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Another Libertarian Novel Reviewed

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  • Dr Sean Gabb
    http://libertarianalliance.wordpress.com/2009/01/18/richard-blakes-conspira cies-of-rome-a-review/ Book Review by Margaret Richardson Conspiracies of Rome
    Message 1 of 1 , Jan 18, 2009
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      Book Review by Margaret Richardson
      Conspiracies of Rome
      Richard Blake
      Hodder & Stoughton, London, 2009, 356pp, £7.99 (pb)
      (ISBN 9780340951132)

      When released in hardback, this novel was described as "the publishing
      sensation of 2008". According to L. Neil Smith, the giant of modern
      science fiction,

      It's simply the best historical novel I've ever read, perhaps short of
      C.S. Forester. It's a very great deal better than any of the ancient
      Roman detective novels I've seen.

      According to Derek Jacobi, one of the greatest actors of his generation,
      and star of I Claudius and, with Russell Crowe, of Gladiator,

      [It is] fascinating to read, very well written, an intriguing plot and I
      enjoyed it very much.

      The first printing sold out within three days, and the export paperback
      had to be diverted to the British market to fill the demand. Even so,
      copies were selling on E-Bay at five times the cover price.

      Now available in paperback, the novel is selling faster in W.H. Smith
      than The Diary of Anne Frank, which has just had an entire week's outing
      on the BBC.

      What has made this book such a success? Well there is in the first place
      a very well-constructed plot. Rome in 609 AD. The Empire has fallen. The
      City itself is rapidly falling into ruins. The streets are blocked with
      filth and rubble. Killers prowl by night. The Emperor, far off in
      Constantinople, has other concerns. The Church is the one institution
      left intact, and is now flexing its own imperial muscle.

      But for getting that girl pregnant, and but for King Ethelbert's
      "suggestion" that he try his luck elsewhere, Aelric might never have left
      Kent. Now he is in this post-imperial snake pit-as secretary to Maximin,
      a priest sent back to gather books for the new English mission.

      A chance encounter on the road to Rome sucks them into a mystery. There
      is fraud. There is pursuit. There is murder after murder. Soon, Aelric is
      involved in a race against time to find answers. Who is trying to kill
      him? Where are those letters and what do they contain? Who is the
      one-eyed man? What significance to all this has the Column of Phocas, the
      monument just put up in the Forum to celebrate a tyrant's generosity to
      Holy Mother Church?

      Blundering via lechery, drunkenness, blasphemy, drug abuse, market
      rigging and pedantry, Aelric at last gets his answer. What he chooses to
      do with that answer will shape the future history of Europe and the world….

      But so much for the plot. If you like historical thrillers, this one is
      about as good as they get. What I found so striking about the novel is
      its imaginative reconstruction of a vanished world - but a world that is
      often disturbingly close to our own.

      The sort of Rome we normally read about in historical novels is the Rome
      of the great days, or at least the Rome of early into its decline. The
      Empire is still building up, or holding firm, or perhaps in danger of
      being wrecked by some profligate individual. But this is a Rome after its

      Imagine how it must have been to live in Rome during the seventh century.
      For a thousand years, your city was the centre of the world. For good or
      ill, everyone looked to your government to see what it would do in any
      situation. Your ancestors could boast that they were a race of
      conquerors, of lawgivers, of poets and architects and engineers, that
      they had imposed their ways and language on a large part of the world.
      But that is all over.

      Your city that was once the capital is now a border town in a continuing
      Empire that is ruled from elsewhere - an elsewhere run by people who call
      themselves your heirs or brothers, but who never liked you and who lose
      no opportunity now to let you know that you are fallen from greatness.
      All the arts and other ancient virtues are visibly dying. The city is
      falling, physically as well as morally, into ruins. Your own territory is
      filled up with often dangerous immigrants who do not share your ways or
      are actively hostile.

      The one flash of brightness is that the city is host to an organisation
      that exercises a non-military sway over much of the former Empire. Its
      ideals are different from those of your ancestors. Its personnel are
      mostly foreign. Such natives as rise high within it do so by suppressing
      all feeling of patriotism or other local pride. But this remains a great
      organisation, and it is useful for providing the money that keeps most
      people alive.

      Are there any resonances here? I think there are. But then, if science
      fiction is often a critique of the present, so too is historical fiction.
      It allows things to be said openly and bluntly in ways that would not be
      tolerated in mainstream fiction.

      But I come back to my question. What is it like to live in a place from
      which all its ancient glory has departed? One answer given in
      Conspiracies of Rome is that life goes on for most people much as before:

      Choosing at random, I took one of the exit streets, and walked briskly
      past arcades of bright, cheerful shops. I'd normally have stopped and
      looked in these. Rome, you see, wasn't just a depopulated slum. If much
      fallen away from its old magnificence, it was still, here and there, by
      any other standard, a great and wealthy city. There was a continuing
      demand for goods and services that had to be satisfied somewhere. And
      I'd wandered by accident into one of the few districts where life went on
      much as it always had. But I was in no mood for shopping.

      I walked, it seemed forever, through the sometimes crowded, sometimes
      dead streets of Rome, I stopped at last by one of the crumbling
      embankments of the Tiber. I sat down on a stone bench and looked across
      to the far side.

      You could see that there had once been elegant gardens there-trees and
      shrubs brought in from the limits of the known world, carefully arranged
      paths, little grottoes, and so on but nature had long since reclaimed the
      site, and I looked over at a jumble of local and exotic foliage that
      seemed to owe nothing to human action. The vividness of the flowers
      aside-and that glorious Italian light that even I, in my present frame of
      mind, couldn't wholly ignore-it reminded me a little of the forests back
      home in Kent.

      Down by the river, slave women and the poor did their washing. Some
      children ran in and out of the water. Their faint cries of joy floated up
      to me on the still, warm air. These joined the louder chattering of the
      birds across the river. Closer by, the respectable classes of Rome went
      about their business-exchanging gossip, doing business, getting up an
      appetite for lunch. I sat watching in the bright, hot sunshine of a day
      late into the Roman spring. Everything was surprisingly normal.

      Life goes one. And where there is life, there is hope. Indeed, while this
      novel is set after the collapse of a great civilisation, and while the
      Narrator has no love of the present, there is no simple contrast here
      between ancient glories and modern squalor. The civilisation that has
      fallen was grounded at all times and in all respects on systematic
      exploitation of the weak. Even now, slavery remains an omnipresent fact.
      Those most attached to the past are also those most attached to the view
      that slaves are brutes in human form.

      Rome has fallen. The world is sinking lower by the year. But one day, the
      Narrator is convinced, there will be a recovery, and this will be better
      than what has fallen.

      Where there is life, there is hope.

      To buy Conspiracies of Rome (Released in paperback on the 8th January

      To buy The Terror of Constantinople (the sequel, released 5th February
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