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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Monday, November 10, 2008

Robert Harris' second novel about Cicero due this month


I noticed with excitement that "Conspirata", Robert Harris' second novel about the career of famous Roman politician Marcus Tullius Cicero is due out this month. I also see that it will be available on audio CD so hopefully I'll be able to get the audio version up on audible.com as well.

All I could find out about the plot was this rather generic blurb up on the Audio Editions website (Amazon, surprisingly, had nothing but a note that it was not yet available):

"Cicero returns to continue his quest for supreme power in the state of Rome. Amid treachery, vengeance, violence, and treason, he finally reaches the summit of all his ambitions: he becomes the world's first professional politician, using his compassion and cunning to overcome all obstacles. By the author of Imperium."

I'll have to be sure to email my son about it. He surprised me recently in a phone call telling me how much he enjoyed "Imperium". He's not normally a fan of historical fiction (he, himself, writes sci-fi) so I'm not quite sure what prompted him to read it except curiousity about what could be prompting his mother's fanatical obsession with the Roman Empire

Friday, November 07, 2008

Conn Iggulden delivers riveting tale in Genghis: Birth of an Empire


Review by Mary Harrsch

I knew very little about the Mongol people before reading this novel. But Conn Iggulden brought the culture to life in a riveting narrative that kept me exercising way beyond my required minutes each day (I listened to the unabridged audible version). Iggulden's incarnation of "Timujin" is that of a warrior of admirable strength and skill as well as a man of vision and deep conviction. Some may also perceive him as ruthless although he appears to have demonstrated more restraint than other men spawned in such an environment. The tribal society Iggulden depicts on the unforgiving steppes is that of a hard people struggling just to survive in a land where the dispossessed (or just unfortunate) were often prey to any passing group desirous of their meager belongings, even if the spoils were just an old worn deel (coat) and a small pouch of rancid mutton. Yet, it was from these very wanderers that Genghis Khan forged a nation.

I appreciated the author's notes at the end that pointed out where his tale diverged from actual events. I had heard that Iggulden had took such liberty with history in his Emperor series about Julius Caesar that some reviewers had said it resembled fantasy rather than historical fiction so I was a little apprehensive about believing too much of what I "learned" about the Mongol culture by reading this work. But, after hearing his explanations about which parts of the story veered from the actual events, I thought Iggulden had done an admirable job of crafting an intensely interesting story that, for the most part, followed the trajectory of Genghis Khan's early life closely enough in most areas that mattered.