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

Thursday, April 20, 2017

The Bronze God of Rhodes (1960), by L. Sprague de Camp

Even though it's a relatively old novel, I was excited to discover The Bronze God of Rhodes, by L. Sprague de Camp - for two reasons. First: its subject had only recently caught my interest. Second: I knew de Camp as a very good science fiction writer, and so expected to also find a very good historical fiction writer. I was not disappointed.
My interest in the post-Alexander history of Rhodes was roused while reading The Seven Wonders and Wrath of the Furies, by Steven Saylor. Those novels included a brief recounting of how the city of Rhodes (capital of the island of the same name) successfully withstood a multi-year siege, then erected the world's largest statue in honor of the sun god Helios. The statue became known as the Colossus of Rhodes, one of the seven wonders of the ancient world.

The novel's protagonist is a sculptor named Chares, creator of the Colossus. Chares was a real person, though little is known about him apart from his famous creation. That makes him a perfect historical fiction character and first-person narrator, leaving the author free to invent a history and personality for him. De Camp does something with the Chares character I've seen in no other novel.

The narration is written as a memoir by a man of middle-age, but as Chares returns to the days of his youth to begin, he also returns to his youthful personality: brash, boastful, arrogant, impatient. The transformation was so convincing that, for the first couple of chapters, I wasn't sure I could tolerate Chares for an entire novel. Experience humbles and matures him, however, as it (hopefully) does to all of us.

The introduction by Harry Turtledove (another fine science fiction writer) ends with the information that he too has written historical fiction set in the same era - more titles for my wishlist.

This novel aced the five criteria:
  1. Did the novel inspire me to further historical research?
Yes. At a minimum, the Turtledove novels seem worthy of a read. Maybe it's time also to move a bit farther back in history to Alexander the Great.
Score = 5
  1. Did the novel include enough history to make it an interesting historical story?
Yes. The siege of Rhodes (305 BC) is the main historical event, but many preceding and corollary events are described as well, fitting the Rhodian events into their context. In addition, the plot contrives to send Chares on several trips away from Rhodes, notably to Egypt. The itinerary of travels there is very similar to that in the Saylor novels, leading me to wonder if perhaps this novel provided a partial plot model for Saylor.
Score = 5
  1. Was the depiction of historical events accurate?
Yes. The farther back in history you go, the less reliable documentation you find. Anything before late Republican Rome is very misty indeed. That said, the novel doesn't stray from known events, or manipulate dates unnecessarily. Settings and speculations seem plausible. There's lots of interesting info on the evolving technology of the time. The lengthy Author's Note following the novel adds a lot of background history that didn't make it directly into the story.
Score = 5
  1. Was the depiction of historical characters accurate?
Who knows? Let's say they seem entirely plausible, with the usual caveat about imposing modern thinking on ancient characters - which is unavoidable. The large cast of characters includes many historical names, although most - including the protagonist/narrator, are supported by very little historical evidence.
Score = 5
  1. Were the fictional or fictionalized plot and characters plausible?
Yes. Nothing in the story caused me to question the author's grasp on the history. Can't ask for more than that.
Score = 5