There is something fascinating about the fortune of western Europe during those years of mystery that lay between the Roman and Carolingian empires. Centuries of decline and decay, caused and aggravated by abandonment by the Roman authorities, now based in Constantinople, and attack by the northern tribes. Arguably, the one hope for those living amongst the ruins lay in the new Christian order which flourished in the West, just as it did in the East. Unfortunately, with the bishops not able to agree about even the nature of Christ, union seemed impossible and even undesirable.
It’s in this 7th-century world that we meet Aelric – senator and advisor to the emperor in Constantinople, troubleshooter and troublemaker, handy with fist and pen, with one eye open for attractive female company and the other for enlightening literary or theological texts. Having failed to keep the peace in Alexandria, Aelric is sent with Priscus, a deeply unsavoury general, to Athens. They are there to be either executed (or at least have their eyes burnt out) for having failed their master or to rule over an unhappy meeting of bishops and prelates designed to bring the western and eastern churches together. The fact that the novel is over 400 pages long indicates the latter.
The historical setting of The Ghosts of Athens is superb. The descriptions of Athens are compelling. The remains of the glory days can still be seen, admired and visited while the decayed city streets are filled with an ugly, diseased and impoverished population, as far removed as is possible to be from those famously godlike Athenians of antiquity. You can almost taste the rot. This is compounded by a description of a garden frog stew that put me off food for a week. And when a headless corpse turns up, pulled out from under an ancient tomb, and is subjected to the kind of treatment that only the despicable Priscus could summon up, I was reaching for a bucket.
There is an issue, though. This extraordinary historical colour is let down by a rambling and incoherent story that loses direction and point at every turn. Aelric has similar colour and is entertaining and shocking in equal measure. But he is not enough. The other characters came across to me as either cartoon grotesques or cardboard cutouts. Nobody seemed ‘normal’. The story could have been about the murder, it could have been about religious argument and debate, it could have been about a city on the point of violent collapse. I didn’t really know. It was a bit of all of these with Aelric’s own private agendas added in. Also, the early chapters are set at a future date in a fantastically-realised decrepit London but there was little to join it with the bulk of the novel.
The first third is excellent and pulled me in. The remaining two thirds did their best to spit me out. It is a shame because Rome’s death throes provide such a setting and Blake clearly enjoyed putting them to paper. The beginning is so much fun to read. However, a novel needs to give more to its reader, at least this reader.
The Ghosts of Athens is the fifth book in a series and it’s possible that if I had read the others I might have enjoyed it more. It’s unlikely, though, that I’ll read the next.