THE LIBERTARIAN ENTERPRISE
Number 521, May 31, 2009
"There is good news and bad news."
The Terror of Constantinople
Attribute to The Libertarian Enterprise
In this second of what will eventually be three novels narrated by Aelric, a young British "barbarian" and witness to a rapidly decaying classical world, Richard Blake takes us from the dilapidated Rome of his first book, Conspiracies of Rome, to the second seat of Roman power, originally known as Byzantium, renamed Constantinople when attempts were made to transform it into the center of all Christendom. Of course it was destined, eventually, to become the Moslem city, Istanbul.
Aelric is far from a passive observer. His ostensible mission is to collect books from dying libraries and get them to England, where they can be copied so that the knowledge within them isn't lost. But it's a rough world out there, full of violence and intrigue, of which Aelric finds his full share as a hard drinker, womanizer, brawler, and sword-fighter.
The stories are told by a 95-year-old Aelric, looking back on his adventures in the early 600s. One of the things I like best about him is that he doesn't regret the way he used his life, but savors his memories of the others he crossed paths with and the loves he won and lost. He begins as a naive boy, raised by a single mother, educated by an ancient priest, and acquires sophistication and polishand a high degree of cynicismas he moves through a world that is falling apart.
Blake's books are more than merely action-adventure potboilers, though. Their principal freight is the politics of the day, highly complicated and deadly. Not surprisingly, they aren't that different from today's politicsask Nancy Pelosi, currently (and deservedly) being keelhauled by those she obviously believed were her friends and allies. Figuring out whose side any given individual is on, who is lying and who is telling the truth, who genuinely wishes Aelric well and who wants to use or destroy him keeps the reader on his mental toes.
But so far, I have failed to mention what makes these books so wonderful. Being a big fan of David Suchet's Hercule Poirot, I tried reading an Agatha Christie novel and discovered (to my disappointment) why they are so popular and so frequently adapted to movies and television: they are oddly empty, mere sketches or outlines, containing very little detail. Readersmost of whom listened to radio where the same faculties were called forwere free to fill in the background, the foreground, and the middle ground to their own taste.
Writers and directors could do the same and make the stories their own.
Turns out that's not what I look for in a novel. "Richly textured" is the cliche reviewers tend to fall back on. Blake gives us a world full of details, the drape of fabric, the smell of spoiled wine, the feel of blood dripping down one's knife-injured arm (and being glad it didn't get on one's expensive sleeve), the necessity of stepping over dead bodies lying in the street every morning in cities full of crime, disease, and starvation. All of that sounds very unpleasant, but it forms the ground against which vastly more enjoyable figures present themselves.
Blake's books are so thorough in this respect that they easily bear one, two, three rereadings and more (this was Theodore Sturgeon's definition of a good story), during which the reader notices little ruffles and flourishes he or she didn't catch the first or second time.
Add to that a thoroughly humane outlook as warm and forgiving as any Nero Wolfe novel, a wry and sometimes silly sense of humor, and a sensibility suspicious ofand hostile towardaccumulated power, and you have pretty much the perfect diversion, an escape from the increasing ugliness of our own times to an earlier era that was, perhaps, no less ugly, but which we know, at least, our species survived.
When I was a kid in junior high school, I was fascinated with everything about ancient Rome. With the slightest encouragement, I could rattle off an outline of Roman history I had compiled myself (this was long before Google or Wikipedia) from 753 B.C., the official founding date, to 410 A.D. when the Visigoths moved in and there went the neighborhood. I knew little or nothing about what came afterward, so I am indebted to Blake for making my continued education so enjoyable.
I'm told that Blake's third book takes our young hero to Egypt, so order the first two by clicking the Amazon.com links below and look forward, as I am, to the lives and loves and further adventures of Aelric the British "barbarian".