Thursday, February 10, 2011

Harry Sidebottom's "Fire in the East"

Fire in the East (Overlook 2008) is the first book in a new series, entitled Warrior of Rome, by Dr. Harry Sidebottom. The story takes place in A.D. 255 during the dual reign of Valerian and Gallienus and concerns a siege of a city on the Euphrates called Arete. Arete is based on a real city, Dura-Europos, which was besieged by the Sassanid-Persians in AD 256, and which has been the subject of a great deal of research and excavation.

The novel begins with Marcus Clodius Ballista, a former war leader of the Angles and now the Dux Ripae, appointed to defend Arete from the Sassanid and traveling by trireme to the east. As Ballista journeys from city to city, Sidebottom introduces us to the Roman world, its subjects and its enemies.

Much better than most novelists writing historical fiction, Sidebottom is soaked in the details and workings of the ancient world. This lends a certain and solid verisimilitude to the novel and satisfies one of the criteria of historical fiction: we want to learn something new. In Fire in the East we do learn things, many things, quite interesting things about late Rome.

In addition to being an interesting read, it is also an exciting read. The majority of the book involves the preparation of the city for an attack and the attack itself. Consequently, there is a similarity in narrative structure to popular books and films on last stands. I could not help but compare the work to John Wayne's The Alamo, Cy Enfield's Zulu and David Gemmell's Legend. Nevertheless, even though the end is known, Sidebottom keeps the suspense taut and the action fresh.

If you are fan of Simon Scarrow, Bernard Cornwell, or Patrick O'Brian you will like Sidebottom. I like him and his characters a great deal and I have started the sequel, King of Kings. But my enjoyment of it is based on its appeal as an action-thriller, as an escape into an exciting past, not as a historical novel.

As I say this, I have to ask: Has there ever been a man better trained to write a historical novel about Rome in A.D. 255 than Harry Sidebottom? He is a Fellow of St. Benet's Hall and Lecturer in Ancient History at Lincoln College, Oxford, author of Ancient Warfare: A Very Short Introduction (Oxford 2004), and an avid student of historical novels. His favorite writers, he states in his appendix, are Cecelia Holland and Mary Renault, and in an interview he referenced Alfred Duggan and Patrick O'Brian as influences. However, as I read the very entertaining Fire in the East, I found myself continually thinking about Jorge Luis Borges' short-story, "Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote," where Borges writes that Menard abhorred "these useless carnivals, fit only ... to produce plebeian pleasure of anachronism or . . .enthrall us with the elementary idea that all epochs are the same or different." More precisely I realized that even though Fire in the East is heavily-researched, it is a very modern novel, which cannot help but be, in essence, an entertainment filled with anachronisms, not anachronisms in detail, but anachronisms in spirit, tone, and plot. The question then is: can anyone really write a historical novel that captures the essence of the epoch in which it chooses to imitate. In other words, can an author find a method to cause (or trick)the reader to feel (more important than thinking in this context) as if he or she is situated in a certain historical period or, at best, hope that through the willing suspension of disbelief the reader will not suspect he or she is simply reading (watching) a book (film) that purports to be set in a historical period. The answer is "yes" an author can accomplish this Herculean task; an author can overcome the anachronism of modernity but only through a trickery of technique and probably at the expense of popularity. Sidebottom is a very talented entertainer, who is going to be very successful, but he fails to compose the Quixote itself.

What are the anachronisms in the novel: foremost, it is a trilogy (perhaps it will be a series, almost de rigueur in a modern genre series; it includes an elite team of warriors; it employs memes from detective fiction, fantasy fiction, as well as thrillers; it describes graphic sex acts; and it elongates the action and maintains an overarching arc to sustain the novel through several books ( à la O'Brian, Cornwell, and Scarrow). But is it so wrong that the novel is anachronistic? No, especially if you want an adventure story that causes you to read throughout the night and then hope they print the sequel soon. But if you want to sink into the slough of the past and smell its pungent odors, it may not be your best choice. I, for one, sometimes just want a great adventure story (most times in fact). But every once in a while I am surprised or seduced by an author that drags me into a world that seems authentic, dark and dank. Four novels that have seemed to capture and re-create a certain time for me and in fact avoided the anachronisms of modern adventure fiction are Cormac McCarthy's Blood Meridien, Pressfield's Gates of Fire, William Faulkner's The Unvanquished, and John Williams' Augustus. Interestedly, Sidebottom states in an interview that he has just discovered the novels of Cormac McCarthy and I suspect that the historian/novelist is growing and changing. No writer worth his or her salt is not constantly studying the technique of other writers.

Finally, if you like adventure tales situated in Roman antiquity, I recommend: Rosemary Sutcliff's Frontier Wolf, Alfred Duggan's Family Favorites and Wallace Breem's Eagle in the Snow.

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