Terror of Constantinople, Reviewed by Jim Packer

I first chanced upon the work of Richard Blake a year or so ago when perusing the recent-fiction section of a prestigious Sydney bookshop (yes, there are such things) on the scout for new entrants to the college library where I work. As I was on the final lap a novel of my own on seventh century history (yes, there are such things–and from my point of view, the fewer the better), my subconscious went into overdrive when the novel I found in my hand, lurid cover and all, proclaimed–“610 AD. The bloodthirsty emperor Phocas–“

“Christ,” my subconscious said.

And then it said, “Yeah, but BLOODTHIRSTY–and look at that cover! Richard, Richard, Richard!” (for the author was, as I said, a certain Richard Blake), “–this’ll be worth a laugh”.

Well, as you can see from the existence of this review (and the present contents of the WEA Sydney library), Richard is still laughing.

My previous most complete experience of seventh century history had been the large and exacting biography of the emperor Heraclius by Walter Kaegi. I am eternally grateful to Walter: he got me through Heraclius’ wars without having to consult a single manuscript (in ninth-century Armenian). But, alas, Walter is an academic. Richard is not. Richard is a WRITER, by which I mean, he knows how to talk to YOU, rather than to a PhD committee, or to a Professorial Board, or to the editorial director of Cambridge University Press.

This doesn’t mean that Richard is capable of that lurid cover. He lives in a garden in Athens, I hear, where everything is done with the utmost taste, discretion and refinement–and no, we’re not talking Petronius. Oh, Richard will have you think that it’s ALL Petronius where he comes from, but how would that leave him time to be as precise about the seventh century as I can and will assure you he is? (–DAMN YOU, Richard.)

Or as imaginative? For example, anyone who knows anything about the seventh century knows that for all Heraclius might have been a complete dimwit (carrying around his tabernacle of the Lord from campaign to campaign, like some face-painted version of Billy Graham) he did at least reduce the Persians to a rabble (after they’d reduced Byzantium to a rabble) and cemented a dynasty that lasted a hundred years. For Richard, Heraclius is just a dimwit, a fop, a clown, who has to have Aelric the Briton around to do the dirty–Aelric being the hero of this book and the three others in the mounting and highly popular series. Not to mention Priscus, who no-one will have heard of until Richard came along, though he did exist just as surely as Heraclius did, and could, just conceivably, have borne a faint resemblance to the awesomely uncute Priscus we see in the book. Well, Priscus alone is worth the price of the book. But Aelric (whom other readers at the time had already met in the book’s precursor Conspiracies of Rome) is the real jewel. In the course of these four books, Aelric has aged six to ninety-six, and nowhere in any of them–and in the last one he’s just about wheeled through the seventh century world in a pram–does he let his author down.

Well, that’s my review. Sorry, but I’m just not gonna sing Richard’s praises any more. For one thing, in fifty years time when my own novel finally gets published, you won’t read it, you’ll just say, Oh Richard Blake already did all that.

Published on Amazon,
5th September 2011

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