Bryn Hammond's Reviews > Attila

Attila by William Napier
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Feb 05, 2013

really liked it
bookshelves: imagined-fiction

Ambitious enough that I’m going on with the trilogy.

Yes, Attila is a fighting fourteen at the end of this. Or sixteen, I forget. In the beginning he was twelve and the Romans and the tall barbarians of Europe took him for seven or eight, because of his Hun stature. The Huns are very much Mongol-type here, their physical selves disturbing to the Romans; they hark back to the Altai Mountains and Lake Baikal, and he clearly goes with the theory that these were the ‘Huns’ the Chinese knew. He’s a novelist not a scholar, and he likes a wide canvas, and that suits his story.

Most of Rome’s defenders are ex-barbarians, of one tribe or another; again and again people say, ‘Who’s a real Roman nowadays? The barbarians are Rome.’ Attila is a precious hostage, a guarantee of peace, along with princes or chief’s sons from other peoples. Most of these foreign hostages Rome corrupts; for this is a corrupt and rotten Rome, and he lays on the decadence, which disgusts our young Attila, who pines for the simple life and freedom of the steppe.

The novel doesn’t follow only a teenage lad; we visit the lives of soldiers and defenders and see the crumbling of the edifice. There is Alaric to invade, while Attila’s still in short pants; the scope of the trilogy seems to be ‘the fall of Rome’, not just the life of Attila. I don’t call this first book background, or even context, I call it the big canvas.

On the Huns themselves, though. As of yet they are Rome’s allies, and Stilicho, one of the last heroes of old Rome, urges that they need never be enemies. Roman civilization has nothing to offer them, ‘they do not envy us’. Napier needs a trilogy, not only to survey the state of Rome but to have the Huns at this start-point, and end where they end. It might be a cautionary tale, in that the Romans mistreat them; we see enough inner disloyalty, Romans’ treachery to Romans or Rome’s cause, through this first book, and after Attila’s adventures here the Huns have a grievance.

As for Attila, if he comes across over-clever, he was very clever, he seems to have been a brain. What with the massive contempt he faces in Rome, for his person and his Mongoloid looks and for his people, a very physical type of prejudice, he seethes with hatred, but he always meets a kindness with a kindness. Loyalty is holy to him. They debate what sort of sense of honour barbarians have – frontier soldiers who know their barbarians – the Goths, for instance, have their unique code of behaviour in war. The Huns too have a different but a strong ethic.

When at last we go among the Huns, I was a trifle let down. Hunnish society has largely to be guesswork, and I didn’t care for a couple of his guesses. In the future novels, I hope he doesn’t give me too much of the subservient women and the men who may express no emotion but rage. A Hun ambassador wonders at the clout allowed to Galla Placida, a woman? If I were to piece together a Hun society from steppe cultures, and contrast to Rome, I’d have done that the other way round. I hope he lets me stay on the Huns’ side, where I am.

There were faults of execution, I felt. But the concept and the story – the width of story – interest me and I enjoyed most. I’d drop a hint that his study of Yeats comes out, but that’d put people off, and give you a false impression, because the writing isn’t what they call poetic or nothing. There is a verve to it; there’s amusement now and then; and he knows how to tell a concentrated short tragedy of a fight. Early on I was grimacing at cliches, but either that cleared up or I forgot to notice, caught up in the story.
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Reading Progress

Finished Reading
February 5, 2013 – Shelved
February 21, 2013 – Shelved as: imagined-fiction

Comments (showing 1-3 of 3) (3 new)

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message 1: by Tim (new)

Tim Martin Sounds like an interesting series. I saw that not too long ago scientists were investigating if he was murdered or not.


Bryn Hammond I always thought likely he was!


message 3: by Tim (new)

Tim Martin It amazes me that anyone can investigate a homicide from that long ago, but if they can find the body of Richard III, I guess anything is possible. I know they have done some great forensic work on Oetzi, the Iceman of the Italian Alps, painting a very vivid picture of the man's death.


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