Saturday, August 20, 2011

100 Books 44 - Gav Thorpe's CROWN OF THE BLOOD

I remember a while ago in, I think, the 90s when it looked like the hot new genre was going to be "sandalpunk" - "punk" in the sense of cyber- and steam- but set in an alternate Roman Empire. I was pretty excited at the idea but I never got to see any examples and my interest sort of got filed away in the "coulda been cool" drawer.

Then I got my hands on this book. Or rather, its sequel, which is part of Angry Robot's big bundle of ebooks deal I subscribed to earlier this summer. A compulsive completist who hates coming into the middle of the story, I, well... I had to pick this up first.

Crown of the Blood isn't about Rome per se, but a sort of semi-fantasy version of it. An even more brutal version in which generals leading their legions ride giant man-eating battle lions against barbarian hordes who, in turn, sic what we can only call dinosaurs on them. And a version in which all the pagan pomp we associate with Rome, the temples and shrines and tombs and ancestor-worship, have been pretty much secularized; the Brotherhood that has replaced them teaches that man alone, not the spirits, guide destinies. Oh, and there are things called landships, which are just what they sound like -- big ol' triremes, complete with benches of slaves on the "oars", "rowing" across the countryside.

In other words, it's a version of Rome just made for pulp fans.

But this is far from being a Robert E. Howard ancient/pre-historic fantasy, Conan the Legionnaire -- though I, for one, wouldn't mind if it was, not one bit. What we have instead, though, is still good, though more along the lines of a different schlocky classic from my youth, Piers Anthony's Bio of a Space Tyrant* with just a few of the Expected Fantasy Tropes thrown in as we follow the trajectory of one Ulsaard. Ulsaard is an outlander, a soldier who has risen to the post of general and whose power in that post involves him in dynastic and other struggles in the Askhorian Empire's capital even before a certain secret is revealed that leads him to wage all-out war all over the empire.

Thorpe is obviously a big fan of ancient history with a fascination for military campaigns, as shows in his detailed, plausible and interesting depictions of military life. One almost wonders why he wrote this as a genre novel at all; dinosaurs and lions aside, the fantastic/magical elements are even more rare here than in, say, George R.R. Martin's quintuple-doorstop Song of Ice and Fire. It's quite interesting enough on its own, for my money -- in the midst of everything Crown of the Blood poses some tough questions about loyalty and duty and trust -- so that at times I caught myself rolling my eyes at the fantastical elements that did crop up, though I see why they were there: in this universe, royal blood really is special.

If you like detailed examinations of military strategy and tactics (admittedly executed over imaginary terrain) or accounts of life in a Roman legion or depictions of a society that really does have a problem of too many wives for too few husbands (Askhorian legions euthanize soldiers who are too wounded to keep marching, so the numbers of eligible men back home must indeed be small; didn't I tell you that this version of Rome is WAY more brutal?), city sacking and battles, this is the book for you. That's not what I look for as a rule, but I'm happy when I find it.

And that's another sequel I have lined up for next year.

*Oh, come on, you read it, too.

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