When I opened The Last King of Lydia last year, a debut novel set during a period of history I knew very little about, I had no idea that this fabulous book was set to become one of my favourite novels of all. It was complete in itself but this month sees the publication of its follow up, The King and the Slave, which isn’t so much a sequel as a depiction of another phase in the life of Croesus, once the King of Lydia, the richest king of them all and now reduced to slavery in the household of Cyrus, the King of the Persians. You needn’t have read The Last King of Lydia to appreciate the wonder and beauty of this second novel, but I would urge everyone who hasn’t read it to do so and as soon as possible.
Croesus is a man transformed. His progress to wisdom, begun on a funeral pyre, continues but Croesus the slave has become much more than the King of Lydia ever was, a king who used blinded slaves to count his piles of gold. Croesus might now be more aware, more content in the companionship of his two closest friends, fellow slaves and once slaves of his own Isocrates and his wife Maia, but he will never be less than an object of curiosity for Cyrus. Croesus is produced at feasts and meetings to present his hard learned advice but all the time he is a reminder to Cyrus that he is now a king with a king for a slave.
Croesus’ relatively content existence is thrown into chaos on the death of Cyrus. The new king, Cyrus’ son, is Cambyses who is the epitome of the corruption of power. Cambyses is fully dependent on Croesus the storyteller but no-one is safe from his madness, especially after the king is slighted by the Egyptian Pharaoh and his mind is set on fury and vengeance. The King and the Slave presents the incredible story of this insane king, his cruelty and sadism, all the time watched by the one man who wants to save him, his slave Croesus, who is kept little more than one step away from death.
But The King and the Slave is as much about the relationship of Croesus to Isocrates and Maia as it is about Croesus and Cambyses. These are no normal friendships. Isocrates and Maia have been damaged by Croesus’ reign and although they let him into their embrace, comforting him for the loss of his own family, they can never trust him fully until he proves himself and the slave becomes king of himself.
Tim Leach writes and imagines beautifully. Every page is rich in the colour of history and although the time in which the novels are set is remote (6th century BC) Leach brings it into the present thanks to the remarkable portraits he paints. The themes are large and important to the people of this novel – life, the pursuit of happiness, friendship, good kingship, moral responsibility, a good death. Croesus is surrounded my men who fail in most of these and some suffer the most horrendous tortured deaths. Leach doesn’t spare us the details – Cambyses is quite a character to put it mildly. But despite the battles (there are wonderful scenes here from Cambyses’ legendary march into the desert), the court politics and the cruelty, Croesus somehow manages to rise above it all.
I am so delighted, but not surprised, that The King and the Slave is every bit as wonderful as The Last King of Lydia. Hugely moving, the events take place on a mix of grand and small stages but, above all, it is always believable and makes us at home in this ancient distant setting. Fabulous.
The Last King of Lydia