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Posts Tagged ‘Judea

Scourge of Rome

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It took me far too long to find time to catch up with one of the very best historical series in the current world of books. I’ve missed Valerius Verrens. Due to the time I left between this book and the last one it took me a few short chapters to get back into the swing of things, but once I was reaquainted with Verrens and Serpenrius and reminded of how things stood at the end of the previous volume, I was dragged along with the plot at breakneck speed as usual.

An outcast from Rome, due to his conflict with the unpleasant Domitian – son of the new emperor – Valerius seeks out the one place he thinks he can recover his reputation, at the side of the emperor’s other son, Valerius’ old friend Titus, who is busy prosecuting the war against the rebels in Judea. What follows is a gradual building in tension and action filled with good guys, bad guys, and my favourite – realistic grey, part good, part bad, guys. The book introduces us to a powerful queen and her clever, beautiful servant, who Valerius immediately has eyes for, helping him forget Domitia back in Rome, to a scarred tribune who knows Valerius of old, to the Jewish rebel leaders, and to the complex Josephus. It culminates with the dreadful siege of Jerusalem.

There are many things that commend this book (as with all Doug’s work). The writing, which is clear, expressive, direct and yet subtle. The characterisation, for he creates seemingly real people we can believe in. The settings, which are vivid and lovingly described. The action, which is exciting and well-told. The plot, which is perfectly constructed and at no time drags, strays or confuses. But there are two particular things for me that made Scourge a win over even many others in this very series:

The siege of Jerusalem. This is one of the most powerful events in the history of the Roman empire, and one that could easily prove to be divisive and troublesome for a writer (touching on the subject of the destruction of the Jewish world from the viewpoint of those destructors.) And yet the subject is handled lovingly, sympathetically and yet with such stark horror and brutality that the real terror of what happened over those awful weeks. Moreover, Doug’s visual reconstruction of the magnificence that must have been Jerusalem before its sack is unparalleled. This siege is one of Doug’s best pieces of writing and one of the best battles I have ever seen described, actually almost on a par with his genre-defining Colchester burning scene in Hero of Rome.

And, the character of Josephus. I knew of Josephus before the book, as will many followers of Roman history. We know of him from his account of the Jewish wars, and I for one have read much of that account. But I had never thought much about the man behind that writing. In my head I had him pegged as a good guy – a Jew who compromised and consequently survived the war to bring us the history of it. It had never occurred to me to think on how he might have come about all his knowledge of the war, on how he managed to survive in a world where he might well be killed just for his heritage, and on how he might be viewed by his own people. Josephus was the most surprising thing for me in the book, and a characterisation I value highly.

So, in short, this book is as good as any other in the Valerius series (which is to say a cut above most other series in the genre) and is actually probably the second best in the whole saga. It is unrelenting in pace, vivid, surprising, horrifying and even heart-warming in places. A testement to Jackson’s ability, it comes highly recommended. Go read it.

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Written by SJAT

January 15, 2017 at 2:38 pm

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