Adventures in Bookland: The Last Battle by Nick Brown

Sometimes, one despairs of the fickle wiles of the gods of literary success. It applies in all genres (can anyone really explain how something as poor as 50 Shades of Grey became the most embarrassing literary phenomenon since, well, The Da Vinci Code) but a good example in historical fiction is Nick Brown’s Agent of Rome series. This has been, hands down, one of the best Roman-era series written through the last decade, a decade that has seen an explosion of stories set in the Empire. But where many others have gone on to big sales on the back of basically transplanting 21st-century people into the first couple of centuries AD but dressing them in togas, Nick Brown’s carefully crafted and wonderfully characterised series has, according to Nick, achieved only disappointing sales. So much so that his publisher declined to publish this, the seventh and final volume of the adventures of the Agent of Rome, Cassius Corbulo, and his bodyguard Indavara and his personal slave, Simo.

But while the series might not have gathered the sales it deserved so far, those of us who have discovered it have realised that in its portrayal of the relationship between these three individuals, Nick has imaginatively put us back into the third century, during the reign of the Emperor Aurelian. He examines the dynamics of this fundamentally unequal relationship between a young Roman nobleman, a hired bodyguard who has managed to escape the gladiatorial arenas with his life and the slave, born to slaves, who looks after them all. Brown has skillfully developed the relationships between Cassius, Indavara and Simo through the previous six books and int this final book, written for we faithful fans of the series and its characters, he brings their stories to a deeply satisfying conclusion, one that remains true to the motivations and characters of each of them.

Thank you, Nick, for finishing the story for we fans and I hope that your next work will reap the financial rewards that your literary talent deserves.

Adventures in Bookland: Orlando Furioso by Ariosto

In my prized hardback edition of The Lord of the Rings, on the inside dust jacket, there’s an encomium to the book by C.S. Lewis. When I first read The Lord of the Rings, I’d never read any of the Narnia books, nor did I have any idea who C.S. Lewis was, but for some reason, his review always stuck in my mind: “If Ariosto rivalled it in invention (in fact he does not) he would still lack its heroic seriousness.”

Who was this Ariosto bloke being compared to Tolkien? More years later than I care to remember, I decided to find out. Turned out, Ludovico Ariosto (1474-1533) was an Italian, the court poet of the d’Este family, the dukes of Ferrara, and he had written Orlando Furioso for them. Well, I am half Italian, my family in Italy live near Ferrara, I have visited the city many times and the castle of the d’Este family still dominates the centre of the town, so I decided to read Ariosto’s most famous work.

It is a delight. A riotous, tumbling, weaving tapestry of interlocking stories, all more marvellous and epic than the last, with the characters’ tales threading through the narrative – enlivened by Ariosto’s wry voice – in a veritable cornucopia of wonders. There are flying horses, dragons, battles, maidens so beautiful they drive men mad, contening paladins, magicians, wizards, witches, oaths unwisely taken and, of course, love. The story is set in the time of Charlemagne, but in the story it bears as much relationship to the real Charlemagne and his knights as the medieval tales of Arthur do to a possible fifth century Brythonic war captain.

What’s particularly striking is Ariosto’s sympathy for and treatment of women – these are no virginal stereotypes but run the full range of women, with the two standouts being Angelica, who weaponises her beauty and drives Orlando to madness, and Bradamante, the slightly dim warrior maiden who can outmatch any man in tourney.

It’s a wonderful series of tales and I’ve only got half way: this volume contains the first half of Barbara Reynolds’ delightful translation from the Italian. Once, every eductated person knew the tale of the madness of Orlando: would that they would again.

Adventures in Bookland: Schalken the Painter by Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu

Many years ago, so long ago in fact that there were only three television stations and computer games had just about reached the level of lines playing ping pong, I watched a programme on one of those TV channels (BBC2 actually) that remained with me ever since. In it, a young man becomes the apprentice to a master painter in 17th century Holland. His name is Schalken and he is ambitious and avaricious. He falls in love with his master’s daughter but, being penniless, he can offer little in the way of prospects. Despite his penury, the girl still looks kindly on young Schalken but then his hopes are dashed when a suitor, a strange, stiff-faced but obviously rich man comes calling, offering his master a huge sum if he will agree to his daughter’s marriage. Schalken, faced with a choice between a mad dash for love and a long lifetime of shared poverty, does nothing to stop the match and the girl goes, reluctantly, with her bridegroom to be – and is not heard of for a number of years.

But then, she appears at the door, in a fever of panic and fear. She has escaped, but she is sure her husband is after her. She asks for a priest and begs never to be left alone. But, as is the way, for a moment she is left alone in her room, the wind blows the door shut, it jams and when they finally open it, she has gone.

Schalken, many years later, now a successful painter himself, attends the funeral of his old master and remains in the church for a while after all the mourners leave. Then, as he is about to leave. He sees – her. The young woman he had loved, the daughter of his old master. She leads him down into the crypt and there the horrified Schalken sees the marriage bed that she has been condemned to, the bride of a dead man. In horror, he flees.

See – it stuck. So, many years later, seeing the original story, I thought I would read it. The BBC film stuck close to the Le Fanu’s original story, and the text is as unsettling as the film but without the rich, painterly light that the film makers lavished on their project. Hard to imagine the BBC making anything like that today: too slow, too wordy, too weird. But two stories, on film and page, that have lingered long in the morbid mind.

This Generation’s Challenge

Every generation faces a crisis.

Our grandparents had to deal with World War II, which they won through courage and sacrifice.

Our parents had to face the Cold War, which they won by patience and perseverance.

Now we face the coronavirus, which we can defeat by sitting in front of the telly.

We can do this.

Adventures in Bookland: An Astronomer’s Tale by Gary Fildes

I can still remember it. Sometime round about when I was 10, some quirk of meteorology and atmosphere rendered London’s night time sky, for one evening, clear enough to see the stars. Not the handful of stars that fight their way through the pollution murk and the splurging of neon, but some fraction of the thousands of stars that had enthralled the sky-turned eyes of our ancestors when they coined phrases like, “As many as the stars in the sky.” Growing up in London, that did not seem like that many. But for that one night – maybe it coincided with one of the electricity blackouts when the power workers went on strike in the early 1970s – I could see the stars.

We have sealed ourselves off with light. The artificial light with which we banish darkness has made of the stars a sight that many children might never know. I would not be surprised if most of this generation has never seen a night sky in all its wonder. As such, we have made the world a hunched, closed-in space. I wonder if part of the sense of contemporary hopelessness is down to this closing off of the daily wonder of a sky full of stars and the sense of mystery and infinite depth that it conveys: it’s a shrunken, lidded-over world we now inhabit.

Gary Fildes, a proper Sunderland lad growing up in the 1970s and ’80s, was fortunate in living where truly dark skies were not far away – and they saved him. A passion, a genuine, lifelong passion for a subject or interest can be the making of a man and it proved to be so for Fildes: destined for a life of labour as a bricklayer, married and a young father, he combined this with a secret love of astronomy. The book is a series of anecdotes about growing up within the world and within the astronomical community, telling how Fildes ended up, to his own surprise more than anyone else’s, as the director of the Kielder Observatory set in the largest Dark Skies Park in Britain, combined with an astronomer’s guide to the changing night sky through the year. It’s a lovely book – just a shame that, barring another series of power cuts, the night sky here in London remains as unpopulated as Rome during the coronavirus outbreak.

Adventures in Bookland: A Hero for the Americas by Robert Calder

A Hero for the Americas by Robert Calder

It’s not easy writing the biography of someone for whom virtually no historical evidence exists – I should know, because I’ve just done it with Warrior: A Life of War in Anglo-Saxon Britain. But at least with the warrior, we had a body. In trying to tell the life of Gonzalo Guerrero, Spanish conquistador turned Mayan guerilla, Calder doesn’t even have that: the body that, possibly, ends the story was never kept by the Spaniards who found it, a European in Mayan undress, killed by an arquebus ball. Indeed, the only direct testimony we have of Gonzalo’s life among the Maya was from a Spanish Franciscan, de Aguilar, who was himself captive for seven years. With de Aguilar’s escape, all direct testimony of Gonzalo ends: all that is left is legend and reconstruction. But while it is speculative, Calder does a very good job of constructing a plausible case for why a Spaniard might have decided to throw in his lot with the Mayans. The evidence that Gonzalo was the military and tactical genius directing their unexpectedly ferocious and skillful defence against the Spanish depends to a large degree, however, on the supposition that the Mayans could not have worked out their new tactics themselves. War is the great driver of innovation and I suspect the tactics of misdirection, subterfuge and ambush that the Mayans used against the Spanish on the Yucatan Peninsula were the results of their own reappraisal of what was necessary to try to stop the Spanish with their advantages in firepower. Calling on Gonzalo as the explanation does tend to smack of requiring a white man to explain why the natives were doing such a good job of stymying another lot of white men.

The book is very good on the wider context of the Spanish conquest of the Americas (although I could have done with a bit less of the post-modern obsession with competing narratives), and almost succeeds in bringing this most obscure of heroes to life.

Adventures in Bookland: Jamaica Inn by Daphne du Maurier

Jamaica Inn by Daphne du Maurier

‘It was a dark and stormy night…’ A bit of a cliche, but then Daphne du Maurier trades on Gothic-novel cliches in Jamaica Inn, running with them and, in most cases, turning the dial up to 11: orphaned heroine, check; lonely, windswept location, check (the titular inn, atop Bodmin Moor); winds, storms, lightning, check; emotions as wild as the weather, check; a dastardly villain, check. But du Maurier gets away with it all through the sheer quality of her writing – the Moor is a character in its own right, and the weather is another – and the sheer fun she has in ramping it all up to the max and then keeping it there. Great fun and highly recommeded, particularly if you’re visiting the area.

Adventures in Bookland: Code of the Skies by Graeme Lyon

Code of the Skies

Code of the Skies is a thoroughly entertaining, picaresque romp through some of the vast geographical possibilities of the new(ish) Warhammer Age of Sigmar universe. Dwarves in flying boats. Floating mountains. More dwarves, or duardin as Black Library now insist on labelling short, stocky bearded characters (be they male or female) with a penchant for digging things up and holding grudges. Great fun.

Adventures in Bookland: One Bright Star to Guide Them by John C. Wright

One Bright Star to Guide Them

Suppose you had, as a child, gone through the wardrobe, or taken the door into the hollow hill, or dropped down the rabbit hole. But then you grew up. What would life be like as an adult? And how would you respond if the wardrobe door opened and a creature, an old friend, from your childhood life came to visit and said you were needed once more?

Alan Garner tried to answer this question in Boneland, where a grown-up Colin is still trying to come to terms with the loss of his sister. Boneland is – excepting the parallel story of the shamanic past – a raw, difficult but all too plausible take on the effect of faerie breaking through into this most mundane of civilisations. Now, John C. Wright looks at these difficulties in One Bright Star to Guide Them, a similarly short take on adults turning their backs on a thinly disguised Narnia-like encounter of their childhood. It doesn’t have the tortured depth of Boneland. This could be a good thing – there is no a priori reason that encounters with faerie should have this effect – but One Bright Star doesn’t really convincingly demonstrate why the other youngsters who went to the Otherland have left it so far behind and the English setting is really not very convincing. It is, nevertheless, readable (I went through it in one, feverish evening when confined to bed with flu) but it left little trace in my memory.