Gene Wolfe is best known as an author of science fiction and fantasy, and there is an element of the fantastical to this set of novels set in ancient Greece. The Latro of the title is a mercenary (probably Roman) who fought for the Persians at the Battle of Plataea, where he suffered a head wound and developed severe amnesia. A helpful doctor gave him some scrolls and a writing implement and from there on he writes down his experiences, so that he can remind himself of them as the memory fades. It is the story in these scrolls that we read.
If that isn’t enough of a gimmick, Latro also seems to have developed the ability to interact with gods and ghosts. Thankfully the book is far more than this twist. For me where the book shines is the feeling of being immersed into ancient greece – not so much the places (Latro tends not to get too descriptive in his writing) but the people, who they are, how they interact, what they believe. From a historical perspective, it is great fun seeing Latro meet the likes of the poet Pindar, the Spartan general Pausanias and the Athenian politician Thermistocles.
As ever Wolfe loves playing with the concept of an unreliable narrator and there are some twists and turns that will have you leafing back through the book to check for any hints you missed. Personally I’m very much looking forward to re-reading these soon. For all that, it is far from a cartoonish book, the characters and the setting feel subtle and realistic. It’s gentle, enjoyable, engrossing, confusing, shocking and challenging at the same time. I can’t recommend it highly enough.
As part of a self-improving attempt to actually read ancient historical sources (albeit translated into English), I read Appian‘s Campaigns of Alexander recently. Given some of the dry stuff out there, I was surprised at how well it stood up. It reads like the more narrative end of modern military history. It would be pushing it to compare it to historical fiction, but there is elements of that.
I also listened to Jamie Redfern‘s A History of Alexander podcast for some commentary on the source. Originally from 2011-2012, it’s probably in the first wave of podcast inspired by Mike Duncan’s History of Rome. As with many of these, initially the production can be a little rough but it settles down (I think there’s even a remastered version that I somehow missed).
There were some nice comparisons of the sources (Appian being his favourite) and discussions where things may have been obscure, as well as the occasional bit of humour. Actually, with the most exciting scenes quoted on the podcast it almost worked as an audiobook alternative.
What else is there to add? The story of Alexander is a classic. There are battles, intrigue, a clash of cultures. In either form, it’s very enjoyable.
As far as historical fiction authors go, Harry Sidebottom has good credentials – DPhil in ancient history at Oxford, where he has continued on in a teaching role. This knowledge definitely shows in this novel from 2008 (the first of a series called Warrior of Rome). It is set in the 3rd century AD, not one of the most fashionable eras but a lively one nonetheless. The empire is being (just about) ruled by a series of short-lived military emperors as pressure is put on it from both external and internal sources. This story has an officer of barbarian/Angle origin in the Roman army, Ballista, sent east to defend a city against a huge Persian force.
The setting is very good, there’s a host of characters from various backgrounds and a ton of suitable classical references (Satyricon by Petronius is mentioned a lot). Unfortunately for me, something doesn’t quite click – there’s plenty of plot but none of it really draws me in. The barbarian background of Ballista feels a little unecessary. The characters feel like they have a history, but you get the nagging feeling that that backstory might be more interesting.
Would I read more of the series? Probably. It did pick up as I got further into the book. The setting and the detail that Sidebottom provides would allow be enough for me to give it another go. One to check out from the library.
Written by P.J Rhodes and published by Pen & Sword in 2011, this book is possibly the only one in recent years to act as a biography of Alciabiades (as the subtitle says, a famous Athenian playboy, general and traitor). If that’s exactly what you’re looking for you probably don’t have many options in terms of popular history, but for most people it would act to give more detail on particular aspects of the Peloponnesian War, life in ancient Athens and to shine more light one of the fascinating characters of ancient Greek history. Rhodes’ academic qualifications are fantastic (formerly Professor of Ancient History and the resident Greek specialist at Durham Uni, now an Emeritus Professor) but how well can he transfer this to a general audience?
Continue reading Post 15: Alciabiades: Athenian Playboy, General and Traitor