Introduced by Iain Finlayson, author, journalist and Hay resident
Once upon a time, as a kid in Ayrshire, when I was laid up in bed with asthma, my Dad (the headmaster of the local school) would bring me books: the good stuff at first; Kim and The Jungle Book by Kipling, Sherlock Holmes stories by Arthur Conan Doyle, Kidnapped and Treasure Island by Robert Louis Stevenson, Prester John (still a favourite) and the Richard Hannay novels by John Buchan, which I liked well enough; but then one day a couple of historical swashbuckling novels by Rafael Sabatini, and that was it – I was a glutton for adventure fiction.
I didn’t yet know about The Count of Monte Cristo and The Three Musketeers by Alexandre Dumas, so it was the modern American answer to Dumas, Samuel Shellabarger, who hit all the buttons with two blockbuster epics: Captain from Castile first published in 1944, followed by ‘Prince of Foxes’, published in 1947. Shellabarger, in his day, was as big as they come – a serious Renaissance scholar who turned his hand to historical novels.
Pedro de Vargas, a young Spanish nobleman on the run from the Spanish Inquisition, is the Captain from Castile who enlists with Cortés to conquer Mexico. The Prince of Foxes is Cesare Borgia who trains a young peasant boy, Andrea Orsini, to become his right-hand Machiavellian man. As great historical epics, they bring the brawling vigour of the Renaissance to life as it never was in reality, but ought to have been and can be in swashbuckling fiction.
A few years ago, I had a sudden nostalgia for these novels I’d devoured in adolescence and found them, via the internet, in new editions, published in 2002, by Bridge Works Publishing Company.
Since this is ‘a book a day’ blog, you can read Captain from Castile today. Tomorrow you can read Prince of Foxes, and a day later you can maybe tackle Blaise of France, sadly more of a potboiler.