Conspiracies of Rome, Reviewed by K. Partner

I want to begin by saying that I wanted to like this but I wonder if I’m reading the same book as most of the other reviewers. Perhaps I have a rogue copy containing the first draft because this certainly doesn’t read as though it’s been edited at all, either by the author or the publisher. I’m not sure on what basis other reviewers (including those on the cover) consider this “well written” but the number of times this is repeated makes me suspicious. Emperor’s new clothes anyone?

For me this is, without doubt, the worst written book I have ever read. It is ham-fisted, without any trace of sophistication and, on occasion, is total nonsense. A couple of examples:

Next stop was the Church Bank, housed in one of the cellars. Armed guards stood outside a monumental brick arch that led down into what I cannot imagine once had been.” WHAT? I can sort of understand what he’s driving at but this is clumsy to the point of opaque.

…and on the next page:

But the Church Bank was an excellent choice. Handling and backed by the vast revenues of the Church, it has never closed its doors.” Say what? Now that actually doesn’t make any sense at all.

As if this wasn’t bad enough, we’re treated to a whole cast of cliché characters: everyone from the two tailors from the Fast Show (“You’ll look lush sir – really, truly lush”: I kid you not, this is a direct quote. Followed by “For a lady, is it, sir? Is she pretty? Will you be marrying her in Rome? Or simply [italics]visiting her”) to the battleaxe landlady who drops her Hs in order to sound posh.

When he wants to indicate that a character is English, he simply adds the word “mate” to the end of every sentence and has them talk in “mockney”. “You can make this easy for us or hard for yourself” he said “You’ll take us to them letters if you knows what’s best for you.” Very sophisticated.

Blake insists on using modern day vernacular without any real skill. There’s certainly nothing worse than when a poor author uses cod-medieval language in an attempt to add atmosphere…except when a poor author uses the F word countless times to achieve the same. This wouldn’t work even if it had been done well as it lends a modernist feel to an ancient time period but in Blake’s hands it’s a disaster.

The only similarity this book bears to the greats of historical fiction is the set-up. An ancient priest sits in his cell writing his life story at the request of his superiors. Bernard Cornwell’s Warlord Chronicles anyone? If you haven’t read those three books then go off and do that now, they are several orders of magnitude better than this.

The setup would have been forgivable if the end result had been carried off with any panache but, honestly, I can’t imagine what Hodder & Stoughton thought they were doing publishing it in its current form. Presumably they respected Blake’s academic credentials which I’m sure are excellent. Indeed, he drops into “lecture mode” on several occasions including an in-depth description of how papyrus is made. This would be a forgivable indulgence if the rest of the book was up to the mark but, as a novelist, Blake is decidedly amateurish.

I appreciate my view is in the minority when compared to the other reviewers here on Amazon and I can’t explain that. To me, this is a book without virtue set in a time period that I find fascinating. As a fan of historical fiction, this should have suited me down to the ground and this is what made it especially frustrating. I don’t have any particular axe to grind with Blake himself: I don’t know him at all and would have very much preferred to be positive but I have to be honest.

Just to be clear, this isn’t about me just not liking the book. This is a book that is not fit for purpose. The publishers should be ashamed of themselves for allowing it to be released in such a sorry state and, furthermore, for commissioning a follow-up!

This whole sorry episode goes to show that the prime requirement for being a great historical novelist is that you are a great NOVELIST. A great writer can do the research and write an excellent book (Bernard Cornwell, Simon Scarrow, Conn Igulden) but being a historian does not, in itself, mean you can write historical novels. This is a sad example of exactly that point. Sorry Richard, but you’re no writer.

Published on Amazon
13th April 2009

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