The Dreaming Void by Peter F. Hamilton (The Void Trilogy 1)

Publisher: Pan
Pages: 796
Year: 2007, this edn 2008
Buy: Paperback, Kindle
Source: Bought copy

The Dreaming Void by Peter F. HamiltonReview
This October, a new addition to Peter F. Hamilton’s Commnwealth world is born: The Abyss Beyond Dreams. This fits somewhere in between the Commonwealth duology (which includes my favourite novel from any dimension, Pandora’s Star) and the Void trilogy and so I thought this was the perfect opportunity to read the one series of Peter F. Hamilton’s space opera I’ve not read. This isn’t something I say, or decided, lightly. I have actually been delaying the moment of reading the Void trilogy, I wanted to save them for some future in which I needed them. Hamilton’s books do me such good and having read and adored the Night’s Dawn trilogy this spring I was determined to savour the Last Trilogy next year. But all that was thrown out of the window when I heard about The Abyss Beyond Dreams, so, in other words, it’s all Hamilton’s fault.

I find reviewing Peter F. Hamilton a tall order. The plots of these brickbooks are intricate, immense, twisty and complex, matched only by the imagination and vision of their creator. Writing a brief synopsis of The Dreaming Void is particularly difficult because, with the other two books in the trilogy as yet unread, I’m still not completely sure what’s going on. But that doesn’t matter. Hamilton’s trilogies aren’t like most other trilogies I’ve read. They are actually one immense book that is chopped into three (or two, as in the case of Pandora’s Star and Judas Unchained) and the reader cannot expect solutions in the first part. What he or she can expect, though, are wonders.

But to give it a go, the general gist is this: a thousand plus years after the close of Judas Unchained, the Commonwealth is still adjusting to the repercussions of the Starflyer War that devastated so many of its planets, leaving the rest stunned and, quite frankly, fortunate to survive. Humanity is now divided, in a manner of speaking, into three circles, with the most advanced inhabiting the central planets (or, as is more likely, they have been downloaded into some idyllic digital existence) and the less advanced, or the most independent or rebellious depending on how these things are viewed, living on the external planets. In the centre of it all is the Void, an expanse (not natural) that many view as an attainable heaven, especially those who follow the Living Dream, a religion that has at its heart the visions of a man, Inigo, which are believed to have originated from within the Void. Inigo has since vanished but his followers now want to follow his call and set out on a pilgrimage into the Void, to attain paradise. Unfortunately, much of the rest of the Galaxy believes that this will trigger a devouring event, during which the Void will consume planets and solar systems.

The Dreaming Void follows the efforts of some to embark on this pilgrimage as well as the even more determined efforts of others to prevent it. Familiar characters from the Commonwealth books pop up, including old favourites Qatux the Raiel, Paula and Justine, plus frequent references to Ozzie,who has left such a powerful imprint on this world. There are, though, lots of new characters, including a rather unpleasant piece of work Aaron who is seeking out Inigo, a newly-liberated divorcee Araminta, and, most prominently of all, Edeard, a figure who inhabits the Void and is the stuff of Inigo’s dreams.

Edeard’s story is less science fiction than fantasy. He inhabits a medieval world in which creatures can be fashioned and controlled by thought, and where honour and love wage war against felony and lies.

Unusually, in my personal experience of reading Peter F. Hamilton, The Dreaming Void took its time to draw me in. For the first 250 pages or so I floundered, distracted by the fantasy elements (I’m no fan of epic medieval fantasy – on the contrary) and by the seemingly irrelevant storylines, particularly that of Araminta. But I have faith in Hamilton and it was repaid. After a while, the Edeard elements of the story drew me in due to the outstanding character- and world-building of the author. I grew to care and I stopped skimming these sections. Likewise, the other strands in the novel began to take on life and spirit as the action moved towards the Void, like moths to a flame, and I became hugely intrigued by the mystery at its core and by the efforts of those on its edges to comprehend it, destroy it or love it.

The Dreaming Void does suffer from Hamilton’s unfortunate habit of labouring over the sex scenes. All of his novels would be the better without them but they’re always there and so I do my best to ignore them. They do his female characters no favours whatsoever (or the male ones for that matter).

The Dreaming Void sets up The Temporal Void, the next in the trilogy, perfectly, ending at such a thrilling point and promising two more books that will fill the hours with such pleasure. After the slow start, I read The Dreaming Void in just two days, not bad at all for such a brickbook (albeit a short one of only 800 pages). I am so excited to read The Abyss Beyond Dreams and I count my lucky stars that I have the Void trilogy to keep me company while I wait ever so impatiently.

Other reviews
Pandora’s Star
Judas Unchained
Great North Road
The Reality Dysfunction (Night’s Dawn 1)
The Neutronium Alchemist (Night’s Dawn 2)
The Naked God (Night’s Dawn 3)

Dan’s (Utterbiblio’s) The Void Trilogy Reread on Tor

The Glass Republic by Tom Pollock (The Skyscraper Throne 2)

Publisher: Jo Fletcher
Pages: 439
Year: 2013, Pb 2014 (31 July)
Buy: Paperback, Kindle
Source: Review copy

The Glass Republic by Tom PollockReview
The Glass Republic is the second of The Skyscraper Throne trilogy and so do be warned that the review below may include spoilers for the first, the marvellous The City’s Son (review here).

Pen is scarred from recent events, not just physically but psychologically. With closest friend Beth now more absent than present, Pen is back at school on her own, having to endure the curious eyes and unkind words of the bullies. Her scars make Pen stand out, fascinating her peers, but it’s not kindness that draws the bullies to her and so Pen takes comfort in solitude, finding secret places of the school, where she can be calm. One such place has a mirror and it is through these mirrors that Pen is thrown back into the fantastical London that so nearly killed her. Pen’s reflection is alive, caught in London-Under-Glass, the other London, reflected through the mirrors, and the reflection (Parva) has become a sister to her original. One day Pen must watch as Parva is dragged out of her view, leaving behind a bloody handprint on the reflected floor. There is nothing that Pen won’t do, or bargain, to follow Parva through the mirror into this other London, to save her sister, whatever the cost. The price that she must pay for the potion to cross worlds is heartbreaking.

The Glass Republic is the sequel to The City’s Son but despite its many connections it is such an ingeniously different and original novel. For much of this second book, we are with Pen in City-Under-Glass giving author Tom Pollock the perfect opportunity to let his wonderful imagination soar. From Pen’s dramatic arrival in the distorted city, to the rich and detailed building of a world populated by the strangest of people, to the thoroughly exciting and tense conclusion, setting the stage perfectly for the trilogy’s finale, The Glass Republic is magnificent.

There are plenty of jaw-dropping moments, as in the first novel, and the descriptions of the stretched, elongated London with its half-faced or no-faced inhabitants are memorable – the ids that are used to complete the missing sections of a reflected face manage to be both cleverly horrible and tragic at the same time. But also just like The City’s Son, there is much that is painful. The relationship between Pen and her steeplejill is beautiful and delicate, as is the character of Pen herself. There are old favourites to enjoy here, too, my personal favourites being the understandably bad tempered stone priests

There is far less Beth than Pen in The Glass Republic but it doesn’t matter – these novels complement each other as they prepare for Our Lady of the Streets and the conclusion. The perspectives continue to shift and the themes continue to be powerful – perceptions of beauty and ugliness, fitting in, love, desire and fear, loss, parenthood and sisterhood. Again these are all themes that would speak to a teenage readership but they speak just as loudly to me. Tom Pollock should be proud of what he’s achieved with Pen. Middle novels aren’t always the easiest to read in a trilogy but Tom has done great things here, creating a novel that is at least the equal of its predecessor while pointing clearly and most tantalisingly towards the conclusion. That conclusion, Our Lady of the Streets, is published on 7 August – this is the perfect time to catch up with this outstanding sequence of novels.

Other review
The City’s Son (The Skyscraper Throne 1)

The City’s Son by Tom Pollock (The Skyscraper Throne 1)

Publisher: Jo Fletcher
Pages: 454
Year: 2012, Pb 2013
Buy: Paperback, Kindle
Source: Review copy

The City's Son by Tom PollockReview
When Beth Bradley, graffiti artist, born fighter, is betrayed by her closest friend, Pen, she runs from school and home into another London altogether. Aboard a train that is no train at all, Beth inadvertently saves the life of Filius Viae, the prince of London, son of its mother goddess, a boy with cement-coloured skin who can call any part of the city home. Both Fil and Beth are, to all intents and purposes, parentless and each finds him or herself drawn to the other. It’s just as well – Reach, an ancient enemy who lives in the cranes that surround St Paul’s, is awake for the first time in centuries. With no sign of London’s Mother Goddess, Mater Viae, there is no-one but her son, and now Beth, to put the monster back to sleep. It will take all of their courage and ingenuity to call the goddess’s priests and soldiers to arms.

There is no synopsis that can even attempt to do justice to the wonders and treats that you will find within the pages of The City’s Son. From the very beginning it transported me to a London and world that spoke to me, reminding me of my childhood fantasies about this ancient city, presenting me with its secret tunnels, monster cranes, dancing broken lights, the mirror of the Thames, the Gothic graveyards and littered alleys, its enormous glass towers and its ruinous brick monuments. But Tom Pollock’s imagination soars even higher. There is not a chapter in this book that didn’t captivate me, as adventure follows adventure for Fil and Beth, both fabulous heroes, contemporary but timeless.

But quite apart from the incredible sights and ‘people’ that we encounter through Beth and Fil, a great strength of this wonderful novel is its superb, sympathetic and deft handling of some very large themes – parenthood, friendship, same-sex love, opposite-sex love, desire, abuse and grief. The City’s Son is Young Adult and some of the issues handled would resonate with many youngsters. I would argue, though, that as with any novel that excels, The City’s Son has a much broader appeal and defies such labels. It most definitely has much to offer older readers.

No punches are pulled – there’s swearing, torture and extreme pain and loss within these pages. The heartstrings aren’t spared either. Pollock has given us three characters that it’s impossible not to care deeply for – Beth, Fil and Pen – but you’ll care for others. For me, Beth’s father especially stands out but so too do the stone priests who, once killed, are reborn as newborn babes encased once more in stone, never to know a human touch. This is a book that appeals as much to the heart as it does to the head.

With the final book in the trilogy published this August, I was glad of the opportunity to start and complete the three books in one go, rather than having to wait for a year between each. I had no idea, though, that I would be so captivated by The City’s Son and Tom Pollock’s extraordinary vision and style that I would read all three one after another without pause. I read The City’s Son over 24 hours, grabbing every moment with it I could. I loved every page and as soon as I finished it I began (and soon finished) the equally marvellous The Glass Republic. I am addicted. Outstanding work from Tom Pollock.

Prototype by M.D. Waters

Publisher: Dutton Books
Pages: 384
Year: 2014 (24 July)
Buy: Hardback
Source: Review copy

Prototype by M.D. WatersReview
Prototype is the sequel to Archetype, published just a few months ago, and picks up where its predecessor left off. You wouldn’t want to read Prototype first so, if you read this, do be aware that it contains information about what Emma endured in Archetype. Suitably warned, on with the review!

Set in a dystopian near future America, this is a society in which women are few and far between, fertile women even more scarce. Girls are confined to Women’s Training Centers (WTCs), where they learn to be wives, waiting to be selected by the sons (or fathers) of the rich. Emma Wade knows now that this is all a lie. These girls are cloned, the hosts then killed, their new bodies engineered for childbirth. Emma had been the wife of Declan Burke, the man who created all this, but now she knows who she really is – a clone, the re-working of another man’s stolen wife, a mother, a witness to the process, someone who can never forget the original Emma’s memories of a loving husband, giving birth and fighting in the rebellion.

While Archetype followed Emma Burke’s journey to self-awareness, a path that is challenged by her strong feelings for both Declan and flashbacks of her original husband Noah, Prototype focuses on Emma Wade’s reintegration into the rebellion. It traces her painful relationship with Noah and their child (and Noah’s new partner) and, above all else, her vengeance against Declan, to claim back the lives and identities of the girls and women he has destroyed, and is still destroying. Meanwhile, Declan will stop at nothing in his determination to get Emma back.

Prototype is as fast and entertaining as its predecessor, largely thanks to the extremely likeable and confused heroine, Emma. Told in the first person in the present tense we are intimately connected with Emma’s desperate and frightened search for truth and identity. This inevitably means that other characters are less well-realised but that is largely because Emma is no more aware of their motives than we are. There are some difficult obstacles in Emma’s path and despite the fact that the rebel comrades of the original Emma know that she is strong, we know her fragility.

Archetype was confusing in places due to the mix of real time events with dreams and memories. It was difficult trying to keep pace with what was real and what was in the past. This confusion is removed in Prototype and the narrative benefits from that. As before, though, the world-building is largely absent, limited to transporters and clone technology. I would have liked to have known more about what was going on outside Emma’s world, and also outside America. There are hints that the outside world is very different. There would also have been room for more about the Women’s Training Centers and about the actual procedure of cloning.

Instead, the emphasis throughout remains on Emma’s mind as she works through her feelings for Noah, their child and Declan. The romance and dystopian themes about young womanhood, as well as the cover, suggest that this is a Young Adult book although it is not intended to be. Nevertheless, I would argue that both Archetype and Prototype would be greatly enjoyed by older teens.

I am very pleased that Prototype followed so closely on the heels of Archetype – I’m not good at dealing with cliffhangers. I think, though, that the two books would have been better served up as one. However, Prototype proved a satisfying end to an enjoyable and pleasingly disturbing story.

Other review
Archetype

Masters of Rome by Robert Fabbri (Vespasian V)

Publisher: Atlantic Books/Corvus
Pages: 416
Year: 2014 (7 August)
Buy: Hardback, Kindle
Source: Review copy

Masters of Rome by Robert FabbriReview
Britannia, AD 45. Sabinus, elder brother of Vespasian, has been snatched by the druids, betrayed by spy Alienus, suspended naked and filthy in a cage until his brother should come to his rescue at which time both men will be sacrificed to the goddess Sullis. Such is the plan but Vespasian is a soldier and officer who has learned his craft, forming meaningful alliances with local chieftains, able to take those harsh decisions which can save an army at the cost of the valued few. But in the druids, Vespasian’s might and determination, a mirror of Rome, comes against an enemy of a type he’s not encountered before. The battle will take all of his cunning and take Vespasian to the very edge of what he can endure.

Rome, though, is no safer a place. These are the days of Claudius, an emperor only slightly less mad than the man who preceded him and the one who is to follow. The dribbling fool is in the thrall of his captivating wife, Messalina, a woman notorious to all (but her husband) for her voracious sexual appetites. Rome is ruled in all but name by Claudius’s three freedmen but even they cannot compete with the reach of the empress. A plan is hatched, Vespasian is caught in the middle. Having proven himself in the field, Vespasian must now use every political skill he can muster to bring down Messalina while all the time securing his family – and his wealth – for the future that has been prophesied.

Masters of Rome is the fifth novel in Robert Fabbri’s superb series chronicling the life and career of Vespasian, a man who against all odds survived Rome’s most infamous emperors only to ascend – somehow, miraculously – to the purple himself. Vespasian is now in his late thirties, a married man with two children, albeit children he barely knows, a difficult wife and a tolerant mistress. The events of previous novels continue to exert their influence, leaving debts that Vespasian must continue to pay, but the price is now exceedingly rich, demonstrating yet another stage in Vespasian’s transformation. There is a strong sense that Vespasian is conscious throughout of the damage that his ambition is doing to his soul and this is one of the major themes of the novel – in Masters of Rome we are given a glimpse into the religion that determined the Roman character, walking hand in hand with its materialism and greed, and the spirituality with which it was assaulted. There is a wave of fear that courses through the pages of this novel, spreading from the groves and springs of Britannia to the temples and gardens of empire. Vespasian feels it and, reading it, so do we. Vespasian must also learn a stark lesson about the Rome that he serves – the ideal is now becoming the personal.

The last novel in the series, Rome’s Fallen Eagle, is a marvellous book and was my favourite of the sequence and one of my top reads of 2013. Masters of Rome, though, surpasses it. This is an achievement indeed. As with the previous novel, the book is divided into two, but here the two are unified by what they reveal about the character of Vespasian and the world he must face and conquer. Liberties are taken with history but they serve a dramatic purpose and the result is a novel that is never less than harrowing, powerful and unputdownable until the very last page.

Every one has their own idea about what the druids would have been like and Robert Fabbri plays with this brilliantly, tapping into the fears of Rome and projecting it onto the page. The novel becomes imbued with superstition, dread and evil. Anything can happen and it does. What matters is that Vespasian must believe it. But this is not the only religion Vespasian encounters in Britannia – there is the stuff of legend here as well as the origins of Christianity.

Back in Rome, Vespasian encounters a state of affairs no less horrifying than the druids as decent men are destroyed at the whim of an insatiable harlot and her pitiful husband. Vengeance becomes a key theme and it’s no less potent or satisfying when exercised against empresses than betrayers.

Each of the Vespasian series could be read as standalone novels, each contains unobtrusive clues to previous events, but to read one without the others would be such a shame. Robert Fabbri is a superb storyteller. He doesn’t shy from depicting violence or venality, far from it, but it always serves the purpose of the story. Fact and fiction mix well in these pages, the goal always being to show the progression of one of Rome’s most remarkable men – Vespasian – while presenting the extraordinary world in which he moved. Masters of Rome is also, I would argue, the most exciting of the series. Nothing was going to get between me and the last 150 pages.

2014 is proving to be an outstanding year for historical fiction – Masters of Rome is right up there with the very best. Long may this series continue.

Other reviews
Vespasian I: Tribune of Rome
Vespasian II: Rome’s Executioner
Vespasian III: False God of Rome
Vespasian IV: Rome’s Fallen Eagle

Hurricane Fever by Tobias S. Buckell

Publisher: Del Ray
Pages: 269
Year: 2014
Buy: Paperback, Kindle
Source: Bought copy

Hurricane Fever by Tobias S. BuckellReview
Prudence ‘Roo’ Jones used to be a spy for Caribbean intelligence services but now he is retired, focused on raising his teenage nephew Delroy, whose parents were both killed in a hurricane. Another such storm, one of many, is about to hit the islands but, as Roo and Declan batten down the hatches of their boat, prepared to ride out the onslaught in the mangroves, Roo receives a phone message from one of his old brothers in arms, Zee. But the message is a failsafe, only to be heard if Zee is dead. Zee’s voice asks for help, for his murder to be avenged, a request that Roo could never refuse especially when it is backed up by the arrival on the island of Kit, Zee’s sister, who is after vengeance of her own. But Roo knew Zee very well – and he was not a man with a sister.

Set in the near future, at a time when the environment has taken some punishment, submerging islands, producing a conveyor belt of hurricanes, mankind has also been given a genetic boost. Devastating injuries are now quick to heal, moods easier to calm, but with this technology comes a threat that is every bit as deadly as the storms that batter the Atlantic and Gulf shores. As the very wealthy gather for a Hurricane Party, safe in the knowledge that they can escape at the last minute, Roo and Kit have a conspiracy to fight, one that killed Zee and could very well kill almost everyone on the planet if not stopped in time.

Hurricane Fever is a fast and furious thriller. It’s not long at all before the pace and tension builds and then it doesn’t let up for a moment until the book is done. I am a big fan of technothrillers, especially when they throw environmental disasters and genetic threat into the mix (Michael Crichton could do no wrong in my eyes), and Hurricane Fever delivered just what I hoped. The hero Roo is an interesting, likeable man and enough time is spent on him to make the reader genuinely care about him and want to know more. He’s not your typical James Bond figure – he’s dreadlocked, Caribbean and a boatman – but he’s all the more exciting and unpredictable for that. Kit is also intriguing, not least because for much of the book we’re trying to work out who she is, every bit as much as Roo is.

As you’d hope with a thriller such as this, the baddies are particularly nasty and their plan is suitably ambitious. There’s little doubt that good will win in the end but there are a fair few shocks along the way, including one that really did make me stop and start.

My one complaint is that Hurricane Fever is a little short at well under 300 pages. But this does mean that the thriller is well-focused and little time is wasted. It is also very well written. I read it in a day and the book was great company. It would make for perfect holiday reading (perhaps less so for a Caribbean cruise). This isn’t the first of Buckell’s novels to feature Roo – Arctic Rising is also available. I snapped it up straight away, although I sense that by comparison with Hurricane Fever, this one could prove a little chilly…

Guest post: The joys of writing Byzantine historical fiction by author Richard Blake

As a reader of historical fiction, there is one (actually, there’s more than one) period of history and place in history that for some reason I cannot fathom passes me by – Byzantium. Therefore, when well-known Byzantine historical fiction author Richard Blake contacted me, I thought it would be the perfect opportunity to find out more about the appeal of this period to an author. With thanks to Richard, and with no more ado, his post follows.

The joys of writing Byzantine historical fiction

As the author of six novels set in seventh century Byzantium, I’m often asked: Why choose that period? There’s always been strong interest within the historical fiction community in Classical Greece, and in Rome a century either side of the birth of Christ, and the western Dark Ages. With very few exceptions – Robert Graves’ Count Belisarius, for example, or Cecelia Holland’s Belt of Gold – Byzantium in any period of its long history is a neglected area. Why, then, did I choose it?

Conspiracies of RomeThe short answer is that I wanted to be different. I won’t say that there are too many novels set in the other periods mentioned above. There is, even so, a very large number of them. If there is always a market for them, standing out from the crowd requires greater ability than I at first thought I had. And so I began Conspiracies of Rome (2008) I ran at once into difficulties I hadn’t considered, and that could have been shuffled past had I decided on a thriller about the plot to kill Julius Caesar. Solving these difficulties put me through a second education as a writer, and may even have shown that I do possess certain abilities. Before elaborating on this point, however, let me give a longer answer to my question: Why choose Byzantium?

Looking at our own family history, we tend to pay more attention to our grandparents than our cousins. Whatever they did, we have a duty to think well of our grandparents. We often forget our cousins. So far as they are rivals, we may come to despise or hate them. So it has been with Western Europe and the Byzantine Empire. The Barbarians who crossed the Rhine and North Sea in the fifth century are our parents. They founded a new civilisation from which ours is, in terms of blood and culture, the development. Their history is our history. The Greeks and Romans are our grandparents. In the strict sense, our parents were interlopers who dispossessed them. But the classical and Christian influence has been so pervasive that we even look at our early history through their eyes. The Jews also we shoehorn into the family tree. For all they still may find it embarrassing, they gave us the Christian Faith. We have no choice but to know about them down to the burning of the Temple in 70AD. The Egyptians have little to do with us. But we study them because their arts impose on our senses, and because they have been safely irrelevant for a very long time.

Byzantium is different. Though part of the family tree, it is outside the direct line of succession. In our civilisation, the average educated person studies the Greeks till they were conquered by the Romans, and the Romans till the last Western Emperor was deposed in 476AD. After that, we switch to the Germanic kingdoms, with increasing emphasis on the particular kingdom that evolved into our own nation. The continuing Empire, ruled from Constantinople, has no place in this scheme. Educated people know it existed. It must be taken into account in histories of the Crusades. But the record of so many dynasties is passed over in a blur. Its cultural and theological concerns have no place in our thought. We may thank it for preserving and handing on virtually the whole body of Classical Greek literature that survives. But its history is not our history. It seems, in itself, to tell us nothing about ourselves.

The Terror of ConstantinopleIndeed, where not overlooked, the Byzantines have been actively disliked. Our ancestors feared the Eastern Empire. They resented its contempt for their barbarism and poverty, and its ruthless meddling in their affairs. They hated it for its heretical and semi-heretical views about the Liturgy or the Nature of Christ. They were pleased enough to rip the Empire apart in 1204, and lifted barely a finger to save it from the Turks in 1453. After a spasm of interest in the seventeenth century, the balance of scholarly opinion in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries was to despise it for its conservatism and superstition, and for its alleged falling away from the Classical ideals – and for its ultimate failure to survive. If scholarly opinion since then has become less negative, this has not had any wider cultural effect. As said, there are few novels set in Constantinople after about the year 600. I am not aware of a single British or American film set there.

I discovered Byzantium when I was fourteen. I was already six years into what has been a lifelong obsession with the ancient world. I had devoured everything I could find and understand about the Greeks between Solon and Alexander the Great, and about the Romans till the murder of Domitian. I was teaching myself Latin, and thinking about Greek. Then, one happy afternoon in my local library, I came across Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. I could, and one day will, write an essay about the literary and philosophical debt I owe him. For the moment, it’s enough to say that he led me straight into the so far unexplored history of Late Antiquity and the early Middle Ages. And, though frequently gloomy, what a magnificent history that is. When I studied History at university, I chose every course option that kept me there. Since then, sometimes for years on end, I’ve buried myself in the unfolding story of the Byzantine Empire. Hardly surprising that, when I turned to historical fiction, my first and only choice should be Byzantium.

The Blood of AlexandriaOf course, I revere Classical Antiquity. But, once your eyes adjust, and you look below the glittering surface, you see that it wasn’t a time any reasonable person would choose to be alive. The Greeks were a collection of ethnocentric tribes who fought and killed each other till they nearly died out. The Roman Empire was held together by a vampire bureaucracy directed more often than in any European state since then by idiots or lunatics. Life was jolly enough for the privileged two or three per cent. But everything they had was got from the enslavement or fiscal exploitation of everyone else.

Now, while the Roman State grew steadily worse until the collapse of its Western half, the Eastern half that remained went into reverse. The more Byzantine the Eastern Roman Empire became, the less awful it was for ordinary people. This is why it lasted another thousand years. The consensus of educated opinion used to be that it survived by accident. Even without looking at the evidence, this doesn’t seem likely. In fact, during the seventh century, the Empire faced three challenges. First, there was the combined assault of the Persians from the east and the Avars and Slavs from the north. Though the Balkans and much of the East were temporarily lost, the Persians were annihilated. Then a few years after the victory celebrations in Jerusalem, Islam burst into the world. Syria and Egypt were overrun at once. North Africa followed. But the Home Provinces – these being roughly the territory of modern Turkey – held firm. The Arabs could sometimes invade, and occasionally devastate. They couldn’t conquer.

One of the few certain lessons that History teaches is that, when it goes on the warpath, you don’t face down Islam by accident. More often than not, you don’t face it down at all. In the 630s, the Arabs took what remained of the Persian Empire in a single campaign. Despite immensely long chains of supply and command, they took Spain within a dozen years. Yet, repeatedly and with their entire force, they beat against the Home Provinces of the Byzantine Empire. Each time, they were thrown back with catastrophic losses. The Byzantines never lost overall control of the sea. Eventually, they hit back, retaking large parts of Syria. More than once, the Caliphs were forced to pay tribute. You don’t manage this by accident.

The Sword of DamascusThe Byzantine historians themselves are disappointingly vague about the seventh and eight centuries. Our only evidence for what happened comes from the description of established facts in the tenth century. As early as the seventh century, though, the Byzantine State pulled off the miracle of reforming itself internally while fighting a war of survival on every frontier. Large parts of the bureaucracy were scrapped. Taxes were cut. The silver coinage was stabilised. Above all, the great senatorial estates of the Later Roman Empire were broken up. Land was given to the peasants in return for military service. In the West, the Goths and Franks and Lombards had moved among populations of disarmed tax-slaves. Not surprisingly, no one raised a hand against them. Time and again, the Arabs smashed against a wall of armed freeholders. A few generations after losing Syria and Egypt, the Byzantine Empire was the richest and most powerful state in the known world.

This is an inspiring story – as inspiring as the resistance put up by the Greek city states a thousand years before to Darius and Xerxes. Why write yet another series of novels about the Persian or Punic wars, when a lifetime of research had given me all this as my background? You can ask again: Why Byzantium? My answer is: What else but Byzantium?

And so I’ve written six novels set in the seventh century, mostly within the great cities of the Byzantine Empire. The background in each is the wavering but increasingly successful struggle to break free of the Roman heritage. Conspiracies of Rome (2008) is a kind of prelude. It explains how Aelric, the hero of the entire series – young and beautiful and clever, at least two of which things I’m not – is kicked out of Anglo-Saxon England, and comes to Rome to try his luck. At once, he trips head first into the snake pit of Imperial politics, and doesn’t climb out again until the body count runs into dozens. In Terror of Constantinople (2009), he’s tricked into a mission to Constantinople, where we see the old order of things falling apart in a reign of terror. In Blood of Alexandria (2010), he’s come up in the world, and is in Egypt as the Emperor’s legate, sent there to impose a plan of land reform – which is, you can be sure, entirely his idea. Faced with a useless Viceroy, an obstructive landed interest, and an intrigue featuring the first chamber pot of Jesus Christ and the mummy of Alexander the Great, everything goes tits up, and there’s a climax in an underground complex near to the Great Pyramid.

The next two novels in the series are an apparent digression from the overall scheme. In Sword of Damascus (2011), a very aged Aelric is kidnapped from his place of refuge and retirement in the North of England and carted off to the heart of the Islamic Caliphate. Ghosts of Athens (2012) returns us to the immediate aftermath of Aelric’s less than triumphant efforts in Egypt. I did intend this to be a tightly-constructed thriller set in a horribly broken down Athens. It turned instead into a gothic horror novel – quite a good one, I think; a surprise for the reader, even so.

In Curse of Babylon (2013), I return to Imperial high politics, complete with a Persian a Great King who is described by one of the reviewers as “possibly the most sadistic fictional bad guy I’ve ever encountered.” Because I don’t think I shall write any more in the series, I made Curse of Babylon the most expansive and spectacular of the whole set. It has kidnaps and daring escapes, blood and sex everywhere, acrobatic fights that owe much to Hollywood at its best, and a gigantic battle at the climax.

I suppose there is room for another three or even six. But I’ll not be thinking about that this year, or next year, or perhaps the year after that. My latest novel, The Break (2014) – written under another name – is post-apocalyptic science fiction. This will be followed by a horror novel set in York.

The Ghosts of AthensI haven’t bothered with detailed outlines of the six Byzantine novels. What I will say, however, is that I’ve worked very hard not to make any of them into a factual narrative enlivened by a bit of kissing and a few sword fights. I greatly admired Jean Plaidy as a boy, and she taught me as much as I still know about France during the Wars of Religion. But I don’t regard her as a model for writing historical fiction. So far as we can know or reconstruct them, the facts must always be respected. Indeed, I would say that anyone who wants a reliable introduction to the world of seventh century Byzantium could do worse than start with my novels. Even so, these are novels, and they must stand or fall as entertainment. The plots have to keep the reader guessing and turning the pages. The characters have to live and breathe. Their language and actions need to be credible.

I come now to the difficulty I mentioned in my second paragraph. If you want to write a novel about the plot to kill Caesar, you can leave my readers to supply much of the background. From Shakespeare to Rex Warner and beyond, the reading and the viewing public know roughly what is going on. Everyone likely to buy such a novel knows that Rome had expanded from a city state to an empire, and that its constitution had broken down in the process. Everyone knows that Caesar was ruling as a military dictator, and that this was resented by much of the senatorial aristocracy. Everyone knows who Cicero was, and Mark Antony, and Cleopatra. If you want to write about this, you can largely get on with the plot. You may need to go into a few details about the theoretical legality of Caesar’s power, or the oddities of the Roman electoral system. But much of the job has already been done for you.

You can’t do this with seventh century Byzantium. The reading public can’t be expected to know much at all. You have a continuing Roman Empire after Rome itself has fallen. Paganism is out. Instead, you have a legally established Christian Faith, with ranting clerics whose differing views of the Nature of Christ are turning the Empire into a patchwork of mutually-hostile classes and nationalities. You have a crumbling tax base and an omnipresent threat on the borders with Persia. Later, you have militant Islam. Because readers can’t be expected to know this, you have to tell them.

In Claudius the God, Robert Graves explains the obscure facts of Roman policy in the East with what amounts to a long essay. It’s a good essay. But you can’t do this nowadays. Fashions have changed. Readers are less patient. They want a story to keep moving. You need to integrate your background into the action and dialogue.

The Curse of BabylonI didn’t get this entirely right in Conspiracies of Rome. There’s an authorial explanation at the start of the second section of the novel. This works, but displeased my editor at Hodder & Stoughton. So I worked like a slave on Terror of Constantinople and the other four novels to give my editor exactly what she wanted. In Terror, I allowed myself one explanation of background, but put this into a dialogue between Aelric and a drunken slave who needs to be told about the civil war between Phocas and Heraclius to make sense of a failed murder attempt. In Sword of Damascus, old Aelric is allowed to turn garrulous once or twice when the fourteen year-old English boy he has with him asks questions about the world they’ve entered. On the whole, though, I’m proud of how I eventually got past what seemed an insuperable barrier to writing popular historical fiction set in a fairly unknown period.

It’s easier to show than to describe. But how you do it is a matter of casual asides and revealed assumptions. You pick up what is happening in much the same way as you might from an overheard conversation. To give one example from an alternative history novel I wrote a few years ago, something is described as being “about the same size as a self-charging television battery.” You get the size of the object described from the context. The purpose of the comparison is to tell the reader something more about the technology available. Continue with this throughout the whole course of a novel, and you explain your background without slowing the pace.

A reviewer also complained about the extreme and graphic violence. If I never trouble the reader with graphic descriptions of the sexual act – like most other people, I’m useless at writing porn, and there’s tons of it nowadays on the Internet to suit every taste – my novels are drenched in violence. Another American reviewer said that the torture chamber passages in Blood of Alexandria made him feel unwell for several days. My answer again is that this is how it was, and still is. No government has ever lasted without at least the threat of the executioner and the torture chamber. I see no point in hiding the disgusting means by which power is generally got and maintained.

This has turned out to be a somewhat longer advertisement for my novels than I intended, or was asked, to write. So I’ll conclude by saying that, if you like the sound of them, please consider buying my novels. I think they’re rather good. More to the point, so do the reviewers. You should probably begin at the beginning with Conspiracies of Rome, though Sword of Damascus is my own favourite. All else aside, they make ideal presents for those hard-to-please loved ones.

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