Ghosts of Athens, Reviewed by Someone

There are few pleasures so hard to categorise as the sheer, subtle joy of a not-very-good-book. I am not talking about a book ‘so bad it’s good’. Nor do I mean a book that is simply bad, and irksome with it. What I mean is, one of those books that somehow, whilst being certifiably mediocre, manages to be ridiculously entertaining.

I have found a rich seam of the confusingly-enjoyable of late. I can’t call it a guilty pleasure, for no amount of Surreptitious Reader’s Shame could mar the glee with which I dote upon this happy piffle. No: it orter be groanworthy (and perhaps binworthy, also) but the ‘Aelric’ series of historical novels by one ‘Richard Blake’ (it is not his real name) is entertaining me most heartily, and I am thankful for it.Before you start reading, these books have excellent potential. The narrator and anti-hero, the aforementioned Aelric, is a young, handsome, thrusting, blond, beauteous, randy Saxon scholar, who, sent off on various missions by the weaselly power brokers of the early church, proceeds to have Adventures of All Kinds. The temporal setting is poised upon that knife edge at the end of Roman Empire, just before everything topples into the Dark Ages. There are conspiracies, lots of derring-do, a smidgen of a pigeon of smut, and in between times, a bit of scholarly stuff amongst the manuscripts and papyri.

When you do start reading, you realise all too quickly that this fabulous literary opportunity has been thrust upon an author who may not be quite ready for it. Our poor old story is being manhandled a little clumsily by someone whose turn of phrase doesn’t quite, well, turn. He is sometimes repetitious in his choice of words. He has this bizarre, clumsy way of using swear-words as if he were slightly out of practice. Attempts at casual crudeness glow with the effort-at-nonchalance of a precocious adolescent.

Small chunks of plot occasionally drop out from in between poorly-marshalled chapters, so that you are confused for two pages as to what day it is and why we are suddenly in so-and-so’s house. And as for the sex.. well… there it isn’t, and how very disappointing! I admit that I have always shied away from writing full-on sex scenes of the “and then we did this, then that, then t’other” variety, but there are more interesting and fun ways to allude to what may have occurred between the end of chapter 10 and the start of chapter 11 than simply to say that your characters have ‘committed the grave sin of the ancients’ – or indeed, ‘fornicated for a long time’! It’s especially annoying when Aelric and this Mysterious Roman Dude have been obviously flirting for about seven chapters. No sooner has Mysterious Roman Dude leaned back in his chair and suggestively raised his eyebrow than it’s New Chapter Time and whatever happened in Rome, stays in Rome. What a bleedin’ cop out!! Surely our author isn’t embarrassed to allow his protagonist to let us in on any but his most simplistic, selfish pangs of lust?

Plotwise, there are odd tangents that don’t mesh at all well with the rest of the action. In the second book, which I’m reading at the moment, Aelric randomly adopts a foundling child, who then disappears from view for several chapters, seemingly only mentioned when the author remembers his existence through the fog of political plotting and limb-hacking fight scenes. You can almost hear his big fat “Ohh yeahh… better mention the baby”! I guess there might be some important plotly reason for the baby’s inclusion that I am yet to discover, but it’s still kinda odd. Another one that had me giggling delightedly was dear old Aelric’s crawling naked (why?!) across a rooftop to do a bit of spying this one time and, mid way along the gutter, glancing through a window and happening upon the spectacle of a self-scourging monk wasting his seed with the aid of a cruel implement. It was so… so… irrelevant! LOL for real!! Sexy non sequiturs for the win!!!

But somehow, despite everything, I find much to enjoy in the character of Our Aelric. And gracious me, what a character. He’s vain, full of himself (to the point of finding his own reflection sexually arousing!), somewhat heartless (in a single-mindedly egotistical way; when he remembers that he’s supposed to be in love with this or that love-interest, he dutifully spoons on the sentiment, but it’s a little half-hearted somehow!), obsessed with bathroom fittings and self-love, prone to killing people in a thoughtless way, and just generally not quite the manly and charming, tough but erudite, sensual and amoral article of maleflesh that his creator wants him to be. I fear the writer thinks that making Aelric say ‘fuck’ and ‘shit’ at regular intervals is the easy way to demonstrate how Saxon he is. I’m afraid that doesn’t quite fly; an educated noble would swear, sure (the words we think of as crude would be perfectly ordinary to them anyway, I daresay), but alongside that, wouldn’t he express himself in a more amusing, elegant, epigrammatic manner? And given that he is supposedly writing his memoirs from the point of view of being ninety-five and world-weary, I think his outlook would be a little more complex than it seems to be. Would he not, for example, have some wry commentary on his twenty-year-old self’s evening dilemma over whether to ‘drink [himself] silly’ or ‘have a slow wank’? I guess not…

I honestly cannot fathom what I like so well about these outpourings. It could be that despite this being not-very-good historical fiction, it doesn’t suffer from the usual flaws – no corny cod-historical dialogue, no didactic passages explaining the engineering principles of the hypocaust, none of that worthy ‘see how this set-up presages today’s world, kids’ malarkey… it’s just slightly awkward, not very self-aware, and not bad enough to be unreadable or totally annoying. Usually, shoddily-written prose makes me very angry. “Grr,” I say, railing against Fate; “how come this two-bit hack is making a living at this?! Unfair or what??!!” Then, in a polter of righteous indignation, I take up my pen and write something and feel all accomplished and lofty… until I read it back a week later and groan softly, rueing my vanity. With this, though, I am smiling and page-turning and saying, “Oh, Aelric, really?! Dear oh dear…” in the most indulgent way.

I can’t with any sincerity recommend these books as such, unless you are fifteen and vaguely interested in blond anti-heroes and ancient history (in which case: read, read!). Or maybe if you ever were fifteen and interested in blond anti-heroes and ancient history, it will remind you of some earlier, less discerning iteration of yourself, upon whose memory you now smile with fondness and indulgence.

And so I now draw to a close these musings. I will probably be reading more of these silly books; secondhand of course, because I’m not paying the man for his artless effusions. (There you go – righteous indignation, in there somewhere!)

Thanks, dear Aelric (and ‘Richard Blake’ of course, who will probably be hating me freely right about now if he ever stumbles upon this review) – you make my train journeys joyous… and ever so slightly hysterical. Love, love, love – M. x

Published by Someone,
March 2012

© 2015, richardblake.

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