed off on a book about a returning Napoleonic war soldier, who went home much the same way–drug addicts into the bargain. I abso love Blinders. I mind a friend once asking me what it was about and i said, well, half the time I don’t know. I don’t watch it to know, I watch it for the chutzpah, the music, the characters, the costumes, the tremendous writing, the acting, the bone crunching fights, the cinematography, the gutzinessn of it all. BUT the first season was a sort of love story.

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                    • Terrific comment, Shehanne! That opening “Peaky Blinders” scene was indeed a tour de force. And, yes, the reasons for loving something can be both defined and undefinable — a really nice combination!

                      Also, great that there was some serendipitous synergy between the returning-from-war aspect of the series and one of your novels!

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                    • Dave, what opening was so amazing on so many levels, the main character, his world, what his place is in that world at a glance. The Chinese community, a complete contrast to the streets you could stir with spoon, the sub titles. And wham at the end. Birmingham England 1919. Now it was obv from the accent that the character was from there but what a blinder to play ( sorry) but it was. And of course the music was not of that vintage either. My interest was indeed piqued by the war damaged coming home, because it is often airbrushed out. Or fine for one series, then marginalised. But for these people and their families that damage never goes. And, while the years pass in the series, it’s centre stage. They can’t ever get past it. And they know they never will. And given what I knew of my grandfather and how damaged he was, when i started that 3rd book –or rather went back to the opening chapters of what was prob my first book but unfinished, it struck me that the carnage of war didn’t just start and end with WW1. So i was curious about previous conflicts that way and it was interesting to uncover the darker side of the Regency ‘home-front’ shall we say?

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                    • I agree, Shehanne — that “Peaky Blinders” opening said SO much, and I haven’t even watched the show except for seeing some clips of Helen McGrory on YouTube yesterday. And, yes, “The Great War” was incredibly traumatic for the soldiers and so many others, and, as you say, not just during the war years. (Plus the horrific flu epidemic of course also happened around that time.) I can see how that war and that time offer a huge amount of fodder, drama, and heartache to inspire your writing.

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  17. Always been intrigued by Clan of the Cave Bear and will now seek it out, thank you. My contribution to this genre would be Memoirs of Hadrian by Marguerite Yourcenar, written in 1951. The Roman Emporer Hadrian died in the year 138AD so a mere 2,000 years ago, and the novel is in the form of a letter he writes to his grandson Marcus Aurelius. Wonderful writing. Perhaps not ancient enough for this thread though. But I’m sure The Iliad is – writen by Homer 10,000 years ago it concerns the Trojan War of the 11th century BC (13,000 years ago!) and the Siege of Troy (in modern-day Turkey) by the Greek states. King Agamemnon and Achilles are the two main characters. I must admit I dreaded tackling this ancient book, but found it to be utterly compelling to read. I have yet to read the follow-up The Odyssey which is also quite famous!

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  18. Hi Dave. ‘The Clan of the Cave Bear’ is a friend’s favourite childhood book! I’ve not read it but it sounds fascinating.
    I’ve not read much prehistory fiction, certainly not as far back as this story is set – I don’t suppose Herodotus really counts!
    However, I have read a couple of books that dabble in events from about 2000 years ago. ‘Master and Margarita’ has a fascinating portrayal of Pontius Pilate. He is quite a likeable, but conflicted, character. The other story that I loved is ‘The Eagle of The Ninth’ by Rosemary Sutcliffe.
    Does ‘Labyrinth’ by Kate Moss have some flashback device to thousands of years ago?

    Liked by 3 people

    • Thank you, Sarah!

      I especially appreciate the mention of Mikhail Bulgakov’s terrific “The Master and Margarita,” which I read a year or two ago. The ancient portion of that novel slipped my mind when I was writing this week’s blog post. One of the many interesting things about that devil-infused book.

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