Bryn Hammond's Reviews > Attila: The Gathering of the Storm

Attila by William Napier
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Feb 17, 2013

it was amazing
bookshelves: steppe-fiction

In every way a leap up from the first.

For thirty pages I was uncertain; before page fifty I was won. Won by Attila, whom Napier has ambition to portray as a truly great man – and succeeds, for me. Won also by description of the steppe. The first had an element of fantasy; this doesn’t, but I was put in mind of fantasy whenever we journey over the steppe: description both very real in local detail and a little surreal, and just the sense of the unexplored, the strange (yet not fantastic) landscapes to be met with. Won, thirdly, by a philosophical vein in the book.

That’s largely from the person of Attila. Attila gave his first speech around page fifty, or more of a contemplation aloud over the campfire, for three pages. Near the end of the book we have a chapter called, ‘Attila Speaks, the Council Listens’ and that’s his fieriest speech, for seven pages. I was electrified by both. But it’s daring, isn’t it, it’s stretching the expectations of histfic – Attila speaks, for several pages, and when I tell you he quotes from a kindred spirit, he gives you a couple of proverbs from ‘The Marriage of Heaven and Hell’, you’re going to talk about trespasses against histfic, maybe. I happen to be an admirer of William Blake as of Attila, and I can see where their thoughts about the world might intersect. Does that make me the audience for this book?

There are two ways in which this is not the straightest of straight histfic. I can get bored with the straightest of the straight, so I’m happy with both of these: they either crank up my brain or they fire my imagination. I’ve told you one; the other has to do with history.

The plot of this second is, Attila unites the steppe. Black Huns, White Huns, the monstrous Kutrigur Huns, once-Huns who have settled and corrupted: by means fair or foul he has them declare a brotherhood, to be one army, Huns undistinguished, against the settled world. We visit the steppe from end to end; Attila has travel tales from his thirty years of exile, he has seen the Yellow River and the Great Wall, he has been to the Huns’ lost home in the Ordos. There you have it. Attila’s Huns keep a memory of China, and the name of China does not cross their lips – until Attila is bold enough, not only to remind them of their old humiliations, but to forge a nomad army and march, first against Rome and next, against the original enemy, the other empire that has done the Huns wrong. For Rome and China are two imperial peas in a pod, to nomad eyes, and Attila has speeches to tell you why.

Now, this can’t exactly be called historical. It draws on history before and after. I think he has drawn on Attila’s later distant cousin, Genghis – both for Attila’s life story, and for this grand conception of conquest east and west. These Huns can sing the Mongols’ origin legends, and the Turkic epic Manas. Of this I’m going to say, Napier widens history. He fits more history in. He has a time period, but he draws into that strands from before and after, because he wants to talk about historical issues – large ones. He wants to talk about the settled and the steppe, and to that end Attila, steppe spokesman, knows things he can’t have known, travels further than in any likelihood he did. As I say, this is fine by me, and makes for a fiction that comments on history.

There’s a Roman interlude, to keep us up to date with Rome and Constantinople. This wasn’t a trot-through, for me; I cared about the people we meet – Aetius and Athenais – and I’m glued to the page by his style. The scandal-sheet was a riot, as were the deviant adventures of Galla Placida’s daughter. Though the latter stopped being funny when she has a hideous forced abortion. Napier always has a heart for the unfortunate, and though awful things happen in this book, he writes about them with humanity. Only once or twice do I think his love of description runs away with him so that he glories in the porridge brains out the saucepan of the skull. With descriptive skills like his, I understand an ill-judged one or two.
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Reading Progress

Finished Reading
February 17, 2013 – Shelved
February 17, 2013 – Shelved as: steppe-fiction

Comments (showing 1-5 of 5) (5 new)

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message 1: by Terri (new) - added it

Terri I will try the next then. If it is that much better than the first. I felt it would be. There was so much descriptive skill present in the first, that I felt he might ripen in the second and third. As long as he nailed his dialogue better than the first.


Bryn Hammond I can't vouch for the dialogue, as I didn't have a problem with that in the first. Can only say, I was never impressed by the writing in the first, but impressed on more pages than not, in the second. What did I miss in the first? This trilogy is so to my interests, though, that I'll go back. I'll have them by heart before I'm done.


message 3: by Terri (new) - added it

Terri I love to see people find new books to love completely. That's really nice.

I like the cover on this one. Blue. :-)


Bryn Hammond See, I'd have left that 1st sitting on my shelf at home for years to come. It's been there years. If not for the Group Read which is obviously a great invention.


message 5: by Terri (new) - added it

Terri It sure has helped me read some amazing books. If not for the group reads I would never have read A Bloody Field by Shrewsbury.


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