This review has been a while in coming as I’ve been working out how to tackle it. Firstly let me make clear just how stunning a book it is. Now let me explain a little…
America’s First Daughter is not exactly my general sphere of reading. I tend towards swords, explosions, boobs and fart jokes in my reading. Alright, that’s maybe a simplification, but you get the idea. I like my historical fiction generally action packed and usually ancient or medieval. So the saga of a 18th-19th century family, their relationships and the political turmoil that surrounds them is a little out of my comfort zone. But every now and then it does you good to step outside your comfort zone. And with Stephanie now being an acquaintance of mine through involvement in a joint work, I felt it would do me no harm to read this, especially when she very kindly offered me an advance copy, wondering what an Englishman would make of what is in essence a very American book.
Firstly, I’ll tackle the form of the book. This is to some extent an old-fashioned family saga. It purports to be a tale of the daughter of Thomas Jefferson and in principle it is that, but it is much more besides. It is a tale that delves deep into the lives of the whole family and many of their friends – and enemies, in fact. It is the tale of the birth and growing pains of a nation. And it is epic in scope, both temporally and geographically. Covering more than forty years, it takes us from the last days of the American revolution to the late 1820s, showing not only a changing, growing family, but also a changing, growing world. And it takes us from the States to France and back. A truly epic work (and at 592 pages, you can see that!)
And so on to the style. There are a few writers who are capable of creating works of fiction that are so beautifully crafted that it matters little what tale they are actually attempting to tell, it will always be exquisite. Guy Gavriel Kay is such a writer. He could write a user manual for an Epson printer and make it something you clutch to your heart. Mostly, though, this appears to be the province of female writers. Prue Batten is one. I’ve said before that her writing is like silk. She could write a telephone book and I’d be riveted to it. Recently I have discovered several female American authors who have similar skills. Kate Quinn is one. Stephanie Dray is another. Their writing is heady, hypnotic and thoroughly immersive. And that is what I get from reading America’s First Daughter.
In short it is a beautifully written treatment of a family in the early days of the United States. The tale opens with out eponymous heroine in her father (Thomas Jefferson)’s study, after his death, going through the seemingly endless letters and correspondence he has left. And thus begins the story of Martha Jefferson and her family. Each chapter opens with a letter from or to one of the Jefferson family, which gives the chapter its direction. The authors then expand on the letter and give it form and content as Martha Jefferson recounts the chapters of her life in relation to that letter, each one taking us a step forward in time. It is a fascinating way to view a life and I can only doff my cap to the ladies for the sheer inventiveness of what they have done and for what must have been one of the most immersive and challenging research projects of all time. Imagine taking the collected correspondence of a man known for his letters, sorting them out and crafting a story from them. Impressive, isn’t it?
But for me (possibly due to my outsider’s view of the subject) the real win for America’s First Daughter was what I learned or was led to reconsider…
- The very agrarian culture of the early Unites States with its landowners and estates, granting them political rights – reminiscent to me of ancient Rome in odd ways.
- The amazingly close gap between the American revolution and the French revolution (a mere 13 years!)
- The strange world of women in the era, given a very Victorian value system, and yet with strong women forging their own destinies very much ahead of their time.
- The surprising strength of the abolitionist cause in Virginia, well in advance of the civil war. In fact the level of liberal thought seems more prevalent than I’d expected for the time.
- Again, though, hos close the Revolution and the Civil war are in time, given how they seem to belong to such different eras in history.
- The word Yankee. Its use led me to look up its origin and guess what: no one seems to know. It is a mysterious word.
- The close cultural connections between the US and France at the time. And some of the history of Lafayette (who I mostly knew from a street name in New Orleans!)
There are so many more things I reexamined because of the book, but you get the idea. One mark of a good book has to be how much it makes you think, after all.
And I think also that it is quite brave of the authors to tackle this time and these people. It’s not like writing about ancient Rome or the crusades, because the people Stephanie and Laura are writing about here are real people whose families still exist and might be picking up the book and reading about great, great, great, great grandpappy. This is only perhaps 7 generations back, and I have knowledge of my family at that time. To tackle such troubling social situations involving those families is impressive.
One line from the book that stays with me and goes some way to explaining the epic scale of the work is “Though I’ve known personally five of the six presidents before him…”
If you are a lover of deep, very personal, very emotional prose, then you’ll probably buy this without my recommendation. If you are a lover of action adventure, well, take a punt. Have a try – you might well be surprised. I was. Stephanie and Laura (who is thus far unknown to me) have created something with such depth and languid style that it deserves to be read. And you’ll have to wait for a short while yet, I’m afraid, since it is not released until March 1st next year. But you can pre-order it here, and I recommend that you do.
My name is Marcus Annius Blaesus and I am a man with a destiny, for all the good that might do me. Before this night that has changed, poisoned, destroyed my life, I have been acclaimed a good man, a strong man, even a hero. I am a legionary of the Twentieth Valeria Victrix, based at the great red fortress of Deva in the province of Britannia. It is the year of the consuls Gavius and Aquilinus, under the glorious reign of the great emperor Decius, who has vanquished the Arab named Phillipus and taken the throne, may he live for a thousand years. But this is not his story, nor indeed mine, in truth, It is a story about one of my room mates by the name of Caius Pincius Baritus.
It began three weeks ago…
For the love of blessed Minerva, was it that recent?
The bastard emperor Phillipus was dead. The news came through the trade routes and the grapevine of the ordinary folk hours before the official report was proclaimed in the fortress to a parade ground full of tired, worn legionaries. And we heard that Decius, the renowned and beloved commander of the Danubius, had donned the purple cloak. It suited us all. Phillipus had been a watery, odd Syrian with no real ability or strength, while Decius was of good senatorial stock, from a Pannonian city and with a pedigree in the legions.
But the news didn’t go down so well with everyone. You see, being a soldier of Rome these days is a little like betting on the horses, or the gladiators of the Deva ludus. You put your money on a claimant to the throne and if he stays in power long enough for you to claim your retirement benefits, you’ve won the game. If your stake is attached to one of the more numerous would-be emperors that barely have time for buttock to meet throne before sword meets neck, then your career can be in tatters at a remarkable speed. And so can your neck, for that matter.
A number of the Twentieth’s officers – even the senior officers… especially the senior officers – had put their money on Phillipus. Several of our tribunes, our legatus, our camp prefect – even the damned medicus and the chief barber – owed their position and the hope of a future career to the poor, rapidly-decomposing Phillipus.
Yes. If I’m going to tell you this, I’ve probably vacillated enough, and I should start in earnest here.
It was early November and Deva was slowly drowning in a sea of soggy brown leaves, the trees denuded and reaching up like skeletal hands to the lead-grey skies above. The winds in Britannia in November are more insistent than Catullus and more piercing than a Thracian chorus. They cut you down to the bone, and leave a wet, chilly corpse in your place. I think you know what I’m getting at. Think northern Etruria in January and make it wetter, browner and colder, and you’ll be about right. It ruins the mood of every serving soldier. And there is little more depressing than standing on a soggy, leaf-strewn parade ground listening to a senior officer bang on about loyalty and duty and what it means to be Roman, unless it’s doing so while your best mate is busy rubbing his neck incessantly and you have to cover for him.
Baritus was constantly ravaging his neck that morning, as though a thousand insects had bitten him around the throat. I stood, half-listening to the legatus, mostly trying to keep an eye on the centurion and the optio to make sure Baritus wasn’t made an example of. And every time an officer looked our way, I had to grind my hobnailed boot down into my mate’s foot enough to stop him rubbing until their gaze moved on elsewhere. It didn’t do to be considered inattentive when the commander spoke. That sort of thing ends with you mucking out the latrines.
Indeed, just as my patience was wearing to its thinnest, Baritus stopped entirely. I risked a sidelong glance. His neck was pale – as usual – but where he had rubbed it a wide ring of ruptured red flesh gave him a self-made collar above his scarf line. I tried to ignore him. He’d gone quiet and still. Instead I paid attention to the tribunal stand, where the legatus was busy addressing his men.
He was busy now droning about the values of an emperor and the qualities of a leader, as though any of us thought further than the next payday, the next drink, the next whore. I almost missed it, so wrapped up was I in my own weather troubles and my friend’s current weirdness. I snapped back to staring at the legatus and ran my memory over the words I was sure I’d heard from the man, but there was really no need. If an officer has to say something he likes the sound of, he’ll find a way to work it into a speech five or six times anyway. And there it was again. Our allegiance should be given to a legitimate emperor – an emperor of the people, who knew what the provinces needed…
I felt the familiar sinking feeling. Decius was our legitimate emperor now, and we’d already had that speech a few days ago, when the news came. Them the legatus had been virtually fawning at Decius’ name, and already he was intimating a need for revolution. How quickly had the commander changed his tune, eh? I heard Pulcher’s name and that sinking feeling went subterranean. Marcus Martiannius Pulcher was the governor of Britannia Superior – a man with senatorial and military form, popular with the chinless officer class. We’d all seen or heard enough of governors being proclaimed emperor – Decius, after all, was one of them – but while Decius was approved by the senate, I was now aware that my own commander was pledging the legion’s support to the governor of Britannia instead. A usurpation. Treason en-masse. Stupid. Far from lacking in guts to suggest such a dangerous thing, but stupid. Most of the men knew that Decius would be attentive to legion pay and honours until he was secure, and little matters more to a soldier than pay and honours. Certainly not the value of a man who understands the provinces. Of course, some of the men would cleave to the legatus in the belief that he would do what was best for them. Those who didn’t know how the upper class worked, anyway…
I struggled to hold my peace in the face of such treason being proclaimed in the name of my own legion, but I didn’t have to for long, anyway. A centurion from the third cohort bellowed his loyalty to Rome and to its legitimate emperor, Decius, defying his commander. He barely had time to finish his sentence before a mob of legionaries jumped him from behind and dragged him to the ground. Even as the officers shouted themselves hoarse, trying to assert control, the parade ground erupted. Legionary against legionary, those who thought they might gain from supporting the commander shoved and punched against those who thought they would best achieve their goals by maintaining their allegiance to Decius.
For all my recognised scepticism and cynicism, I had been thrown by the development, and I was standing, almost dumbfounded, when some soldier I barely knew in the next line punched me in the jaw, spinning me round. I struggled to right myself and defend myself, but he was already off, fighting someone else. Instead, I found myself face to face with my friend Baritus, who jabbed at my shoulder and pointed off towards the fortress gate.
I guess I was still befuddled. I certainly had no desire to stand in the midst of this growing chaos. It resembled the largest bar brawl in the city’s history, five thousand legionaries pushing, shoving, punching and ducking, their officers mostly bellowing in an attempt to instil some sort of order (although in fairness, a number of officers were busy laying into one another too.) Well, they say you should never discuss politics, and certainly not in a volatile crowd of trained warriors. As Baritus and I ducked and dodged through the chaos, making for the fortress, where a skeleton garrison remained atop the walls, watching developments with interest, the brawl turned nasty. Someone, somewhere drew his pugio dagger and plunged it into the belly of a comrade. There was a tiny, odd pause, as though the world shuddered, while the enormity of the act hit those involved, and then suddenly more weapons were drawn. Men bellowed their battle cries of ‘Decius imperator! Decius the god!’ or ‘Pulcher! Pulcher for Britannia!’
But then we’d had years of peace in Britannia and at least half the legion had never seen action more brutal than digging ditches or arresting wayward locals. Those of us who remembered real battle and real killing were in much less of a rush to experience it again over something that it was not even our place to decide. Men started to die.
Baritus and I were the first men from the parade ground to reach the gate, which stood open, waiting for the return of the cohorts. A quick glance over my shoulder confirmed that many of the veterans were also running for the relative safety of the fortress. Sadly, not far behind them, the legatus was running for his safe headquarters, a small group of officers and men clustered around him for protection.
Baritus burst through the gate with me at his heel.
‘What now?’ I said rather breathlessly. We would not have long. The chaos outside would soon move inside the fortress and would not end until one side or the other became ascendant.
‘We’ve got just moments,’ Baritus muttered and there was something odd in his voice that sent a shiver up my spine. I had once heard a haruspex pronouncing disaster at a public event, and this carried those same expectant, dreadful leaden tones.
‘What do you mean?’
My friend turned and grasped my shoulders and the look on his face was even more fear-inspiring than his voice. His eyes had taken on a hollow, glassy look. He squeezed my shoulders, in the manner of a father sending his son on a long journey. It was perhaps the eeriest thing I’d ever experienced… thus far, at least. He swallowed and sighed. ‘My time’s up. And I can’t do anything about it. But you… you need to go. Once this settles, get away from here. As far as you can and as fast as you can. Don’t stop until… just don’t ever stop. Do you understand?’
‘No.’ And I didn’t. Baritus gave the most humourless smile I ever saw and said ‘pick a building.’
‘Pick a building. For us to go hide in and wait this out.’
I shrugged. ‘Have you been at the medical supplies?’
‘How about that one?’ he asked, gesturing to a long, low, flat structure.
‘The smithy?’ What in Hades was the man saying.
But already men were beginning to flood into the fortress behind us. Fights were breaking out under the gate, in the street, on the walls. The idiocy was spreading and following us. The legatus, cowering and fleeing like a fox caught in the hen house, was running for the headquarters, surrounded by armed men. I stared at the smithy. ‘Why there?’ Although I was already running for the door.
‘Because it’s my best chance.’ Again, he rubbed at his ruined neck, and I frowned as we reached the door. Pushing it open, we scurried inside and ran the length of the building towards the storage area at one end, where the nails, rivets and plates of iron were kept. I couldn’t quite fathom why we were there, but Baritus was so forceful, so purposeful, so adamant…
‘We could hide in our room. This will be over in less than an hour one way or another and no one’s going to start searching barracks.’
Baritus shook his head. ‘This is my best chance, I think. Though even then, I know in my heart that there’s no chance. Watch and learn, Blaesus, and when it’s over go out to my place in the canabae and sort through my things. Most of my stuff is there, not in the barracks. Take it and run.’
‘You’re raving, Baritus,’ I rolled my eyes. ‘To desert the legion? And bring that dishonour and punishment down on my head? You’re out of your mind. And anyway, won’t your favourite little woman be there? She will want your stuff.’
‘Annilia has gone back to Gaul,’ he said hoarsely. ‘I sent her last week.’
I frowned. The canabae was the settlement that housed the civilians outside the fortress, and Baritus and his girl had had a house there for five years. He’d been expecting to live there with her as husband and wife when he was given his pension in a few years’ time. But now… all this talk of his time being up, and Annilia having been sent away? Another shudder ran the length of my spine.
‘Listen,’ I managed, getting a hold of myself and trying to talk over the noise of the fighting and arguments in the streets outside, ‘I don’t know what all this morbidity and weirdness is about, but I’m not having it. We’ll sit it out and then everything will return to normal. A few officers will be told to fall on their swords, but most of us will just settle back into daily routine. And then you’ll stop panicking and you’ll send for Annilia again.’
‘When you go there,’ he said, apparently ignoring me, ‘make sure to check the back room. I have the most important things in there.’
There was a bang as the door was thrown open at the far end of the smithy and two men tumbled in, punching and roaring. For some reason, as Baritus ducked down behind a table, I found myself joining him.
‘Time’s up, Blaesus,’ he smiled. ‘See you on the other side.’
As I frowned in complete incomprehension, my friend withdrew a coin from his purse, pushing it under his tongue to pay the ferryman, and sat back in an oddly relaxed pose.
I shook my head in disbelief.
If it hadn’t happened before my very eyes, I would not believe it. You won’t believe it, so insane does it sound. As I watched in disbelief Baritus lower his gaze to the floor, sitting peering down between his knees, I could hear the two struggling men a few tables down the room, battering at one another and slamming back into cupboards as they fought. And then one of them fell away and the other took the advantage of freedom to pull back his arm and throw. I have no idea what it was he threw, only what it did. For one thing it missed its intended target as that other soldier ducked to the side. But the truly terrifying and unbelievable thing was that the thrown object smashed into the wall above us and there was a tremendous metallic shudder as the shelves of stored gear shook and rattled. And then, like the hand of the Furies, a single item fell.
I watched in disgusted horror as the blade slammed into the exposed neck of my friend, shattering his backbone as it dug deep into the flesh. Baritus’ legs spasmed and shook as blood fountained up from his neck, the cleaver, its job done, falling away to the floor with a metallic clatter.
I was dumbstruck. The blade had neatly struck the line of red welts where my friend had been scratching his neck all day. I barely even registered that I was covered in his blood. My hearing seemed to have gone dull and all I could hear was my own racing heartbeat. My eyes bulged, seemingly unable to leave the grisly sight beside me, my eyelids apparently unwilling to close. In the end I tore my gaze away from him like a man pulling a boot from deep sucking mud, and rose, shuddering, freezing, white as a sheet. The two combatants in the room had met in a final clash and one was now busy beating the other senseless with a wooden mallet. As I staggered past him on the way to the door, shock filling me to the seams, the survivor snarled ‘who are you for?’
‘Who are you for?’ he repeated vehemently.
‘Me,’ I relied quietly and staggered off through the door.
Already things were changing outside. One of the more respected centurions had managed to pull together a couple of centuries of men and form them into a proper unit, and was even now moving through the fortress, drawing officers to his side and bellowing at the men to stand down. I hardly noticed. I had other things on my mind.
Through the chaos I stumbled, heading for the south gate. The canabae. Baritus’ house.
I was faintly aware of what was going on around me. You’ll know, of course, what happened in the end that day. Despite the seeming chaos, nine men in ten held true to the new emperor Decius and only the legatus and two tribunes paid the price for attempted insurrection. That centurion with great presence of mind rallied the whole legion and placed the legatus under arrest, offering him the chance to take his own life before he was dragged off in chains. The man hadn’t even the guts to do the right thing then. I hear that Decius has him in the carcer already, trying to decide what punishment fits best. And of course the Twentieth has received the honorific Deciana for our honourable defence of the true emperor in the face of treason. It’s all great and good, and makes some of what happened that day worthwhile, anyway. But not for me. And certainly not for Baritus.
I staggered out through the civil settlement until I got to his little love nest near the bridge. It was not a great villa or anything. Just four rooms, but it was his and it was dry and neat. Not locked, though.
I entered the front room and noted the fact that everything of Baritus’ was already packaged and labelled. His valuables were on the table in piles, his treasured graves made by an Italian armourer on the pile of unworn spare tunics. It was eerier even than the man’s freak death in some ways. I had no intention of climbing the stairs to the couple’s bedroom, and wandered through to the rear door, taking in the neat piles of his kit around me.
I opened the door to the rear room and stepped in.
And my life changed.
This was where he kept the most important things.
The room was well lit by a large window. Illuminated enough for me to realise that the room was bare. Completely devoid of possessions or furnishings. The door to the small cucina – the kitchen – stood closed. But despite the lack of anything I could possibly have catalogued or disposed of, I knew instantly what he had meant by his most important things.
Someone had painted the walls. Someone with little talent, in truth, and I had the suspicion it had been my friend himself. I know that to be the case, now, though then it was a mere notion. A series of painted panels ran along two of the walls. I found myself turning to the first, fascinated. The crude depiction of Baritus and myself at the gladiator fight last month was poorly painted, but executed well enough that I could recognise us. Us and the old hag that had tried to press us for money to feed her brood of feral children that were busy trying to rob innocent passers-by. I remembered that day. We had both done quite well at the book-makers.
The second panel showed another scene I remembered. Last payday at the fortress. There were the crowds of angry soldiers bellowing for their pay, since the money was late. One of the unfortunate side effects of an unexpected change of emperors is that sometimes things like pay for provincial legions gets put to the back of the queue.
Other panels followed. I recognised many of them for what they were even if I hadn’t been there. Images of my friend, painted by himself.
And then, as I changed wall, there was an image of his head and shoulders, like a marble bust, though with a red ring around his neck. I shuddered and fearfully flickered my glance to the next panel. There was an image of the emperor Phillipus stuck with half a dozen military daggers. It came as little surprise to me to see that in the background of that image, legionaries struggled and fought one another. There were three panels left. I could hardly bear to move on, and yet some morbid fascination drove me.
There it was.
The next panel.
Baritus crouched with his head hanging forward and a hole in his neck, blood everywhere. Me next to him, with a baffled expression. My heart groaned at the sight. Had Baritus been living with this premonition for weeks? No wonder he’d been rubbing his neck this morning. How had he…
My heart jumped for a second.
There were two more panels…
I stepped a pace to my right, my eyes squeezed shut. I could feel my heart racing, my blood thundering through my veins, chilly as ice water. Somehow I had the feeling the Fates were watching, and that they were far from friendly.
I opened my eyes. There I was. Crudely painted, like the rest, but it was definitely me. And I was sitting at a table in a bar, talking, just as I am now. Innocuous, eh?’
The last picture drained all the blood from my face and the heat from my body. There I was half naked with a red line of welts and scabs running from my left armpit to my right hip.
Go on. Tell me I’m being stupid. I would. I did. I’ve been there, remember?
Want to see the marks? The itching started before dawn and try as I might, I just couldn’t stop myself. All the way from armpit to hip. And you know what? Baritus’ advice was useless. Here I am, a deserter – a wanted man with a death sentence hanging over me, for all that might bother me now. And I’ve run all the way to Gaul to escape what’s coming, but it makes no difference. It follows you. I know that now. And I know that by dawn tomorrow I’ll be clasping hands with Baritus across the endless river. I even have my coin ready, you know?
What? You don’t believe any of this? No, of course you don’t. Nor would I had it not happened to me, but mark my words that everything I told you tonight is true.
No, I don’t expect you to do anything, and I don’t want any money. Don’t you see? I’m not here for charity or aid? I’m here because this is where I have to be… where I’ll die. And I’m here to give you this. Go on… unfold it. I really recommend you do.
You see, while I was on the run, I started painting. It turns out I’m much better at it than Baritus was, and I’m sure you can see the resemblance, can’t you?
We’re taking a brief break from books again this week to look at a different kind of media. For those of you following this blog, you’ll remember that earlier this year I reviewed a great motorcycle adventure in both DVD and book format called the ‘Middle Kingdom Ride‘, and that during the summer I reviewed the second in the series – ‘Tough Rides – India‘. Well the great news is that Ryan and Colin Pyle are busy producing the third adventure in the series, this time in Brazil, to which I am eagerly looking forward. But in the meantime, here’s a worthily re-packaged re-release to grab the attention of anyone who hasn’t yet seen that and who has an interest in travel and/or bikes.
When the Middle Kingdom Ride was first released I have no doubt that it was intended to be a once-in-a-lifetime thing. It certainly felt like it, and it had been a whole change-of-life, drop-everything-and-try-something amazing project. Having decided to pursue further ‘tough rides’, though, the original has been re-released but with a new name, new look and new format in keeping with the budding series. The DVD of MKR is now available on Blu-Ray as ‘Tough Rides: China’ (you can buy it here.)
So why a new review? Well because the new format deserves the press. I thoroughly enjoyed MKR when I first watched it, and my only real complaint with it was that the sound quality occasionally dipped. Well the blu-ray format is much clearer, which alone makes it a worthwhile improvement. But the real value is in the display. You see, one of the most amazing things about the travelogue was the scenery, which is absolutely stunning and captured with style and grace, especially considering the minimal manpower and equipment available on the journey. Truly, the scenery was breathtaking. And on Blu-ray, that really comes across. Don’t take my word for it. Load up the blu-ray on an HD widescreen and when you’re looking at the Mongolian and Tibetan landscapes it’s like something from Tolkien. Simply stunning.
The menu navigation on this edition is also much improved and having the series on one blu-ray instead of two DVDs adds another level of ease to it. And in case you’ve not read my earlier review, I’ll include a little something about the background of the ride from it out here. Do check out the whole review here for more information, though. If you enjoy a good travelogue in the vein of Michael Palin’s or Levison Wood or Billy Connolly, then these deserve your attention.
(From earlier review:)
Amazingly, this tremendous journey, painstakingly documented in both text and film, was carried out by the two stars from their own funds. They did not receive the financial and logistical backing of the BBC or Nat Geo, or any of the great media groups that usually produce such series. They did not get given special treatment from the authorities as media stars. They were not donated bikes. They used up their savings, sold a house, quit jobs and did it themselves. Did what? you ask… Oh yeah. Here’s what they did:
Ryan Pyle is a freelance photographer from Canada who’s lived in Shanghai for a decade now. He loves China. He loves the culture and the people and has been documenting it with his camera now for years. He’s also an enthusiastic, if relatively amateur, motorcyclist. His brother Colin owned a company back in Canada, but was tiring of the life and sought adventure – and he’s also a biker! So from Ryan’s enthusiasm and Colin’s need for change was born the idea of the Middle Kingdom Ride. The Middle Kingdom, you see, is a phrase derived from China’s name for itself, based on the principle that China was at the centre of its world. Ryan had this crazy idea that the two brothers could leave behind work and ordinary life – including, most wrenchingly, their wives – and take two bikes and a small support crew and ride around the circumference of China. China hold the longest unbroken border that can be driven or ridden, and to do so would not only be fascinating and an amazing achievement, but it would also be a world record.
Ryan and Colin sought financial and logistical support, but the deals they made fell through, leaving them alone. Not to be thwarted, the pair decided that they would do what they intended, with or without support. And so they found a filmmaker who was enthusiastic over the idea, who would travel behind the bikes in an SUV. And through careful planning around the route, arranged a series of local guides from each region who would join the support vehicle for a section of the trip. That was it. Two brothers on bikes, and two men in an SUV behind them.
It’s always a thrill when you have a new project on the horizon. I always have at least one new project on the horizon, mind, so it’s a thrill I get daily. But every now and then something happens that really grabs a writer by the ears, grins into his face and whispers ‘this is the best thing ever.’ I am engaged in an ongoing collaboration with Gordon Doherty that is creating a wonderful tale. And soon the collaboration I took part in with 6 other great authors to tell the tale of Boudica’s revolt will be released (A Year Of Ravens). That was a project that swept me up in the glory of it all.
Something new and superb is now on my horizon, and although we’re still in the very earliest stages, I think I and my fellow conspirator are just too enthused about the idea to hold our peace. It’s like trying to hold in a belly laugh.
I write about Rome. Oh yes, I’ve dabbled with fantasy and with medieval, but even they were heavily flavoured with Rome. Between the projects I’ve released and those already written but waiting to be unleashed upon the world, I’ve covered the late Republic (58-50 BC) with Marius’ Mules. I’ve hit the late Antonine era (180-190 AD) with Praetorian. Two as yet unreleased projects cover 122 AD and the end of the 3rd century AD. And I’ve dabbled in Byzantine and have plans to cover the 8th century with that soon. One thing I’ve never done is to go back to the salad days of Rome, during the height of the Republic, before the rot set in and one man ruled as first among equals. It’s not because it doesn’t interest me. Indeed, it does, and quite a lot. It’s because it’s far less familiar ground for me, so I’ve skirted around it thus far.
But one thing that does really interest me is the cultural situation in the mid Republic, when Rome is busy fighting Carthage, and yet Rome owes much of her culture and most of her military style to the Greek nations and to the Etruscans. This is an era when Rome is separate from Greece, a city-state expanding rapidly into an empire, but when, if you put a Hellenistic commander from Achaea and a Roman commander side by side, you probably wouldn’t be able to tell which was which until they opened their mouths. There is a world of Rome that is not the legions stomping around in lorica segmentata, founding fortresses and Romanizing the barbarian. There is a world of Rome where Carthage is still a player in the Mediterranean world that Rome must take into account, where the former Hellenistic empires of the east are crumbling and decaying but are still making waves and producing formidable folk.
Thus was born the idea for two people to work in concert to tell two tales that were really one story, one from the world of the Roman and another from the land of the Greek. The very idea that the same time and the same events could be seen through the different eyes of two of the world’s most important and influential cultures is just riveting to me. The concept was a raw thing at that point. I nice idea, but still just the skeleton of an idea. It took a conversation with one of the greats of Historical Fiction to take that skeleton and turn it into a grand, magnificent beast.
Christian Cameron, author of such excellent tomes as the Long War series, the Tyrant series and God of War (as well as many non-Greek novels!) has become a good friend of mine over recent years, sharing a passion for the ancient world – even if our eras of interest differ – as well as a belief in the value of re-enactment in unpicking the truth of history.
Christian writes Greek tales. Not Roman. Greek. I write Roman tales. Not Greek. Roman. But in that odd world where both cultures are still viable and are influencing one another in the politics of the Mediterranean, well, our interests collide.
And Christian had the muscle and flesh to put on the bones of the idea.
Philopoemen, considered to be the ‘Last Greek hero’ was a fascinating figure and to be honest, until Christian drew my attention to him, he was but a name to me. And one of his contemporaries – his greatest contemporary most would say – was the Graecophile Roman general Titus Flamininus. Plutarch wrote of the pair in his ‘lives’. The two men lived very different lives at the end of the 3rd century BC and the start of the 2nd but, despite that, they meet several times and their careers run parallel for a while as both friends and adversaries, navigating the complex politics of the Greek world and Roman interference therein. As soon as Christian had thrown me the names, I was hooked and I knew it had to be done. One great Greek and one great Roman, living at the same time, fighting in the same wars? How could any writer pass up the opportunity to tell that tale.
And so that is what we propose to do. Late next year, Christian will novelise the life and trials of the last great Greek, while I tell the tale of his contemporary, sometime friend and sometime enemy Flamininus. The books will weave in and out, telling two different tales of one sequence of events, but will often collide, with both novels sharing scenes where the two characters meet. It’s a daunting prospect, but a damned exciting one.
Time for me then to explore a new world before the influence of the late Republic and to delve into a world that is as much Greek as Roman, and as much Punic as either.
I for one can’t wait to start. And because this idea has not been sold yet, please do tell us if you like the concept.
You can read what Christian has to say (and as usual it’s fascinating and informative) HERE
(All images except ‘Ravens’ cover courtesy of Wikimedia commons)
Something a little different for you this week. Two short novellas from two excellent writers, both of whom are contributors to the imminent ‘A Year of Ravens’ to which I have added my own humble tale. And both of these works are available on kindle for free, by the way!
First up we have The Three Fates by Kate Quinn
Kate is an author of both ancient and Renaissance novels, though to me (and to many) she is best known for her tales of Rome’s more powerful women during the height of the empire. I recently read and reviewed ‘Lady of the Eternal City’, her latest, and you can check out my review here. I was perusing potential things to add to my kindle when I came across The Three Fates (and the second novella I will be reviewing). Instant download. The Three Fates, I will say from the off, is definitely not a standalone work. As Kate mentions in her notes, this is, in fact, the original beginning of that aforementioned novel, which was later cut and then made it into the world as a free novella by way of introduction. But then, it’s free, so it doesn’t matter to the reader if it is more of a prologue than a tale in itself.
The Three Fates is more of an introduction to the characters (or a reintroduction if you have read Empress of the Seven Hills). It doesn’t have a nicely-defined end, but it does provide a very good introduction to the protagonists and antagonists of ‘Lady’. As a taster it does the job impeccably. It introduces you in a short read to Kate’s writing, which is heady and absorbing and brings the perils and glories of the Hadrianic court into glorious light. Download it for free, read it and see whether you want to go on. I would recommend doing so, having read ‘Lady’, but with this novella you can make up your own mind with no pressure.
Secondly, I also found The Princess of Egypt Must Die by Stephanie Dray
I find it harder to comment on this one as an introduction since I’ve not yet read Stephanie’s ‘Lily of the Nile’ to which this connects. The difference between this and Kate’s is that this novella can stand alone as a read. Taking the story from Alexandria to the mountains of Thrace, this story hooked me for the oddest of reasons. Not because of the writing, which is certainly high quality, atmospheric and gripping, and not because of the characters, though they are well fleshed out and believable. And not because of the point of view, since it is written in first-person present tense, which is not my favourite POV to read from.
No. This hooked me because it is a fantastic, strange and wonderful mix, belonging to an era of great change and cultural mixing, when the pharaohs were as much Macedonian as they were Egyptian. The world is an odd mix of Egyptian, Greek, Macedonian, and even more barbarous peoples such as the Thracians. And Stephanie seems to have submersed herself in the cultures of all of them and got into the heads of her characters who feel truly alive in a fascinating world. In fact, it was so absorbing that Lily of the Nile is now on my list, largely because having read the novella I need to read on…
So there you go. Two free novellas to help you while away an hour or two. I highly recommend them both.
Happy Thursday, all.
For years friends of mine have raved about Cornwell’s Uhtred novels, and I have intended to read the series at some point, but never seemed to find the time. For the record the last Cornwells I read were the Sharpe series back in the day and, though I think I tired a little of the series towards the end, I remember the earlier ones as some of the absolutely best novels I have ever read.
So when I had the opportunity to read an advance copy of the new Cornwell, I had to say yes, didn’t I. I did wonder whether I would really be able to get into the novel, being as it’s book #9 and I have yet to read 1 to 8. No need to worry. From the very first page I remembered why I loved Cornwell’s writing. Warriors of the Storm opens straight to the action, dragging the reader right in. It is filled with the smooth, almost effortlessly absorbing prose that I remember being Cornwell at his best. The descriptive is full and rich, the moments of light-hearted humour beautifully worked.
Set in the early 10th century, the Last Kingdom series is a strange milieu to me. The Dark Ages is a curious era, full of change and uncertainty. A mish-mash of cultures struggle to dominate Britain, from the Saxons and Danes to the Celts and the Scandinavian vikings, many of whom are by this time based in Ireland and Scotland. As a Roman historian, I am to some extent at a loss with 9th-10th century Britain, so this is fresh unfamiliar ground.
However, the bulk of this tale is based in an area I know quite well, that being Chester, the Wirral and surroundings, and to rediscover a place with which I am so familiar (I spend quite a bit of time reenacting there now and research a lot into Roman Deva), thjough in a whole different era, is fascinating.
The book opens as a norse lord (Ragnall Ivarson) who has long been an enemy of Uhtred’s begins an attempt to conquer parts of England. Driven out of his previous territory, this lord and his army sail into the Mersey, which is held by Uhtred, and begin to move inland making a play for invasion and control, holding an ancient hill fort and bridging the river into Northumbria, where a vast supply of potential manpower awaits. Cue a desperate campaign to counter the growing strength of Ivarson, who is related to the English hero through his brother’s marriage to Uhtred’s daughter, so yes, politics is inevitably going to play as much a part here as battle.
My friends rave about Uhtred. This is my first outing with him and, while he is a traditional hero with a particularly nice turn of phrase at times, I wouldn’t say there is much about him that makes him outstanding to me. That didn’t matter, though, because the supporting cast were so vivid and fascinating that I could deal rather easily without a deep fascination with the hero.
Aethelflaed, the daughter of King Alfred who rules Mercia and Wessex, is impressive and powerful, with flaws and uncertainties that make her a far more vivid character than Uhtred. The priests Ceolnoth and Ceolberht were fun and memorable for all their small role, the bishop Leofstan was simply superb, and of Uhtred’s own cadre of warriors, the Irishman Finan was one of the most interesting.
Of course if there is one thing for which Cornwell is noted it is his battles. He has a long pedigree of writing warfare across many eras, and this has over time granted him the ability to do so with pace and panache, never having to linger too much in the gory detail while delving deep enough to hook the reader and really create an impression of the horror, glory, and above all desperation of combat.
The upshot? Great characters, well-written prose, fascinating locations and excellent battle scenes. The plot might have benefitted from a few extra twists and turns, but that is merely icing on a well-made cake. Warriors of the Storm dragged me in and kept me glued to the end. Well worth a read, and now I am shuffling books 1-8 back up in my pile.