Cecelia Anastasia Holland is an American historical novelist.
She was born December 31, 1943, in Henderson, Nevada, but grew up in Metuchen, New Jersey, where she started writing at age 12, recording the stories she made up for her own entertainment. From the beginning, her focus was on history because "being twelve, I had precious few stories of my own. History seemed to me then, as it still does, an endless fund of material."
She attended Pennsylvania State University for a year, and received her Bachelor of Arts degree in 1965 from Connecticut College, where she took a course in creative writing and was encouraged by poet William Meredith and short story writer David Jackson. Jackson took a novel Holland wrote for his seminar to an editor at Atheneum and her first novel, Firedrake was published in 1966. She had just dropped out of graduate school at Columbia University to work as a clerk at Brentano's in Manhattan. She has been a full-time professional writer ever since. (Firedrake was actually the fourth novel she had written but the first published; Jerusalem is the final, mature version of one of the earlier ones. Pieces of the other two also have made their way into her published work.)
She lives presently (2011) in Fortuna, California, a small town in rural Humboldt County, California. She has three daughters and five grandchildren. For ten years, she taught two three-hour creative writing classes a week at Pelican Bay State Prison in Crescent City, California. She was visiting professor of English at Connecticut College in 1979 and was awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship in 1981–1982.
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In the Autumn 2002 issue of in the Historical Novel Society magazine, Solander, "What sets Cecelia’s work apart in the genre is not just her productivity but also her versatility; she has the unique ability to make most any historical period her own.
She records the often harsh details of life in the distant—or recent—past and her depiction of it involves considerable research. Her character-driven plots often are developed from the viewpoint of a male protagonist. While including plenty of action (her battle scenes are noteworthy for their bottom-up viewpoint and understated verisimilitude), her work focuses primarily on the life of the mind—whatever that might mean in a particular culture -- and especially on politics, in the broadest sense.
In her medieval novels particularly, she makes her characters, including Huns and Mongols, speak in semi-colloquial English, apparently intended to give the reader the impression of listening in on a conversation in the speakers' own vernacular.
Most of her novels have grown slowly in the back of her mind, often the result of non-fiction articles and essays she has written, though The Belt of Gold and The Lords of Vaumartin were written "cold" as the result of requests by her editor. While she claims not to choose fictional settings because of their sparse usage by other writers, she has said, "I wouldn't dare do the Civil War, because it's so well known, every damn detail, it would be so stifling."
List of works
A series of six novels set in the world of the Vikings over a period of some fifty years.
- The Soul Thief (2002) -- The first in the series, this novel takes place in the mid-10th century in the Norse kingdom of Jórvík (York). It focuses on the struggles of Corban Loosestrife and his twin sister, kidnapped from Ireland.
- The Witches' Kitchen (2004) -- Fifteen years after killing Erik Blódøx (English, Bloodaxe), Norse King of Jórvík, the renegade Corban Loosestrife is living thinly but idyllically with his family on the coast of Vinland, until warfare among the local tribes and trouble from back home force him to return to Denmark, where he again becomes embroiled in politics.
- The Serpent Dreamer (2005) -- His service to the King of the Danes concluded, Corban returns to his new home in Vinland to find the colony destroyed, his beloved wife dead, and his twin sister Mav, with whom he shared a mystic bond, transfigured into a numinous being caught between this world and the next. Seeking shelter with a nearby tribe, Corban is shunned for his pale skin and dark, coarse hair, and feared for his strange powers to make fire and cut through the toughest skins with his magic blade.
- Varanger (2008) -- Corban Loosestrife's son Conn is a clever and strong leader of men; his cousin, the god-touched Raef, is his shield and navigator. They have joined a fur-trading ship to Russia, and are forced to over-winter in Novgorod. While there, they take service with the leader of the Rus, Dobrynya, and with him travel south to Kiev, and then on with a raiding party into the northern reaches of the Byzantine Empire.
- The High City (2009) -- Raef Corbansson arrives, rowing, in Constantinople in time for Bardas Phokas the Younger's rebellion against Basil II (c.989). He catches the eye of the Empress Helena, but not in a good way! Byzantine politics, the formation of the Varangian Guard, life in the big city is interesting for someone of Raef's fey sensitivities. It doesn't take long for him to fatally irritate Basil, too. (The book jacket is in error about whose wife Helena is — NOT Basil's, but his brother Constantine VIII's.)
- Kings of the North (2010)--Raef returns to Jorvik and meets his destiny, along with several actual historical figures, among them Æthelred the Unready and Knut Sweynsson.
- The Firedrake (1966) -- After wandering across Western Europe, Laeghaire, an Irish mercenary knight, finds himself reluctantly accompanying the Norman invaders at the Battle of Hastings in 1066. This superb first novel is very evocative and personal, spanning a period of months and focusing on the historical period and Laeghaire's life as a mercenary.
- Rakóssy (1967) -- Rakóssy, a Hungarian aristocrat with a wide independent streak, fights the Ottoman Turkish invaders in 1526.
- The Kings in Winter (1968) -- The authority of High King Brian Boru is being contested by other clans and by the Danish invaders, and Muirtagh O'Cullinane must balance his own honor and that of his clan against loyalties to the various kings. It all comes to a head at the Battle of Clontarf in 1014.
- Until the Sun Falls (1969) -- Psin, a senior general of reconnaissance from the steppe, takes part in the Mongol conquest of Russia and the nearly-successful invasion of Eastern Europe in the first generation following the death of Genghis Khan, c.1240. Still widely regarded by her readers as one of her most perceptive and most flawlessly executed novels, especially given its huge canvas. Fascinating portrayal of Mongol horde conquest, way of life, as seen through Psin, a Merkit rather than a Mongol and his fights with his son who is coming into his own in the army. Told in the 3rd person.
- Antichrist (1970) -- Frederick II, Holy Roman Emperor of the Hohenstaufen leads a successful crusade of liberation to Jerusalem in 1229.
- The Earl (1971) -- Fulk, the Anglo-Norman Earl of Stafford, carries out his political and family schemes but manages to maintain his loyalties during The Anarchy that followed the death of Henry I of England, c.1140. [Published in the UK as A Hammer for Princes.]
- The Death of Attila (1973) -- Tacs, a young, ne'er-do-well Hunnish warrior, becomes unlikely friends with Dietric, son of a subject king, in the harsh world of 453.
- Great Maria (1974) -- Maria is the daughter of a Norman robber baron in Southern Italy in the late 11th century, forced to marry her father's choice, the young and ambitious Richard d'Alene, though she prefers his brother, Roger. She must struggle to maintain her independence and identity during the Norman conquest of Sicily. This is often described as Holland's first "feminist" novel.
- Two Ravens (1977) -- Bjarni Hoskuldsson, a pagan Icelander trying to maintain the old values in an increasing Christian world of the early 12th century, leaves the family's Icelandic farm in search of adventure in the England of William Rufus, but finally returns to Iceland to finally make his presence felt. A very modern sort of saga.
- Valley of the Kings (1977) [credited to Elizabeth Eliot Carter in earlier editions] -- Structured as two independent narratives, one about the last years and death of Tutankhamen, the other about Howard Carter's search for the pharaoh's tomb in the 1920s. Generally regarded as one of Holland's weaker novels.
- City of God (1979) -- In the Rome of the Borgia period, Nicholas Dawson is a highly educated homosexual commoner born in Spain of English parentage, and thus an outsider in every respect. He is secretary to the embassy of Florence, a republic which is a pawn in the power struggles between the rulers of France, Spain, Naples, and the Catholic Church.
- The Sea Beggars (1982) -- A young Dutchman joins the revolt by the Netherlands in the 1590s (led by pirates) against their Spanish overlords and the Inquisition.
- The Belt of Gold (1984) -- Hagen, an unsophisticated Frankish pilgrim in Constantinople at the beginning of the 9th century, blunders into politics at the court of the Empress Irene, where nothing has value but power. Holland herself does not consider this a particularly successful work, "maybe because it didn't take long enough to grow."
- Pillar of the Sky (1985) - The charismatic and visionary Moloquin -- "the unwanted"—leads The People to erect the stone circle at Stonehenge on Salisbury Plain, and to defend it from their enemies.
- The Lords of Vaumartin (1988) -- Everard de Vaumartin, a young, orphaned French aristocrat driven from his home, decides to immerse himself in books rather than continuing his knightly training, and experiences the turmoil of Paris of the mid-14th century, including chivalry vs. political realism, the Black Death, and the First Commune.
- The Bear Flag (1990) -- After her husband's death on the trek across the Great Plains, Catherine "Cat" Reilly finds a home in the new state of California in the 1850s, in a world driven by the forces of Manifest Destiny.
- Pacific Street (1992) - Mitya, a taciturn American Indian man, and Frances Hardheart, a sharp-tongued and manipulative escaped slave, come together with other lost souls and make their way in San Francisco during the first years of the California Gold Rush.
- Jerusalem (1996) -- Beginning with the Christian victory at the Battle of Montgisard, Norman Templar Sir Rannulf Fitzwilliam struggles to maintain his personal values (which serve him better in war than in diplomacy) while trying to survive the politics of the Latin Kingdom of Jerusalem, all of which come to an end at the Battle of Hattin in 1187. (Holland considers this her best novel.)
- Railroad Schemes (1997) -- Irish American outlaw "King" Callahan and the young orphaned Lily Viner from the Virginia City mining camps battle the railroad barons in Los Angeles (new terminus of the Southern Pacific Railroad) during the 1870s. (Holland considers this her second-best novel.)
- Lily Nevada (1999) -- Sequel to Railroad Schemes. The twenty-year-old Lily Viner, escaping her shattered past, becomes an actress in San Francisco and leads a double life in trying to deal with the return of the railroad detective who killed both her outlaw father and Callahan, her foster-father—and also tries to find her mother, who disappeared when Lily was an infant.
- The Angel and the Sword (2000) -- The young Princess Ragny of Spain, having escaped from her disreputable father, disguises and transforms herself into the bold and fearless warrior, Roderick, seeking revenge for her mother's murder and saving Paris from Viking assault in 861. Based on the medieval fabliau of Roderick the Beardless, and not generally regarded as one of Holland's better efforts.
- Home Ground (1981) -- A band of post-1960s hippies, searching for a haven where they can recover and work out what to do with their changed lives, struggles to revive a failing commune in Northern California during the 1980s. A contemporary novel when it was written, it has now become almost as "historical" as most of her other works.
- Floating Worlds (1976) -- Anarchist Paula Mendoza climbs from unemployed obscurity to become a diplomat trying to keep the peace (with startling and unconventional methods) between Earth, the Mars colonists, and the mutant Styths from the outer planets of the solar system. This novel is notable for its sexual content, its feminist theme, and its literary quality—all comparable to the mid-70s work of Joanna Russ and Ursula K. Le Guin.
- Ghost on the Steppe (1969) -- Spun off from Until the Sun Falls, this is the story of a young Mongol boy tracking down a mysterious killer on the steppe.
- The King's Road (1970) -- Spun off from Antichrist, this tells of the young Frederick Hohenstaufen, on the run from assassins in Sicily, discovering his true identity.
- The Story of Anna and the King (1999) -- Published as a companion book to the Jodie Foster film, Anna and the King (1999), it includes (in addition to notes on and photographs of the making of the film itself) material on the real Anna Leonowens and the real King Mongkut, with sections on Siamese history, religion, and culture.
- An Ordinary Woman (1999) -- A fictionalized biography of Nancy Kelsey, the first American woman to reach California by crossing the Sierras. She arrived in 1841 after a six-month trek—on foot, pregnant, carrying her two-year-old daughter, and only nineteen years old. She later contributed the petticoats from which the original Bear Flag of the Republic of California was made. Nancy lived until 1896 and Holland relies strongly on her letters and on archival material.
- "The Death That Saved Europe: The Mongols Turn Back", in What If?: The World's Foremost Military Historians Imagine What Might Have Been, edited by Robert Cowley. (2000)
- "Repulse at Hastings, October 14, 1066", in What If? 2: Eminent Historians Imagine What Might Have Been, edited by Robert Cowley. (2001)
- "The Revolution of 1877", in What Ifs? of American History, edited by Robert Cowley. (2003)
- "Blood on the Tracks," an Amazon Kindle Single, is a non-fiction account of the Great Railroad Strike of 1877 (2011).
- "Finding California", another non-fiction Kindle Single, is set in 1841 and is based on diaries and other accounts of farmers and their families who traveled west to California (2011).