Sunday, 22 June 2008

Book Review: Conspiracies of Rome by Richard Blake

by Charles Pooter

Conspiracies of Rome by Richard Blake

Review by Charles Pooter

Conspiracies of Rome is the debut novel of author Richard Blake. A historical thriller set in 609 AD, the book follows the adventures of Aelric, a lowly Saxon clerk, and his master Maximin the priest. Aelric is of noble extraction but has been deprived of his birthright by the local warlord and Maximin is a missionary priest from the Italian city of Ravenna who, with the help of Aelric and some Paul Daniels style trickery, has a knack for converting the local pagans to the Faith. On the run from the aforementioned warlord, the two head for Rome where they encounter murder and intrigue, all of which seems connected with the mysterious Column of Phocas.

The Rome of the 7th Century is no longer the glorious monument to Republic or Empire. It has gone well past decadent or decaying and is now decayed. The city is a nest of thieves, murderers and underground cults where the rump of the ancient aristocracy enjoy the remainder of their money in a wine-induced stupor. Power is divided between the local civil authorities, the Church and the distant Emporer. It is in this fascinating setting that the majority of the novel's action takes place.

Like all good historical novels, this book is didactic as well as entertaining. Obviously we get an insight into the geo-politics of the period as well as the tensions between the various civil and religious authorities, but besides this we get an education in such diverse subjects as book-binding and stock trading. I know more about futures markets now than I did before I read Conspiracies. It comes as no great surprise to learn from the dust jacket that Mr Blake is a lecturer as he imparts knowledge through the tale with enthusiasm and ease. But I wouldn't for a second want to suggest that this book is a staid, educational tome. It is in turns foul-mouthed, saucy and violent. Fans of literary sword-play and street fights will not be disappointed and the "anglo-saxon" makes it one to keep off a younger relative's Christmas list.

With the sad departure of George Macdonald Fraser, the time is ripe for a new author able to combine swashbuckling adventure, a cynical view of elites and their self-serving institutions, detailed historical research and—besides all this—an overrideing optimism about mankind. It is too early to tell if Blake will be the new Fraser, but Aelric certainly has the potential to be the new Flashman. In many ways Aelric is more interesting than Flashman: better educated, more canny and with a moral sense that more readily overrides his self-interest . This is not to say Aelric is a completely likeable hero: he is a sexual libertine (one who sleeps with people for personal gain), a ready profiteer and a willing killer. But I for one look forward to reading more tales of his shagging, fighting and looting - albeit as I learn something new about the Dark Ages at the same time.

Conpiracies of Rome will be re-issued as a Hodder and Stoughton paperback in November.

Buy used hardcover (new hardcover editions out of stock).
Pre-order new paperback.

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