Wednesday 24 November 1999

Anthony Trollope: Phineas Finn (1869)

Edition: Electronic Text Center, University of Virginia Library
Review number: 397

Phineas Finn is one of Trollope's most enjoyable novels. It is here that the so called Palliser series of political novels really gets under way, Can You Forgive Her? being more of a prologue introducing some of the characters. (The overlap between the two novels is actually quite small, and it is not until later that characters from them really begin to interact.)

Finn is a young Irish barrister tempted from his legal career by the offer of a seat in Parliament. Without an income, this was a perilous course, for MPs were not paid at this time; only in office would a politician receive public money. Having accepted, he becomes involved in the reforms which took place in British politics in the mid nineteenth century, and is torn between his desire to support the abolition of abuses and the fact that this would result in his own seat disappearing. The tumultuous politics are mirrored in a confused private life, as Finn becomes involved with one woman after another.

Trollope's sentimentality and conventional morality are lesser obstacles in Phineas Finn than they are in some of his other novels - he even goes so far as to condone separation between married partners on grounds of incompatibility, contrary to the law of the time. The main characters are engaging and the political background fascinating.

Tuesday 23 November 1999

George Holmes: The Oxford Illustrated History of Medieval Europe (1988)

Edition: Oxford University Press, 1988
Review number: 396

This history, in tone somewhere between a popular and an academic exposition, divides Europe into two zones (north and Mediterranean) and the medieval period into three sections (500-900,900-1200,1200-1500). Each division is covered by a lengthy essay by a different author, making six in all, topped and tailed by short editorial commentaries.

The strength of the editing is indicated by the fact that there is no obvious stylistic change from one chapter to another; the writing is sufficiently uniform to be the work of a single writer. Rather than following political events, the emphasis is on developments on the social and economic fronts, to show the reader a broad outline of the way in which the ancient world transformed itself into the medieval and thence to the modern. English language medieval histories tend to concentrate on England and France; this one has more about Italy and Germany, making a refreshing change.

The illustrations are interesting and well selected - not just the standard pictures which are reproduced endlessly. It would be nice if a few more of them were in colour. There is a small problem with proof reading - in the genealogical table of the kings of Castile, for example, the date of death of Alfonso XI is given as 1350, while in the text a point is made of its being 1349 (he was the only major ruler to die in the massive plague epidemic of that year).

Monday 22 November 1999

Paul Doherty: The Demon Archer (1999)

Edition: Headline, 1999
Review number: 395

It is a pleasure to read this new Hugh Corbett novel. Paul Doherty, with a doctorate in medieval history, knows the early fourteenth century extremely well and, moreover, conveys the background convincingly and unobtrusively. Corbett is a good central character, and the mysteries he investigates usually interesting and complex enough to please any crime fiction aficionado.

This particular novel is set in Ashdown Forest, in Kent, then thickly wooded. ("Forest" in medieval English refers to land set aside for hunting, usually but not always covered with trees.) One of the foremost nobles of the kingdom, Henry Fitzalan Earl of Surrey is killed here by an assassin who has only made a minimal attempt to disguise the death as a hunting accident. Since he was about to lead an embassy to France to negotiate the treaty accompanying the marriage of Prince Edward (later Edward II) and Isabella daughter of Philip IV of France, his death could have important political consequences, but his private live could equally provide a motive for murdering him, as seduction was his chief hobby. In addition, he had just refused to pass on some of the family estate to his brother and heir to make him financially independent, a move not calculated to endear William to him.

William Faulkner: As I Lay Dying (1935)

Edition: Chatto & Windus
Review number: 394

The title of this Faulkner novel may seem a little misleading. The motivation for the plot is a death, in the remotest parts of the south of the US, but it is about what follows the death, not what led up to it. Well known to his neighbours as lazy and feckless, Anse Budren is suddenly galvanised into activity by the death of his wife. Recalling a wish that she had expressed to be buried in her native town, he and his children set out on a cart with a home made coffin for Jefferson. The journey becomes an epic struggle as heavy rain has destroyed bridges and the river they have to cross is running at an unprecedented level. Despite the attempts of his neighbours to persuade him to wait for a few days or bury Addie locally, Anse insists on making the journey, nearly destroying his entire family in the process.

The story is told from the viewpoints of the various family members and the people that they meet. Short sections are used, written in the first person. The writing is not exactly stream of consciousness, there being more of the air of a narrative. It reads more like a transcription of each person's verbal description of the journey. The narrators range widely in intelligence and education, from the local doctor to Anse's simple daughter (whose chapters are full of delightful childish logic).

Faulkner has written a book which seems to convey admirably what it felt like to live in backwoods America in the twenties. (I say "seems to" because I don't have first-hand experience to compare it with.) The two inventions of television and the car have changed society to such a huge extent that the world in which Anse lives seems far more foreign than, say, modern India.

Friday 19 November 1999

Agatha Christie: Elephants Can Remember (1972)

Edition: Collins
Review number: 393

One of Christie's very last novels, Elephants Can Remember sees Hercule Poirot solving a case from the past. The crime novelist Ariadne Oliver is approached by a stranger at a literary lunch and asked to tell her about a scandal years in the past concerning Ariadne's god-daughter Celia Ravenscroft, who is about to marry this woman's son. Celia's parents were discovered dead at the top of a cliff, apparently having shot one another as a suicide pact. The police could not work out what had motivated this, but no other explanation seemed possible so they accepted it. That didn't stop gossip, and the woman is concerned in case there could be some sort of hereditary madness involved that could affect Celia. Although disliking the approach, Ariadne is intrigued by the mystery. She consults her friend Hercule Poirot, and then goes "elephant hunting". Her feeling is that although human memories are not as permanent as proverbial elephant ones are, people remember bits and pieces; she and Poirot hope to be able to sort out the nuggets of truth from the elaborations, mistakes and conjectures.

The mystery is interesting, though easy by Christie standards. Elephants Can Remember has the same faults as most of her novels - poor characterisation and dreadful dialogue; it doesn't have the racism common in her books. (There is one offhand phrase which might well be considered offensive, but that is all.) The dialogue all reads as though it is an interrogation, all probing questions on one side, though it is clearly intended to be normal conversation with an interrogatory subtext.

Thursday 18 November 1999

Paul Kearney: The Iron Wars (1999)

Edition: Gollancz, 1999
Review number: 392

The third of the Kingdoms of God series is rather shorter than the first two and, like The Heretic Kings, contents itself with carrying forward the plot without resolving issues or creating new ones. It concentrates on two of the story lines, the aftermath of the civil war in Abrusio and the war in Torunna, to the virtual exclusion of the others (such as the return voyage of Captain Hawkwood). So The Iron Wars is less complex, more single-minded than the earlier novels. There is also less magic in it; only the names really mark it out as a fantasy set in another world.

Wednesday 17 November 1999

Ivan Turgenev: First Love (1860)

Translation: Isaiah Berlin
Edition: Penguin, 1980
Review number: 391

First Love, a novelette rather than a full length novel, is a study of adolescent love. When sixteen year old Woldemar first falls in love, he experiences a passionate desire for the daughter of his family's new next door neighbour. A beautiful girl, Zinaida does not lack other suitors, and we are taken through Woldemar's rapidly changing emotions: exaltation, jealousy, despair, hatred, renunciation and renewed devotion. His fervour is only heightened by Zinaida's capriciousness and the way in which she plays off each would-be lover against the others. Then, Woldemar is devastated to discover that the successful rival is his own father, a truly shattering revelation.

Turgenev's depiction of the agonies of an unrequited first love is vivid and convincing. The dramatic climax is perhaps rather less so, even though skilfully prepared (Woldemar is aware of, though he does not understand, increased tension between his parents, for example). The translation is vivid and lively, perhaps more so than many Penguin Classics which as a series tend towards stodginess.

Tuesday 16 November 1999

Michael Dibdin: Vendetta (1990)

Edition: Faber & Faber, 1991
Review number: 390

The case at the centre of the Aurelio Zen novel Vendetta is quite a baffling one, a close relative of the locked room mystery. Rich business tycoon Burolo had a spectacular villa built in Sardinia, using the latest in electronic surveillance and deterrence - as well as a pair of lions bought from a struggling safari park - to keep out unwelcome visitors. An obsessive film maker, his huge cellars are used to store thousands of video tapes recorded both surreptitiously and openly, including film of his wife's affair with the lion keeper. However, not only does an intruder penetrate through the estate to the house, but they also shoot Burolo and his dinner guests in front of a video camera. But, as the pictures are of the dying, there is no clue as to the identity of the killer.

For political reasons, there are influential people dissatisfied with the eventual choice of murderer made by the police, and so Zen is asked to reopen the case. The scarcely spoken implication is of course that he must find the "true" killer, politically acceptable, with enough evidence to let their man off the hook. The expectation is that Zen will manufacture whatever evidence is needed.

The background of corruption gives a dark feeling to the novel, and as with the other Dibdin story I have read, it is centred around a not particularly likeable character. It is well written, though I think that Dirty Tricks is better still.

Monday 15 November 1999

Frederick Forsyth: Icon (1996)

Edition: Corgi, 1997
Review number: 389

Frederick Forsyth always has interesting ideas, but his writing never does them justice. Icon is no exception to this rule. The idea - a new Hitler attempting to take power in the chaotic ruins of a Russia devastated by mega-inflation and uncontrollable organised crime - is excellent. The major problem is the narrative style. The story takes second place to exposition of the idea - the reader does not really need pages of description of fictional Russian politics, for example. Such diversions break the tension which is needed in a thriller.

The primacy of the idea also overcomes any serious attempt at characterisation, an accusation usually levelled at science fiction rather than thrillers. Icon's characters are just ciphers and stereotypes, from Igor Komarov to the Western agents trying to prevent him from gaining power. Forsyth has bought into the idea that Western is good, Eastern bad; the Russians are corrupt, the British and Americans fighting for an ideal (except of course for Russian controlled double agents).

Like the best of Forsyth's novels, The Day of the Jackal, the idea of Icon is centred around a person. In the earlier book, this forces Forsyth to overcome his limitations as a writer of characters, but Komarov does not do this. The idea is sufficiently interesting and well enough done, however, to keep you reading to the end.

Friday 12 November 1999

V.S. Naipaul: A Bend in the River (1979)

Edition: Andre Deutsch, 1979
Review number: 388

Many parts of Africa in the seventies must have been bewildering, terrifying places to live. The driving forces for instability were very strong, based partly on the conflicting feelings of the recently independent nations towards the former colonial powers: hatred of what they had stood for, jealousy of their wealth, and a desperate desire to be as "advanced". The need for the West to provide the status symbols the new nations desperately wanted combined with hatred for those who provided them, together with corruption on a vast scale caused massive instability socially and economically, as the influence of foreign corporations fought the new feelings of nationalism.

Naipaul dramatises this conflict through the story of Salim, a member of one of the trading families of Arab descent from Africa's east coast. When nationalism in his home country destroys the family business, he travels into the interior of the continent to an unnamed town on a bend of an unnamed river flowing through an unnamed country. There, he takes over one of the businesses of a family friend, the man whose daughter everyone expects him to eventually marry.

Through Salim, Naipaul has a character who is both an insider and an outsider: African rather than European, yet still foreign. This means he can be more involved in African society than any European, yet still observe it from the outside. He can stand back from anti-colonial antagonism and also sympathise with it.

With this carefully chosen central character, Napaul tries to convey something of what Africa was like in the mid seventies (the book being written at the end of that decade). He manages to show the reader the Africa behind the corrupt politics, the self-glorifying dictators, the poverty that are the common images of the continent.

Thursday 11 November 1999

Charles Dickens: Barnaby Rudge (1841)

Edition: Heron
Review number: 387

Barnaby Rudge was originally planned as Dickens' first novel. The success of The Pickwick Papers and his development of the serial publication of novels in his magazines - as opposed to the two or three volumes of contemporary practice - meant that writing a novel about the Gordon riots was delayed for some years. And yet Barnaby Rudge still reads like a very early work.

The influence of Scott - novels like The Heart of Midlothian - is fairly obvious, and this is one thing which marks out the novel as the work of a young writer. Later Dickens reads like no one but himself.

The character of Barnaby is a nice idea, imperfectly realised. A simpleton possessed of a benevolent, trusting attitude to the world around him, he is an easy prey for those who want to involve him in the riots as a sort of figurehead to hide the extent of their own involvement. The parallels with Lord George Gordon, whose naive extreme anti-Catholicism sparked off the riots, is a nice touch: the Gordon family at this time were famous for having less than common sense, even for madness. But Barnaby is not convincing; he is rather sentimentalised (to a modern reader, Dickens' greatest fault), and attempts to create humour through his character do not really come off.

Barnaby Rudge is interesting because we can see in it where Dickens started from, and because the riots themselves are a dramatic subject.

Elizabeth Peters: Die For Love (1984)

Edition: Souvenir Press, 1985
Review number: 386

The third Jacqueline Kirby novel is one of Elizabeth Peters' most outrageous. Setting a mystery at a romantic novels conference enables her to write several over the top spoofs of a genre almost beyond parody. Like her heroine, she clearly enjoys the bad taste piled on in such huge amounts; enough kitsch becomes fun.

Yet there are aspects of the romance industry of which Peters does not approve, and which this book criticises: the deceptions carried out on the readers, the bad treatment of the only slightly less naive authors. (As in many genre fiction, most authors start out as fans.)

As a crime novel, Die For Love has an easy puzzle, though it helps if you know some Shakespeare reasonably well. It is the background which makes it fun, along with the acerbic quality of Jacqueline.

Arundhati Roy: The God of Small Things (1997)

Edition: Flamingo, 1997
Review number: 385

Roy's first novel is wonderfully evocative, both of what it is to live in modern India and also of the world of a small child. It revolves around the return to the town of Ayumenem of Rahel after years away, and a longer period without seeing her fraternal twin brother Estha. The experience of the small child is explored through their memories of the events that led up to Estha being sent away to join the twins' distant father.

This childhood world is evoked through unusual ways of looking at things, the interest in silly word games (such as reading backwards), the reuse of half understood phrases that adults have been heard using. It is very well done, never descending to the level of cuteness that is such an obvious trap here: Roy takes her child characters very seriously.

The India that she portrays is one of rapidly changing culture. Like the European characters in Kipling and Forster novels set in the country, Roy's children are to a large extent outsiders, coming from an upper class family of Syrian Christians educated in Western style schools. They are far more able to associate with the Hindus around them than an English child would have been in the days of the Raj, of course. Another way in which they are different is that they come from a "broken home"; their mother, Ammu, having returned with them to her family after her husband descended into alcoholism and wife beating.

There is a lot of tension built into the novel, and this is done through the two timelines: the adult reliving her childhood memories knows that something terrible is going to happen. The terrible events are directly driven by the contrast between old and new driven by the relentless drive to modernise: the inequalities a Marxist government can do nothing about the caste system and the despised status of the Untouchables, legally abolished but still at the root of the culture.

The symbol used to represent traditional India is the kathakali dancer, also the logo of the company owned by the family. They perform drastically cut down, popularised versions of their traditional dances telling stories from Hindu legend in the tourist hotels, working off the guilt they feel for the prostitution of their sacred art at the temples, while their children look for other careers more in tune with the times. This sad story encapsulates the message Roy has about the whole of traditional India: it is doomed, unable to survive in a country which wants to Westernise, become "modern".

Tuesday 9 November 1999

Leslie Charteris: She Was A Lady (1931)

Alternative title: The Saint Meets His Match
Edition: Hodder & Stoughton, 1951
Review number: 384

Returning to the full length novel, She Was A Lady boasts, in addition to the usual qualities of a Saint story, one of the best final pages in any thriller. Its story is quite simple. Jill Trelawney is the (beautiful) daughter of an Assistant Commissioner of Scotland Yard who died a broken man after being disgraced for bribery. Believing him to have been framed, she sets out to embarrass the police by helping captured criminals to escape while trying to find out who was the real corrupt officer. Naturally, her activities soon interest the Saint.

Generally speaking, I prefer the original titles to the new ones given to these early books after the Saint stories became successful in the USA. Nowadays, it would perhaps be described as "dumbing down", changing (almost) all the titles so that they contain the word "Saint". It's clearly done to remind people who are used to pulp fiction series with multiple authors or who cannot remember the author's name that each new book has the hero they enjoy at its centre. In this case, I don't like the original title much, either; neither of them are really closely related to the content of the novel.

Monday 8 November 1999

Aldous Huxley: Point Counter Point (1928)

Edition: Albatross
Review number: 383

Point Counter Point is about contrasts (hence the title) as well as Huxley's perennial themes of dehumanisation and futility in the modern world. It is full of mismatched couples, people committed to psychological and political opposites. It is one of Huxley's longest novels, and is full of philosophical argument.

There is no single central character. Rather, it is about a dozen or so equally important people, vaguely connected through mutual acquaintance. They are mainly English upper class, though popular politics is an important part of the novel. It is set in the thirties, possibly the heyday of extremism in British politics, and includes both Fascist and Communist characters.

The plot is virtually non-existent; this is a novel of ideas, of characters. The events that happen - deaths, affairs, separations - are there to parade a series of people before the reader, to show us their differences. It is superbly written, and rather more subtle than (say) Brave New World. The philosophical discussions, mainly revolving round the question of whether human beings are purely mechanistic of whether there is more to life than that, have dated somewhat, but are at the core of the contrasts which are the heart of the novel.

Friday 5 November 1999

Ann Granger: Where Old Bones Lie (1993)

Edition: Headline, 1994
Review number: 381

An early Mitchell and Markby mystery, Where Old Bones Lie is set at an archaeological dig. It starts when Meredith Mitchell is rung up by an old friend. Ursula has just ended a disastrous affair with a colleague. Dan is still saying that he loves her, and now his wife has disappeared and Dan is obviously lying about her whereabouts, making Ursula worry that he has murdered her. The two of them work for a Trust which is funding a dig near Bamford, where the stories of this series are set. They hope to find the grave of an early Saxon chieftain. As the dig has recently been surrounded by an encampment of New Age travellers, the Trust wants someone to sleep on site, and Meredith volunteers to keep Ursula company in a caravan there. Then the body of Dan's wife is found on a rubbish tip near the site.

A dig is a good setting for a crime novel; they are often isolated camps on farmland, offering plenty of opportunity for tensions to rise in small groups of people. (Though it is apparently now the case that the majority of UK archaeology consists of 'rescue' digs, to discover as much about a site as possible before developers move in and destroy the evidence: hardly isolated.) The puzzle is good, the characters are good. The New Age travellers are the biggest problem. Granger tries not to stereotype them, but their very presence in the story is something of a stereotypical device, using common fears of the middle class reader - and I suspect that most crime fiction readers would consider themselves middle class - to distract them from the real solution to the crime. They include stereotypical figures, such as the upper class girl most concerned to keep her activities unknown to her family. I think we are still yet to see a sympathetic and accurate portrayal of these people in a novel.

Wednesday 3 November 1999

William Morris: The Well at the World's End (1896)

Edition: Ballantine, 1971 (in two volumes)
Review number: 381

William Morris' late nineteenth century romances have proved very influential in twentieth century popular literature, yet they are probably rarely read today. There is a strong case for arguing that they mark the origin of the modern fantasy genre. The Well at the World's End is the longest, and amply illustrates why his work has become both so influential and so obscure.

The story is a simple one, telling the tale of the quest undertaken by Ralph of Upmeads to drink from the well at the World's End, which gives a renewed life - both physically and morally - to those who do so. It tells of the perils and wonders of his journey, of his friendships and loves as he also moves from being a boy to an adult man.

So what is it that made Morris an inspiration? The principal features of the background to the novel have become the principal features of just about every fantasy novel of the twentieth century: an imaginary world, a medieval culture, and magic. Morris' work shared these aspects with other novels of the nineteenth century - they are present to some degree in many Gothic novels - but Morris combined them with an optimistic tone which makes his work more escapist. This tone is related to that of the medieval romances of Walter Scott and Arthur Conan Doyle, but these are firmly set in (an idealised version of) the real world. Of course, part of this comes from the fact that Ralph's quest fits fairly snugly into the mould of Joseph Campbell's hero's journey; setting it in an imaginary world is what's new.

Morris is perhaps closer to the medieval romance than most of the authors mentioned, hints of (say) Malory or Chretien de Troyes being constantly present, while the allegorical sounding place names recall such works as Piers Plowman.

This medievalism is the foundation of the reasons for the neglect of Morris, as well as conveying the other-worldly atmosphere which was another vitally important legacy to the genre. There are two aspects of it which led to its rejection as a model. First, the prose is full of archaisms which make it difficult to read; second, his similarity to allegorical Christian writings together with his rejection of religion - given a remarkably peripheral part to play compared to his models - means that the whole quest is poorly motivated.

The archaisms and pseudo medieval style are grating to a modern reader, and make Morris a slow read. They are derived, I suspect, from Scott's ideas of medieval prose, and is about as authentic as a Neo-Gothic castle. It is, thankfully, something most fantasy writers have abandoned. (A few still use "thee" and "thou" for effect, and there are few more annoying things than reading a writer who has got this wrong...)

The lack of motivation is a more serious problem. It is possible to read The Well at the World's End as a pure adventure story, if a slow and sedate one, but the allegorical side of things leads the reader to start wondering what the the main symbols (especially the well itself) actually mean. It is possible to come up with meanings - I would say that the well is there to show that we need something outside our normal existence to give our lives true meaning, for example - but none are insisted on or even important to Morris.

Paul Kearney: The Heretic Kings (1996)

Edition: Gollancz, 1996
Review number: 380

In the second of Kearney's series, The Kingdoms of God, the background and characters have been established. The book develops the plot with few surprises within the main situations that have been set up, following the lives of the characters as they react to the new surroundings in which they find themselves as the result of the fall of the holy city of Aekir. In other words, The Heretic Kings performs the traditional function of the second novel in a fantasy series.

The most interesting parts of the novel get most space: the adventures of Hawkwood, Bardolin and Lord Murad on the Western Continent, not as empty as they had expected; the military career of Corfe on the eastern edge of the Ramusian kingdoms. The seed of great events to come is sown in the discoveries made by monks in under the main Inceptine fortress, of knowledge suppressed by the church for centuries, knowledge which could wreck the foundations of the religion of the West. No loose ends from the first novel are tied up; the read must continue if they have any desire to know where things are leading. The Heretic Kings could stand as a paradigm of (good) mid-series fantasy writing.

Tuesday 2 November 1999

Alison Fell: The Mistress of Lilliput (1999)

Edition: Doubleday, 1999
Review number: 379

In something of the manner of John Barth's The Sot-Weed Factor, The Mistress of Lilliput is a twentieth century novel masquerading as an eighteenth century one. It is written in a pastiche of the style of many novels of the period, though it is informed and driven by modern concerns (particularly with reference to the role of the sexes). The major influence is of course Swift, though Sterne and Fielding are also important, the former explicitly quoted at one point.

The Mistress of Lilliput tells the story of Mary Butler, the wife of Lemuel Gulliver of Gulliver's Travels. An ardent wife, who expected bliss from married life, she was rather unhappy when her husband announced that he was to leave on a voyage that would take him from her for several years. Then she receives the news of the loss of his ship, but believes that Lemuel continues to live; and then he returns, rewarding her faithfulness with revulsion, for she to him is a brute Yahoo. To find that he prefers to spend his time in the stables with the horses (and Fell makes more specific hints of miscegenation than Swift does) is a bitter blow, only to be followed by another when he runs off again, to set out on another voyage.

At last Mary has had enough, and so she herself takes ship for the South Seas, aiming to find her husband and to get him to return to her. The main part of the book tells of her adventures and discoveries, both about herself and her relationship with her husband.

The message of the novel is overtly feminist (to do with the fulfilment of women in a patriarchal society), yet Fell manages to avoid polemic. The point is made principally through the general outlines of the plot, but it is not allowed to stand in the way of the characterisation or the narrative flow; it is never insisted upon. To do this well is one of the most difficult feats in fiction writing, and Fell has certainly achieved it.

Steven Saylor: Catilina's Riddle (1993)

Edition: Robinson, 1998
Review number: 378

The third novel in Saylor's series about Gordianus the Finder - a series also including several short stories - tells of one of the most famous events of the last years of the Roman Republic, the Catiline Conspiracy. Now well into middle age, Gordianus has retired to a farm north of Rome, inherited from a friend in the teeth of opposition from the friend's family, who own all the farms surrounding Gordianus' new one.

Gordianus rejoices in leaving behind the corrupt politics of the city, but starts to find that there is something missing from his new life. Then he receives a visitor, who is an agent of Cicero, now consul of Rome, and also of Catilina, his populist opponent. Catilina is looking for somewhere to stay outside Rome, and Gordianus' farm would be an ideal location. Catilina has come up with a political riddle, about whether the current head of the Roman state is to be preferred to the headless body (the common people); Gordianus is to use this as the basis of a message to send to Rome to signify his acceptance or rejection of the proposition. But then a headless body is discovered in the stables. Gordianus takes this to be a threat from Catilina because of the riddle, and so, frightened for his family, he sends the message that he prefers the headless body, thus accepting the proposal.

The investigation in this crime novel is into the provenance of the headless corpse. This is in fact a fairly obvious mystery; Catilina's Riddle has one of the easiest to unravel plots that I have read. It is the political aspect of the story which is more interesting, and this is very well done indeed. It is common to regard the Roman Republic as virtuous by comparison with the Empire; Saylor reminds us that the last years of the Republic were hardly commendable. As well as the rather seedy machinations of the politicians, the way they flattered and manipulated, there are also more petty, private, sordid matters that Saylor highlights. The treatment of slaves, for example, often served as an outlet for both cruel and depraved appetites.

From a historical point of view, it is hard to know the true events of the Catiline conspiracy. The only accounts we have come from his political enemies and could hardly be said to be models of reporting, consisting to a large degree of rhetorical denunciations. Saylor has created a plausible story, with none of the historical characters painted as pure black or white.

Monday 1 November 1999

Paul Kearney: Hawkwood's Voyage (1995)

Edition: Gollancz, 1995
Review number: 377

It's impossible to tell today what exactly the connection was between the fall of Constantinople, the heyday of the Spanish Inquisition, the voyages of discovery and the Reformation. All these events took place in a relatively short time, and some are definitely connected (one of the spurs to the voyages of exploration was the closing of trade routes to the East by the Turks).

Kearney has taken these events and made them the basis of his fantasy series, The Kingdoms of God. The setting is clearly based on fifteenth century Europe (with, for example, the gun and handgun beginning to become important in warfare) and equivalents of these events occur (I suspect that the Reformation is left for a later book, but the way is paved for it here.) Geography and history have been transformed, but much of the background is recognisably the real world. The names used are allusive rather than direct appropriations. (The holy city, lost to the eastern Marduks at the beginning of the novel, is named Aekir rather than Constantinople; but it stands on the Ostian River, and Ostier was the port of Rome at the mouth of the Tiber, and Constantinople was the new Rome.)

The book begins with the fall of Aekir, a city which is like a combination of Rome, Jerusalem and Constantinople in the real medieval world. The destruction of the city and the enslavement of its inhabitants are vividly described - the standard of the writing is high throughout the novel - making a point of the horrors that could accompany medieval warfare without lingering too long on them.

Instead of despondency and desperation, or a heroic crusade, the fall of Aekir prompts the hardline elements of the church to begin a purge in the kingdoms of the West of those suspected of heresy (or even tolerance) or witchcraft. In the busy trading nation of Hebrion, melting pot of cultures and races, this is proving a disaster for the kingdom. Abeleyn, king of Hebrion, organises a voyage of discovery and colonisation, to hunt for the fabled lands over the Western Sea; only by sending away all those who practise magic can he hope to save them.

The strongest aspect of the novel is the evocation of background, particularly of the fanatical Inceptine order of monks, led by men wanting to use that unbending fanaticism to serve their own ambition. The bigotry of religion is likely to have a vivid meaning to anyone of any sensitivity who has lived in Northern Ireland, and I suspect that this is what has powered Kearney's impressive writing.