Fiction Review by Mario Huet:
The Sword of Damascus
By Richard Blake
Hodder & Stoughton, London, 2011
For several years now, Richard Blake has been turning out one Aelric novel every year. These are historical thrillers, set in 7th century Byzantium. He began with Conspiracies of Rome, in which he introduced us to his rather nasty but engaging hero from England. Next was The Terror of Constantinople, in which he took us and his hero straight into the sewer of imperial politics. Then came The Blood of Alexandria, featuring a world of astonishing decadence, and one all the more astonishing for its rather clichéd components.
If you have kept count you will not be surprised to learn that The Sword of Damascus is the fourth in the series. It’s at this point that some writers begin to run out of ideas and revisit earlier places and situations. Not so Blake; what he does is to take all his own conventions and turn them on their head
A normal Aelric novel begins with the aged hero moaning about life as a refugee in Jarrow (why he is on the run from a Byzantine Empire he seems to have spent most of the 7th century running is something that is never quite revealed). He chats with his student Bede. He wanders about, drawing the reader’s attention to the many ailments one can look forward to in extreme old age. The first chapter over, he then takes up his pen and turns the clock back perhaps seventy years, to a time when he was young and beautiful and deadly, and lustful for anyone, male or female, able to take his fancy.
The Sword of Damascus starts in the usual way. There is a raid on Aelric’s monastery by savages from across the wide northern sea. But the introductory chapter, after which we normally get moved back in time, is followed by another, and yet another, and strong characters begin to emerge. You almost feel short-changed when he announces that the present can take care for itself and, with the barbarians actually banging on the main gate, begins writing about a youthful trip to Athens.
But he doesn’t remain in Athens for long. What he does instead is to go back to narrating a barbarian raid that isn’t what it seems; and characters you thought had been wasted in the first few chapters gather more and more substance. By now you’ve been sucked into a thriller that shows no sign of letting up in its progress from Jarrow to Damascus.
The plot is extraordinary, dealing with the survival and resurgence of the Byzantine Empire in the first century of Islamic expansion. I won’t describe the various twists and turns. Most make perfect sense after the event but are difficult to predict, and I’d not wish to deprive other readers of the immense pleasure I got from the book. Instead I will mention Blake’s development of character. I am not the first to observe that he seems able only to create different kinds of villain. Aelric is unquestionably a man of honour, but he is by no sane definition a nice chap. In The Blood of Alexandria, he is mostly overshadowed by Priscus, who must surely be one of the more notable villains in historical fiction.
It’s much the same in The Sword of Damascus, in which the only really “nice” character is Wilfred. Blake treats poor Wilfred with increasingly open contempt, and seems glad to kill him off during a stopover in North Africa, where he dies terrified and in pain (while everyone about his deathbed would be looking at his watch, if watches had been invented at the time). The most engaging character, after Aelric himself, is Edward, an adolescent psychopath and sadist. He appears on the first page of the novel, and four hundred and whatever pages later, he is on what is effectively the last page. Grown up, transformed, redeemed – and ready to begin a career that you know will leave many people wishing he’d never been born.
There are other characters worth mentioning. There is Brother Cuthbert, religious maniac and paedophile – I hardly think many readers will regret his demise. There is “Brother” Joseph, who is easily one of Blake’s most slippery characters. There is Meekal/Michael. There is Karim, the cowardly Saracen. And so on. The novel is filled with people you’d never want to have as neighbours or colleagues, though many of are also the kind of people who drive history along.
Above them all stands Aelric, magnificent even in his decay. You can’t expect too much activity from a man in his late nineties; but between fussing about his dentures and looking into cures for long-sightedness, he still manages to kill anyone who gets seriously in his way, and to change the course of history, even if he isn’t up to much running about this time. Whatever his personal faults, he never lets down his author, or the reader, or any of the causes that drive him to remain the greatest man of his age.
In this novel there are many passages of great beauty; for the most part they are reflections on the nature of old age. And, as is usual with Blake, there are many passages of exuberant vulgarity.
When all’s said and done, The Sword of Damascus is a glorious read. It grips you from the first page, and it doesn’t let you go until the very end. I have a great partiality for The Terror of Constantinople, but I am not at all sure that this one is not the best Blake yet. In any event, I am now looking forward with great eagerness to The Ghosts of Athens.