The problem with so much blockbuster fiction is that it seems--forgive me--made up, in the worst sense. It reads as though the author, with one eye on the bank balance and the other on the Best Seller's Ten Commandments (thou shalt not go more than 20 pages without a sex scene; thou shalt not allow thy heroine to end up broke; thou shalt honor thy clothing designers and brand names, etc. . . .) simply plopped the characters into a milieu and let 'em rip. There's no real sense of locale, no feeling that the author ever left his archetypal homey tartan-and-dark wood den or her cozy chintz boudoir.
But every now and then a crossover writer appears on the scene, an author with an enduring love of research, a slave to verisimilitude. This month's books--ironically, given that any academic is in the midst of summer vacation--are histories shaped into fiction.
Which is not to say that they're stuffy. Byzantium by Michael Ennis plays by all the rules: The beauteous Maria, destined to become Haraldr's wife, gets involved in some fairly manipulative hanky-panky before she meets him; to attract a man she thinks she likes, she piles into bed with him and his pal and then makes love with the pal. The striking thing about this particular menage a trois is that it takes place in Constantinople in the 11th Century. And a painstakingly documented empire it is, too. Ennis spent seven years on "Byzantium," and can't keep from crowing in his foreword about the fact that all his main characters actually lived; all his main events actually happened.
It's guiltless escapism. You can wile away the hours reading about how good Prince Haraldr Siguardson, a Viking without a kingdom, makes his way to the Golden City and know that you're learning history at the same time.
If you prefer your events current, try Hostage One by David Fisher and Ralph Albertazzie. Fisher has already written a dozen books and he has a wickedly idiosyncratic ear for dialogue, but it's Albertazzie's expertise that keeps this political thriller humming. He was the commander and pilot of Air Force One from 1968 to 1974, part of a 28-year career in the military: Who better to help a writer tell the story of the hijacking of Air Force One?
As Vice President Dan Quayle continues to chill skeptics with his intelligence, or lack thereof, this tale is enough to keep you up nights, studying the map for locations where you might prefer to take up residence should it come true. A conspiracy of rogues, including Middle Eastern terrorists and battle-scarred Vietnam vets, joins forces to kidnap a President in mid-air, and they get closer than any of us would like to think is possible. Israeli agent David Melnik and the FBI's Charles Werther are the odd couple assigned to stop the plot, but by the time they figure out what's happening you're going to be wishing that President George Bush would just stay at home and let his fingers do the walking.
Author Nicholas Guild may live in Connecticut, that unofficial haven for burnt-out New Yorkers, but in his mind he travels the world. His publisher, Atheneum, brought us "Shogun" and "Aztec." So it's no surprise that together they dish up The Blood Star, the ancient epic tale of young Tiglath Ashur, exiled from Assyria even though his brother runs the country, doomed to a life of wandering--at a fast clip, thank you, since killers are wandering right after him. He travels around for the appropriate hundreds of pages, encountering the requisite amount of sex and violence. Eventually, of course, he has to confront his brother, with whom he gets involved in a royal credit arbitration.
Given the value of the dollar these days, it's an economical way to see Egypt and Sicily. Or perhaps, given the speed with which such books are usually snapped up by Hollywood, "The Blood Star" and "Byzantium" herald a return to the cast-of-thousands costume drama.
No list of well-researched novels would be complete without a sweeping saga of a woman who struggles past adversity and finally finds happiness (no one, in these books, struggles past adversity to find only exhaustion on the other side; it wouldn't be sporting). An Imperfect Lady, by Sarah Harrison, gives us Adeline Gundry, born to wealth and privilege in 1900, faced with a choice between a conventional life and an artist's existence, the latter being a euphemism for more sex than she'd get otherwise.
Guess which path she chooses. After a disastrous first marriage, Adeline becomes a portrait painter and has an affair with a novelist; after sowing her wild oats, she finds true happiness in the marriage and motherhood she scorned early on. That's how you can be sure you're reading a novel, no matter how assiduously the author packs in the real stuff. If a hero or heroine ends up living happily ever after, regardless of his youthful indiscretions, the story's made up. If there are consequences to one's actions, you've likely grabbed a piece of nonfiction by mistake.