Monday, March 7, 2011

John Stack's "Ship of Rome"

Delenda est Carthago Marcus Porcius Cato

In the last few months I have finished reading over ten novels situated in ancient Rome. Of those ten or so novels, three were by Rosemary Sutcliff and two by Alfred Duggan. Additionally, over the last fifty years I have read scores of historical novels and throughout that time I have devised a test: either (1) the novel is simply an action adventure (or perhaps romance or political thriller)with the characters dressed as Ancient Romans or (2) it is truly a historical novel, a novel that takes us to that specific time, teaches us something we did not know, and possesses a serious theme and purpose. Those novels that fall within the first category can be quite entertaining like a good movie; however, those that fall in the second category transcend the genre to become literature, especially if they are written with an eye on the first category. The movie Gladiator falls within the first category; I, Claudius is firmly situated in the second. John Stack's Ship of Rome, a novel set within the historical period of the first Punic war successfully chronicles the naval battles that occurred and Rome's emergence as a mighty sea power. It falls within the first category but clearly satisfies in its execution. The story is accurate; the characters well-rounded and believable.

Part of the problem for me is that novels that fall within the first category suffer from what I call anachronism of modernism. Even if the author does everything he or she possibly can do to fall in the second category, he or she sometimes fails because of the point of view or the method in which he or she tells the story. Primarily, the current crop of historical novelists want to follow the Bernard Cornwall model, which is not unlike Scott and Cooper of the 19th century, or O'Brien of the 20th. There is a formula and a heavily plotted story. Survival of the main characters is a given because they must live to fight another day and appear in the next installment. Consequentially, this formula is satisfying and safe. As I write this I can think of least twenty works that fall easily into the category; they usually include two characters--one patrician, the other a commoner-- fighting the good fight in some foreign war, a series of near death episodes, shady leaders and evil machinations by both friend and foe. The fact is that this formula works. From Sherlock Holmes to Batman, it succeeds in pulp, in comics and in movies. Novels that do not fit the first category are rarer and usually more difficult to read; they are idiosyncratic for the most part and based on character or theme. Nevertheless, let me be clear, I like books that fit both categories. I enjoy the novels of Scarrow and Cornwell just as much I like the novels that fall in category two. However, even within the categories some novels satisfy more than others as historical novels. John Stack's "Ship of Rome" is one of those novels. Even though he clearly falls in line behind Cornwall, Scarrow, and Sidebottom, for some reason I found his work more grounded, perhaps more realistic and less like cinema. And, even though, he employs several anachronisms of modernism, including the patrician/commoner duo, the romantic trio, and the devious senators, I found myself believing I was reading about early Rome. In other words I suspended disbelief and found myself engrossed in the novel, caring about the characters.

I believe Stack pulled this novel off by situating the action firmly within the facts of the times. Most of the characters are actually historical characters doing and saying what they actually did and said at the time. The battle scenes are carefully drawn and resolve themselves as the Roman historians said they occurred. The descriptions of ships, cities, and the Senate are precise and detailed; and although it is a technique of modernism, Stack's use of multiple points of views provides the reader a 360 degree view of the Punic war. Additionally, his main characters, Atticus, the Greek sea captain, and Septimus, the Roman Centurion, are well drawn and sympathetic. Conflict is rampant in the book on several levels: man against nature--the Romans are new to naval warfare and the sea itself is a daunting place; man against man--the characters struggle against one another, Rome wars against Carthage, Legion battles Navy, Senators deceive Senator, patricians detest nouveau riche; and man against himself--Atticus struggles to be a Roman and overcome his inferiority complex, while Septimus struggles against his prejudice of barbarians, more specifically, the Greek, Atticus.

All in all, Ship of Rome was a quick, exciting read; and although it contains many anachronisms of modernism, including the fact that it is the first book of a series, I found it one of the better books in the first category. Stack is a worthy newcomer to the Scarrow/Sidebottom Roman historical novel genre race.

1 comment:

  1. Keith,
    Based on your review I think I'll check out "Ship of Rome". I'm an avid reader of Roman historical novels but have rarely been satisfied by them, for many of the reasons you have outlined. I believe part of the problem is the distance in time and culture that separates our thinking from the Roman mind. We really don't "get" them. Even if we admire Cicero and Caesar, it's hard to make them human. That's why when I tried to address the problem by writing a novel of my own, (Last of the ninth) I ended up using Lucian of Samosata as a character because Lucian is one of the few writers from antiquity whose humanity really grabbed me.

    I think also that the authors of historical novels are more interested in the depth of their history than the depth of their characters. In principle the setting shouldn't matter, should it? The characters have to come through, but it usually isn't the case.

    I like some of John Maddox Roberts SPQR because Decius Caecilius Metallus is the kind of character you like to spend time with, not because the plots are super compelling. Scarrow's first novels were good because the battle action was gripping. Sidebottom is about a good as I've seen in the genre. Still I've yet to read one that completely satisfies me. Michael Chabon's "Gentlemen of the Road" is worth a look. Not Romans. AD 1000. His working title was "Jews With swords". But for me Chabon is in a class of his own. If you ever take a look at mine, drop me a line and let me know if I came close to cracking the code. Regards, Stephen