Saturday, November 15, 2008

Flint and Drake weave fantasy novel around the life of Justinian's general Belisarius

Belisarius I: Thunder at Dawn (Belisarius Series)As usual I was searching Amazon for something else and stumbled across this intriguing combination of history and fantasy by the writing team of Eric Flint and David Drake.  William Rosen piqued my interest in Byzantine emperor Justinian's formidable commander Belisarius when his exploits were described in "Justinian's Flea: Plague Empire, and the Birth of Europe".  I have "Belisarius" by Robert Graves on audio in my online audible library but I haven't had a chance to listen to it yet.  Now it looks like I need to add this compedium to my "to be read" list!

"Thunder At Dawn (2008) is an omnibus edition of the Belisarius series, including An Oblique Approach and In the Heart of Darkness. In this series, Emperor Justinian ruled Byzantium, the Empire of Rome in the East. A former Thracian peasant, Justinian had selected a minor Thracian noble -- Belisarius -- to be his bodyguard and then later to head the army facing their Medean foe. While Belisarius was not the Emperor's friend (for Justinian had no friends), they respected each other and Belisarius' wife Antonia was a close friend of the Empress Theodora.

An Oblique Approach (1998) is the first novel in this series. Belisarius has just assumed command of the Army at Daras when the monk Michael of Macedonia and Anthony Cassian -- the local bishop -- come to his new house in Aleppo. They bring a strange object -- a faceted crystal that seems to form and reform -- found by Michael within his cave in the desert. They say that it has brought visions to their minds while holding it and they urge Belisarius to take it into his own hands. When it is passed to him, the crystal flares into light and floods his mind with visions.

The crystal can induce visions and feelings, but is mostly unable to communicate directly. The visions shows a future in which the Malwa empire of northern India conquers all the known world. These visions induce feelings of dread and despair, but all who hold the crystal also feel certain that the future shown and felt is not necessarily the only possible future. The crystal has come to enlist Belisarius himself in an effort to preclude this bitter future in favor of one more consistent with their own desires and inclinations.

While the exhausted crystal quietly regains its strength, the human party forms a conspiracy to counter the evil plans of the Malwa. Deciding to keep the secret among themselves for a time, they arrange for a location to build an arsenal and weapons project on property controlled by Anthony. They also agree that Anthony will arrange for the services of John of Rhodes -- a clever ex-naval officer -- as the head of the project.

This story depicts an intervention from the future followed by a counter-intervention from the same era. The intervention itself is not described in this volume, but the crystal represents the counterforce. The first portion of the story consists mainly of clearing the decks to allow the conspirators to investigate the real enemy, which can only be done in India by Belisarius himself.

In the Heart of Darkness (1998) is the second novel in this series. Belisarius is allowed to observe the siege of Ranapur from a distance, but the Rajput guards are under orders to restrict the viewing times and the viewpoint. Then Lord Harsha decrees that the siege will end on a certain date and Belisarius is taken to the Imperial Pavilion on the eastern side of the city to observe the assault.

Belisarius has already learned that the city seems to have a large amount of gunpowder, but no cannon. Now he learns that the defenders include a number of miners. He considers the possibilities and decides to inform the Malwa that the attack probably will cross tunnels packed with explosives.

First he commands his men to dismount and tells Rana Sanga -- the Rajput escort commander -- to dismount his own troops. Then the world disappears in a white flash and things start to impact his vicinity. When he crawls out from under his shield, Belisarius notices bodies, parts of bodies, and parts of parts of bodies all around him, along with various other objects.

The Ranapur defenders pour over of the destroyed walls and push their way through the dazed attackers toward the Imperial Pavilion. Belisarius shows Rana Sanga the counterattack and the Rajputs hurry toward the pavilion to protect the Malwa emperor. But Belisarius and his three bucellarii approach the befuddled survivors and direct their attention to the attacking forces.

This story introduces Belisarius to the Malwa emperor and takes him to the Malwa capital, where he meets Link, the penultimate enemy. He takes Aide -- his crystaline ally -- with him into enemy territory. Aide is still learning the limitations of the humans in this timeframe and sometimes becomes impatient with Belisarius. Yet Aide does furnish some uptime concepts that might be adapted to the current technology.

Highly recommended for Drake & Flint fans and for anyone else who enjoys tales of alternate history, military tactics, and epic drama."

-Arthur W. Jordin
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