This is the third installment of Blake’s novels featuring the adventures of Aelric, the Anglo-Saxon scholar cum covert operative, in the seventh century. Having survived a change of dynasties in Byzantium in the previous book, Aelric finds himself in this one commissioned as the Emperor’s agent in Alexandria. His mission is to negotiate a stable modus vivendi between the parties in Alexandria, in particular through a land reform, in order to secure imperial control of the Egyptian grain supply. Such stability in the rear is imperative, given the situation on the Persian frontier. (The irony of the situation, as the story is recalled from the perspective of Aelric’s old age, is that Syria will be regained from Persia only to fall to the armies of Muhammad).
In Alexandria, Aelric confronts an explosive cauldron of rival factions: The old Ptolemaic ruling class, snobbishly provincial Greek creoles who see themselves as more Greek than Alexander, seeks autonomy from Byzantium — in part to avoid having their large land holdings broken up. The Brotherhood, a resistance organization that may go back to Persian times, seeks to restore native Egyptian rule (the Brotherhood itself is split between Monophysite Christians and pagans who want to restore the Old Religion). And this is all complicated by a split in the Coptic church between Monophysites and orthodox adherents of the Chalcedonian creed.
Aelric’s adventures take him into Upper Egypt and nearly to the boundaries of Kush, with archaelogical digs in what Blake hints quite strongly are Atlantean settlements (fiber optic cables and all).
In this story Priscus, the sadomastic head of the imperial secret police in the previous installment, reappears as Aelric’s rival in intrigue. But Priscus’ character, which came across as rather monochromatically monstrous in the last book, acquires some complexity in this one. Indeed Blake’s development of his character reminds me a bit of Theophanes in The Terror of Constantinople. Priscus is still monstrous, make no mistake — but as the complexity of motivations behind his monstrousness emerges, he becomes far less one-dimensional.
As always, Blake writes with immense historical and classical erudition, while displaying an ability to render 1500-year-old conversations in realistically colloquial English.
Blake, in the persona of Aelric, also displays libertarian sensibilities (from whatever source he may have acquired them). In a debate with a leader of the Brotherhood, who aims to restore the Old Religion and set himself up as Pharaoh, he ridicules the latter’s assertion that the native pharaohs ruled Egypt in peace and plenty for ten thousand years with the freely given consent of the governed:
“I’ll tell you this, my lad: Phocas himself never put up images of himself standing three times the height of his nobles, nor the nobles three times the height of the poor bloody people who worked to make their lives easy. All government, in every time and place, rests on fraud and force — the force of soldiers and officials hired by the rulers, and the fraud of the priests who assure everyone that the force is just….
“It has never, I’m sure,’ I went on, ‘crossed your tiny minds thhat there is in human affairs, as in the world around us, a natural order in which your kings and their priests — of whatever faith — have no place…..
“Let us imagine a state of nature,’ I said, “that is, a world in which all are at “perfect freedom to order their actions, and dispose of their possessions and persons, as they think fit, within the bounds of the law of nature, without asking leave, or depending upon the will of any other man..” I was quoting here verbatim from Epicurus — his Second Letter to Scatodotes of Cyrene. “This being given, let us suppose that everyone uses his freedom to supply himself with all his needs. Some he will abstract directly from the earth, which is common to all. Others he will acquire by free exchange with others…. All property in this state of natural freedom will be based on the efforts of the possessor.
“Men may gather together to appoint judges for those disputes that cannot be resolved by good will or by individual force of arms. They may further appoint generals for the defence of the whole community. But they’ll never voluntarily establish the system described in the Greek histories of your country or shown on your monuments.
A note of warning: this novel is far more graphic, sometimes appallingly so, than its predecessor. The riots in the native quarter resemble a tableau from Goya. And the torture carried out by Priscus caused me a sleepless night and several days’ depression. So if you’re at all squeamish, when you get to the part where the kid’s about to be put on the rack, you might want to skip to the end of the chapter. It’s a passage that puts Clive Barker and Poppy Brite to shame.
Published on The Mutualist Blog
21st October 2010
© 2015, richardblake.
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