Tag Archives: Greece

The Oracle by D.J. Niko

The Oracle | D.J. Niko | 2015 | Medallion Press | 362p | Review copy | Buy the book

The Oracle by D.J. NikoIt is AD 393 and time has run out for the pagan gods of Greece. The new god’s priests and agents are ready to pursue the followers of the old faiths to the end of the earth, particularly determined to destroy forever the centre of the ancient world – Delphi and its Oracle of Apollo. The last priestess of Delphi, Aristea, brutalised and desperate, is on the run, having escaped from her captors. Her goal is a cave tucked away in the mountains above Delphi. The cave is opened and closed using a locking mechanism triggered by a brass stake or obelisk. Hidden inside the cave are the wonders of the temple, including something especially precious and important, an object that men will kill to obtain. It is there that Aristea believes she will be safe.

Many lifetimes later, in the present day, English archaeologist Sarah Weston and her American partner Daniel Madigan are excavating a Mycenaean tomb near Delphi. The local archaeological museum is full of fabulous artefacts but, when thieves break in one night, they ignore all of this, instead ransacking the case in which a brass obelisk is kept. Just as well, then, that the object is currently backstage undergoing study. A guard is killed that night. The thieves are ruthless. Sarah and Daniel are not intimidated. They’ve been in dangerous situations before. And so, following the clues, especially the obelisk, they uncover a trail that leads to the cave and beyond, across Greece and further afield. As Sarah and Daniel slowly learn what it is they’re searching for, they realise that they could be out of their depth. The ancient gods might not be dead at all. Someone, it seems, is determined to bring them back to life in all their vengeful glory.

The Oracle is the third of D.J. Niko’s Sarah Weston Chronicles. As soon as I finished the first, The Tenth Saint, I read the second, and I knew that this is a series I’ll follow. It’s been quite a long wait but it’s been well worth it. The Oracle demonstrates yet again that D.J. Niko very definitely knows her stuff. She is able to draw on detailed and illuminating research to add an authenticity to her thrillers that makes them very rewarding to read, at no cost to their thrills. D.J. Niko doesn’t just know her history, she also knows her locations inside out. As Sarah and Daniel scour the hillsides around Delphi, you can almost imagine yourself with them. The descriptions of the archaeological sites ring true and the explanation and discussion of old artefacts, religions or philosophies is done in such a clever way that you’re gripped. Back that up with some dramatic chases across Greece and beyond, and throw into the mix some deliciously bad baddies – as well as heroic goodies – and it’s clear that D.J. Niko has discovered the key for writing clever archaeological mysteries that entertain and conscientiously inform at the same time. No mean feat.

Perhaps the only slight issue I have with the series is its ongoing saga of Sarah and Daniel’s relationship. As in previous books, there is plenty of distrust between the two, as well as misunderstandings and bad communication. I hope that these problems have now been resolved and, in future books, they can move on. Far more interesting is the relationship between Sarah and her father, which is barely touched upon here but is very intriguing. I was rather surprised, though, by the rather brusque treatment of the relationship between Daniel and his father. But these are incidental concerns. The emphasis throughout, at least in the reader’s mind, is the mystery and danger at hand and in this nothing disappoints.

Story lines alternate throughout, bringing to the fore the lost pagan world of Aristea. I loved these chapters. They strongly evoke a long gone time and place, that must have seemed old even during the late 4th century AD when the scenes are set. Aristea’s story is every bit as exciting as Sarah and Daniel’s. I also enjoyed the fact that very little is clear cut. Paganism and Christianity aren’t treated as being either good or bad, just as not all of the baddies were always bad. As for the mystery itself, I was kept guessing. It is so good to read an archaeological thriller series as intelligent and well-researched as this one. Throughout it all, our heroine Sarah Weston knows exactly what the most important thing is – the archaeology. I like that.

Other reviews
The Tenth Saint
An interview with D.J. Niko

Guest post: Troy – History or Myth? by Judith Starkston, author of Hand of Fire

Hand of FireMany years ago, during my archaeology days, I was fortunate enough to visit Troy, a site that still today resonates with history and myth (despite the large wooden horse in the car park). This month, Judith Starkston’s novel Hand of Fire is published, a novel that presents the Trojan War through the eyes of a woman – Briseis, a princess captured during the siege of Troy who was to become the source of the the great conflict between Achilles and Agamemnon. I am delighted to host here a guest post by Judith in which she discusses the archaeological and historical evidence for Homer’s Troy and for the characters who play out their lives and deaths in Hand of Fire.

Troy – History or Myth?

In Homer’s epic poem The Iliad, about the Trojan War, the bard gave only a few lines to Briseis, the captive woman who sparked the bitter conflict between Achilles and Agamemnon. She’s central to the plot but remains an enigma. In my novel Hand of Fire, I gave her a long overdue voice and story.

While my purpose in writing Hand of Fire was to tell a compelling tale, I also wanted to reflect accurately the history of this time and place. Which begs the question: Is Troy the stuff of mythology or does it have a basis in history? There are actually several layers to that question. For now, I will focus on the actual city of Troy itself. That’s the clearest piece of the puzzle. Elsewhere along my virtual book tour I talk about whether the Trojan War actually happened which is kind of the second step in the question.

Can we say with reasonable certainty that we know where the real city of Troy is located and what life was like there during the period of a possible Trojan War, that is, the Late Bronze Age?

Sophia Schliemann, wearing gold jewellery dug from the site and illegally removed from Turkey (public domain)

Sophia Schliemann, wearing gold jewellery dug from the site and illegally removed from Turkey (public domain)

In the late 1800s, a determined, if sometimes dishonest, German named Schliemann used his private fortune to pursue his dream to find Troy. We do owe him thanks for finding the place that would gradually be confirmed as Troy, although since Frank Calvert was the one who pointed out the location, but didn’t have the money to dig it, this ‘discovery’ was probably just a matter of time. The idea was already afloat. Given all the overly enthusiastic, highly destructive digging Schliemann did, his contribution to establishing the historical foundation of Troy is a bit of a mixed blessing.

The main objection to Schliemann’s identification of the mound he dug up as Troy was that the city he uncovered was too small. If it were really the major city that controlled the wealth and trade moving through the straits between the Mediterranean and the Black Sea, known to the Greeks as the Hellespont, what Schliemann showed the world seemed pretty puny. There were believers and many skeptics.

One other inheritance from Schliemann was his assumption that the culture of Troy was Greek and akin to the Mycenaean sites in Greece that he and others were uncovering at this time. He never imagined that any ancient culture in Turkey could possibly be grand enough for his beloved Homer. He was prejudiced, pure and simple, but it is true no grand archaeological sites of the correct period had been discovered in Turkey yet, so his bias had no sites to act as counterweight.

Flash forward past some interim digging by two different archaeologists who both helped and hurt. The story of Troy resumes with Manfred Korfmann, who in 1988 until his death in 2005 (after which work at Troy has continued), gave the site of Troy a modern makeover. Some of his best finds, by the way, came from Schliemann’s dump pile.

Most important, Korfmann used contemporary tools like satellites and geophysical prospection to “look” beneath the ground and discover, without digging, the overall layout of the walls of the elusive lower city. With the pictures revealing the pattern of walls and thus demonstrating an overall size consistent with an important trade center, the problem of Troy being too small was solved. Korfmann demonstrated that up to now only Troy’s citadel had been excavated, which represented only a small portion of the city, as you would expect.

Archaeological site of Troy (photo by J. Starkston)

Archaeological site of Troy (photo by J. Starkston)

Among the many other things this modern dig has shown about Troy, the point of greatest importance to me is that Troy was an Anatolian city not a Greek one. Ancient Anatolia (modern Turkey more or less) stretched from the west coast along the Aegean into Syria to the east. In the Late Bronze Age, Anatolia was dominated by the Hittite Empire, and Troy was an allied, often vassal, state to the Hittites. Modern archaeology had in the intervening years uncovered a grander world than Schliemann would ever have attributed to Turkish soil—an empire that rivaled Egypt and Assyria and that left behind giant archives. In those clay tablet archives are treaties and letters pertaining to Troy (which the Hittites called Wilusa, a version of Ilion, the other Greek name for Troy). Now we can not only be certain this site is Troy, we can also surmise a great deal about this city’s daily life, religion, politics and intrigue because Troy and the rest of Anatolia shared a common cultural tradition. The tablets are full of details of treaties, rituals, and daily life. I used that information to create a historically accurate Briseis, even if, as I must admit, she herself may have originally been the figment of the bard’s imagination. Now she’s a flesh and blood woman with a dramatic life in a region that is to us both exotic and marvelous.

Judith StarkstonIn writing this post I pulled evidence from three works: The Trojan War: A Very Short Introduction by Eric Cline (highly recommended), Was There a Trojan War? by Manfred Korfmann and
Troia in Light of New Research, a lecture by Manfred Korfmann.

Hand of Fire on Amazon UK and Amazon US.
Judith’s website, Facebook and Twitter.
Hand of Fire tour

The King and the Slave by Tim Leach

Publisher: Atlantic Books
Pages: 288
Year: 2014 (4 September)
Buy: Paperback, Kindle
Source: Review copy

The King and the Slave by Tim LeachReview
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.

Other review
The Last King of Lydia

The Ghosts of Athens by Richard Blake

Publisher: Hodder
Pages: 448
Year: 2013
Buy: Paperback, Kindle
Source: Review copy

The Ghosts of Athens by Richard BlakeReview
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.

The Last King of Lydia by Tim Leach

Publisher: Atlantic Books
Pages: 320
Year: 2013, Pb 2014 (1 May)
Buy: Hardback, Kindle, Paperback
Source: Review copy

The Last King of Lydia by Tim LeachReview
Despite his unimaginable riches, Croesus, King of Lydia, has been vanquished. In 547 BC, Croesus sits upon a throne of wood erected on top of a pyre, his white robes smeared with oil, quick to catch a flame. Watching him is Cyrus, King of the Persians, now lord of an even greater empire thanks to the military weakness of Croesus. He continues to conduct his business, knowing he has a few more minutes before his rival king will be lit up like a candle. Croesus uses these moments to reflect on an encounter with Solon, an old politician and philosopher from Athens. Having shown him his treasure rooms, endless in their variety and magnitude, Croesus asked the old man who he believed to be the happiest man alive. Croesus was shocked to discover that this man was not him. All this wealth, which Croesus believed must make him the happiest man alive, counted for nothing if he didn’t live and die well. It’s only now, waiting for the flames to catch, that Croesus begins to understand the waste.

The Last King of Lydia is Tim Leach’s first novel and this is an extraordinary fact because it is without doubt one of the finest pieces of writing I have read for a long time. Not just as historical fiction, at which it excels, but for its exquisite depiction of man’s search for contentment and happiness, a good life as well as a good death when the time for that is right. Not just for kings but also for those who serve them, their slaves as well as their wives and children. While the poorest in the fields and nameless villages have humble ambitions, to be ignored by passing armies, not to be killed or raped or enlisted or stolen from, those at the court of the king have to deal with the sacrifices of service. This might mean a slap, a grope, confinement, separation from loved ones. To be free, not just physically, is a worthy desire for contentment. For the king, his pleasures come at the cost of misery to many, not least to the blind slaves whose sole reason for existence, in a cave beneath the palace, is to count and stack the gold coins that they can never see.

But no matter how rich and powerful these kings are they are as much at the capricious whim of the gods as their own subjects are to them. They have no control over ancient oracles, they cannot compete against the warnings of dreams and omens. However much they love their wives and children, they cannot save them from the judgement of the gods.

In The Last King of Lydia, Leach has created a figure in Croesus who is timeless. While he is recognisable as the rich king of legend, here we are given a portrait of a man who thinks himself almost a god but learns in the very hardest way that he is as humble as the slave that he has taken for granted. Isocrates, his slave, and Maia, Isocrates’ wife, also learn to know this great king as a man. Status is slowly eroded. Complemented by the stories of other men, such as Cyrus the Persian conqueror, Harpagus the great general, Solon the philosopher and Gyges the son, here is a story in which figures from history are stripped bare, learning to know themselves just as we learn to know them ourselves. It is hugely poignant and at times shocking but always beautifully, lyrically written.

This is a novel of tableaux, scenes from an ancient Greek vase – the king on his pyre, the siege of a great city, the march of an immense army, the glorious towers of Babylon. This ancient world comes alive and yet still feels completely relevant to our own world. The descriptions are so vivid, the language and speech so eloquent, that the characters move in a landscape rich in colour. I know little about this period of history but now I want to learn all I can.

I cannot praise The Last King of Lydia enough, nor urge you enough to read it. I wish that there were more books by Leach that I could read right now but we must wait for the next, a sequel. Without doubt, this is a contender for my novel of the year.

God of War: The Epic Story of Alexander the Great by Christian Cameron

Publisher: Orion
Pages: 773
Year: 2012
Buy: Hardback, Kindle, Paperback
Source: Bought copy

There are few figures from history who throw a shadow as long as that of Alexander the Great. Attempts to tell his story must be brave, not least because there are readers such as myself who will have loved Mary Renault’s Alexander Trilogy for decades. But Christian Cameron, a man and author steeped in the military history of the period and intensely involved in its re-enactment, not to mention a fine writer to boot, is up to the task like no other. God of War proclaims itself an ‘Epic Story’ and it is just that – in subject matter, in depth and insight, in scope and in volume. At almost 800 pages, each meticulously filled with historical detail, this is no swift read, at least not for me. For ten days, I was immersed in another time and place, populated by some of the most fearsome and ruthless soldiers to march across the ancient world. At their head is Alexander.

God of War does not, though, attempt to look inside the mind of Alexander the Great. Instead, our narrator is Ptolemy, king of Egypt, boyhood friend of Alexander, becoming one of his most brave and able commanders. This might make you recall the Oliver Stone movie Alexander, I certainly did, but this aside Ptolemy is perfectly positioned to tell the epic story of Alexander and chart his progression from golden prince to feared tyrant. Why did the Macedonians follow Alexander year after year, from battle to battle? There are sections during this story in which Ptolemy struggles to find an answer. This is the Alexander who clasps the hand of Darius, the King of Kings, as the great Persian dies, weeping for the death of his reason to fight. His own men, who make the greatest of sacrifices – and some suffer horrendous fates – receive little such regard from the man they’ve followed across the earth.

Ptolemy is a fine storyteller. He shocks and amuses, especially when commenting on the qualities that define the people of the places they conquer. Like many others, he suffers more than his faire share of injuries and so there are swathes of action that pass in a blur for Ptolemy. Each time he comes to, Alexander’s character has been eaten into that little bit more. While Alexander himself is seen as a driving god(demon)like force on the fringes, Ptolemy’s own life is told with great detail – his love for Thais, his children, his horses (how he loves his horses) and his friends. Of course, Alexander was once one of them.

After the initial chapters which cover the end of Philip of Macedonia’s reign, the succession of his son Alexander and Alexander’s time in Athens, the majority of the novel follows Alexander’s epic campaign. As a result, there are sieges and battles galore. There is a lot of blood, there are accounts of horrific events and deeds, women and children suffer, slaves and prisoners suffer. The campaign makes people mad, not just Alexander. And throughout it all, there is the question of why.

While it is impossible to fault God of War for its authenticity and historical detail and spirit, I did find the military scenes relentless in a book of such length. This, of course, is inevitable in a novel about one of history’s greatest military leaders but I thought the character of Alexander himself stayed too much in the shadows. I missed the intimacy with Alexander that Mary Renault gave us. I missed the details about Alexander’s life, his wives and friends. He remains elusive – intentionally, no doubt. Much of the time, especially as the novel progresses, I also found it hard to understand why anyone would follow him anywhere. More understandable is why men would follow Ptolemy and his fellow commanders.

Nevertheless, God of War is an extraordinary and staggering achievement by Christian Cameron. I doubt Cameron’s expertise in Greek military history can be equalled or even approached. He is steeped in this period and it shows on every page. God of War does make demands on the reader, or at least this one, but the reward makes them well worthwhile.