I didn’t have much time to work over the Christmas holidays, which I suppose is the point of the Christmas holidays. But I did have quite a bit of time to read. So let’s have some book reviews!
-The Roman Republic at about 148 BC or so (or about 91 BC, right at the start of the Social War), after the final defeat of Carthage, when the acquisition of provinces and an empire corroded Rome’s senatorial oligarchy.
-The high medieval Catholic Church at the height of its intellectual and spiritual vigor. Say about 1250 AD or so, roughly the time of Thomas Aquinas and Roger Bacon and Albertus Magnus and Robert Grossteste.
-Early modern France, perhaps about the time of Louis XI the Spider King, when the French king wielded vast power, but could still be challenged by unruly noblemen.
Now collapse these three time periods into one, add goblins and elves and sorcery, and you’ll have the setting of A THRONE OF BONES. So you have republican-era Roman legions fighting goblin tribes on the frontier, only to return in haste to Rome when the Pope is murdered by a sorcerer, while French knights battle against a race of werewolves.
The plot centers around the Sacred Republic of Amorr (which is, of course, “Roma” spelled backwards with an extra R) and an impending civil war between several factions of Amorran noble families, along with the peculiar circumstances around the death of the Sanctiff, the head of the Church. Meanwhile, the King of Savondir (the fantasy version of late medieval France) receives an appeal from the Dalarn, a Viking-like culture from the northern isles. They’re about to be wiped out by invaders, and desperately seek to settle in the King’s lands. Elsewhere a huge horde of orcs prepares to invade the Amorran lands, and there are are rumblings that an ancient shadow war between a mysterious group of immortal sorcerers is about to come into the open.
I enjoyed the historical verisimilitude of the novel, especially the depiction of the Amorran republican legions. (It is in my opinion a bit fallacious to argue for historical “realism” in fantasy novels – if a book has characters that can shoot lightning bolts from their fingers, the writer have taken realism out back to be shot. Historical verisimilitude is then the best the writer can reach for, then, something I’ve done myself.) In that vein, the battle scenes are very well done. Additionally, none of the characters are caricatures. All of the nobles involved in, say, the Amorran civil war, have completely understandable motives for their actions, and none of the (human) characters are villainous so much as they hold incompatible views of how the world should work.
The author deliberately wrote the book in response to the moral nihilism of many contemporary epic fantasy novels. Many elements, in particular the civil war between noble families, seems to owe its inspiration to George R.R. Martin’s A SONG OF ICE AND FIRE (though SONG was based on the War of the Roses, and A THRONE OF BONES seems based on the Social War of the Roman Republic.) The character of Corvus, for example, seems similar to Ned Stark in SONG, and like Ned Stark, makes a honorable but nonetheless stupid decision that has long-reaching bad consequences. Additionally, the character of Severa is quite similar to Cersei Lannister. All that said, the author tells his own story, and Severa is a more interesting character than Cersei (who seems to have, by the latest volume of SONG, been transformed into the permanent bearer of the Idiot Ball).
In the end, I enjoyed the book and recommend it, though with a caution that someone thoroughly familiar with Roman history would enjoy the book more (a glossary of characters, many of whom have very similar names and are interrelated, would be welcome, along with perhaps a glossary of terms for readers who are unsure of the difference between a praetor, a propraetor, and a quaestor), and that I will reserve final judgment until the last volume of the series comes out.
As a final note, this book proves one of my favorite points – that -self-publishing ebooks will lead to far more diverse and rich literature. (The book has a paper edition, but I am certain the ebook will vastly outsell it during the lifetime of the book.) Yes, the book was published through a small press, but the author just as easily could have put it out himself. To put it bluntly, this is an excellent book, but not one that would have been placed with a large publisher, partly because of its complexity, and partly because the author’s personal politics (which don’t turn up in the book) are sharply at odds with the mushy SWPL-ism of most editors at large publishers. Ebooks give writers the ability to reach an audience previously only enjoyed by the 0.1% of writers published by large houses.
UPDATE: The author emailed to let me know that the latest version of the ebook and the hardcover edition both have a glossary of characters, along with an explanation of how Roman/Amorran names work. So if you purchase either the ebook or the hardcover, you’ll get the glossary of characters.