Review of David Anthony Durham’s Pride of Carthage

February 3, 2008 § 5 Comments


History is a word fraught with ancient emotions and depths. From the ancient Greek ἱστορία, meaning roughly “narration of what is learned,” to the Latin historia, which has the extra connotation of “story” to go with the Greek meaning to the French histoire, the Spanish and Italian historia, and of course the English history, the word refers not just to the past, but also to what we’ve learned from the past, as well as the narrative tales we transmit from generation to generation in order to impress upon our youth the important “lessons” that past events can teach us.

It was for the storytelling aspects, the ability to learn from prior events and to piece together meanings and stories from people from other places and times, that led me to get my BA and MA in European cultural/religious history a little over 10 years ago. Although I currently am not working in that field, I still value and cherish it and for the most part, I have looked at “historical novels” with a skeptical eye. Common questions I have asked myself when reading historical novels have been “Will the author be more “true” to the mechanisms of change or will s/he try to be “true” to the “spirit” of the events? Will the “story” aspect of history be on display here, or will it devolve more into a hodge-podge of mostly-unexplored events and poorly-developed characters, with just a surface layer of “historicity” to top it off?”

These were some of the questions that I had when I began reading David Anthony Durham’s Pride of Carthage. Now I had earlier read his excellent fantasy, Acacia: The War with the Mein, as well as two smaller-scope historical works, Gabriel’s Story and Walk Through Darkness (I plan on re-reading the latter two before reviewing them here in the coming months), so I was familiar with Durham’s basic writing style and his approach towards characterization, but still the question still lingered about how he would approach the larger-than-life persona of the Carthinginian general Hannibal during his 218-203 BCE campaigns against the Romans during the Second Punic War. Would Hannibal be portrayed more as an übermensch, dominating without much effort or struggle, or would he be set up more as a tragic hero, whose own virtues end up being the cause of his downfall at Zama at the hands of Scipio Africanus?

What I found while reading this novel is that Hannibal is neither all of A nor all of B, but a bit of both with some surprising (but fitting) elements tossed in. Eschewing a more traditional approach of concentrating mostly on the general himself, Durham devotes quite a bit of time to his family, from his brothers Hasdrubal, Hanno, and Mago, to his father, Hamilcar, and in some of the more poignant scenes that frame the novel, his son, also named Hamilcar. In many ways, this is a tale about a father who has done many great and terrible things, at a horrendous cost to his home and family in the end.

Below is an excerpt from near the beginning of the novel that reveals quite a bit about how Hannibal came to be the leader that he was. His father has taken the then-eight year-old Hannibal to see a prisoner, one who had tried to betray Carthage:

“This man betrayed Carthage, “Hamilcar said, his voice a dry rasp that he could not shake, though he cleared his throat several times. “Do you understand that? This man conspired to open the gates of our city to the mercenaries. He did it for money, for power, out of a sheer hatred that he hid behind the mask of a countryman. He almost succeeded. had this man the power, he would yank you up by the ankles and bash your skull against the stones beneath us. He would nail me to a cross and leave me to die slowly. He’d see me a rotting, maggot-filled corpse, and he would laugh at the sight. He would slit your brother’s necks and rape your mother and have her sold into slavery. He would live in our house and eat our food and rule over our servants. This is the man before you. Do you know his name?”

Hannibal shook his head, his eyes pinned to the stones and not moving even as he answered.

“His name is Tamar. Some call him the Blessed, others the Foul. Some call him friend. Some father. Some lover. Do you understand? He has other names also: Alexander. Cyrus. Achilles. Khufu. Yahweh or Ares or Osiris. He is Sumerian, Persian, Spartan. He is the thief in the street, the councillor who sits beside you, the man who covets your wife. You choose his name, for he has many, as many names as there are men born to women. His name is Rome. His name is mankind. This is the world we live in, and you’ll find it full of men like this.”

Hamilcar released the man’s head and placed his hands on his son’s shoulders. He pulled him close and let the boy rest his forehead against his cheek. Hannibal did this willingly, for he did not want to look at the man about whom they spoke. “Son,” he said, “there was a noose around our neck and to cut it I had to kill many men most horribly. You are a child, but the world you were born into is no kind place. This is why I teach you now that creation is full of wolves aligned against us. To live in it without falling into madness, you must make of yourself more than a single man. You love with all your heart as a father and son and husband. You wrap your arms around your mother and know the goodness of women. You find beauty in the world and cherish it. But never waver from strength. Never run from battle. When the time comes to act, do so, with iron in your hand and your loins and your heart. Unreservedly love those who love you, and protect them without remorse. Will you always do that?”

Against his father’s chest, the boy nodded.

“Then I am proud to call you my firstborn son,” Hamilcar said. He pulled away and stood up straight and yanked a dagger from the sheath on his ankle and pressed the handle into his son’s hand. “Now kill this man.”

Hannibal stared at the blade in his small hand, a dagger nearly as large as the toy swords he practiced with. He closed his fingers around the handle slowly, felt the worn leather, the rough weave of it and the solidity of the iron beneath it. He raised his eyes and moved toward the man and did as his fathered ordered. He did not lift the man’s head, but he slipped the blade under his chin and cut a ragged, sloppy line that yanked free of his flesh just under the ear. He fell against the dead man’s body for a moment. Though he sprang back, the touch still stained his nightclothes with the man’s newly flowing blood. He was just eight years old that night. Of course he had not forgotten that moment. Nor would he. It would be with him on his deathbed, if the moment of his passing allowed for reflection. (pp. 88-90)

It is in this scene, one-sixth into the novel, that foreshadows so much of what transpires later. Hannibal the character becomes a well-rounded individual who flashes both the iron of necessary action and the warmth of a caring and generous heart. He inspires his men through his valor and bravery, even though he sees only out of one eye after one battle. While many of his characteristics seem to indicate that this will be the tragic hero who falls down to Death at the end, Durham chooses not to take that path. Although Hannibal remains at the center of the tale, Durham devotes much time to developing his secondary characters, especially the conflicted and complex relationship between Imco Vaca and Aradna, whose periodic encounters serve to underscore the various tensions that are on display throughout the course of this novel.

When I evaluate a historical novel, I first want to see if the invented characters blend in well with the historical main characters. In Pride of Carthage, they do for the most part. Then I want to examine the writing and see if it feels “alive,” that it is more than just a dry retelling of the past without anything really contributed in the way of an actual story. As indicated from the lengthy excerpt above, I believe that Durham’s writing suits the story very well, with the humanness of the characters on full display. Some readers might complain that the narrative approach is a bit “too distant” for them. Perhaps they’d rather have more dialogue or intense action than the panoptic third-person PoVs that Durham employs to tell his story. For me, the narrative voice works here because with the scope of the action and the amount of time that Hannibal’s story has to cover (the first 43 years of his life), I cannot think of a more appropriate narrative voice that would have managed to accomplish as much within a single 568 page novel.

However, there are a few cases in which a bit more time devoted to dialogue could have made the ending even stronger. In particular, the political maneuvering taking place both in Rome and Carthage perhaps could have been shown in more detail. It would have been nice if Scipio Africanus could have had more “talk time” in the buildup to the Battle of Zama. Maybe even more could have been said about the Battles of Lake Trasimene and Cannae. And let us not forget the rather compressed timeline, in which Hannibal’s son still appears as a child at the end rather than the young adult he would have been after being separated from his father for 15 years. But these are quibbles, for the most part. No historical novel can be completely “true” to the recorded events without encountering places where the storyline needs are going to clash with some historical gaps or contradictions. So while the compressed timeline might be annoying for those history buffs who want super-accurate renderings of battles and events, for those who want a good tale set in a particular historical mileu, Pride of Carthage is an enjoyable and rewarding novel. It certainly was one of the better historical novels that I have read in the past ten years and I would highly recommend it to others who enjoy reading historical novels or for those who like intriguing and dynamic characters.

Publication Date: January 18, 2005 (US), Hardcover; January 3, 2006 (US), Tradeback.

Publisher: Doubleday

Students for a Democratic Society: A Graphic History

January 15, 2008 § 1 Comment

A Graphic History

A few months ago, I received a package of Advance Review Copies from Farrar, Straus and Giroux’s graphic novel imprint, Hill and Wang.  One of the books included was Students for a Democratic Society:  A Graphic History, which was mostly written, edited, and drawn by Harvey Pekar, Gary Dumm, and Paul Buhle.  In this 214 page novel, these three have set out to show via a combination of printed word and illustrations the wide-ranging impact that the radical 1960s Students for a Democratic Society had on issues such as the antiwar movement, women’s lib, the democratization of campus life, and the civil rights struggle.

The book is split into many sections.  In these, the editors decided to begin with an overall history (comprising the first quarter of the book) of the SDS movement, from its genesis in 1960 to its disintegration into factional infighting in 1969.  The writers/illustrators don’t shy away from several touchy topics, including the use of violence by various members and splinter groups such as the Weathermen (named after a line from Bob Dylan’s “Subterranean Homesick Blues”).  But this introduction serves as a backdrop for the very passionate and often tragic lives of SDS members.

It is in the chapters following the initial overview that one hears the stories of various SDS members, what they had to overcome in their personal lives, the prejudices of friends and loved ones, and in a few cases, the tragic deaths of lovers.  While one may not sympathize with their political views, their stories, with some very well-done artwork to emphasize the action unfolding, carry a ring of authenticity that often is lacking in textbook accounts of the 1960s in the United States.

As a former history grad student and teacher of American and World History, at first I was skeptical that the book could achieve its overall aims, despite evidence from books such as Art Spiegelman’s Maus that illustrated the possibilities that a marriage of personal (and world) historical events and the graphic novel form could have in moving the hearts and souls of the readers.  For the most part, Students for a Democratic Society:  A Graphic History achieves its aims.  It does an excellent job of showcasing the very interesting and conflicted lives of its members.  However, one should not read this book expecting an unbiased account.  The editors did not write this with the aim of doing so and the book is very clear in its endorsement of what the SDS accomplished.  But with that caveat in mind, I did find this to be well-written and informative, giving the reader often-overlooked facets of the radical 1960s to consider.

For those who are curious about the 1960s in America and who want to learn more about the Students for a Democratic Society, I recommend this book as being a stepping stone to reading even more detailed and rich historical works on this very important era of American History.

Publication Date:  January 8, 2007 (US), Hardcover.

Publisher:  Hill and Wang (Farrar, Straus and Giroux imprint)

Review of What is the What

November 11, 2007 § Leave a comment

what-is-the-what.jpgDave Eggers has written some incredible books over the years spanning all sorts of genres.  From his 1999 autobiographical work,  A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius, to neo-hipster writings such as You Shall Know Our Velocity! to his editorial work/social commentary on the plight of young urban teachers such as myself, Teachers Have It Easy:  The Big Sacrifices and Small Salaries of Today’s Teachers, Eggers has displayed a combination of a keen insight into the minutiae of everyday life that makes the difficult and sometimes outlandishly cruel quotidian elements such compelling reading material.  But in this 2006 biographical “novel,” What is the What, Eggers may have written one of the most human of novels that I have read this decade to date.

What is the What tells the story of Sudanese refugee Valentino Achak Deng.  Although Deng is a real person which Eggers interviewed extensively over a period of months, due to the conflation of people and situations, Deng’s story as written by Eggers is labeled as a novel.  Regardless of the technically fictional work, this story has the brutal force of a kick to the genitals.

Beginning when Deng was barely out of infancy in the mid-1980s, his homeland of Sudan has been the force of tensions between the Muslim Arabs to the north and the Christian and Animist Dinka to the south, with almost continual civil war since 1983.  Today, we hear so much about the plight of the refugees of Sudan’s Darfur region, but little about the Dinka who have suffered for almost 25 years.  Those of us such as myself reading or hearing about this conflict might feel inclined to sigh out a “oh, that sucks!” without ever really thinking about the many layers to the suffering that a refugee undergoes when he or she is removed from the home and from family, all too often a witness to scenes of brutality and suffering that we cannot even hope to fathom, much less imagine.

Deng as the first-person narrator in this tale does a lot to strip away this distance.  Beginning with him being robbed in Atlanta soon after his repatriation to the United States in 2001, Deng tells his story to a somewhat-imagined audience of a captor’s child or a distant hospital staff member, drifting between the past and the present in a way that makes not just the initial suffering but also his present struggles all the more immediate and easier for us to understand.  His tales of growing tensions between the Arabs and the Dinka are intertwined with his first crushes and his oft-humorous faux pas.  These interludes humanize the situation and allow the reader to break out of the “oh man, he’s lived such a dreadful life, I cannot begin to understand what he’s been through” cycle and into the “hey, I’ve been through that before!” moments that allow for a greater emotional bond with the narrator version of Deng.

Eggers does an outstanding job of constructing these moments into a story that not only feels authentic due to the source material, but which serves as a statement of the humanity contained within such inhumane experiences that affects the reader in ways that even the most graphic of documentaries cannot hope to accomplish.  As a novel and even more as a story of human experience, What is the What is one of the best tales I have read in years.

Walk Through Darkness

September 5, 2007 § Leave a comment

This is more of a very brief bit before I try to write a longer review this weekend or next, but I finished reading David Anthony Durham’s Walk Through Darkness tonight and I was very impressed.  He established the tone almost immediately in those first few chapters and I especially liked how he managed to bring it full circle at the end, making the whole feel much more “personal” to me than what might have been the case if he had written “just only” another fugitive slave narrative novel.

Lots of interesting themes within this book.  Shall need a few days to reflect upon them.  Most certainly shall be excerpting parts from this to use in my US History classes in the coming weeks.   Next up for my planning period read will be his first novel, Gabriel’s Story.  Looking forward to that, to say the least.

Review of Ian Cameron Esslemont’s Night of Knives (2007 revised edition)

June 20, 2007 § Leave a comment

Shared-world fantasies often do not have the best of reputations. Either one creator-author dictates all of the rules, leaving little in the way of exploration and/or character development for other authors writing in that created universe, or too much is left unsaid, as each author is afraid of trampling upon others’ “turf.” As a result, these shared-world fantasies often end up feeling rather flat and uninspired. So it was with a mixture of great curiosity and trepidation that I ordered in 2005 from PS Publishing Ian Cameron Esslemont’s Night of Knives, his first of a planned five novels set in the same Malazan universe of his friend and collaborator, Steven Erikson. Now, two years later, Transworld/Bantam Press has released a revised, wide-release version of this novel.

Night of Knives takes place over a single night about 9 years before the events of Gardens of the Moon. Malaz Island, the storm-ridden island off the Quon Tali continent that gave the Malazan Empire its name, has returned once more to being a backwater port of ill-repute. Riddled with ruins and dark mysteries, Malaz City is about to experience a long-expected and long-dreaded convergence. It is Shadow Night, a time where the Shadow and Mortal realms occupy the same place. It is also rumored that on this night, Emperor Kellanved and his partner in crime, Dancer, will return to the island from whence they launched their century-old conquest of the lands about. It is a night where spectres, both literal and metaphorical, will emerge to haunt the living and the dead.

The story itself is told via two main points of view, that of Temper, a former soldier in Dassem Ultor’s elite Sword, and Kiska, a girl with a latent Talent who has an interest in the Claw, Imperial Regent Surly’s favored assassin cadre. As events transpire, these two find their paths pointing towards the Deadhouse, a mysterious ruin in Malaz City that seems to hold the key to understanding why so many forces have converged this Shadow Moon night.

Esslemont’s approach towards telling this story is similar in many ways to Erikson’s, but yet there are some key differences. Since the action takes place during one night, the PoVs are limited. The dialogue is generally shorter and there is little in the way of humorous situation. Esslemont has aimed for a dark, spooky, almost frightful situation and to a degree, he succeeds. There are ghouls that attack Kiska and Temper on their tracks through the city, as well as other entities met, both already introduced in the main sequence Malazan novels (such as Edgewalker) and those who were only mentioned in passing there, such as Lieutenant Ash of the Brigeburners.

One thing that I noticed about this novel were the infodumps. Too often, a character would appear just only to mention such-and-such locale and what’s developing there, without it feeling like it was an organic part of the story. Temper’s extended flashback in the middle of the story, while it reveals quite intriguing information about what really happened in Y’Ghatan and to Dassem Ultor, felt rather forced and disruptive to the general flow of the story to that point. A certain conversation between two key Imperial players also felt more like it was trying too hard to connect with Erikson’s novels than it was towards creating a plausible sense of tension.

When I first read Night of Knives two years ago, I remember thinking that this story was informative, but yet lacking. There were some quite annoying typographical and stylistic errors that made it feel more like a first draft than a finished story. In this revised edition, there are some minor edits (mostly in the form of additional clauses and some cleaning up of the typographical errors) made to clarify what is occurring, but the book still has some awkward transitions and there are still glaring errors such as the misspelling of Edgewalker’s name in the Epilogue and the new one of having two Chapter 5 headings.

These are its weaknesses, many of which are common to first novels and some of which cannot be directly attributed to Esslemont himself. There are quite a few strengths. As I mentioned above, the atmosphere is outstanding. While the dialogue still needs work, it is mostly in tune with the action that is occurring. Characters such as Kiska and Temper are intriguing enough and actually stand out more than many of Erikson’s Malazan cast of thousands do. It is quite obvious to me that these authors did more than just collaborate on creating an elaborate setting – they appear to have conversed quite often about characters and how and when they should appear. While Erikson rightfully is going to be viewed as the main voice to date, Esslemont has the potential to develop and to reshape the understanding of the ten-volume Malazan Book of the Fallen novels with his stories. While Night of Knives is too closely related to events in the first, fourth, and sixth novels to be considered for a first read for a curious spectator to the Malazan world, it does enrich and complement quite well comments made in passing in those novels. As such, Night of Knives, warts and all, has accomplished its main purpose. It is a very good complement to the other novels set in the Malazan universe and as such, it shall be judged more by that than by its own merits.

Summary: Night of Knives is a 284 page novel set in the same universe as Steven Erikson’s Malazan Book of the Fallen. Intended as a complement to the series, the novel introduces several new characters and bits of information that are important to Erikson’s series. Two main PoVs, told in third-person limited. Excellent atmosphere, well-drawn characters balance out uneven writing and a tendency to indodump too much. Recommended for fans of Erikson’s main Malazan series, not recommended as a first read for those curious about that shared universe.

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