A few days ago, while discussing memoirs, and whether there is any way to trust them, I mentioned the history book I was reading, Roger Crowley's Empires of the Sea: The Siege of Malta, the Battle of Lepanto, and the Contest for the Center of the World.
We seem to be heading back to those gigantic 18th century titles which were miniature essays in themselves.
Empires of the Sea covers the events of the huge conflict between an expanding Ottoman Empire and an aggressive, but at that point defensive, Christian south, mostly Habsburgs and Venetians. Throughtout that period Europe was on the defensive. North African raiders landed on the coasts with impunity and kidnapped incredible numbers of slaves. It's not generally thought that, even as the Spanish were landing in the New World, conquering and wreaking havoc, they themselves were on the receiving end of landings and assaults.
Crowley's book is good, but I have an affection for an earlier account of the same events, Jack Beeching's The Galleys at Lepanto, which is much better on bringing out the personalities of the various participants. Crowley's characters seem, from a fiction writer's perspective, poorly realized.
Of course these battles, kidnappings, and deaths are like the dance of sand grains on a vast motor housing when you read Fernand Braudel's incredible The Mediterranean and the Meditarranean World in the Age of Philip II, and find out how the motor works. Narrative history makes up a large percentage of my free reading, but I remember reading Braudel's deep exploration of geography, climate, technology, economics, migrations, and social relations with as much interest as any story with a plot.
Now that I've pulled it off my shelf, I may need to read it again, all 1200 pages or so of it. Thick and square, indeed.
Braudel is, I would say, an essential for a fantasy writer, or anyone trying to create a believable world, because he really gives you an understanding of how it works.
And he has those odd, casual intellectual toss offs that I like so much. From a footnote about the island of Djerba, site of several significant battles, a propos of its production of olive oil:
On Djerba as well as olive trees there grew palm trees, apple trees, and pear trees. From this point of view too it was an unusual island. And Djerba as an island conservatory harboured Jewish communities said to date from the persecutions of Titus; above all it was a small Kharijite world, like the Mzab, the repository of ancient ritual and extremely old types of architecture.
Sounds exactly like Jorge Luis Borges, actually. But longer.