The Books That Made Me

When I was a little girl, my favourite author was Robin McKinley. She wrote fairy tale retellings; the first book of hers I read was Beauty, a novel-length retelling of beauty and the beast. But she also wrote epic fantasy, two marvellous books set in the fictional kingdom of Damar: The Hero and the Crown and The Blue Sword. These books came out in the eighties, well before fantasy heroines were the norm. McKinley’s books were the first time I encountered fantasy heroines who weren’t beautiful, but confident, strong and free, on horseback, with swords in their hands. Aerin and Harry, McKinley’s heroines were hugely inspirational to me, both as a young reader and later as a writer.

Another writer I adored growing up was Susan Cooper and her The Dark is Rising series. Those books, with their combination of prophecy and poetry, Arthurian myth, and a boy with ancient powers were like catnip to me as a girl, and I can still recite the poem about the six signs from The Dark is RisingIron for the birthday, etc.—from memory.

As a precocious young reader, I was often steered to older titles, since they suited my reading level, but were unlikely to have explicit scenes. So perhaps that is why many of my formative books are a bit on the older side. For example as a teenager I adored the work of Mary Renault, especially The King Must Die, and its sequel, The Bull from the Sea. In this duology, Renault writes out the myth of Theseus as though it were history, striding right along the line between history and myth, until they start to blur. I have always, in my writing, tried to capture that feeling I got from her, of standing between history and myth, until you can’t tell where one ends and the other begins.

Finally, as an adult, I discovered two historical fiction writers whose works are my absolute comfort reads, that I turn to again and again, if I have a cold, or if I just want something to bring me joy: Dorothy Dunnet and Patrick O’ Brien.

I’m a bit (very) tiresome about my love for Dorothy Dunnett, mostly because I have a vague hope that if I love her enough, other people will too and then we’ll get a Poldark-style historical drama made out of her Lymond Chronicles, and let me tell you there is not property on earth, including my own work, that I’d rather see on film. Lymond has it all: a brilliant, infuriating hero, a sparkling setting that takes you all over renaissance Europe, marvellous side characters, an author who’s always one step ahead of you. Dunnett is one of those authors that other authors read with absolute awe, and she is my forever favourite.

Patrick O’Brien’s Aubrey/Maturin series is my quintessential comfort read. I sink into the warmth of Jack Aubrey and Stephen Maturin’s friendship, and their high-seas adventures, and O’brien’s dry and devastating sense of humour like a hot bath after a long day, and if I have a cold, those are the books I reach for first.

  • Katherine Arden