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Welcome to the Palladium

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Ever heard of the Palladium? No, not the theatre, nor the metal. The ancient Palladium, I mean. Well oddly it’s cropped up twice recently for me, after never previously knowing anything of it. Firstly, when I was writing the H360 book A Song of War, and then more recently in my biography of Commodus (which will be out in April – nudges you towards the pre-order button.)

So what was the Palladium? Well, let’s go back into some mythology to find it. You’ve heard of Athena, right? Greek goddess, connected with Athens and owls, worshipped in Rome as Minerva, sprouted from the head of Zeus like a pretty and rather powerful boil? Well did you know that she was raised by the sea god Triton and raised alongside Triton’s daughter like a sister. That sister-friend was called Pallas, and one day when soft play went wrong, Athena accidentally killed Pallas. In her grief, she made a divine wooden likeness of Pallas. This, then, was the Palladium. But how does it fit into my tales?

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Cassandra clinging to the Palladium in the temple in Troy (a painting in Pompeii)

Well, ‘A Song of War’ was the H360 tale of the fall of Troy, and it so happened that the Palladium fell from the heavens and landed in Troy, where it was worshipped, stored in the temple of Athena. So when we wrote of the sack and the fall of Troy, it inevitably involved researching  some of the greatest treasures and sacred objects of the city. As legend would have it, the Palladium survives the fall of Troy. In our tale, the team told of Odysseus and Diomedes’ theft of the Palladium (or Palladion in Greek.) So I read of this most reverent wooden statue in the terms of Vicky Alvear Shecter’s amazing tale of Odysseus. So the Palladium leaves Troy with the great intuitive Greek and his lion-skin-clad mate. But somehow it leaves the city after the war, and not via Odysseus, since he heads back to Ithaka in order to drink some Ouzo and relax as he imports washing machines cheap from Albania.

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Diomedes and Odysseus stealing the Palladium (from the Louvre)

Now here the tales seem to peter out. Somehow the Palladium leaves Troy, though it doesn’t seem to be in the hands of Odysseus. It perhaps left with Diomedes, who is recorded as ending up in Italy, or perhaps with Aeneas somehow. However it went, the next time it appears in the Historical/Mythological record is in Rome. Exactly how it stops being a Graeco-Trojan religious focus and becomes Roman is something of a mystery, but then the Romans were ever masters of claiming older valuable things as their own, a bit like Melania… I personally blame Virgil, who seems intent on making Troy Rome’s ancestor at any expense. Either way, the Palladium eventually ends up in the Temple of Vesta in Rome, where it is one of the city’s most sacred relics. There it is kept inviolable and hidden, away from the masses.

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Nike and a warrior either side of a pillar topped by the Palladium (in the Louvre)

And this is where, for me, it turns up a second time in my research. I have just finished writing Commodus, my second book for Orion, in which I re-examine that infamous emperor in a new light, and lo and behold but what should suddenly crop up in my research but the Palladium!

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Commodus as Hercules (in the Capitoline Museum)

I shall try and avoid spoilers of course, but suffice it to say there is, during that story, a fire in Rome. Let’s face it, Rome burns every ten minutes. Fires in ancient Rome are more common than non-sequiturs in a Richard Ayoade monologue or failures in Anglo-American government. This particular fire threatens the forum and the Palatine, and in the process catches and incinerates the temple of Vesta and the house of the Vestals. I give you my source material, the ever-entertaining Herodion:

“1.14.4 After consuming the temple and the entire sacred precinct, the fire swept on to destroy a large part of the city, including its most beautiful buildings. When the temple of Vesta went up in flames, the image of Pallas Athena was exposed to public view – that statue which the Romans worship and keep hidden, the one brought from Troy, as the story goes. Now, for the first time since its journey from Troy to Italy, the statue was seen by men of our time.

1.14.5 For the Vestal Virgins snatched up the image and carried it along the Sacred Way to the imperial palace.”

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Rome burns

So there you have it. I wrote a tale set 1600 years BC in Anatolian Greece and it involved the Palladium. Then I wrote a tale set in the late 2nd century AD, almost two millennia later and half a known world away, and lo and behold there again is the Palladium.

Interestingly, I have since found a reference that Constantine (about whom I am also writing with the indomitable Gordon Doherty), when he founded the new Rome, moved the Palladium to Constantinople where he buried it below his column (hur, hur, hur – said in a Beavis and Butthead voice).

The Palladium, then. A battered wooden image of Pallas fashioned by a god, which seems fated to crop up in what I write. Bet you’ll remember it now when next it crops up.

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One day I’ll be here, receiving an award…. 😉

 

 

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Written by SJAT

September 15, 2018 at 8:59 am

Tales of Byzantium

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I am something of a lover of all things Byzantine these days, and an avid reader of historical fiction, of course, and so it’s no wonder really that this book came to my attention. Tales of Byzantium is a collection of three short stories, and so I shall deal with each individually briefly, and then the whole thing to finish.

The first story is primarily a love story. It is the tale of Constantine Porphyrogenitus and his lady Helena (he’s one of my heroes, responsible for Tekfur Saray palace in Istanbul.) This story actually takes up more than half the whole book. Once I realised that this was a romantic tale, just a short way in, I thought I probably wouldn’t like it – historical romance has to be done exceptionally well to hook me. But oddly I stuck with this, and am glad I did, for it is far more than a love story. It is an examination of the characters, of what it meant to be a member of one of the great dynasties, to be the empress, it’s an examination of the dichotomy of the whole Byzantine world, in that they were such a cultured ancient people, who were the most powerful nation imaginable, and yet they were also riven by self-destructive tendencies and unable to come to terms with their both east and west and the changing world around them. Perhaps for me, most of all, I enjoyed the scenery, for Istanbul (Constantinople) is my heartland, and I could picture every location as it was brought forth. No. In honesty, it was the characters of Constantine and Helena. They were beautifully portrayed. So if romance is not your thing, brush that trend aside and read it anyway, paying attention to the people.

The second tale is more my usual fare, being a military story based around a siege involving another of my faves, Manuel Komnenos (or Comnenus in the tale). The characters in this (Manuel in particular) are immensely likeable and deeply realistic. The story is one that has something of a twist, and I liked the way it was framed as a retrospective view. There are action scenes, some humour, and a light exploration of the politics of the era. War fans will enjoy the moments of the actual siege. My one complaint about this tale is that it could so easily have been a much bigger story. It could have been played out slower and longer, as long as the first story, really, and that would have given us more tension over the events that are central to the story and more opportunity to come to know Manuel. All in all, it’s a nice story and a good read. I just feel it was a slightly missed opportunity for something larger.

The third tale is of an exiled princess, who, trapped in a tedious life in a monastery, manages to live a life in almost solitude despite being in a city of millions. Demeaningly for a woman of her status, she is given the task of teaching a young nun to read and in doing so decides that an unfinished story should be finished. This is Anna Komnena, who wrote the great Alexiad which documented the empire at the time of the earliest crusades. Once more, this is a beautiful vignette well-written and lovingly-researched, with well-fleshed out characters and attention to detail. Once again, though, I felt that this came across more as the prologue of a much grander work than a tale on its own. If Stephenson decides at some point to write a grand epic of the eleventh and/or twelfth centuries in thew Byzantine world, this would make a lovely start to it.

Overall, then, the writing is lovely. The characters are presented just right, there is a depth and colour to the world that Stephenson has clearly treated as a labout of love. The stories are entertaining and intriguing and tell of some of the great characters of the Imperial dynasties with a great deal of historical knowledge and accuracy. The whole book is a very easy and enthralling read. My only issue was that of the three tales only one felt complete, the other two being a little brief for me. But at 99p in ebook form, it is well worth the money and worth a read nonetheless, and certainly made me appreciate the author’s skill. I shall look out for further work by her.

Written by SJAT

November 17, 2016 at 2:00 pm

Queen of the Silver Arrow

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Caroline Lawrence is an established author of chidren’s historical tales. In fact, there  are probably few to match her. She is perhaps even the 21st century’s Rosemary Sutcliffe. There are books that I consider to be children’s books, and there is another section, not quite this whole Young Adult thing, but clearly above the true children’s band. It is an interesting world, where the writing must still be aimed at young readers, but the content and themes can be more adult. Lawrence is the mistress of this style, for me.

I read QOTSA to my kids over a number of nights, and we all enjoyed it. They are a little young in truth for the book, but both mature enought to handle everything within. Callie enjoyed it for the tales of the heroic princesses. Marcus enjoyed it for the battles. I enjoyed it for the history.

QOTSA is a fascinating book. Firstly, though, a word about content. As with most great tales of the classical era, it is filled with a number of darker moments. Death in battle, the killing of animals, parental abandonment and so on. If your son or daughter is old enough to understand these things and not be adversely affected, then this book is pure gold. As I said, mine are still quite young, but we have finished the book without them being troubled by anything. In fact, I laud Caroline for tackling the more adult themes in a sympathetic and readable manner.

But what is Queen of the Silver Arrow, you say? Well, it is one of Lawrence’s current series of reworked classics. Like her other book in the series – The Night Raid – this is a retelling of a tale from Virgil’s Aeneid. This is the tale of the Trojans arriving in Italy and the native peoples rising to meet them, especially the young huntress Camilla, beloved of the Goddess Diana, who with her few companions will attempt to turn the tide against the invader only to learn harsh and unexpected truths in the end.

The final chapter, something of an epilogue, was really quite impressively emotional.

All in all, a great tale, challenging, yet interesting for kids, fascinating and strong for adults too.

Written by SJAT

October 3, 2016 at 10:00 am

Lady of the Eternal City

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Kate Quinn first came to my attention last year when I read Day of Fire, the collection of cross-threaded tales by various Roman authors set against the eruption of Vesuvius in 79AD. I have to say that normally, since my trend in reading is towards the military and espionage end of the historical fiction, I probably wouldn’t have read a book with this title or cover until I had run out of books where legionaries smash someone over the head, but the thing is: Kate Quinn’s contribution to that collection of Vesuvius tales was one of the highlights of it – one of the finest pieces of writing. It showed her skill at the craft of not just writing, but storytelling. And in recent years I have learned to approach literature with an open mind. So when I was given the opportunity to read an advance copy of Lady of the Eternal City, I snapped up the chance and thanked Kate very much.

A quick word on the plot. As usual, I hate to expound too much on plots for fear of spoilers, but this plot deserves a solid treatment, really, and so I’ve delved deeper than usual, and I hope I haven’t thrown in anything I shouldn’t.

This is a novel of Hadrian. Not a biography in any way, and he is not the protagonist, but it is definitely a story about him, for he is the hub around which the world and all Kate’s characters thereupon spin. We pick up the story at the very beginning of Hadrian’s reign, with the former empress still very much alive and a certain level of trepidation across Rome as its nobles anticipate the emperor’s arrival.

None is filled with more trepidation though than Vix (Vercingetorix the Red – I thought at first I’d hate that name and it would bug me, given its Republican Gallic connotation, and yet funnily I quickly warmed to it.) Vix is a former gladiator and slave, a legionary and war hero who saved the life of Hadrian’s predecessor Trajan, and finally a Praetorian tribune. He is strong, brave and well-placed. But he and Hadrian have a history that is not all roses. And Vix has a history with the emperor’s wife, which is troublesome to say the least.

Vix and Sabina are two of the rich cast in this novel, joined by Sabina’s neice Annia and … this is where students of Roman history will see how the book is going to get interesting … Vix’s adopted stepson Antinous. The history of Antinous and Hadrian is one well documented, but this additional connection brings it home and makes the tale so much more immediate and personal. In addition to this, though, and of great interest to me personally, was an extra cast member in the form of young Marcus Aurelius – always one of my favourite characters in imperial history.

The story deals with Hadrian’s growth into his role and life within it until his eventual decline, all seen from the point of view of those few around him who are able to influence his fickle, dangerous moods. And in parallel it follows the growing relationship between Hadrian and Antinous. I won’t tell you how that one ends, but many of you who know Hadrian will already know that!

We are treated to Hadrian’s great travels round the empire as events unfold, from Rome across the Roman world, beginning with Britannia. My favourite interlude in the trip incidentally, was for the Elusinian mysteries, which have long fascinated me and it was nice to see a novelised treatment of them. Although the descriptions of Egypt drew me right back to that haunting place.

Essentially, the plot follows the relationship of Antinous and Hadrian and their relations and loves from their first distant connections to the emperor’s final days via love and tragedy in between.

What impressed me so much about this book was the handling of character. Vix is a worthy protagonist, of course, though being fictional, he can be anything Kate wants to make him. But when you’re dealing with such larger-than-life characters as Hadrian, Antinous, Antoninus Pius (still known as Titus at this point) and Marcus Aurelius, not to mention Sabina herself – the lady of the eternal city, being able to achieve a three-fold win with them is near impossible. Because the best portrayals of real characters are: believable, historically accurate, and surprising. And to do all three is the work of a true master/mistress of the author’s craft. I will focus on the principal character here because, while he is not one of the book’s protagonist, he is the one who influences them all and who they all influence…

Hadrian is not what I’d expected. I’d never seen him as capricious and dangerous before. History throws at us the picture of the ‘great’ emperor Hadrian and we laud his abilities and vision. We do not notice the idiosyncracies that go along with such genius. The Hadrian in Kate’s novel is unpredictable, violent, dangerous, clever, far-sighted, loving, adventurous and brave, and so much more. He is a truly fascinating character.

What adds to the many facets of the man, though, is his progress as an emperor. Though he is strong willed and – let’s face it – has ultimate power at his fingertips, there is a recurring theme in the book that the great man would fall foul of his own dark side and bring the empire down with him if it were not for those clever men and women surrounding him, trying to nudge him onto a path of not only greatness, but also goodness. In that respect, Vix and Sabina are the most important characters in the novel, I would say.

At the start of the novel I dreaded reading on, for I feared Hadrian was set up as a true villain, but that is not the case, and as the book progressed I came not only to understand the man, but even to appreciate him. His final scenes in the book are wonderfully portrayed and stay with me.

Throw away your mental image of Hadrian and delve into that which Kate provides. It is a fascinating study of a man and a tale that is somewhat harrowing in places – the sort of harrowing you can only experience when you become too invested in a character.

The tone and writing of the book is rich and opulent, like the world in which the characters live, and at times it might seem over-so, but I think that is just a facet of writing well about character’s motivations in the world of imperial Rome and the circles of power. And I think that the book would have been poorer for a plainer approach. Interestingly for me, Kate is an American author, and I can usually spot an American voice in the prose straight away. To some English readers, a strong American tone can be distracting, but with Kate’s prose it blended seamlessly into the history and felt as comfortable to a British reader as a British author would.

So in short, this is a very intricate character-driven piece about the complex character that was Hadrian and the effects upon him of those few folk who were strong and wily enough to help him be what he needed to be. It is also a tale of more than one love and more than one loss. It is a rich Roman tapestry that draws your attention and holds it throughout.

Highly recommended, and confirms what I suspected: Kate Quinn is at the top of her game.

Written by SJAT

March 10, 2015 at 8:30 am

Testament of Mariam

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I’d been intrigued by this book for some time. I had spoken to Ann via social media, where I had been introduced to her by a friend, and of the numerous books Ann has released, this one particularly piqued my interest early on. And so I bought it and added it to my reading list, awaiting the time when I had a free week or so in my reading schedule.

The story? The story is simple. When the Emperor Constantine and his various bishops sat in their council chamber and decided what stories of the Christian sect would go into the official Bible, they selected many bits and pieces, letters and visions and so forth, but they chose only four gospels – Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. But a gospel is simply a memoir by one of the people who knew Jesus, and so with those four they included, think on how many gospels they discarded, including the ones of the other disciples. I have oft heard of various apocryphal gospels and been intrigued as to what other views of the figure ‘Jesus’ they might have given us.

Well, the Testament of Mariam is a fictional gospel. Narrated by the ageing matriarch of a farming family in Gallia Narbonensis, it soon becomes clear that this old woman who now lives in a Roman world with a family and farm of her own was once a very different person, living an impoverished life in Gallilee with a sizeable family, one of whom was destined to change the world.

For this is a tale of Jesus (Yeshua in his own tongue) from his youth to his last days, told by a sister history does not document. Mariam gives us a view of the Jesus with whom anyone brought up in the Christian world is familiar, but with a refreshing new angle. The stories we all know are all in there, but given new – and infinitely more realistic – light as Swinfen unfolds the magic and lays it out in the form of a real life.

Enough, then, of the story. What of the writing? I have long held only two writers to have an ability with prose that surpasses even the highest of literary standards. Guy Gavriel Kay remains my writing idol, and the wonderful Prue Batten uses language that makes her works feel like reading silk. Well, I think Ann Swinfen will join them now to make a trio.

The prose is simply delightful, and threaded throughout with detail that many authors miss, along with a heady, exotic taste of the lands of the ancient Levant. The names of people and places are all given in an authentic tongue, and throughout, care is paid to keeping them within a genuine historical environment and mindset.

Perhaps what I liked most about this read, and what kept me coming back to it, though, was the investigation I felt I was carrying out as I read. Not only was I slowly piecing together who the characters in the novel were in terms of Biblical text (given the language changes) but I was starting soon to watch out for famous scenes of Jesus’ life and spotting them in this more realistic setting. That was a wonderful aspect of the book.

One of my current bugbears in books is use of tenses. I find first-person, present tense narrative tiring and difficult, and regular changes in tense to be jarring. Strangely, this does both at times, and yet still flows gracefully and at no point deterred me. In fact, from the second chapter on, I found it helpful.

In short, then, this is a delight of a novel. If what you seek in your historical fiction is sword-maimings and glorious sieges, then this probably isn’t the book for you. But if you love to immerse yourself in a lost culture, or want to see the New Testament from a new and refreshing angle, I would recommend The Testament of Mariam.

Bravo, Ann.

Written by SJAT

January 28, 2015 at 10:49 pm