Fiction is fun, but don't mess with the history

Monday, September 16, 2013

Cotton Malone series, by Steve Berry

The sub-genre of historical-fiction-mystery (and/or thriller) can be a lot of fun if the author takes the time to study the history. Lately, while waiting for favorite authors like Iain Pears and David Liss (can you hear me, Neal Stephenson?) to publish something new, this impatient reader has turned to less ambitious writers like John Maddox Roberts and Alan Furst, along with less-historically-meaty ones like Joseph Kanon and John Lawton.

Recently, a reference to the Time Odyssey trilogy of science-fiction novels by Arthur C. Clarke and Stephen Baxter led me to re-read that series (2004-2008). I had mostly forgotten the alternative history aspects, especially in the first of the series, Time’s Eye. In that story, an inscrutable alien race creates a new patchwork Earth in a parallel reality, combining slices of the planet’s past and present into a crazy quilt. Pre-humans rub elbows with ice age Neanderthals, Alexander the Great’s conquering army moving down the Indus valley, Genghis Khan’s Mongol horde sweeping south, a British Afghanistan outpost (complete with Rudyard Kipling) and the city of Chicago (including Edison) from the late 19th-century, 21st-century UN peacekeepers and a returning ISS crew. There’s not a lot of history beyond the initial plot setup, but there are some interesting speculations on the evolution of human thought and psychology.

Imagine my surprise when my next choice also invoked both Alexander and Genghis. For some time, Steve Berry’s Cotton Malone Series had been on the radar, and finally made it to the top of the reading list. The third novel in the series, The Venetian Betrayal, includes a fictional female megalomaniac who aspires to revive the lost Mongol Empire of the Khans. At the same time, she imagines herself as a new, benevolent Alexander, spreading the assumed unifying benefits of empire across central Asia and the Middle East.

The Berry novels present a new and interesting dilemma. On the one hand, as fiction they’re pretty bad: cartoon villains, ludicrous plots and frequent horrific lapses in basic grammar and syntax. Here’s one of my favorite lines: “Iran is a harbinger of terrorists”. And the bad guys all carry “AK-74”s. I hope Berry isn’t overpaying his editors.

The flipside, however, is that there’s a lot of interesting history, in areas I haven’t explored much. The Templar Legacy includes a history of that order of Crusader knights along with the kind of hidden wealth-lost truths-secret society-world domination plot made famous lately by Dan Brown. The Alexandria Link speculates that maybe the famous Library of Alexandria wasn’t destroyed after all. And The Venetian Betrayal mixes in some interesting history of the renaissance-era Venetian Republic, along with the aforementioned Alexander and Genghis.

I’ll hold off on invoking the 5 criteria to rate this series until after reading a couple more. I’m hoping the writing will get better, while continuing to delve into interesting historical subjects.  

Monday, September 2, 2013

"The Seven Hills", by John Maddox Roberts

I don't often get into the fiction sub-genre known as "alternative history". It's sometimes lumped together with science fiction and fantasy (which don't belong together, either). The typical setup is a hypothetical change in the outcome of a crucial historical event, framed as the question, "what would have happened if...". Quite a few of these novels involve ancient Rome.

In the case of The Seven Hills, by John Maddox Roberts, the question asked is "what would have happened if Hannibal had defeated the Romans (218–203 BC) and driven them out of Italy". That part of the story and its aftermath, wherein the exiled Romans establish a new hegemony in the northern forests of Germania, was told in Hannibal's Children (2002). The Seven Hills takes it from there to imagine the Romans' triumphant return, 100 years later, to reclaim the seven hills of Rome and take revenge against Carthage.

Roberts wrote The Seven Hills before beginning his popular SPQR series (see previous post), and the immaturity of style is evident. Even more evident is something I'd never really thought about before - it's really hard to create good fictional characters and "historical" events. Historical fiction writers have an advantage, in that they can start with real historical characters and events, with all their unlikely-but-true human quirks known to posterity. When starting with the tabula rasa of a fictional character and/or event, however, all those complex, idiosyncratic, self-contradictory human traits have to be invented and - even more difficult - made believable to the reader.

Roberts faced that challenge in The Seven Hills - and lost. The fictional Romans, Carthaginians and others are not nearly as interesting as the historical Hannibal and his treacherous family, or Fabius and the rest of the inept Roman generals who opposed the Carthaginian invasion. Roberts' invented course of events lacks the kind of granular detail and unexpected shifts that make historical accounts so interesting.

Unless you're a big fan of Roman alternative history novels, I don't recommend The Seven Hills. The SPQR series is much better, and a big advance for Roberts as a writer.