“This is the original Game of Thrones,” or so says the man who would know, George R.R. Martin, and The Iron King certainly has more than its share of“This is the original Game of Thrones,” or so says the man who would know, George R.R. Martin, and The Iron King certainly has more than its share of murder, adultery, conspiracy, star-crossed lovers and bloody-minded cruelty. The only thing it doesn’t have is dragons (unless you count the ones on heraldic devices). It’s an account of the last days of the Capetian dynasty of France, when the feudal society of the Middle Ages was giving way to the modern state, and England and France became locked in the deadly embrace of the Hundred Years’ War.
The Iron King opens a generation before the war, in 1314, when Philip the Fair successfully concludes his persecution and destruction of the Knights Templar, one of the most powerful organizations in Europe. On his pyre, its last Grandmaster, Jacques de Molay, curses the Capetians unto the 13th generation. (And, within a year, all three architects of the Templars’ fall would be dead. Coincidence? Well…yes. The curse is the stuff of urban legend; and does it really make sense that a man brutally tortured for seven years and being burned alive would have the presence of mind to enunciate a curse against his tormentors? But it does make for a good story.) Between the death of de Molay and Philip, the royal family is torn apart by adultery. The wives of the king’s three sons are implicated in affairs. Two are condemned to convents, and the third is put under house arrest (she hadn’t had a lover but she helped the others conceal the trysts), and the hapless lovers are tortured and brutally executed. Meanwhile, the king’s daughter, wife of Edward II of England, is taking advantage of the situation to put herself and her young son (future Edward III and instigator of the Hundred Years’ War) in a position to claim the crown of France.
I would love to recommend the book wholeheartedly but I cannot. The translation is not very good. It reads like a school exercise. Something I’d expect from a student in a (admittedly advanced) French class. It competently translates the French, I’m sure, but that’s all it does – there’s no life in it. Times like this I wish my grad-school French was up to reading the original.
Nevertheless, I’m interested enough in the story – and the translation does on occasion rise to the level of excellence the story deserves – that I’ll persevere through the 2nd book – The Strangled Queen – at the very least.
* As an aside: One of my favorite books about the period (the 14th century) and one I’d eagerly recommend is Barbara Tuchman’s A Distant Mirror. If a bit dated, it brings the period to life by following the life and career of one of France’s premier – if now obscure – nobles, Enguerrand de Coucy, who dies a prisoner of the Turks in 1396 (if I recall correctly)....more
Another enjoyable entry in the author's Ruso series.
Ruso is back with the XX Legion in Britain and has decided to make an inspection tour of the legioAnother enjoyable entry in the author's Ruso series.
Ruso is back with the XX Legion in Britain and has decided to make an inspection tour of the legion's medical facilities so as to avoid crossing paths with the Emperor's retinue. In the wake of the recent troubles, Hadrian has come to the island to supervise the building of the Wall and settle the VI Legion there as reinforcements. While in Eboracum (York), he stumbles across several mysterious deaths and injuries amongst the British recruits and soon finds himself and Tilla embroiled in a messy situation involving a bigoted, sadistic centurion; his nephew, the ambitious tribune; and the Imperial household (because, inevitably, Ruso does cross paths with the Emperor).
As with the first four novels in the series, Semper Fidelis is a quick enjoyable read with just enough gravitas to make it memorable.
The only caveat is the new character of Virana, whose dimwittedness is almost too dim to be believable. Hopefully, she won't descend too far into slapstick in future books (as she's become a member of the Ruso household)....more
The situation in Rome becoming uncomfortable, Falco finds it expedient to take an assignment (two, in fact, one from the Emperor and another from ThalThe situation in Rome becoming uncomfortable, Falco finds it expedient to take an assignment (two, in fact, one from the Emperor and another from Thalia, the statuesque snake-dancer from The Silver Pigs) that takes him and Helena Justina to the Empire's eastern frontier.
Last Act in Palmyra read a bit more grimly than the previous few novels, going back to the atmosphere of the first book, but I still enjoyed it and continue to recommend the series....more
Lindsey Davis must have met my friend Mike's family. His parents are first-generation Sicilian immigrants and could have provided the source materialLindsey Davis must have met my friend Mike's family. His parents are first-generation Sicilian immigrants and could have provided the source material for Falco and his.
Poseidon's Gold finds Falco discovering uncomfortable facts about his dead brother Festus, the darling of the family and decorated hero of the Judaean War, and he becomes the prime suspect in the murder of one of his brother's former associates.
As usual, though, despite a certain pig-headed stubbornness Falco manages to work things out (even saving Festus' reputation - such as it was - in the process)....more
Master and God chronicles the reign of Domitian (AD 81-96)* through the lives of Gaius Vinius Clodianus, who rises through the ranks to become cornicuMaster and God chronicles the reign of Domitian (AD 81-96)* through the lives of Gaius Vinius Clodianus, who rises through the ranks to become cornicularius (chief-of-staff) of the Praetorian Guard (view spoiler)[and who, in Davis' telling, provides the killing thrust when the emperor is assassinated (hide spoiler)], and Flavia Lucilla, an Imperial freedwoman and Gaius' lover.
As with her other non-Falco novel, The Course of Honor, the interest for this reader is not so much in the historical details (of which Davis is a master)** but the relationship of the main characters. Like Vespasian and Caenis in the former book, Gaius and Lucilla are forced to spend years apart with other people and sometimes under the most depressing misapprehensions of the other's motives. But in the process, they become "real" people I care about.
I've found that Davis' characters tend to be worldly wise and cynical romantics at heart, which is why they appeal to me and why I've come to enjoy her writing so much.
* Domitian, for me, is one of those tragic emperors - the ones who might have been good but had a fatal flaw that mooted any positives they achieved. In Domitian's case it was his paranoia and megalomania (the title of the novel refers to the emperor's preferred mode of address). By most accounts he kept the Roman government reasonably honest and appointed competent officials but his descent into madness finally alienated even his closest supporters and he had to be eliminated for everyone's safety.
** Davis remarks in her "Author's Note" that Suetonius is the only author to provide the cornicularius' name and from there she constructed Gaius Vinius.["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>...more
The second book in Davis's series about Marcus Didius Falco, an informer in the Rome of the Flavian emperors, picks up immediately after the events ofThe second book in Davis's series about Marcus Didius Falco, an informer in the Rome of the Flavian emperors, picks up immediately after the events of the first novel, The Silver Pigs. Falco is helping to track down the remnants of the conspiracy he uncovered and confounded and finds himself tracked by and tracking Barnabas - the freedman of Atius Pertinax, now deceased conspirator and ex-husband of Helena, Falco's socially unobtainable lover.
There are a few plot twists - nothing is quite what it seems in the cut-throat world of Roman politics and society - but nothing too taxing for the brain.
The charm for me in Davis's stories are her characters and her writing style. As I mentioned in my Silver Pigs review, I'm strongly reminded of "The Rockford Files" when reading: A sardonic wit with just enough seriousness to make the reader care.
Lindsey Davis likes Vespasian. She likes him a great deal as even a cursory reading of her M Didius Falco series proves.
I like Vespasian. Among Rome’sLindsey Davis likes Vespasian. She likes him a great deal as even a cursory reading of her M Didius Falco series proves.
I like Vespasian. Among Rome’s many rulers, he ranks up there – in my opinion – with Augustus, Aurelian and Septimius Severus. And if I had the opportunity to have dinner with any emperor, he’d be the one I’d like to sit down with (or recline in the case of a Roman meal).
But Course of Honor* is not Vespasian’s story. It’s the story of the woman he loved – the freedwoman Antonia Caenis. From what little we know of her, she appears to have enjoyed an unprecedented relationship with Vespasian. One extraordinary enough to warrant at least passing mention in the histories that have come down to us. One which, given our lack of sources, is ripe for exploration.
Fortunately, Davis is up to the job as she recounts Caenis’ life from her first meeting with Vespasian to their final reunion when he became emperor. Davis focuses on the personal relationship between Caenis and Vespasian and does a good job of making both of them real people, Caenis particularly. The tone of the writing is more serious than the author’s Falco books but the emphasis on developing interesting characters over plot remains, which – in this case – is a good thing.
And Davis’ skill at putting you in ancient Rome remains as well.
Overall, Course of Honor gets a recommendation from me, especially if you want to read about a romance that doesn’t involve heaving bosoms, ripped bodices and iron-thewed men.
After all, this is our protagonist’s love interest:
* I have the American edition, so we lost the “u”....more
The Silver Pigs is fun to read. And if you're looking to read to relax, there's no better praise.
As I mentioned in my comment, the voice and tone remiThe Silver Pigs is fun to read. And if you're looking to read to relax, there's no better praise.
As I mentioned in my comment, the voice and tone reminded me of Glen Cook's Garrett, P.I. series sans the fantasy element. Even more strongly, I'm reminded of a Roman Rockford Files, which may be brilliantly illuminative to those of a certain age or who have a taste for '70s detective shows. For the rest, you can wiki it and then hunt down copies of the episodes (which stream on Netflix).
But I'm digressing...
Marcus Didius Falco is an ex-legionary, current informer (i.e., private investigator) in the Rome of Vespasian (AD 69-79). If you're looking for fast-paced, engaging and smartly written bedside/airplane reading then I can recommend this series.
Fortunately, my library has all but 3 of the 20 books Davis has written so far. Though, of course, they wouldn't have #2 but my luck continues good as my alternate library has a copy, which I've duly ordered....more
Essentially, Alfred Duggan’s Count Bohemond is a novelization of Steven Runciman’s first volume in his A History of the Crusades. (Truth be told, therEssentially, Alfred Duggan’s Count Bohemond is a novelization of Steven Runciman’s first volume in his A History of the Crusades. (Truth be told, there are parts of Prof. Runciman’s classic that read like a novel.) Bohemond was a scion of one of the more remarkable families of a remarkable people – the Normans. Most people, if only vaguely, are aware that “the Normans” conquered England at some point in time (AD 1066) but fewer are aware that that period in Medieval history also saw Norman conquests in Spain, Italy, Southeast Europe and the Levant. Bohemond was the eldest son of Robert Guiscard (the “Weasel”) of the Hauteville family. Robert wrested Southern Italy from its Lombard and Byzantine masters to become Duke of Apulia and Calabria but Bohemond, though an exemplary knight, was not a politician and found himself largely disinherited by his half-brother, Roger Borsa (the “Purse,” Roger wasn’t much of a knight but he was a canny politician and a skinflint), upon Robert’s death in 1085. The advent of the First Crusade gave Bohemond the chance to carve out a domain of his own and this novel chronicles that effort up to the time when he’s able to make himself Prince of Antioch.
If you’ve read my reviews of Children of the Wolf and Besieger of Cities, you’ll know the reservations I have for Duggan’s writing. They are again evident here so I can’t wholeheartedly recommend this book either but I did enjoy it. As in Winter Quarters, there’s a greater energy than in those other two novels because Duggan sincerely admires and likes his character. I can’t say that I share that admiration but it makes the book engaging and fast moving.
Duggan’s difficulty as a writer is that he doesn’t trust the reader to understand what’s going on without explicitly laying everything out, all too often in awkward exposition. E.g.:
“We shall all be very sorry to part with Count Bohemond, but if those are his views he is right to leave us. I myself have never heard the Emperor promise Antioch to Count Bohemond as his private fief, though since we left the city I have heard Count Bohemond often refer to that promise. I don’t suggest for a moment that he isn’t telling the truth as he sees it; but recollections of private conversations sometimes differ. As I see it Antioch ought to go to Alexius. You all promised to restore his old frontiers. As it happens I did not, but I promised to do him no harm while I was within his dominions, and I am now within his dominions. There it is. Antioch must be given to the Greeks, even if it means losing that splendid Apulian contingent.” (p. 194)
I can’t recall anything nearly this awkward in, for example, an Aubrey/Maturin novel or even in a Sharpe adventure.
On the other hand, there are still enjoyable moments of Duggan’s sardonic wit and humor. There’s an early scene where Guiscard explains to Bohemond his “philosophy of rule”:
“So we are, and I should like to stay that way. But if the Greeks offer me a fortune on condition I serve their Patriarch I might be open to conviction. Theology is a subject beyond the understanding of a simple knight. God won’t damn a layman for serving the wrong spiritual superior. But Normans can do more than fight. Look here, young Bohemond, you must get this into your head. Normans can govern – we are the best governors in the world. The revenues of Apulia and Calabria are greater than before we came, though then they were ruled by clever Greeks and during the conquest nearly every valley was plundered. Greeks are bright, but they’re all crooked. As for Lombards, they are lazy as well as crooked. Half the villages didn’t pay tribute because no one came around to collect it. Others bribed the collector with a little something for his own purse, much less than the due payment. Now everything runs as smoothly as a water-mill. No use trying to bribe a Norman collector, because he won’t take less than the full tribute even if he keeps it all for himself. A man who has to look after his irrigation-ditches jolly well must repair them once a year. A man who ought to collect toll from every traveler can’t let his friends pass free. In my fiefs only I plunder caravans of merchants; there are no other brigands. The peasants pay us rather a lot, but they don’t pay anything to anyone else. We can govern a country so that it prospers. Now don’t you suppose that whoever is the next Emperor of Romania would like to hire Normans to help him run his Empire? Things will be rather disturbed after a few civil wars.” (pp. 18-19)
And later in the book, Bohemond and his nephew Tancred are considering what to do with two deserters who, unfortunately, are also rather high ranking members of the crusading army (whom Duggan consistently refers to as “pilgrims”). Both men are half-starved and tipsy with drink: “As the wine glowed inside them, they sat, looking judicial.” (p. 189)
And, while I can’t commend this book strongly, I can enthusiastically recommend Runciman’s 3-volume A History of the Crusades. It’s a bit dated, having been written in the ‘50s, but there’s no better source for getting a blow-by-blow account of the Crusades....more
Winter Quarters is the best of the three Duggan novels I’ve read to this point (May 2012). The prose is more polished, the dialog less awkward, and thWinter Quarters is the best of the three Duggan novels I’ve read to this point (May 2012). The prose is more polished, the dialog less awkward, and there’s more obvious and sustained attempts to describe the characters’ environment. An example is the narrator’s description of the land and people of Greece as he and his companion journey to Athens:
But Greece is in itself, in the very bones of the landscape, unlike any other country on earth. The limestone mountains, the fertile valleys, the clear horizon never veiled by mist, combine into a background of beauty that uplifts the spirit. I liked the people as well, though they did not like us. Roman soldiers are unpopular as conquerors, and barbarian soldiers of the Roman army are considered even worse….
We liked the Greeks because they are cheerful and cheeky, independent men who are very pleased with themselves. Their conceit is not contemptuous of others, like Roman pride. At the inns our fellow travelers treated us as equals; perhaps not the kind of men they liked, but free men who might be foreign, and behave like foreigners, if that was what we preferred. They recognized our right to be ourselves. (p. 140)
I first thought that this must represent a positive learning curve from the other two novels – Children of the Wolf and Besieger of Cities – but both of those are later in his career. It could be a result of the book’s POV. Unlike the others, Winter Quarters is first person, which may have forced Duggan to delve deeper into his subjects’ minds than otherwise. Another factor might be that Duggan liked his characters more than he did those of the other books. Whatever the case, happily it resulted in a more enjoyable, more interesting read, and I can give this one a mildly enthusiastic three stars.
The story opens in Margu (Αντιοχια της Μαργιανης, modern-day Merv in Turkmenistan), where we meet our narrator: Camillus, a ½-Romanized Gallic nobleman who was captured by the Parthians at the battle of Carrhae and is living out his exile in this border fortress on the edge of the steppes. He’s settled down with a Scythian woman and has had a son by her. Because he wants his son to know about his kinsmen in the West, Camillus asks a fellow Roman exile to write down his story.
The subsequent tale follows Camillus and his friend Acco from their exile from their Gallic homeland, their joining the Roman armies of Caesar as auxiliaries, and their later participation in Marcus Licinius Crassus’ disastrous expedition against the Parthians in 54-53 BC.
Duggan uses Camillus’ outsider status to critique Roman civilization. Camillus (and, I suspect, the author) both admires and loathes them. On the one hand, they’re obviously favored by the gods since they’re well on the way to conquering the world and he admires their military acumen. But they’re also hopelessly venal and corrupt, the chief motivation of their politicians being ambition and greed, and that of the populace being indulgence and carnality.
There’s an interesting subplot with Acco, who’s the reason the young men have to leave their tribe. He killed a she-bear, a totemic animal of the Goddess, and now feels he is cursed and pursued by her malevolence. All through the novel there’s a continuing contrast between the Goddess, who is “entirely evil” (p. 218), and the “cleaner,” more “civilized” worship of the male Skyfather and Wargod (by whatever names they are known):
There are gods on my side. I am not especially cursed by all the company of Heaven. I have only the Goddess to fear, and tomorrow we shall have left even the fringe of her land. This is an army of men, who worship the Wargod; and we go into the desert where no gods live…. Until we storm the walls of Seleucia my ring will keep me strong enough for battle, and the Raven will guard my head. We are grown men and warriors, far from the wiles of women…. (pp. 249-50)
I’m growing to appreciate Duggan’s writing a bit more as I continue to plow through his books. His ideas aren’t always well expressed and the stories aren’t always well told but the former are intriguing and the latter are engaging enough to keep me reading. I’d like to get a hold of Leopards and Lilies, which is about a woman living in the time of John and Henry III, to see how he handles a story from a female POV....more
TERENCE: I’ll take “Obscure Hellenistic Era Kings” for $1000, Alex.
ALEX TREBEK: All right. “I am the son of Antigonos. I am nicknamed Besieger of CitiTERENCE: I’ll take “Obscure Hellenistic Era Kings” for $1000, Alex.
ALEX TREBEK: All right. “I am the son of Antigonos. I am nicknamed Besieger of Cities. And I drank myself to death, a prisoner of Seleukos I Nikanor, in 283 BC.”
[Jeopardy theme plays as the contestants perplexedly scratch their heads]
TERENCE: [milliseconds before the buzzer sounds] Ummm…Who is Demetrios Poliorketes?
Besieger of Cities is the fictional life of Demetrius, the son of one of Alexander the Great’s generals, Antigonus, who made himself master of Asia Minor only to lose it all at the battle of Ipsus. Demetrius, himself, as my Wordsworth Classical Dictionary says, was “a man of restless activity of mind, fertility of resources, and daring promptitude in the execution of his schemes.” His tragic flaw – as Duggan presents the man – is a colossal narcissistic ego and a feckless lack of will. For all his abilities as general and politician, for all his ambitious dreams, Demetrius never had the drive to make anything permanent of them.
I don’t have much to say about Besieger of Cities. All the faults and virtues I found in Children of the Wolf are here but the story was interesting enough to have kept me reading.
Besides, you have to admire anyone who’s willing to tackle such an obscure but fascinating figure and write a character study of him....more
Without a doubt, the best thing about GoodReads is the number of new authors I’ve discovered who would have most likely remained unknown to me. A shorWithout a doubt, the best thing about GoodReads is the number of new authors I’ve discovered who would have most likely remained unknown to me. A short list includes Sylvia Townsend Warner, Ivan Goncharov, Ivy Compton-Burnett, Thomas Burnett Swann, Heinrich von Kleist, T.F. Powys and Theodor Fontane. Alfred Duggan joins that list of discoveries. He came to my attention in the course of reading Andrea Carandini’s Rome: Day One, which is an account of Rome’s foundation and – naturally enough – mentions Romulus and Remus frequently. Since Carandini didn’t provide much background, assuming the reader’s familiarity with Rome’s foundation myths, I wikied the Romulus legend and came across a section about the literary and film representations that mentioned Duggan’s novel. From there it was a short Wikipedia search to his own page, where I learned that he had been an English historian (dying in 1964) who had written a number of historical novels that ranged from the obscure origins of Rome to the equally obscure figures (to modern audiences) of Demetrius Poliorcetes (a Successor King of Alexander), Marcus Crassus (the bad guy in the movie “Spartacus”), Cerdic (the first king of Saxon Wessex) and Count Bohemond (a son of Robert Guiscard, a Norman adventurer in 11th century Italy and the Byzantine Empire). For the last few weeks, I’ve been immersing myself in these worlds (with the exception of the Cerdic novel – my library didn’t have that one).
Children of the Wolf is the story of Rome’s foundation and its first generation of citizens as told from the viewpoints of four representative characters. There’s the Latin Marcus Aemilius, a young, would-be brigand originally of Remus’ following. Publius Tatius is a Sabine who becomes one of the first Conscript Fathers (i.e., a Senator). Perperna is an Etruscan fugitive who prospers from the Roman conquest of Camerium and becomes a wealthy land-owner. And then there’s Macro, a Greek fratricide from Cumae who becomes one of the city’s first priests.
I can’t say that the writing is very good. It’s awkward, clunky; and you rarely can transcend the page to really feel you’re “there.” There are exceptions. Perperna begins life as a spearman in the Roman army and Duggan’s description of his experience as a member of the ranks is riveting:
That was why the shock, when it came, was much less fierce than Perperna had been expecting. In the last few yards every man on both sides checked his stride and hung back to keep in line; the lines themselves hesitated, until the leaders must shout again the command to charge. When the two armies collided it was at a gingerly shuffle, not in a fierce and reckless swoop....
For half a minute they all stood still, pushing with the stout ash spears. Perperna saw no blood and heard no cries of pain; it seemed that the initial meeting of two armies had not harmed anyone at all. Then he felt the shield of the Roman behind him placed flat against his back, and the five rear ranks of the army began to shove. He was borne forward unwillingly, right among the Etruscan spear-points. In terror, he doubled up behind the broad shield. He could see nothing, but with relief he felt his unseen spear-point plough free of the enemy shield. Now it was darting harmlessly in the air; but he dared not expose his face to aim it properly, for he was jammed against his adversary shield to shield. All around him was a forest of interlaced spear-shafts, stretching at every angle to that he could not distinguish Etruscan from Roman. He crouched even lower, and felt the pressure on his shoulders as the men behind him pushed their spears forward on either side of his helmet. He was wedged in the press, unable to see, unable to strike an effective blow. (pp. 191-92)
Elsewhere, alas, Duggan’s need to tell his story about how Rome came to be the Rome of legend hinders his ability to create people we care about. The most empathetic characters turn out to be the women – Marcus’ wife Sabina, one of the girls kidnapped in the (in)famous “Rape of the Sabine Women,” and Vibenna, a ½-Etruscan widow who becomes Perperna’s wife after the sack of Camerium. While Duggan makes much of the relatively high status of Roman women compared to their Greek and Etruscan counterparts, their ultimate powerlessness is constantly in the background:
For the first time he looked carefully at his prize.
She was short and square, like most Sabines, with broad shoulders and clumsy hips. Her breasts were small, for she was not much older than fourteen. Her hair was black and straight, abundant but not very long; but her eyes were grey, and her skin white where it had not been tanned by the weather. She had a straight nose and a small mouth. On the whole her regular features might be called pleasing, though she would never be famous for her beauty. She would do.
He spoke to her for the first time since he had grabbed her. “You heard what our King said. We are to be properly married. My name is Marcus. I am a Latin, and a client of the Aemilian clan. As a free spearman I have been allotted a ploughland and a yoke of oxen; the slaves of the clan help me to look after them. Besides my shield and spear I own an iron sword, and three clay pots. The King will put us in a hut by ourselves. What is your name? Are you content to marry me?”
Anger and disgust showed on the girl’s face, but not a trace of fear. She answered readily, as though she had already made up her mind. “I shall marry you, if that’s what you want of me. Now that I have been pawed by Roman bandits no decent Sabine would take me to wife, so I may as well make the best of it. I shall not tell you my name. It is a part of myself, and a part I do not choose to share with you. Besides, it would be better if you do not know the name of my clan. Then it will be easier for my kin to take vengeance.”
“As you wish, wife,” Marcus answered cheerfully. “Keep your name to yourself, by all means. Since I must call you something I shall call you Sabina. Among the neighbours you will be known as the wife of Marcus Aemilius, and that will be enough. By the way, are you a virgin?”
“That’s a disgusting question!”
“No, it’s not. A bit direct, perhaps, but I want an answer.”
“Of course I am. Among the Sabines every girl is a virgin until she marries. But I am old enough to have been instructed in the mysteries, if that is what you mean. I know what will be done to me tonight.”
“Look here, Sabina. The King has called on the gods to unite us, and until death parts us we shall share a hut. We are more or less the same kind of people. There’s no reason why we shouldn’t get on together. Why not be friends? Then we shall live more comfortably.”
“So long as I am kept in Rome I want to be comfortable. I shall cook for you as well as I can, and keep our hut clean and warm. Death will part us soon enough, when my kin avenge the wrong done to me. Then I shall be a widow, free to marry some decent Sabine.”
“That sounds fair enough. You seem to have been properly brought up. But just go on remembering that vengeance is the duty of your kin, and leave it to them. Will you promise not to poison me, or stab me while I sleep?”
“That much I can promise. The gods punish a wife who kills her husband.”
“Splendid. In a few minutes we shall be married. Perhaps you wouldn’t mind beginning your household duties straight away? Do you see the rawhide knot on this scabbard? It’s meant to slip through that loop on the baldric, but my clumsy fingers have made it too big. Can you tighten it and make it look neater?”
As he laid his scabbarded sword on her lap Sabina smiled. It had been smoothly done. He had wronged her; but they were partners in the adventure of living and they would never know peace unless they trusted one another. (pp. 42-43)
And in Vibenna’s case:
The six hundred Camerines slain in the pursuit had left a quantity of widows, and the population contained the usual crop of unmarried maidens. They were drawn up in line facing the army, and the bachelors among the volunteers were invited to choose among them. Perperna was one of the first to choose. As a young bachelor without family ties he was eligible, and as a celer and adherent of King Romulus he was privileged above the majority of his fellow-citizens. For of course there were still not enough women to go around. Rome was full of surplus males, since the fugitives and outlaws who continually flocked there were all men without women of their own.
He would look ridiculous if he walked up to the first woman in the line and seized her; but it was even more ridiculous to examine them carefully, as though he were buying a cow. What were the qualities you sought in a wife? And once you had decided on that, how did you spot the external signs of them? In fact, did he want a wife at all? But he must look as though he were choosing with care, so he peered closely into a row of strange faces….
He was seeking a wife only because in Rome such creatures were rare and valuable, and it seemed silly to throw away this unexpected chance of getting one for nothing; he did not seek affection, he wanted a sensible partner to manage his household while he worked his land. This thirty-year-old widow looked sensible; she was plain and strong and could control her emotions. She wore a long tunic of unbleached wool, and her black hair hung unbound in sign of mourning.
“Where are your children?” asked Perperna, trying to smile as though he were talking to an equal.
“I had three, but they died as babies,” the woman answered in a matter-of-fact voice, lifting her head to stare indifferently into the empty sky.
“Do you know how your husband died?” he continued.
“They tell me he was wounded at the very beginning. Since after that he couldn’t run fast he stood his ground until a Roman knocked him on the head.”
“Then I am not polluted with his blood. I killed two Camerines, but both were fleeing. So since that impediment is out of the way and you must marry one of us, are you willing to be my wife?”
“Why not?” said the woman, glancing at his face for the first time. “You don’t look any worse than the others. My name is Vibenna, and my father was Etruscan though my mother was Italian. What do I call you?”
“I am Perperna, though my family need not be named since they have all been killed by savages. We are of the same race.” He spoke in Etruscan, glad to thing he would be able to speak his native tongue in this new home.
The woman answered casually in Italian. “It’s no good speaking the language of the Rasenna to me. I don’t know it. My mother was just a concubine. My dead husband was a citizen, but we were not ruling nobles. Everyone here speaks Italian, except when they speak to the gods.”
“Very well, Vibenna. My name is Perperna and we shall speak Italian together. You shall be my wife, not my concubine. Roman wives are protected by good laws. This is a new start in life. Make the best of it.”
“It’s better than being a slave. I can cook, but my children die. If you have chosen me I will lead you to my home.”...
“Unpleasant job you call it, young man?.... (I)f you see it in the proper light it’s really most humane and merciful. We could have carried Camerium by assault, raped the pretty girls, slaughtered the warriors and then sold the survivors. The town was at our mercy. Instead of that, some of the citizens keep some of their property and the women suffer nothing worse than honourable marriage.” (pp. 180-82)
The above passages also – I believe – are good examples of Duggan’s flaws as a writer. A significant factor in why I kept reading (and why I’ve gone on to read his other novels that I checked out) is the underlying sense of frustrated idealism that runs throughout the book combined with a sardonic cynicism. There’s something that appeals to the frustrated idealist and sardonic cynic within me.
While there are several good scenes that convey this sense well, I quote from one near the end where a Roman delegation convinces the Sabine prince Numa Pompilius to become Rome’s new king. One cites the city’s constitution, its laws, the honor given to wives and children, how all citizens stand together in war and Rome’s destiny to rule the world. Another cites Rome’s fair dealings with its enemies and how so many disparate peoples have learned to live together within its walls. But the last – and deciding argument – is given to Perperna, who argues that all this will be lost if Numa refuses to become king and allows the city to dissolve, even with all its flaws.
Numa accepts, but adumbrating a theme of Duggan’s later Roman-era book, Winter Quarters, warns that all can still be lost:
“It’s funny when you come to think of it. Most of us came to Rome because no other city was open to us. We came to the second best, meaning to go back when our troubles were over. But there is something about this city, its good luck or its favour with the gods or perhaps just its fertile fields, that makes everyone want to stay.”
“It’s none of those things,” said Macro happily. “It’s the other Romans. It’s all of us. This is the home of justice. We live in friendship together, men from all over the world; and our descendants will the rule the world.”
“For so long as they do justice,” added King Numa, from his place of honour. (p. 283)
A very strong 2 stars: I’m not going to complain about the lack of nuance in the 5-star rating system GR uses. I’ve beaten that horse too often and too well elsewhere. It would, however, be nice if GR could color code the stars; for example, 3 yellow stars would be a tepid “like,” better than “okay” but not up to a full-throated recommendation. Three green stars would be the standard “like” and 3 red (or blue?) stars would be a very strong “like.” The same would apply to the other stars and wouldn’t require a recalibration of the rating system.
In that spirit, I would give Children of the Wolf 2 red (or blue) stars. There was something about it that – despite its flaws – kept me reading. I can’t say I would recommend this book or this author to anyone but I wouldn’t discourage anyone’s interest....more