Some periods in history are rarely represented within the realm of historical fiction, in large part because there is little known historically. However, as time passes and archaeologists, anthropologists, historians and, more often than not, nature walkers stumble onto finds or information that had been lost. However, in having little information about a particular period, a creative author can fill the gap. Without definitive information, the author can afford to take liberties that would be impossible for stories say, within the rather more well documented Tudor period. Why more authors don’t take this opportunity is, quite frankly a mystery to me.
Seventh century Rome is one of those rarely written about periods in history and historical fiction, but Richard Blake takes a crack at it, setting his Saxon Aelric up against the fledgling papacy within the crumbling walls of a dying empire and an aristocracy fighting for its life. Struggling with some of the ramifications of his banishment from Britain, Aelric finds that learning to trust others in a strange and, in his eyes, exotic land, is one of the few skills he does not possess. What Rome does offer him is unparalleled access to knowledge through the written word.
Blake teaches us many things through this book. How Rome slowly fell apart, including its architecture, politics, social class system and religion, while demonstrating the rise of the Church and how it became so powerful. This is also a period we know little about, but we do know that knowledge existed. Many powerful individuals had collected works from the philosophers, historians and ancient civilizations. We also know that due to the many conflicts at the ensuing years (and some previous years), many of these locales of knowledge were destroyed – whether intentionally or not is still up for debate. Ultimately, it was the Church and its keen interest in everyone following from the same ‘book’ as it were, along with men thirsting for knowledge, such as Aelric, who saved the few works we still have (i.e. Plato, Caesar, Ptolemy etc…). This contrast of the importance of preserving books as buildings are neglected is very well elucidated in this book. The vivid descriptions captivate and suddenly twenty pages have gone by.
The author is very good a making the reader feel as though she is there, in that moment, in that very spot, seeing exactly what Aelric sees or hears. This isn’t to say that there aren’t any bumps in the story. Aelric’s age seems a bit controversial to me. While I understand the need to ‘grow up fast’ in a time of conflict and insecurity, one must also consider whether there has been enough time to have done all these things. However, if one can suspend disbelief for a bit about the age issue, then the rest of the story is quite good and I’m looking forward to reading the second book of the series.
© 2015 – 2017, richardblake.
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