A varied set this in quality as well as genre and subject. One of them is so bad I couldn’t be bothered finishing it, though I did skip forward to check what happened. One is above average but not great in its field, which is not to say it doesn’t have quite a few strengths. One is quite fascinating and very well researched and well written, so much so that I place it in my Best Reads of 2008. Can you guess which is which?
At around midnight a man died in a tent roughly fifty-three miles north of the capital of what is now Iraq. It was the end of June, AD 363, and with him paganism died.
A month after his thirty-first birthday, Flavius Claudius Julianus, better known as Julian the Apostate, had been ruler of the Roman Empire for less than two years. He was dark haired, of average height for the era—around 5 foot 4 inches—and with a trim build. Underneath his hair, which he tended to wear combed down onto his forehead like all the members of his family, he had penetrating eyes, heavy eyebrows, a straight nose, and a rather large mouth with a pendulous lower lip that was hidden behind the bristly beard he wore trimmed to a point, like those you can see of the ancient Greek philosophers in the Louvre or the British Museum. It was a deliberate affectation, a sign of his deep love of Hellenic culture and passionate hatred of the Galileans, as he dubbed Christians. Many mocked him and called him a goat behind his back.
He had been wounded in battle, three months into a campaign in the East against the Persian Empire and its king, Shapur II. Although the Roman army had been advancing slowly in readiness for battle, Julian, who had gone on ahead to reconnoiter, had received word that the rearguard had been ambushed from behind. As he rode back to lend moral support to those in the rear, he was summoned by the news that the van, which he had just left, had been similarly attacked. Before he could restore the position, a troop of Parthian cuirassiers attacked the center and breached its left wing. The soldiers broke ranks in confusion—just as Alexander the Great’s had in India six centuries previously—at the sight, smell, and noise of elephants.
This is narrative history – the best kind to read – at its best. Julian is such a fascinating figure too. You do know, don’t you, that our stereotype of the decline and fall of the Roman Empire is just that – a stereotype? Nero was further distant from Julian than George Washington is from Barak Obama by around a century, and Rome had been kicking around for longer than that. Our concept of the Empire having become Christian under Constantine, not long before Julian, is also oversimplified. What passes for history in our vague memories is sketchy at best and highly selective. This book corrects some of these things. You could regard Julian as a proto-conservative, if you think about it. (Edward Gibbon in the 18th century, himself conservative in many respects, saw that and acknowledged the ambiguity too, even if he wanted, as did Voltaire, to appropriate Julian for his critique of Christianity which Julian, who seems really to have believed in the ancient gods, regarded as “atheism”.) Judged by the standards of his time Julian was actually remarkably tolerant and enlightened, and in many respects an administrator of considerable integrity, especially compared with some of his peers, including quite a few saintly Christians.
And, as I said, this book is very readable. Definitely one of my top reads this year.
As for Gospel by Sydney Bauer: don’t bother. This reviewer disagrees with me quite strongly, but I’m afraid I became sick of the parade of cliches, brand-names, and replicants in the role of characters. Biggles was better.
Much better because at least the characters are recognisably human, the plot far more likely, and the background more convincing is The Pure in Heart by Susan Hill (2006), even if the English Village school of crime fiction isn’t always my favourite. This reviewer notes a coincidence I hadn’t seen:
THE PURE IN HEART was first published a year or two before the famous abduction of Madeline McCann, but tells a similar story. When the boy is reported missing in the novel, a policeman says "Yeah, you report your nine-year-old kid missing, next minute your rooms are full of men in white coats scraping bits off the carpet". Post-McCann readers cannot but help compare this common-sense to the police investigation in the real-life case.
I did enjoy it, even if it was at time a touch slow; however I much prefer our own Peter Corris.