The Pillars of Hercules by David Constantine.
Published by Night Shade Books, March 2012. Review copy received.
Review by Mark Yon
‘Imagine Alexander the Great meets steampunk’, I was told.
Well, it’s a nice selling pitch, but the more I thought about it, the more I was intrigued. What an idea! Could it work?
The story starts straightforwardly. Lugorix is a Gaulish soldier with a sword called Skullseeker. His best friend is Grecian Matthias, an archer. The story begins by the two being hired to protect and travel with Barsine, a mystic witch, on her journey from Athens with her retainer Damitra.
In another storyline we have Alexander and his relationship with Philip, his father, as told through Eumenes, one of Alexander’s officers and Aristotle. And of course we also have the increasingly paranoid Alexander, who kills previously trusted friends whilst trying to overthrow his father.
Once the characters are introduced, then we have the key concept of the tale. Here David takes the events of ancient times and sets them up in an interesting tale but then takes a left-turn into alternate history by allowing Athens to win the Peloponnesian War and Alexander to travel West to Europe. Though you don’t need to know all this before reading the story, it is interesting stuff, and explained by David at the back of the novel.
Much of Alexander’s march west into Europe is for complex reasons. It is at least in part to please his father, taking lands in his name, but Alexander also wishes to discover the truth about whether he is not just a man but a god reborn. The tale continues with battles at Athens and then in Syracuse. Matthias and Lugorix are sent to rescue Aristotle, who has fled from Alexander but is now incarcerated in Syracuse. When they get there they find that Aristotle has died, yet his also-captured daughter Eurydice is there. They free her and then set off to the Pillars of Hercules and the ancient place supposedly the site of the lost Atlantis.
The Ancient World is a rich tapestry of resources that is ripe for the use of Fantasy novels. However this is not without its complications. Trying to explain the complications of Macedonian and Grecian politics from a standing start isn’t easy, and then getting accustomed to the names can take a while: knowing your Diocles and Xanthippus from your Hephaestion is quite important. Unfortunately here there’s a lot of characters who all speak with similar voices and it was at times difficult to differentiate between them, even those we are meant to care more about.
Of the main characters, I found Alexander makes an interesting debut as a self-obsessed and increasingly paranoid dictator but after being introduced early into the tale then spends most of the tale offstage with his part of the story instead being told through his officers, until by the end his presence is barely registered. Other characters are used and then seemingly forgotten.
Whilst some of the dialogue between Matthias and Lugorix is fun and reflects a bickering and long-standing relationship, some of the other dialogue is rather more stilted. Macedonians are often referred to as Macks, for example. Strangely, the unnaturalness of this speech is emphasised for me as the language used is decidedly contemporary. Whilst this ensures the reader understands what is going on, it can be off-putting, and it is one of the things that most often causes my sense of disbelief to be destroyed whilst reading. It’s not very often I read characters of the Ancient World say “Yikes!” or “Periscope up” or even “F*ck me”, though I do here. Others may have less of a problem with it.
On the positive side the battle scenes are done well and are quite exciting although at times a little repetitive: there’s an awful lot of head decapitating going on. What is also interesting is the use of new weapons such as Greek fire, golems and gunpowder, steamships, torpedoes and submarines as Aristotle’s latest inventions are brought into play. Interestingly, whereas it might seem that some of the inventions seem out-of-time, much of the technology herein is based upon actual weapons at about that time and it is clear that David has done his homework, although it is off-putting to find ancient world characters talking about guns and bombs.
There are elements of magic here though it seems to be more about the magic of science in the end. Aristotle is seen as a sorcerer, and his inventions magic. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, although it’s an idea that on the whole seems rather undeveloped.
What begins as a great idea slowly unravels until the finale, where it all comes crashing down. The ending, involving a rather cosmic descent into “Hell”, explains about the origin of gods through a rather more scientific rationale.
There’s a lot of plus points, but in the end sadly it doesn’t quite work as well as I would have hoped. A great effort: but for me it doesn’t quite come off.
Mark Yon, February 2012.