…“The Curse of Babylon,” by Richard Blake, starts with the very same question. Elderly Aelric looks back over his career in the Byzantine government and he is troubled by a recurring dream.
“What do you say to a boy of fifteen when you’re sending him to his death? The easy answer is you say nothing. After so many repetitions of the dream, there was nothing more to be said. I was staring into the face of someone who had been dead over seventy years. He’d volunteered to serve. He’d volunteered for nearly certain death. If that wasn’t enough, I had been only nominally in charge at the Battle of Larydia. I’d been a mile away when he went into battle. At the head of a frontal assault, I was hardly out of danger myself.”
Now in chains, Brother Aelric is looking back on the days when he was top-dog in Constantinople, the days when as Lord Aelric he virtually ran the Byzantine Empire single-handed while Emperor Heraclius was away. The story is told as a series of flashbacks to A.D. 615, when the Byzantine Empire was under attack from the Persians to the southeast.
Readers of the earlier titles in the Aelric series will recall that he is a classic anti-hero. Expect little remorse and regret in the musings of an elderly man. On the contrary, he revels in the memories of his Machiavellian cunning and his vengeance on those who deserve it.
For Aelric has almost as many enemies at home as the Byzantine Empire has abroad. These enemies take courage from the arrival of the 1,000-year-old Horn of Babylon — a treasure that is said to be cursed. They begin to maneuver to turn Heraclius against him, to which Aelric must respond ruthlessly.
But he also has to deal with a Persian ship loose in Byzantine waters, a woman who is as wily and headstrong as he is, and of course the Persian tyrant Chosroes and an army of 50,000 troops raised against him.
Expect as much murder as in previous episodes of the adventures, with as much graphic detail. This is no novel for the squeamish, with fight and battle scenes lasting several pages each and with no gore spared. Similarly the sexual excesses of the Byzantine Empire receive the same treatment.
The effect seems heightened when compared with Blake’s previous novels. Aelric seems more ruthless and calculating. The action is intensified by the narration technique of flashback: Aelric recounts the exciting episode in detail and can just pass quickly over the more mundane information with a few sentences. Which gives this a feel similar to watching the edited highlights — or lowlights depending on your viewpoint — of a major news story; this is Byzantine adventure for the Internet gaming age. The violence, the blood and the sexuality are magnified. The pain, the consequences and the regrets are swept out of the way. Fans of video games will love it. Haters of PlayStation will hate it.
As with the radicalizing preachers and the old men talking, this is a war filled with adrenalin and with no room for regrets.
Review published in Sunday’s Zaman, 18th October 2014
© 2015, richardblake.
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