joi, 24 decembrie 2015

Nuclear Seven

Ruth Downie, Stephanie Dray, Eliza Knight, Kate Quinn, Vicky Alvear Shecter, Simon James Atkinson Turney, Russell Whitfield - A Year of Ravens: A novel of Boudica's Rebellion (with an Introduction by Ben Kane), 2015

For people who, like me, approached this book from the fanbase of only one of the seven authors (Simon Turney in my case), this is a great way to discover both new authors but also how vast the field of historical fiction is and how much good work is happening in this field. With some of the authors being also very prolific, keeping up with all their novel might also be challenging at times, but I suppose when the water clears everyone picks favourites: favourite authors, favourite historical period.

A Year of Ravens is to me a very novel enterprise, although it looks like the main driving force behind the project, Kate Quinn, has successfully done it before. It also shows how powerful modern communication tools are, as I imagine bringing seven creative minds together in a project so well streamlined and with no glitches or self contradictory information would have been a lot more difficult in a pre-internet age. It is, in some ways, a similar approach to writing TV shows, where characters and the main plot line stays, but style can vary greatly between episodes.

Obviously, the finished product is bigger than the sum of its parts, as the seven authors would borrow ideas, data and inspiration from each other and correct or adjust each other's work while the talent flows freely between the seven of them. Still, it feels slightly less like a novel and slightly more than a collection of short stories. I suppose this is an editorial choice, as the more rigid the main outline is, the more homogeneous the book will feel, while the chapters will very between them proportionally with the freedom the authors are allowed. None of this is a reflection on how enjoyable a read this is, which will always be down to the individual talent. Luckily, Kate Quinn has done a very good job in choosing seven very talented, well-documented and hard working authors. And the process itself, which has always been very transparent on social networks, has been a joy to follow and probably the main thing that convinced me to read the book.

As the subtitle says, this is a novel about Queen Boudica's failed rebellion against the Roman rule of Britannia. The choice of topic is also very smart, as Boudica's uprising is one of those rather abnormal moments in history that don't have a long build up time nor too many far reaching direct consequences. The presence of either of the two would have probably determined some of the authors to write it as a series, rather than a standalone novel. The whole of Boudica's appearance and disappearance from history occurs within a year or so, consequence of a series of very sudden events and very rushed decisions that are not entirely clear to history but that are very well fleshed out in the novel. Same thing could be said about the destruction of Pompeii, Kate Quinn's previous project. What's next, Spartacus?

The boom opens with Stephanie Dray The Queen, a prelude to the Boudica riot seen through the eyes of Queen Cartimandua of the Brigantes, of which we only know was a contemporary of Boudica, but not necessarily that they ever seen eye to eye. They do in Stephanie's account, and the story very intelligently links Cartimandua with both Boudica and Catus Decianus, the Roman procurator whose decisions were the most direct cause of the rebellion. How? Well, Stephanie takes an approach that is rather divergent from the orthodox historical line, but no less credible. Very well written, this chapter is also an interesting study in the status, options and opinion of the client-kings of Rome, a status with which Queen Cartimandua has juggled successfully for more than two decades.

Next up is Ria's story, a slave girl who's the illegitimate daughter of King Prasutagus, and what the build-up to the rebellion looks like through her eyes. Although I like the idea of giving voice to a slave, something that only very seldom happens, I'm not entirely sure what Ria's story actually brings to the table. She is never central to the story, her interference with the grand political developments is minimal and her final exit from the stage seems slightly artificial. And needless to say, she is entirely fictional. We do understand what the status of slaves was, why being a woman slave sucked even more and the many ways in which slaves were fucked over and shat upon, but all this is hardly new. And hardly central to Boudica's story.

Russell Whitfield's The Tribune is the only chapter written entirely from a Roman point of view. I've seen some of the previous reviewers complaining about the language, but I suspect none of those reviewers ever served in the military. To me the chapter felt perfectly accurate, in line with the language, mentality and habits of first century Roman patricians and it can stand alone as a great coming of age story.

Vicky Shecter's The Druid brings to the fore a decision that has been rather detrimental to the cohesion of the novel: the dual perspective. Three of the seven authors use it, so we have 10, rather than seven subjective point of views on the events. That being said, Vicky does a great job at it, showing how detrimental misunderstood cultural differences can be and how silly it all looks from outside. She's got a great story of a forced interaction between two enemies and a very sudden death, which melt together to form a very good read.

Being familiar with Simon's work, I know he's fascinated with the process of cultural assimilation at an individual level. This is exactly what happens in his chapter with Andecarus, son of a famous Iceni warrior growing up as a hostage in a Roman household. The cultural clash, the internal conflict, the choices the individual has to make and the differences between what the heart and the mind dictates, it's all there. And more importantly, this is a story of redemption, of going back to a alleged ideal life that turns out to actually not be so ideal, and a story about making the right choices.

And, as the coordinator of the project, Kate Quinn has saved the best for last. In The Warrior she tells the story through the eyes of Duro, my favourite character and the one I can identify with the most. Unlike some others, Duro benefits from not having to face any moral dilemmas. His system of values has long been set and he only needs to fulfil his destiny. Incidentally, this involves a lot of spectacular fighting, which Duro proves to be very good at. Kate might argue that he is a lot of the times taken out of his comfort zone, but as with Valeria, his counterpart, Duro is way too set in his ways to react anyway else than the way he always has: obey the Gods, obey the Kings, and fight your way through all the rests. Replace Kings with Husband and you pretty much get Valeria.

The aftermath of the rebellion gives Eliza Knight the difficult task of drawing the story to an end that would preferably not be along the lines of "Rome was victorious". Not a lot of originality in that. Of course Rome was victorious, but what of the Iceni? So Eliza sets to make up a completely original story of whatever might have happened to Boudica and her daughters after the battle of Wattling Street. And she does it very well, with the main thing to take from her final chapter being how the dynamic between two very different siblings works and how everyone has got some undiscovered strengths that only come about in times of duress.

There's also an epilogue to round up the novel and bring about a rather poetical resolution for the future of Britannia. Cartimandua makes a short reappearance and links back with Boudica's story, providing an antithesis to the feisty Iceni queen and leaving the reader with one of the recurrent questions in history: live in fear or die in pain?

All in all, a great novel based on a very good story and some brilliant writing, some of which I've sampled below:

"If I would not be universally loved, I must still be feared"
"You were only betrayed by the predictability of my enemies."
"My reputation is nothing when weighed against the good of my people."
says Stephanie Dray through the mouth of Cartimandua in a lesson of tribal politics. While Decianus' domestic trouble provide the humour:

"How was it that women could simultaneously give a litany of specific instructions as though admonishing a simple-minded child and then imply that only by obeying them completely could one live up to the standard of masculinity they had just eviscerated?"

"He looked at me as if I had promised him a honeycomb and handed him a wasp's nest." (Ruth Downie)

"We cannot shape the destiny of the empire from the army [...]
  We cannot manifest the destiny of the empire without the army [...].
"one should count each day as a separate life. All of us make mistakes, Agricola. That's what being an adult is all about. Being a man is bearing them, learning from them, and moving on."
"Well, to make the sculpture, it starts out as nothing. In fact, it is ugly. A piece of lump. But when the right man comes along with the right tools, he makes the lump something beautiful and wonderful. So it is here in Cambria. Paulinus is the man, Cambria the rock. To make it a beautiful thing, as in the rest of Britannia, he must first break the rock. Much of the rock will be wasted. Much of the rock will be dust. But when the job is done... it will be good."
some stoic philosophy from Russ Whitfield, very able in providing it in the field on the military too:

"Naso nodded and glanced al Calvus' body: 'We used to joke that this was the only way I'd get a fucking promotion. It was funny at the time, I suppose.'
'Carry on' was all Agricola had to say."
"Arms observe no bounds, nor can the wrath of the sword, once drawn, be easily checked or stayed; war delights in blood."

"If a babe was left and found alive the next morning, then the child was meant for greatness. If a babe was found dead, the gods had not accepted it - and woe to the mother of such a child, for her fate was never certain."
"Before the sun rose, the world turned gray. Was this when spirits walked the earth? Was this when death would come to claim those the gods had chosen?" (Eliza Knight)

"It all begins and ends with ravens. Ravens, who have seen all the great tragedies of the world unfold, and whose cry is eternal." (Stephanie Dray)

"It's one of the great joys of writing historical fiction, wondering more about the characters and less about the deeds of these long past lives" (Russ Whitfield)

miercuri, 9 decembrie 2015

Frontman Fronto

S.J.A. Turney - Marius' Mules VIII: Sons of Taranis, Victrix Books, 2015

It has been obvious for some time that the Marius' Mules series has surpassed by a damn long mile any objective it set out to achieve: it followed Caesar's account on the war in Gaul, but the last book of the Gallic Wars - to the chronology of which this volume corresponds - was not written by Caesar anymore; it fictionalized the great general's diaries, but the series is no longer the fleshing out of a laconic historical account, but has become the vast saga of the House of Falerii, lead by everyone's favourite legate, Marcus Fronto.

By that same token, the huge cast makes it completely unnecessary for Fronto to make it to the end of the series alive. And the way Varus was built up in the first half, and with the unfolding of the events in Massilia and Rome in the second half, I did wonder throughout a huge chunk of the book: "Oh, my God, is he going to kill Fronto?" Sure, he had to be at Alesia, he had to be the unsung hero of the biggest battle in the campaign, but once that's done, he is in grave danger. Sure, Fronto has always been in great danger, and always at the forefront of fighting. But we knew he'd survive. We knew we'll find him in the very center of the immense clash in the Mandubii capital. He could've died a glorious death there and bring the series to an end, but Simon spared him on that occasion. And even though he is now retired from the army to the very unspectacular career of wine merchant, Fronto is in a bigger danger that he has ever been: he is no longer necessary and once you realise that, it feels like every page can be his last.

Caesar's officers, his former comrades, already speak about him in the past tense. He is not tied to any real document or source, so Simon has no obligation to achieve anything with him. And with his talent for always getting in trouble, every fight now can be Fronto's last, without endangering the series in any way.

I won't spoil what happens to Fronto for you, but I will reveal this; I got towards the end of the book thinking: 'Oh, this time the Gods - and Simon - have been really merciful with the cast, as no one of any importance dies throughout, like in the previous 8 books.' And then, at the very end, on comes a massive onslaught, in the very heart of Rome, in which characters fall like the apples of an abandoned orchard in late autumn.

I thought this book will be in some ways poorer than its predecessors, as the year after the battle of Alesia will not see any clash anywhere near as big as the one where Vercingetorix was captured. But after 12 years and some 15 books, Simon has learned when to stick to historical facts and when to give free rein to his imagination. And he manages such a good mix in this book that Sons of Taranis is in many ways more gripping than some of the earlier volumes in the series.

I've also realized something else about all of Simon's books, not only the MM series - what makes them so enthralling is not necessary the size of the clashing armies or the historical importance of the event, but simply the way he creates tension. He adjusts his level of detail so that we can always envisage the action in a cinematic fashion and we always get a feeling of expectancy, the idea that something is about to happen, yet we never know what exactly or which way the story is going to go.

And his characters have become much more complex, specially the Gauls. So much so that I no longer know in which moral category to place most of them. Lucterius of the Cadurci had the heroism of an epic hero in the previous book and he seemed to be the one to take over the torch of freedom from Vercingetorix once the Arverni royal would be captured. Yet after the biggest army Gaul ever put together is defeated, Lucterius' fight and the the man himself is painted as almost ridiculous in its stubbornness. The siege of Uxellodunum, the most important moment of the year's campaign, is treated rather lightly, as a story with the ending written beforehand, though it does occasion another brilliant moment of bravery from Atenos, now (finally) primus pilus of the famous Tenth Legion. 'That man would hold the gates of Hades itself against Cerberus if you asked', says Varus, though what Atenos pulls at the ramp at Uxellodunum looks like a more impressive feat.

However, Lucterius is not there. He is busy trying to raise support that will never come, to revive a spirit that's been broken for good. And neither is Molacos, a skilled hunter and warrior that can easily skip through the Roman lines at Alesia and easily wins the reader's sympathies in the previous book, but is now turned into a bloodthirsty thug.

It is this playing with grey areas of morality and looking at characters from different angles that gives them depth and make this book stand proud among the others in the series.

Two more aspects I particularly appreciated:

- the description of Massilia, background for Fronto's civilian adventures, as usual very well documented but unusual in that this is a Greek city-state, which steers the reading towards the educational side - observing how this is different than the typical Roman city and what the role of the ancient Greek colonies was;

- description of the engineering heroes of Caesar's army, the unfashionable but highly efficient advantage that the Romans had over their Northern conquests. Their work is the one that ensured maximum advantage is drawn from the terrain, that maximum damage is inflicted before the battle and that losses are minimized through facilitating sieges, use of artillery and ample defensive structures. And whenever they pop up, they also seem to be providing an element of humour. Like when Varus says:

'It is an immense job. I asked about it before we heard of the spring, and the senior engineer just looked at me as though I's asked him to lower the sky a little.'

And the proof the Simon is now so exercised and confident in writing about the Gallic Wars that he even affords to create some ad-hoc folklore:

'there was a saying among Caesar's legions since Alesia. "Lead the tenth to glory, but put a coin in your mouth first." ' thinks Atenos after the surviving Uxellodunum.

Oh, and we've also got a great stand-off finale phrased better than any previous ones:

'There are moments when the great games of gods are poised on a knife-point and the outcome could go either way. At such times, the world holds its breath and even death seems inconsequential next to the enormity of the moment. The gods' dice teeter on their points, waiting for gravity to pull them down and declare a winner.'

But to find out what is happening in this particular history defining moment you will have to click on the link at the top, go to Amazon and buy the book. It's well worth it, though if you're already fans of the series I doubt you need any further encouragement.