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Salamis (Long War 5)

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salamis

Fabulous historical fiction grabs you like a passing charioteer and drags you round the hippodrome at breakneck speed. Simply: Salamis makes that seem slow.

Book 5 of the Long War series is by far the fastest-paced, most direct, exciting and powerful of the series to date. Impressive at such an advanced stage of a saga.

After the breath-stealing ending of The Great King, Greece is not just in danger. It is on the eve of extinction.  Boeotia and Attica are about to be overrun by the Persians and are utterly hopeless. The Greek fleet languishes, unbeaten and yet still somehow losing the war. The eastern states of Greece are evacuating, fleeing west to whoever will take them, the Great King is coming, and Arimnestos has family and friends in the danger zone. And so the tale begins.

I had somehow expected book 5 to follow much the same format as the previous ones: a wide-ranging epic that covers a lengthy era and several themes. No. With a short opening of brutal fear in the face of advancing horror we are launched straight into a fight for the future of Greece, which occupies the bulk of the book. And this is not like Marathon (book 2, you might remember) which deals with a number of subjects around that great battle. This is a full on treatment of one of the world’s most important naval engagements.

This is, if you will, Cameron’s ‘The Longest Day’ or ‘Zulu’ or ‘Waterloo’. This is a military engagement told in breathtaking detail and heartbreaking style. From individual boarding actions and personal duels on board to grand strategies and political machinations on a huge scale, this battle – this novel – is enthralling.

Be warned: you are about to lose favourites. Obviously. No writer of military histfic can write about history’s greatest battles without cracking a few eggs so to speak. But on the brightside, there are genuine moments of bright glory and wonder here.

Because in addition to the great battle itself, this book contains a growing element of family and community, on both a grand and a personal scale. We are about to see new relationships formed, old loves rekindles, long enmities buried and endless loose threads tied up. Essentially, Salamis is a masterpiece, and announces the coming closure of the series.

Salamis is released today. Go buy it. Buy it now. For the love of Artemis, read this series!

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The Great King (Long War 4)

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We’re well and truly Arimnestos’ captive audience now. We’ve seen him grow and become the warrior, the leader, the sailor, the merchant, the pirate, the explorer. But the third volume in the series, while being a departure that took us on a great adventure, ended with us coming full circle, back to old friends and right back into the heart of what our friend the Plataean had for so long left behind.

And so The Great King picks up from that moment. This book will take you to amazing places and see astounding things, and interestingly, it includes two of the greatest and most important pivotal moments in Greek history, though the reader will not be aware of this initially, since the book’s title refers to neither directly. I will try to hint and explain without spoilers.

To some extent, ignoring the divisions into parts that are handed us, I would say there are three distinct parts to The Great King. The Games. The Journey. The War. And throughout the three parts, certain themes wind and develop.

Our friend Ari finds himself in the company of old Persian friends and in the odd situation of having to help the enemy of his people form alliances with Carthage against Greece due to his old oaths. Of course, we also know that Ari’s great personal nemesis – Dagon – is Carthaginian and that there can be no doubt that these two will meet again.

And, having delivered Persian ambassadors to hated Carthage, Ari finds himself in the company of a Spartan athlete who seeks passage to Olympia for the games. Thus opens part one, in which we are treated to a stunning and fairly in-depth depiction of the Olympic Games, entwined with plots and enmities between competing states, and a gathering of some of the most important men in Greece to discuss what to do about the Great King in Persia, who has begun preparations for the invasion of Greece on a grand scale. Here a new thread in the tale is opened and in addition to the wonderful material about the games, we are treated to a great introduction to Sparta and the Spartans. This famous state and its people had, you might remember, fought against Arimnestos with his Plataeans and their Athenian allies four books ago. Frankly, with this new insight into Sparta (who I’d always thought of as complete tossers) I have suddenly found that I love them and their leaders in Cameron’s tale. And the Spartans are a theme that will play out throught the book.

With the ending of the games, Ari goes home and tries to put his house in order, and this is nice to see from the point of view of the character’s progression, but is something of an aside in the main plot.

For soon, Ari is bound for the heart of the enemy’s lands. He is tasked with taking Spartan heralds to the court of the Great King of Persia. Despite his Persian friends, guarantees of passage and so much more, there is tremendous danger in the exotic Persian court. Here we are treated to the most fascinating clash of cultures – the rigid, haughty, ascetic Spartans and the languid, oiled and perfumed, glittering Persians. But you know, if you have any inkling of what’s to come in Greek history (and if you’ve been paying attention in the book’s first half) that nothing can really come of this, barring intelligence gathering, for Xerxes of Persia will not be turned from his course of war.

And so we move into the third part of the plot for me, as Arimnestos returns from the great journey. There follows an odd little interlude of sailing, trading and piracy, and then, finally comes the main event. I won’t spoil it. You might already know what’s coming, but for those who don’t I won’t give the game away. Suffice it to say that the war now begins in earnest and one of the greatest moments in the world’s military history will come to pass. You will read lines early on that will reveal what is to come. The last part of this book contains the opening salvos of the greatest war the states of Greece ever fought. It contains battles on land and sea, Ari’s quest for revenge against Dagon, and pivotal moments that will leave you breathless and exhausted.

As with all the Long War books (and all Cameron’s work, in fact) the writing is excellent. It is at once immediate and action packed, and yet thoughtful and educational. A weight of knowledge and a wealth of powerful and heady descriptive is conveyed without sacrificing pace, excitement, humour and horror.

And you know what? Thank good old Zeus that Salamis (book 5) is out tomorrow, because when you read the end of The Great King, you’ll really not want to wait. Check in tomorrow for my last review in the Long War series.

Poseidon’s Spear (Long War 3)

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So where can Cameron take us? Arimnestos of Plataea is a grown man now, fully trained and experienced. He has fought in and won one of the greatest battles of the age. But after Marathon, the world has changed, and so has our hero. Life as he has known it has gone.

It is all too wasy for a writer with a series to fall into a rut. Too easy to just keep telling the same story over and over again with minor variations or just to continue to tell a saga in fairly repetitive chunks. A few authors will, once their series is settled, run off at a tangent to explore new ideas and new themes and styles. It can be a gamble, as some readers will always just want more of the same. But if it’s done right it can invigorate and frshen an ongoing series. Sort of like a sorbet palate cleanser between courses. With Poseidon’s Spear, Cameron has done just that.

This is not a tale of war or family. It is not a tale of Greeks and Persians. This is the very spirit of adventure. A series of events conspire to see Ari at sea once more, where he falls foul of the powerful and dangerous Carthaginians and finds himself a slave, tortured and tested to the limit of his endurance. Really, there is too much in terms of twists and turns, changes and stories in this tale to relate them individually, and that would just ruin the book for you. Essentially, once he is freed from the clutches of the unpleasant Carthaginian ‘Dagon’ he sets off on his greatest adventure, collecting new friends on the way, including other former slaves.

The Carthaginians control the trade in tin, which is needed by smiths and armourers across the Mediterranean world, and Ari and his friends soon form a plan to secure tin and make themselves rich. Not through trade with Massalia or Carthaginian Spain, but by going directly to the source: a misty, cold semi-mythical island far to the north that one day will be Britain. Of course, to get there by ship requires that a sailor pass the Pillars of Hercules and sail out into the great western ocean. In those days, with the ships of the Greek world, such a journey was all but impossible and only legendary sailors of myth had done so comfortably.

This begins a journey that will see Romans and Africans and Greeks and Gauls sharing ships, making and losing fortunes, finding and losing loves, all as they journey in search of the source of tin. In the process, Ari will pick up an Illyrian prince (whose own fate forms the last part of the book), become a hunted man and an enemy of Carthage, shed his preconceptions of the non-Greek world and open himself to the great wealth of experience that is the west.

For the reader, seeing the Pre-Roman west through the eyes of a wonder-filled Greek is a fascinating process, and it certainly made me wish I could go back and rewrite some of the Gallo-Roman work I have penned with one eye on this fascinating portrayal of the world.

As always, Cameron’s experiences with the military and reenactment inform his text and give everything a realism and accuracy that few could match. But what came across more in book 3 was the surprising level of knowledge the author seems to have concerning the world of ancient ships and sailing. I can only assume that among his talents and experience, Cameron has also sailed ships somewhat. And I am quite stunned by his portrayal of pre-Roman France, Spain and Britain, considering Cameron’s Canadian residence and American nationality. It feels accurate and immersive.

All in all, a departure for the series, a wonderful palate cleanser, and yet at the same time a great continuation of the saga of Arimnestos of Plataea. Oh, and the conclusion? Well Ari has now a new and great enemy out there somewhere we know will come up again, but also the end scenes come as something of a surprise, and set up the opening of book 4 beautifully. So drop by tomorrow for the review of The Great King

Marathon (Long War 2)

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How does a writer possibly follow the scale and originality of a book like Killer of Men? Well, follow me through this review, and I’ll explain how.

The first book of the Long War told of how Arimnestos became a Killer of Men. Through hard labour, unexpected fights, slavery, piracy and brutal war, the young Plataean became a great hero and killer whose name alone made Greeks and Persians quake. But while those events changed Arimnestos the man, they did not change his path. For at the end of them, he returned to his home and to his forge, gave up all the trappings of heroism and war and became a simple blacksmith once more.

Marathon, while a continuation of the tale, is a whole different story. Marathon is the story of how events changed the life and the path of Arimnestos of Plataea.

Our hero has settled in his ancient home. He is a man of name and property. His former comrades live and work nearby, but they still itch for war and glory. Not so, Arimnestos. He is content. But events will never conspire to leave him in peace. No. Soon, our friend finds himself heading to Athens, where he is dragged into legal difficulties and heads out to secure the forgiveness of Gods to clear himself of any shame or impropriety.

And so begins his next stage of the Long War. Rushing hither and thither in ships, saving cities, fighting hopeless sea battles, making new friends and re-acquainting himself with old enemies, Arimnestos soon leaves behind the life of a quiet smith and becomes the great Miltiades’ favourite war dog once more.

But things are about to change. For what started as the Ionian revolt in the previous book is about to explode. As the Great King of Persia’s most vicious satrap begins to move against Greece to chastise them for their involvement, the Greeks find themselves hard pressed and pushed back.

A survivor of one of the worst disasters of the war, Arimnestos returns home only to find old enemies still at work there. He is wed and tries once more to carve out a life in Plataea, but the world will not let him rest. Athens is under threat, and Plataea owes Athens its support. Elected as the military leader for Plataea, Arimnestos joins old friends and new (and even a few enemies) in a great bid to defy Persia – the greatest single power in the world. Persia is coming for Athens. And the focus of their meeting point will be the fields of Marathon.

What happens in this book will finally make it clear to Arimnestos that he can no more settle into life as a village smith than a duck could hunt an eagle. War is in his blood and the troubles of the world will leave him with nothing but the need to exercise his great abilities.

Enough of ruining the plot for you.

There is a terrible danger for any writer in tackling a famous battle. I’ve done it myself with Alesia. Ben Kane has done so time and again in his works. Few people can do a great battle justice. And let’s face it, Marathon is one of the greats. In fact, I’d bet money that if any layperson in the street were asked to name a Greek battle, the few who could would name Marathon.

And while this story is about far more than Marathon, that great battle is the climax. And it is treated in a MASTERFUL way. Cameron has hit the sweet spot in this series where he can carry in his story the hubris, glory and almost mythical bravery of ancient Greek warfare. There are elements of the Iliad in here, it is that authentic. But despite that he is able to also make the reader aware of the base level of that war throughout, giving a realistic grounding to the scenes. The hero may be godlike and leaping from wall to wall with shining spearpoint, a hero in every way. But the ground beneath him squelches with blood and filth and shattered bone and crying boys and widows. It is a gift as a writer to be able to carry off such a combination. It is what makes his battle scenes both glorious and horrific in equal measure.

The final scenes in this book will leave you exhausted.

Arimnestos, the Killer of Men, has led you through one of the darkest hours in Greek history in this second volume. Where will he go next? Check out tomorrow’s review…

Written by SJAT

August 10, 2015 at 10:04 am

Killer of Men (Long War 1)

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kom

To begin at the beginning… How many series have you read where you pick up the first book to find an iron-hard, three-dimensional, experienced and world-weary hero awaiting you? They are, barring the anti-hero, the best characters to both read and write. But how often do you get to see that hero created?

That is what Killer of Men is. In terms of superhero movies, this is a great hero’s ‘origin story’. It is the very creation of a hero. Or possibly not quite a hero. After all, an instinctive killer, drawn to war like iron filings to a magnet is not by definition the same as a hero.

Moreover, the book is set during one of the greatest clashes of culture in the history of the world: Greece vs. Persia. But again, in the same way as the novel is the story of the origin of the hero, it is also the story of the origin of that war (it is called the Long War saga for a reason. This was a loooooong war.) And that means that Killer of Men takes place during the Ionian revolt at the very beginning of the great Greek/Persian war.

So what of the actual story?

Arimnestos is an ordinary boy. He is the son of a talented blacksmith who has also had the honour and duty of standing as a hoplite in the line of battle for his small city-state of Plataea. As his city is inevitably dragged into the world stage via a perhaps unwise allegiance with the upcoming demos of Athens, Arimnestos begins a journey of his own. In sickening blurb terms, one might say: from zero to hero.

Sent from his family to study with a retired warrior, Arimnestos learns the skills of the soldier and the hunter, but despite that, not yet the ‘killer of men’ for which the book is named. As the wheel of time turns and he grows to young manhood, the Plataean finds himself in battle against the greatest warriors of his age, the Spartans, on the Athenian flank. Following the battle and a betrayal by one of his own, Arimnestos finds himself alone, with a dead father and brother and sold into slavery.

But here his journey really begins. As a slave (and companion to a young noble) in Ephesus, Arimnestos learns from one of the greatest philosophers of the ancient world, improves his battle skills and is introduced on a very personal level to the Persian people and their leaders.

Well, I won’t spoil the story. But Arimnestos has been a blacksmith’s son, a soldier, and then a slave. He will also be a ship’s navarch, a sportsman, a war-hero, an avenger, and so much more as he succumbs to fate and becomes the killer of men that is his destiny. But throughout the whole tale of his growth to manhood, there is always the background thread that Arimnestos was betrayed, disinherited and sold as a slave. And we know from early in the book that this situation will have to be resolved before the end.

Well that’s the book and the plot and the hero. As for the style? Is anyone not familiar yet with Christian Cameron’s fluid and absorbing work? He writes masterpieces or nothing at all.

In technical terms, while my own knowledge of the world of ancient Greece is much scanter than my knowledge of Rome, I have yet to trip him up with any fact, and he has taught me so much through his writing. He knows his subject thoroughly. He is conversant to an undreamed of extent. Moreover, Cameron is both a reenactor and a military veteran, both of which lend a huge level of authenticity to his scenes of strife. And I mean to a level that few civilians could ever hope to touch.

Cameron is, for me, a composite of all I like in my ancient novels. He can write the stink, terror and chaos of battle as well as Ben Kane, the cameraderie and humour like Tony Riches, the depth of character and inrigue like Douglas Jacskon and the sheer emotion like Manda Scott. As such, he is capable of producing work that speaks to readers of all forms of historical fiction, to every facet of a reader’s soul.

Killer of Men is the saga of a young man driven to the edge of reason and finding in his darkest hour the clarity of the born warrior. It is a tale of growth and of finding oneself, and of revenge and heroism. It is everything you could want in historical fiction.

I cannot recommend the Long War series highly enough. Check in tommorrow for a review on book 2: Marathon.