Monday, November 21, 2005

Malta: Phoenician, Punic and Roman

Malta: Phoenician, Punic and Roman:
Malta: Phoenician, Punic and Roman, the second book in the series 'Malta's Living Heritage' published by Midsea Books Ltd has just been released. Author Prof. Anthony Bonanno traces the island's past from the end of the Prehistoric Bronze Age down to the end of the Roman period. Photography by Daniel Cilia and reconstructions of existing remains, particularly from the Roman period, help the reader visual the cultural development around the trading activities that made Malta an important center in the classical world.

Sand of the Arena: A Gladiators of the Empire Novel

I had the pleasure of meeting author Jim Duffy last Spring at the first North American conference of the Historical Novel Society in Salt Lake City, Utah. Jim was working on the final edits of his book "Sand of the Arena" that will usher in a new series of novels, "Gladiators of the Empire". Jim was kind enough to send me a pre-release galley of his new book and I have enjoyed reading it. Jim has conducted extensive research in the life and training of gladiators and it shows in the depth of detail he has woven into his novel. His action scenes are very well paced and draw the reader quickly forward, rewarding him with a believable and gratifying conclusion to each encounter.

I found the protagonist's Ethiopian friend Lindani's almost miraculous feats of prowess in the beast hunts particularly fascinating and the shipwreck scene graphically realistic and immersive (no pun intended). Duffy's experience in writing for television has given him insight into the entertainment aspect of historical fiction and his tightly written prose provides a literary adrenaline rush that is seldom experienced in a first novel.

I do think as the series progresses, however, he will need to balance the glorification of victory and the rush of audience acclaim with the bittersweet aspects of belonging to a social class that is considered the lowest of the low, and the obstacles that this creates in the pursuit of other objectives.

Book description:

"In 63 AD the long arm of the Roman Empire stretches across the European continent and the gladiatorial games are awash in blood and glory. For Quintus Honorius Romanus, son of one of the richest men in Rome, everything is as it should be--as long as he can sneak off to the amphitheater for a little entertainment. Things go drastically wrong, however, when Quintus loses his family, his social standing, and his name to an imposter. Faced with a life of menial slavery, Quintus joins a gladiatorial school instead and begins a game of unimaginably high stakes, as he vows to bring down the usurper who stole his life. But first he must survive his training. Together with the deadly African hunter Lindani and the lethal gladiatrix Amazonia, Quintus learns the hard way what it means to live--and die--in the arena.

Rough-and-tumble, fast-paced, and unrelenting, Sand of the Arena brings the Roman Empire to life and sheds light on its most controversial form of entertainment. Quintus, Lindani, and Amazonia face the ultimate test of courage and skill inside the arena--and out. For the Gladiators of the Empire, the goal is simply to survive!"

Thursday, November 17, 2005

Lest Darkness Falls

I was up on Amazon yesterday looking for bargains on non-fiction books about the Roman Empire and stumbled across a recommendation for a time-travel story in which a 1940s era man travels back in time to the 6th century and subsequently tries to prevent the fall of the Roman Empire. Of course, I dearly love time travel stories and stories that deal with time traveling to the ancient world most of all. So I couldn't resist checking reviews of it and finally ordering it for myself.

Last night I got a call from my son, a sci-fi writer and officiando, and mentioned the book to him. He told me that Sprague De Camp and his wife Catherine, who were contemporaries of Isaac Asimov and Robert Heinlein, gained more recognition for his series about Conan the Barbarian than some of his more classic works like this title. Apparently they recently passed away which led their publisher to rerelease some of their earlier works. Judging from Harry Turtledove's glowing recommendation below, I'm glad they did.

"Lest Darkness Fall is the best Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court-type story ever written, with the possible--by no means certain--exception of the Connecticut Yankee itself. The tale of a modern man struggling to introduce technology in sixth-century Italy--where theology and war dominated affairs, and concern for knowledge was a tiny afterthought at best, with best not coming along very often--grips from the first page. Like any of de Camp's heroes, Martin Padway has no easy time of it, having to cope with the ignorance and foibles of a great many people, himself emphatically included. It's no wonder that Lest Darkness Fall, which first appeared in abridged form in the December 1939 issue of Unknown and was published at full length in 1941, has been in print almost continuously ever since, and no wonder that Baen Books has chosen to put it in print once more.

The plot of Lest Darkness Fall was not the only thing about it that grabbed me. I also found fascinating the world of sixth-century Italy that de Camp depicted with such loving attention to detail--including a lot of the unpleasant, smelly details that often get omitted from fiction dealing with the past. At the time, I knew nothing about such things, and had no real notion of how much of the background of Lest Darkness Fall was real and how much de Camp was making up. I started trying to find out, and soon discovered that, except for the introduction of Martin Padway, de Camp was making up next to nothing. He had done his homework, and done it well."

Wednesday, November 16, 2005

Persian Fire by Tom Holland

Guardian Unlimited Books: "Tom Holland showed in Rubicon, his book on Julius Caeasar and his age, that he could master a complex and fast-moving narrative from ancient history and make it a pleasure for both general readers and the learned. There is not nearly the same body of evidence for the Persian wars as there is for the breakdown of the Roman republic, but what there is is to die for.

Beside the nine books of Herodotus, there is Aeschylus's tragedy of 472BC, The Persians. The playwright had fought at the decisive sea-battle of Salamis and the high point of the drama is a report of the battle from the Persian point of view. There are also Plutarch's lives of the chief Athenian statesmen, and his account of the Spartan system of government, written much later under the Roman empire. From Iran, there are rock inscriptions of royal conquests above all at Bisitun in Kurdistan.

All the ancient sources are partial, with a bias towards Athens even in Herodotus, but Holland succeeds in writing an account that is clear and uncluttered. His technique is to present his narrative as an uncontested succession of events, and leave the evaluation of sources and the scholarly reservations to notes.

He likes to cut and splice Herodotus's account when the chronology doesn't suit his narrative purposes, but he explains what he is doing and the effect is often fresh and interesting. (The exception is at Salamis, which is a very hard battle to understand, and even harder when Holland introduces a complex Persian night manoeuvre that doesn't appear to be in any ancient source at all.) Similarly, the evacuation of Athens is full of anachronistic detail. But some of the set pieces, such as the charge of the Athenian heavy infantry at Marathon and the Persian army crossing the bridge of boats strung across the Dardanelles, are thrilling."

Tuesday, November 15, 2005

In Kithairon's Shadow: A Novel of Ancient Greece and the Persian War In Kithairon's Shadow: A Novel of Ancient Greece and the Persian War: Books: "In 480 B.C., Xerxes I, king of the Persian Empire, led a vast and uncountable army intent on the domination of Europe. Only a tiny collection of Greek city-states stood in his path. At Thermopylae the Persians annihilated a small holding force commanded by King Leonidas of Sparta, then quickly marched on to Athens, reducing the city to ruins. Outnumbered and beset by treachery, Sparta, Athens and their allies gathered near the town of Plataea for one final battle. The future of Western civilization hung on the outcome. In Kithairon's Shadow is the story of five men from ancient Greece and the parts they would play in determining their future, and ours."

Shades of Artemis : A Novel of Ancient Greece and the Spartan Brasidas

"Shades of Artemis recounts the life of Brasidas, Spartas most audacious commander, from his upbringing in the Spartan military school called the Agoge to his induction into the ranks of the ancient worlds finest warriors. Overcoming petty jealousies and the politics of his own country, he finally rises to the rank of general and embarks on a daring mission to bring Athens to its knees and an end to the Peloponnesian War. With the death of Pericles, the politician Kleon becomes the architect of war policy in Athens, directing the strategy against Sparta. Thucydides, the Athenian general and chronicler of the conflict, bears witness to the brutality of ancient combat, the devastating plague that strikes his city, and the ambition of fellow Athenians that rely on war to sustain them. In the last quarter of the fifth century BC, these three men would meet in battle on the plains of northern Greece and determine the course of Western Civilizations first world war."

Monday, November 14, 2005

Isle of Stone, The : A Novel of Ancient Sparta

"It is a tale of two cities--the legendary duel between haughty, democratic Athens and brutal, unbeaten Sparta. After seven years of bloody conflict, a barren island in a remote corner of Greece becomes the stage for what promises to become a second Thermopylae. Four hundred Spartan soldiers are cut off by enemy ships on a narrow strip of land, starving, without supplies, yet sworn to uphold their indomitable heritage. Meanwhile, all around them, the powerful Athenian Navy masses for the inevitable assault.

As the war of nerves wears on, Spartan nobles and Athenian demagogues maneuver in the background--and two estranged Spartan brothers serve together for the first time. The eldest, Antalcidas, is a legendary warrior hobbled by a damaging secret. His brother Epitadas is envied, popular, and cruel. Together they must overcome a lifetime of hostility to survive the battle of their lives."

This novel is scheduled for release on December 5, 2005.

Friday, November 04, 2005

A.D. 69

Review by M. Gwyn Morgan

"The period between June 68 and December 69 saw four different men claim the imperial throne, aided by murders, suicides, conspiracies, mutinies, civil war and no small amount of happenstance. Five ancient historians recorded these events, chief among them Tacitus, Suetonius and Plutarch. Since their accounts do not always agree, it falls to their present-day counterparts to adjudicate fact from fiction and history from invention. Morgan (Classics and History/Univ. of Texas, Austin) does an admirably thorough job of guiding his readers through the minutiae of political intrigue and the conflicting chronicles that have come to define the year 69.

Few details escape his purview: A precise account of the emperor Galba`s incongruously pompous march into Rome is representative of the narrative`s tenor, as is the patient sifting through different versions of the suicide of Galba`s usurper, Otho. In addition to supplying a near-forensic level of detail, the author also considers how contemporary historians have misunderstood their predecessors. Literary conventions shaped the ancient historical method, he argues. Failing to acknowledge this, 20th-century studies of 69 A.D. in general and Tacitus in particular have drawn erroneous conclusions about both the facts of the period and Tacitus` opinion of them. Famous for his curt and epigrammatic style, the senator and orator emerges here not so much as disdainful or obscure but rather as a literary stylist of the first order.

Unfortunately, Morgan`s dedication to fleshing out the ambiguous moments in the lives of Tacitus and others slows the book`s pace considerably. Only scholars and the most diehard Roman aficionados will feel compelled to read it cover to cover.

Informative, but heavy as a sack of Roman coins."