Sunday, March 09, 2014

Instead of a Review ...

... let's call this a recommendation. By way of disclosure, I received no payment of any kind for this recommendation, and even turned down an offer of links to pirated e-versions (said offer from the author himself) in favor of buying the books I'm about to recommend. In making the foregoing statement, I'm assuming (safely, I think) that the author's friendship, which I highly value, has never been conditional on receipt of a positive review or recommendation.

So: I highly recommend Conspiracies of Rome (which I have read) and The Terror of Constantinople (which I am now reading) by Richard Blake. I strongly suspect that said recommendation will extend to The Blood of Alexandria and The Sword of Damascus, which I haven't yet read but intend to as soon as possible.

Richard Blake is a pseudonym for Sean Gabb, whom you likely know as the public face of the United Kingdom's Libertarian Alliance. For this reason, I should probably get one likely pre-conception out of the way: These novels are not "libertarian novels."

To be a little more specific and walk that back just a tiny bit, they are not didactic texts or ideological rants disguised as story of the type often associated with with the idea of "libertarian novels." They certainly embody values I've come to associate with Sean's non-fiction forays: Love of England and of "western civilization," an Epicurean sensibility, etc.

But -- and this is intended as compliment, not criticism -- story comes first, last and always in the Blake novels. If you're looking for Ayn Rand Does The 7th Century AD, don't bother. Or at least don't blame me for pointing you in Blake's direction. The novels are intellectually rewarding, but they need to be read as novels.

Both the first and second novels are written in first person, past tense: The adventures of one young Aelric, set in the early 7th Century and as recalled by a very elderly Aelric in the late 7th Century. And, as the titles suggest, two background plot points loom large:

  • The decline and decay of the Roman Empire; and
  • The coalescence of the Holy Roman Catholic Church

Aelric, a dispossessed young English nobleman now employed by the Church, offends a local king  and is forced to flee England (in the company of the priest Maximin) to do penance in Rome. That penance turns out to be, in brief, supervising the copying and shipment back to England of important books (the Church's goal being to Christianize England, Aelric's being to save knowledge for eventual re-dissemination to Europe to re-kindle its dying intellectual flame).

Were it that simple, we'd still have a fine yarn. But it quickly becomes more complicated, turning into a roaring good murder mystery and political thriller. If I have any complaint at all, it's that some of the "murder mystery" elements are more appropriate to 19th century "scientific detection" story-telling than to the Dark Ages. But I frankly found those elements to be a pretty good anchor in a strange environment. Gabb ... er, Blake ... tells me that the later novels stick more to the "political thriller" genre, letting the detective stuff fall by the wayside.

Now, about that environment: To me, the strongest writing point in the Aelric novels is a sense of verisimilitude. I've never lived in 7th Century Rome or Constantinople, of course, but Blake brings them to life. That's no small feat. One of my problems with modern literary and theatrical or film depictions of the first, say, 15 centuries A.D. is that they almost always feel like ... well ... depictions. The Aelric novels come across as the actual memoirs of a real person, experiencing real events in places that really existed.

Side note: One element of that verisimilitude is historical accuracy. For about the first 50 pages of Conspiracies of Rome, I found myself running to Wikipedia every few minutes to see if I had caught Blake in anachronism or error. No dice. Every time I checked, things checked out. I can't guarantee perfection on those fronts, but I can say that I quickly got too caught up in the story to keep worrying about such things.

I think you will be similarly captivated by these books, if you allow yourself the pleasure. So do that.

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