Cornwell, Bernard. Sharpe’s Escape. NY: HarperCollins, 2004.
I’m sort of glad I waited to begin this series until it was virtually complete, since they’re written out of order by their internal chronology. It’s mid-1810 now, and Wellington has finally gotten a grip on the French attempts to sew up Portugal and thereby deny access to the entire coastline of Europe. He’s backing slowly down the coast and destroying crops, food stores, grazing animals, windmills, and anything else that might be of use to the enemy. When he gets to the big ridge at Bussaco, he forms up his Anglo-Portuguese army (still considerably small than the French force) and waits. Marshal Massena was far too confident and didn’t realize that British training of the previously unimpressive Portuguese forces had made them a serious threat. Cornwell’s at-length account of the resulting battle, the most famous in Portugal’s history, is quite accurate and almost physically exhausting to read in its descriptions of individual unit actions and grand strategy. Later, the British withdrawal leads the French to their appalled discovery of the Lines of Torres Vedras, a massive series of fortifications crossing the peninsula on which Lisbon is locating, the construction of which was (amazingly) kept secret. (It was financed by the Spanish coin recovered in Sharpe’s Gold, by the way.) The confrontation at the end between the French skirmishers and the South Essex’s Light Company before the defensive fortifications is also very well done. Meanwhile, Capt. Richard Sharpe has been temporarily pushed out of his command by his colonel’s attempts to give a leg up to a drunken brother-in-law. Then Sharpe runs up against a Portuguese intelligence officer trying to play both sides of the street, just in case the French win. And he has a thuggish brother, a huge man, who enjoys killing his enemies by beating them to death with his bare hands. Sharpe and Sgt. Harper don’t fight fair, though. Oh, and there’s a fair maiden to be rescued as well — an English governess unlike any of Sharpe’s women in the earlier volumes. This is an exciting and, as usual, historically accurate story, both in its broad events and in its details. (3/27/09)
Cornwell, Bernard. Sharpe’s Gold. NY: Viking, 1982.
It’s 1810 and a year has passed since the British victory at Talavera, and Capt. Sharpe’s capture of a French eagle. And it hasn’t been a good year for the Brits. The Spanish army has collapsed, the government has surrendered, and Wellington’s army is heavily outnumbered and in retreat down the length of Portugal. And unless the commanding general gets an infusion of cash from somewhere, he knows Britain will be forced to give up its efforts on the Peninsula and Napoleon will control all of Europe. Fortunately, there’s a large stash of gold coins tucked away in a mountain village, abandoned when the Spanish army whose payroll it was intended to be surrendered. Now Wellington needs that gold — absolutely must have it to survive — and he send Sharpe and the light infantry company he commands to fetch it. Well, to steal it, actually, from the Spanish partisans who presently have control of it. Sharpe’s guide and contact is Major Kearsey, a religious zealot who has gone native and takes the side of the Spanish wherever they come into conflict with the needs of the British. Sharpe’s trek through French-controlled territory is exciting, but nothing like as hair-raising as their later flight with the gold. To acquire it, Sharpe has had to disobey Kearsey, make an enemy of the leader of the guerillas, kidnap a dangerous young woman, and attack enemy forces that outnumber him sixteen-to-one. Of course, the girl becomes Sharpe’s latest conquest (there’s a new one in every book) and the closing chapters describing the destruction of the garrison of the besieged town of Almeida is astonishing. And it’s based on historical fact, as all events of this caliber are in the Sharpe series. This volume has an especially tight focus, since it doesn’t lead up to a set-piece battle, and Sharpe isn’t necessarily a sterling hero. One of the better entries in the series so far. (3/21/09)
Cornwell, Bernard. Sharpe’s Eagle. NY: Viking, 1981.
I’m now into the part of this excellent series of military history/adventure novels where Richard Sharpe, commanding his isolated company of green-jacketed riflemen (the battalion having sailed back to England without him), is marching slowly through the Peninsular Campaign on his way to Waterloo. In the earlier novels (written later, but earlier by internal chronology), a year or several often passed between the volumes’ action. But now, it’s only a couple of months, each story segueing directly into the next in an almost continuous narrative. It’s 1809 and the British army under Sir Arthur Wellesley has gone on the offensive in northern Portugal, striking east into Spain toward the town of Talavera. Sharpe is sent ahead as escort for his Irish engineer friend, Captain Hogan, who has to blow a Roman bridge that threatens to give the French access to the British rear. But the Spanish insist on detailing an infantry regiment to accompany them, too, so the British have had to send along a newly-arrived militia battalion, the South Essex. Sir Henry Simmerson, its commander, is a theoretical soldier only, convinced he knows better than the real generals how to win, and his arrogance and ignorance costs the South Essex its colours, captured by the French — the ultimate shame. Sharpe, by sheer ferocity, recovers one of the colours, however, which gets him gazetted a captain in command of a light infantry company. As the British move on to the extraordinarily bloody battle they will fight at Talavera, Sharpe makes friends in his new command, as well as enemies, and he also acquires a love interest — as he does anew in every book. The climactic battle itself is a masterpiece of atmosphere and shrewdly minimalized description; Cornwell could not possibly do justice to the entire confrontation so he concentrates on Sharpe’s small part of it, leading the skirmishers out in front against their French counterparts, and observing the rest. I think it unlikely, frankly, that today’s citizen soldiers could stand up to the pounding the redcoats take from enemy artillery and muskets in a Napoleonic set-piece battle, and just keep marching into it. Of course, war is a very different proposition nowadays, too. Cornwell does a very good job of reminding us of how things used to be. (3/19/09)
Christie, Neil. The Lombards: The Ancient Longobards. (The Peoples of Europe series) Cambridge, MA: Blackwell, 1995.
The Lombards (whom Christie insists on calling “Longobards” for obscure reasons) are up with the Huns and the Vandals in terms of largely unwarranted bad press — but they’re also second only to the Franks in their long-term success. The author is a recognized expert in medieval Italy, especially its archaeology, and this study, organized both chronologically and thematically, is of a high standard. He traces the Lombards from their hazy origins to their sojourn in trans-Danube Pannonia, through their carefully considered invasion of northern Italy and their consolidation of power there. Along the way, he discusses the Lombard legal system, their trade and economics, and the roles of religion and the arts, and he ends with a consideration of the Lombard heritage in Italy. A very good entry in a very useful series. (3/12/09)
Forester, C. S. Captain Horatio Hornblower. Boston: Little, Brown, 1939.
My father was an Iowa farm boy but when he was in college in the late ‘30s, he became a fan of the early Hornblower stories as published in the magazines. When this omnibus volume of the first three novels (Beat to Quarters, Ship of the Line, and Flying Colours) came out, he bought it. And I inherited it — having first read it in junior high and at least four or five times in the decades since. There were certainly well-received sea stories written before, but Forester reinvented the whole genre. Patrick O’Brian is a more subtle and much more literary writer than Forester, but without Hornblower, Jack Aubrey would never have existed. The adventure begins with Hornblower, in the navy since the age of seventeen (rather a late start, actually), in command of the Lydia frigate on detached duty in the Pacific, which in 1809 pretty much still belonged to Spain. He’s supposed to seek out and supply arms and aid to a reported rebel against Spanish authority, but the man turns out to be a raving megalomaniac who calls himself. In the process, he takes the 54-gun Natividad, a ship almost twice his weight in weapons. Then, for diplomatic reasons, he has to give it up to El Supremo — and then, finally, Spain having changed sides in the war, he has to go and fight her once again. On the long voyage home, he has a passenger, Lady Barbara Wellesley, the (fictional) sister of General Sir Arthur, and a love affair ensues — almost. The thing is, even though his officers and men think the world of him, and even though he has proven himself again and again a talented navigator, first-rate seaman, and indisputable leader of men, Hornblower has a very depressive opinion of his own abilities. He’s extremely self-conscious of what others may think of him, he worries about his own personal courage, and he tends to attribute to good fortune those things which are actually the fruits of his own insights and careful planning. In the second book, Hornblower has been moved up to a 74-gun ship of his own in the western Mediterranean, and he has a good time creating consternation among the French in Septimania and Catalonia. And then he has to sacrifice his ship, more than half his crew, and his own liberty in order to keep a four-ship French squadron from causing its own havoc. The third volume sees Hornblower, the badly wounded Lieutenant Bush (always his right hand), and his coxswain, Brown, incarcerated as prisoners of war. But Bonaparte wants to make an example of them, so the three are packed into a carriage and sent off towards Paris. It’s the beginning of winter and the chance arises to escape, so Hornblower grabs it. The rest of the story tells about them holed up until spring and then making their slow way down the Loire to the Atlantic, where they contrive a highjack a captured British cutter and fight their way out to the Royal Navy’s blockading squadron. There are a few social attitudes and casual crudities in Forester’s narrative, incidentally, that might make an uninformed reader squirm, but Forester was a product of his time, just like the rest of us. I recommend you read this volume first, but then go back to the first book by internal chronology (Mr. Midshipman Hornblower) and settle in. (3/08/09)
Collins, Roger. The Basques. 2d ed. (The Peoples of Europe series) NY: Blackwell, 1990.
The Basques of the northwest Pyrenees are an interesting culture. Their language is non-Indo-European and their blood-type profile is quite unlike either of their neighbors, the Spanish or the French. Did they migrate in from elsewhere? And, if so, where? Or are the Basques the modern remnants of the Neolithic inhabitants of those mountains? Because they’re not only pre-Roman, they’re pre-Celtic. Many theories have been advanced over the years, but no one really has any answers. The Basques have managed, somehow, to maintain their identity and their relative geographic isolation, but they lost their political independence a long time ago. It was the Basques, remember, who bushwhacked Charlemagne’s rear guard under Roland in the late 8th century; they didn’t want to be part of someone else’s country then, and they don’t want it now. Collins is well known as an expert on Iberian history and he does a good job with the archeology of the region (which is very thin), the Basques’ relations with Rome, and then with the Franks and Visigoths, and then with the Arabs. After the reconquista, the Basques had to learn to deal with the new Spanish and French kingdoms and duchies that took the place of the Arabs, and they’ve been doing that ever since. And never have they ceased to be Basques. This is one of the best volumes in a first-rate series. (3/03/09)
Keats-Rohan, K. S. B. (ed). Prosopography, Approaches and Applications: A Handbook. Oxford: Unit for Prosopographical Research, Linacre College, 2007.
When I did my Master’s thesis in U.S. history nearly thirty years ago, I had never heard of “prosopography,” nor, I believe had most of the younger history faculty. But having read this thick and engrossing volume, it appears that I was, in fact, doing prosopography, whether I knew it or not. It was a whole-population study of a key northeast Texas county from the 1850 census through the 1870 census, and I also used every source I could dig out of the fire vault in the old courthouse to add facts to my database of every single inhabitant of the county during that generation. I punched at least a billion IBM cards with codes for every fact in the lives of these people that I could observe, cross-tabbed every variable against every variable on the university’s mainframe, and then spent eight months analyzing and thinking about the results. A grad student at Linacre College, Oxford, would recognize my methods instantly as being good prosopographical practice — which is nice to know long after the fact, I guess.
I’ve been reading about the method, or collection of methods, for several years now, and poring over the published projects (mostly classical and medieval), but this is the first-ever textbook published, and I wish I’d had it a decade ago. Prosopography is often defined, somewhat sloppily, as “group biography,” but that’s not really accurate. Biography is the study of a single person, and group biography is the study of a whole series or collection of single persons. Prosopography is more correctly the study of a population in the aggregate, whether all the inhabitants of a county or a country, or all the members of a profession in a certain place at a certain time, or all the persons who interact with a particular event. It’s the connections between those persons that matter, the social networks they create or that exist naturally.
The roots of prosopography go back to Theodor Momsen, but Katharine Keats-Rohan is the “mother” of the modern method, having established the UPR at Linacre in 2004. (In fact, I discovered prosopography myself through her marvelous study of Domesday Book.) She’s organized the book in as thoroughly logical manner, so just go to Page One and settle in. The first section is “A Short Manual to the Art of Prosopography” — which is also available as a free download from the college’s website, and you should download it even if you buy the book, for ready-reference. Two essays by T. D. Barnes then address the origins of the field. The next section is “Planning a Prosopography,” six chapters on the possibilities (practically unlimited these days) and the problems you should be prepared to address. Do you include unnamed people, like the anonymous preacher who performed a marriage? How deep should you go in identifying “factoids”? The next section is an overview of the allied projects of which prosopography might reasonably become a part. (It’s a method, after all, not an end in itself.) The second half of the volume is a series of surveys, each by a different specialist, of a wide array of prosopographical projects, from naming patterns among the Goths, to personal politics among Canada’s First Nations, and from Islamic legal traditions (which involve a good deal of genealogy) to networking among English engineers in the 19th century. The bibliography, while “selective,” is still quite lengthy, and it should keep you busy for the foreseeable future.
There are really only two problems with this book. The first is the cost, which appears to be about $165 in the U.S. Even for a college text, that’s pretty expensive. However, I got a copy to read through the Interlibrary Loan System, and I shall be keeping an eye open for a used copy. In fact, that may be the only alternative. because Amazon also claims the book is OP. (Who lets a brand new university text go out of print eighteen months after it’s published?) But it may be available directly from the UPR at Linacre. But whatever lengths you have to go to to obtain a copy of this key work, it’s going to be worth it. (3/02/09)
Cornwell, Bernard. Sharpe’s Havoc. NY: HarperCollins, 2003.
This one is better than the previous couple of books in the series; maybe it’s because Lieut. Sharpe is paying more attention to the war against the French and less attention to women and spies. By internal chronology, Sharpe’s Havoc comes immediately after Sharpe’s Rifles — which actually was the first book Cornwell wrote in this series, but whatever. It’s the spring of 1809 and Richard Sharpe, previously a private and then a sergeant, and most recently a regimental quartermaster (because the gentlemanly officers of his unit don’t have much use for someone with his lack of family background), finds himself in command of a short company of rifles in northern Portugal. The British army has retreated south but a bridge across the Douro River gives way and Sharpe and his men are stranded on the French-controlled side of the river. A certain Colonel Christopher (he’s really an opportunistic Foreign Office observer with personal ambitions) begins giving him orders and Sharpe follows them, but reluctantly — at least until the bastard steals his prized telescope, and then all bets are off. The colonel turns out to be a cad in several other ways as well. Cornwell, as usual, sticks pretty close to historical events for the background of Sharpe’s adventures, and it’s kind of amazing just how much real-life improves on fiction in this case. Sharpe’s riflemen find ways and places to lie low, aided by a very young, completely inexperienced Portuguese lieutenant, but who has the right attitude and good instincts. They have several opportunities to teach the French about the accuracy and range of the rifled barrel, and they benefit from the wrongly assured superiority of the French commanders. Sharpe’s path crosses that of Sir Arthur Wellesley yet again, but at least the lieutenant doesn’t find it necessary to murder anyone in cold blood this time. out. (3/02/09)
Cornwell, Bernard. Sharpe’s Prey. NY: HarperCollins, 2002.
It’s 1807 and Lieutenant Richard Sharpe has been back from India for awhile, and he’s rather at loose ends. He’s also broke. Lady Grace Hale, with whom he reached an accommodation in the previous book, has died in childbirth (so has the baby), and her family’s lawyers have taken what remained of his stolen jewels. He’s thinking of selling his commission — he’s been a lousy officer since Grace’s death — then discovers that’s not allowed, since he didn’t purchase it in the first place, having been the recipient of a battlefield commission. Then an old acquaintance of senior rank looks him up and Sharpe finds himself involved in some semi-espionage in Copenhagen. Britain is demanding the Dane’s turn over their extensive naval fleet to keep it out of the hands of Napoleon, who needs to replace his losses at Trafalgar. And if Denmark doesn’t agree, the Royal Navy will bomb the crap out of Copenhagen. (The Danes really believe Britain is too civilized to do such a thing, but they would be wrong — for the second time.) Not one of Britain’s better moments. This has the potential for some derring-do, but Cornwell mostly blows his chance, for Sharpe can’t seem to get anything right. There are some exciting bits, like the escape up the chimney, but mostly he just wanders around inside the town and out — except for falling in love again, which it is apparently mandatory for every single book. Not one of the author’s better efforts. (2/27/09)
Grant, R. G. Warrior: a Visual History of the Fighting Man. NY: DK Publishing, 2007.
Accurate and detailed picture books surveying the history of weapons and combat equipment have always been popular with students of military history, model makers, and hobbyists. Books built around mostly large photographs, like this one, are more interesting than those that depend on artwork, like the highly regarded Osprey series — but there’s a trade-off. Attempting to cover the whole of history from ancient Greece to the present, as this one does, are forced to rely on photos of modern re-enactors, since so few actual weapons and armor have survived from even a few centuries ago. As a result, this book, while generally quite good for the period from the mid-18th century to the present, is necessarily sketchy for Greece, Rome, and medieval warfare. (The Osprey books, on the other hand, make heavy use of reproduced monumental carvings for weapons in the classical world, which is how military archaeologists know about this stuff in the first place.) Some periods and types of soldier are well-known, but others, like the Landsknect, may be new to many readers.
From the American Civil War on, coverage of fighting men and their gear is thick with detail — no surprise. The two world wars and Vietnam are well covered. The war in Iraq not so much, though there’s a great deal of new equipment in use; specious “national security” considerations, no doubt. The Korean War is ignored, even though there was a lot of carry-over from WWII. There’s a natural bias on the side of British units in the modern world (like the SOE and SAS) that may annoy American readers, but there’s also an interesting section on the Foreign Legion.
There are some questionable editorial decisions. Sioux warriors were not part of any military organization in the Western sense — not even as much as the Maori and Zulu, who are also covered. And devoting so many pages to photographs of the B-17 and its typical crew seems unbalanced; “warrior” implies (at least to me) engagement in hand-to-hand, or at least close-up, fighting. Bomber pilots, while they may have been heroic, simply aren’t the same sort of thing. And there are some surprising omissions, such as the U.S. Army in the War with Spain in 1898, which was rather different from the American military of the civil War or World War I. There’s also very little about artillery down the ages, especially in the Napoleonic Wars and the 20th century. There are also some historical inaccuracies. “Viking” was an occupation, usually a temporary one, not a nationality; you can’t talk about “Viking weapons” with any sort of universality, but the author does it anyway. All in all, this is a pretty nice oversize volume — but it could have much better, as well as a little thicker. (2/26/09)
Cornwell, Bernard. Sharpe’s Trafalgar. NY: HarperCollins, 2001.
It’s the summer of 1805 and Ensign Richard Sharpe (who, not so long ago, was Private and then Sergeant Sharpe) has been on duty in India for six years. Having grown up in a workhouse and then on the streets of London, he regards India as much “home” as anywhere — but now he’s heading back to England to join a newly-forming rifle regiment. (Although, having been a “redcoat” since he was sixteen, he’s not happy about switching to a green jacket.) But first he has to get there, and that means four months at sea. And his timing is such that he’s destined to be off the coast of Spain in October. Fans of Napoleonic naval fiction will recognize what that means. Sharpe’s voyage is eventful, first on an East Indiaman that’s captured by a French ship through the treachery of the English captain. Then, after a week as prisoners below decks, the passengers on the Indiaman are rescued by the intervention of a British ship-of-the-line — which just happens to be commanded by a captain of Sharpe’s previous acquaintance. The captain indulges in an ocean-spanning chase of the fugitive Frenchman — which includes some of the best descriptions in the book for those who know Hornblower and Aubrey — and they all arrive off the southern coast of Spain at just the right moment. Meanwhile, first on the Indiaman, then on the warship, Sharpe has been carrying on an affair with the beautiful young wife of a coldly arrogant peer, to the secret amusement of practically everyone on board except the lady’s husband, who may or may not be ignorant of the adultery. Actually, the two plots don’t overlap much. The love story seems unlikely, given the difference in station between Sharpe and the lady, and the naval plotline seems positively forced, being just a way to allow our hero to be present at one of the greatest marine confrontations in European history. The adventure is all very well, but it does stretch credulity. And believability is ordinarily one of Cornwell’s greatest assets. (I wonder if Sharpe is going to be present at Gettysburg, too.) (2/20/09)
James, Edward. The Franks. (The Peoples of Europe series) NY: Blackwell, 1988.
Of all the “barbarian” Germanic peoples who migrated south and west across the Empire over a period of five centuries, the Franks were the most successful. They acquired the most territory, influenced other peoples the most, and retained much of their identity in the process. This was largely because they were highly adaptable and generally tolerant of the customs and beliefs of others. Edwards is a recognized expert in early medieval history and archaeology, and a very readable writer as well. The essential question about the Franks — and it arises again and again in this book — is, “Who were they?” Or better, “How do we define a Frank?” They were so inclusive, it’s difficult to tell. James discusses the surviving sources, then delves into their origins and their movements before Clovis. Then come the periods of conquest and unification, the effect on language and material culture, and the conversion of the Franks to Christianity, with several excellent discussions of monasticism, royal burials, and Church politics. The last two sections deal with the relationship between the Merovingian kings and their people (administration, taxation, coinage, and so on) and Frankish society. Finally, there’s a short discussion of the “Frankish myth” as it has appeared in France for the past thousand years. The bibliography is highly selective, of course, but still a good starting point. I can recommend this as an excellent primer for the student approaching Frankish history (or even early medieval history) for the first time. (2/17/09)
Cornwell, Bernard. Sharpe’s Fortress. NY: HarperCollins, 1999.
This is the third volume of the “India trilogy” that comprises the opening segment of this first-rate series about Richard Sharpe of His Majesty’s army during and after the Napoleonic wars. Originally a private in a light infantry company, Sharpe made it to sergeant four years ago, in 1799. At the end of the previous book, only a couple months before, an act of heroism in action (which also saved the life of his general, Sir Arthur Wellesley) brings him a battlefield commission to ensign. Not that the majority of his fellow officers are very welcoming, because Sharpe isn’t even remotely a gentleman. This time he manages to involve himself in the climactic act of the British conquest of India, the attack on and capture of the great fortress of Gawilghur, high in the mountains and protected by steep cliffs and ravines, where the traitorous Dodd, now commanding a regiment for the enemy, is ensconced, and where Sharpe also is seeking revenge on his longtime nemesis, the psychopathic Sgt. Hakeswill, who once had him lashed nearly to death and has tried to kill him several times since, and has also stolen Sharpe’s previously looted fortune in gems. As always, Cornwell has the historical and military details of the Napoleonic era down pat. The verisimilitude is matched by his portrait of Sharpe, a very rough character indeed but (mostly) an admirable one. He’s a soldier’s soldier — and now he’s heading back to England to join a newly-formed regiment of green-jacketed riflemen. You should start at the beginning of the series, though, so you won’t miss any of the cumulative details of this remarkable saga. (2/16/09)
Geary, Patrick J. Before France and Germany: The Creation and Transformation of the Merovingian World. NY: Oxford University Press, 1988.
The author makes the point that the Romans, being completely self-involved, tended to see all the non-Roman world in Roman terms. Thus, the “barbarians” were assumed to be organized in proper tribes and kingdoms. This was mostly okay with the Franks, though, because they wanted to make themselves over in the Roman model anyway. Roman culture (especially its grasp of business and economics) had penetrated deeply into the world outside the empire long before the migration period, and the effect was transformative. Again, this was particular true of the Franks. Geary keeps all this in mind as he explores the origins of the Frankish people, relates the establishment of a settled culture in Gaul beginning in the 6th century, and follows its development, rise, peak, and decline to obsolescence — at which point the Merovingian descendants of Clovis were adroitly supplanted by what became the Carolingian dynasty. Since this is meant to be a primer on Merovingian history, the book is otherwise a synthesis from earlier sources and includes only a few footnotes and a brief bibliography. There’s plenty of interpretative controversy in this field, however, and he picks and chooses elements of his predecessors’ work with some care. The author’s style is heavily academic and the “beginners” for whom he is writing may actually be graduate students, but he does a very good job of surveying his subject. (2/15/09)
Harvey, Barbara. Living and Dying in England, 1100-1540: The Monastic Experience. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1993.
The first version of this above-average social history originated as the 1989 Ford Lectures series at Oxford (the author is herself on the faculty of Somerville College), and a certain episodic quality remains. While the focus is on monastic life (especially among the Benedictines), Harvey argues that those in cloisters nevertheless assimilated a good deal of secular culture, so her observations are meant to apply, really, to many aspects of late medieval English society as a whole. Moreover, while she attempted to peruse as many monasteries as possible, it’s the monks of Westminster who provide the focus. She divides her investigations into six main topics: charity (almsgiving, mostly), diet (the Benedictines weren’t fancy eaters), illness and medicine and how monastics dealt with death, mortality (which duplicates parts of the previous section), monastery servants (it might seem odd to us that monks who took a vow of poverty nevertheless had servants), and “corrodies,” which term relates to paying lodgers at the monastery who received special privileges, and which historians have found “eccentric and puzzling.” This is not light reading — I hope Harvey didn’t speak in the actual lectures as heavily as she writes — but the information she imparts is very useful to anyone interested in English medieval society and her interpretations of the data seem quite reasonable. Taken in its short sections, most students will have no difficulty with it. (2/15/09)
Heather, Peter. The Goths. (The Peoples of Europe series) Cambridge, MA: Blackwell, 1996.
In a relatively few years, Heather has become perhaps the leading living expert on the Goths during Late Antiquity and the early medieval period, and especially on their relations with the Roman Empire. This is also one of the best entries in the long-running and high-quality “Peoples of Europe” series, which makes it doubly worth reading. The last survey (in English) of the whole three centuries of the Gothic period was published in 1888, and not much really new literary material has come to light in that time — but the sheer quantity of archaeological discoveries regarding the Goths in the past century is phenomenal, and the author seems to have attempted to take all of them into account. Our principle source for Gothic history has always been Jordanes, a 6th century Gothic government bureaucrat in Constantinople who became an amateur historian after retirement, and whose treatment of the “barbarians” leaves a good deal to be desired. Heather reconsidered Jordanes’s work in his first major book, Goths and Romans, published in 1991 and based on his dissertation, and he continues that rethinking process here. The book’s organization is straightforward: An introductory chapter on the “Gothic problem” — who were they, really, and did they really feel the self-identity we’ve assigned to them? — is followed by three parts. The first investigates the origins of the Goths, almost certainly on the shores of the Baltic, and their early kingdoms. The second follows the Goths in the trail of the Huns, their early relations with the Romans, and the ways in which they transformed themselves into a nation to be reckoned with during most of the 5th century. The third part considers the later Ostrogothic and Visigothic kingdoms in Italy and Spain, and why they eventually failed (a matter of both internal and external forces). Two appendices discuss Procopius’s view of the Goths (not to be trusted, the author believes) and the place of non-Goths in the Gothic army. The bibliography is quite extensive, especially for books in this series. There are numerous illustrations (none in color, unfortunately) and the author’s style, while academic, is perfectly comprehensible, even for the nonspecialist. Anyone beginning a study of the Goths, or even of the centuries of the Germanic migrations generally, really has to start with this book. (2/14/09)
Warry, John. Alexander 334-323 BC: Conquest of the Persian Empire. (Campaign series, 7) London: Osprey Publishing, 1991.
Alexander, king of Macedonia and conqueror in a very few years of a large fraction of the known world, has been a mythic figure for 2,300 years, even among his enemies. The campaigns he pursued and the many battles (and hundreds of skirmishes) through which he led his Macedonians, Greeks, and allied peoples are really too many — and too varied in type, terrain, and goal — to be covered in sufficient depth in ninety-six pages. The other volumes in this and Osprey’s other series are much more focused in time and geography. The author is therefore forced to select only five battles spread over the eleven years and several thousand miles of Alexander’s career. The fight against the Persian forces at Granicus, shortly after his army crossed the Hellespont, was his first major victory and the first example of the efficacy of his style of Heroic Leadership. The confrontation at Issus, on the coast near what is now the Turkish-Syrian frontier, allowed him to push on down the coast to Tyre, where his innovative use of a mole to besiege the island fortress enabled him to gain control of the entire eastern Mediterranean as far as the borders of Libya. The book then skips ahead to Gaugamela in present-day Iraq, and finishes up with Hydaspes five years later, on a branch of the Indus — the point farthest east that Alexander was able to push to. The detail is pretty good, though there is simply a lack of surviving information about many aspects of all five battles. The battle maps are excellent, as always, but the color plates depicting the garb and weapons of individual warriors and soldiers — usually painted, but here in shaded colored pencil — are decidedly inferior to other Osprey books. This is one of the less successful entries in the series. (2/12/09)
Morrissey, Brendan. Boston 1775: The Shot Heard Around the World. (Campaign series, 37) London: Osprey Publishing, 1993.
Virtually all the history of the American Revolution one is taught in the elementary grades and in high school in this country emphasizes the “heroic” aspects of the struggle. All the textbook accounts, too, are written very much from the American viewpoint. It’s therefore very interesting to read a history of the beginnings of the war, from Concord to the siege of Boston, written by a British expert and giving equal time to the British point of view. Morrissey is not an academic historian but is a recognized military history expert who has also written texts on Saratoga, Quebec, and Yorktown. He begins here with the immediate background: Parliament’s colonial policies, politics in New England, and Gage’s dilemma in trying to prevent the conflict many could see coming. He examines the personalities and backgrounds of the senior military figures on both sides, and the frequent friction between the prim New Englanders and the unmannered frontier riflemen. Then he goes into detail in examining the nature of the soldiers on both sides — infantry, cavalry, artillery, and irregulars. The battle maps are very detailed, as are the order of battle lists, and the color plates depicting the uniforms and weapons of units on both sides are up to Osprey’s standard — though there aren’t as many as usual, and they’re scattered through the text. An altogether excellent treatment of the key series of events in U.S. history that not enough people understand, or even really know about. (2/12/09)
Wootten, Geoffrey. Waterloo 1815: Birth of Modern Europe. (Campaign series, 15) London: Osprey Publishing, 1992.
Waterloo, in June 1815, was one of the key battles in European history in its long-term effects, but it didn’t take place in isolation. It was the culmination of a campaign that began with Napoleon’s return from exile on the island of Elba the previous March — the Hundred Days — and the battles at Quatre Bras, Vigny, and Wavre also are covered in detail. Caught off-guard, the Allies under Wellington and a few senior allied commanders hurriedly gathered their forces. Numerically, they outnumbered the 128,000 men who flocked to the Emperor’s standard, but they were divided in command and many of the men and officers were lacking in experience — and that situation almost certainly favored the French, so the final outcome was destined to be a near thing whichever side finally won. As an historian, I find the “Campaign” series to include some of the most useful of the many Osprey titles; the volumes run to twice the length of the earlier series and there’s much more tactical detail, as well as strategic background. In this case, the 19th century was filled with both romantic and realistic artists who took the Napoleonic Wars as their subject, so there are numerous nearly contemporary visions of what happened, and many of them appear in this volume. Moreover, Wootten is careful to distinguish between Romanticism and accuracy in the depictions. In addition, there are a number of the extremely accurate color plates for which Osprey is renowned, depicting uniforms and equipage of British, French, Prussian, and Brunswickian units. In addition to a description of “The Battlefield Today,” a chronology, and a brief but useful bibliography, there’s also a short chapter for gamers. (2/11/09)
Nicolle, David & Angus McBride. The Normans. London: Osprey Publishing, 1987.
This is the ninth in Osprey’s “Elite” series, which gives fuller treatment to fighting units and other aspects of military history than the long-established “Men-at-Arms” series — sixty-four pages instead of forty. I know something about Norman history, so I was curious to see what a volume this size could impart, and I have to say I was pleasantly surprised. Nicolle is an authority in medieval subjects, and he does a good job summarizing the essential Norman character, exploring their attitudes toward religion, and describing the function of feudalism. The section on the Norman ability to adapt to new conditions and cultures is especially well-written and concise. Most of the volume, of course, deals with the Normans’ preferences in weapons, armor, and tactics, from the simple conical nasal-fitted helmet of the early days in northwestern France to the far more elaborate Byzantine-influenced garments and weapons of the Norman kingdoms in Sicily and Antioch. This also includes Norman innovations in fortifications and conversion, when the necessity arose, to Mediterranean sailors. A better than average work. (2/10/09)
Ammianus Marcellinus. The Later Roman Empire (A.D. 354-378). NY: Penguin, 1986.
First-year Roman history and classics students often groan when faced with the prospect of reading the original sources, even in English translation. Ammianus, however, is about as straightforward a writer as one can find. He wasn’t a lawyer or a man of letters but a professional Roman army officer writing about contemporary events. His intention was to continue the histories of Tacitus, but the first half of his completed work has been lost. What remains covers a period of only twenty-four years and five emperors, from Constantius to Valens. Happily, this includes the reign of Julian, called “the Apostate,” of whom Ammianus was an admirer. This version is a selection, the omitted sections dealing mostly with details of geography; if you really want those, you can always obtain the Loeb edition. In any case, Walter Hamilton’s translation is first-rate, being much preferable in style (in my opinion) to the 19th century translation I had to read in college. The descriptions of campaigns, sieges, and battles are highly visual and the whole thing is a nice change from Cicero. (2/09/09)
Simkins, Michael & Ron Embleton. The Roman Army from Caesar to Trajan. (Men-at-Arms series, 46-1) London: Osprey Publishing, 1984.
This is one of Osprey’s “Men-at-Arms” series of generally pretty good pictorial guides to historical military arms and uniforms, and while it’s useful for the student of Roman expansionism, it does have a few problems. While no information is given about the author’s qualifications, it’s evident that he’s a professional maker of museum-quality reproductions of arms and armor. Assuming his work is accurate, this means the reader can examine photos of new, undamaged helmets, cuirasses, and infantry swords, as well as the usual artwork depicting fully equipped soldiers of the period. But it also seems to be assumed that the reader will be as familiar with the jargon as the author is, which is unlikely to be the case — especially for students. The text is generally well-written, with detailed descriptions and references to archaeological finds, but a glossary is badly needed to explain the meaning of such terms as splice-block, chape, baldrick, palmette, and phalerae. It would also have been useful, in captioning the color plates, to describe briefly the functions of the signifer and aquilifer. (2/08/09)
Musset, Lucien. The Germanic Invasions: The Making of Europe, 400-600 A.D. NY: Barnes & Noble, 1993.
Though this work was originally published in 1965, the fact that new editions of the English translation are still being published shows that its usefulness is still recognized. The period of the “barbarian” invasions of the western Roman Empire can be confusing. There were many different cultures, of separate origins and speaking a variety of languages, their peregrinations often overlapping. Many of them joined together in alliances, broke apart again, and fought each other as well as the Romans and the Romanized barbarians who had arrived earlier. But most Americans of European origin are more likely to carry the DNA of the Visigoths, Vandals, Lombards, or Franks, than we are of the Romans.
Musset divides his work into three parts, the first of which I would especially recommend to beginners in this subject. It’s called “The Facts” and it runs about 150 well-written, easily comprehended pages. Rather than considering each of the migrating peoples individually, because they so often interact with each other, he deals with the subject chronologically, examining each of the five major waves of invaders by land over four centuries, plus the maritime migrations of the Germanic Saxons, Angles, and Jutes to Britain.
The second section is “Unsolved Problems and Subjects for Further Research,” which is still largely valid even after almost forty-five years. While new schools of historical thought and method have taken power, there are still many unanswered questions. In fact, this section could be very useful in getting students to think for themselves.
The third section, “Sources and Studies,” is probably the least useful at this late date, being an unannotated bibliography of more than five hundred primary and secondary sources, both books and journal articles — most of them, not surprisingly, in languages other than English. Still, the primary sources themselves haven’t changed (though interpretations of them have), and certain classic secondary works, like J. B. Bury, are certainly still worth reading. (2/07/09)
Cowan, Ross. Roman Battle Tactics. 109 BC-AD 313. NY: Osprey, 2007.
Any student of any facet of military history probably is familiar with Osprey’s various series on campaigns and battles, military units, and military uniforms and equipment through history. One reason they remain popular is that they’re heavily illustrated, both with photographs and with line drawings and (especially) color paintings. The author focuses here on the tactics of the legion as developed during the late Republic and the early Empire, beginning with the Jugurthine War and ending with the last major encounter between one legion and another, near Adrianople (site of the great confrontation between the Goths and the Eastern Empire two generations later). Other than Julius Caesar’s writings, sources for Roman military training and combat methods during this period are scarce. Cowan describes the change from emphasis on maniples to the larger cohort, the complex nature of the Roman command structure (which had to deal with Republican politics), and innovations in battle formations. Certain legionary maneuvers became standardized, and, in fact, it might seem impossible to us that the same maneuvers still could be successful over such a long period of time and still surprise the enemy. Things also could get interesting when two talented Roman commanders faced off with essentially the same tactics, such as Caesar and Pompey at Pharsalus in 48 BC. Cowan does a very respectable and concise job, managing not to be become dauntingly technical in his presentation of a naturally technical subject. On the other hand, he tends to avoid the military theory which lay behind the tactics. (2/06/09)
Borts, Lawrence H. & Frank C. Foster. United States Military Medals, 1939 to Present. 6th ed. Fountain Inn, SC: Medals of America Press, 2005.
My father and grandfather were both career army officers, so I grew up surrounded by men in uniform and I became reasonably adept at reading an array of decorations and campaign ribbons (and shoulder patches, which this book doesn’t address), and thereby the wearer’s military career. This large-format color volume has become the recognized authoritative source, yet the information it presents is concise and accurate. After a brief introduction to the early history of American military decorations (pre-World War I, that is), it begins at the top of the honors pyramid with the Medal of Honor in its three forms, the Distinguished Service Cross, the Purple Heart, and on down to the lower-lever personal decorations. Then it considers the special service, good conduct, and other “merit” awards. Finally comes the much larger collection of service and campaign medals, from China and the Philippines through Afghanistan and Iraq. For each item, you’ll find the date the award was instituted, the personal or unit criteria, and which branches it applies to. Additional devices (usually for additional awards) are described at some length, which most reference sources like this don’t bother with. The limited number of foreign decorations authorized to be worn with the U.S. uniform are also pictured. You’ll also find a detailed manner-of-wear guide. Finally, the growing number of “ribbon only” awards are briefly discussed; these are a result of the Pentagon’s highly questionable policy of “medal inflation,” on the grounds that wearing gongs increases morale. (But a ribbon for passing basic training? Gimme a break.) All in all, this is a useful and inexpensive source for the collector, the student and the active duty awards officer (and perhaps the army brat). (2/05/09)
Cornwell, Bernard. Sharpe’s Triumph. NY: Harper Collins, 1998.
It’s the early fall of 1803 and Richard Sharpe of His Majesty’s army in India has had his sergeant’s stripes for four years. He’s good at his job, but he has developed the ambition of becoming an officer, if only so he can go back home someday and swagger into his old haunts with a sash and sword. Meanwhile, though, he’s sent off with Col. McCandless, General Wellesley’s head of intelligence, to locate and drag back a traitorous lieutenant from the East India Company who has changed sides and is now fighting as a major with the army of an enemy rajah. Wellesley is seeking battle with yet another traitorous Company man who commands the rajah’s huge army, and Sharpe, McCandless, and the general will all reconverge at the Battle of Assaye — which, even after Waterloo, Wellesley (now Duke of Wellington) still considered his own greatest victory. As always, the plot is complex, with numerous subplots, the action is meticulously and accurately described, the characters are entirely believable, and the narrative will carry you right along. Sharpe continues on his way up the ladder of promotion and the reader will be following right behind him. (2/04/09)
Bruce, Alastair. Keepers of the Kingdom: The Ancient Offices of Britain. NY: Vendome Press, 1999.
If you live in Britain and you need a job, you might consider applying to be the Queen’s Bargemaster, or the Common Cryer of the City of London, or even the Master of the Rolls. The pay isn’t much, but you get to wear a uniform. What Bruce, a well-known historical commentator for the BBC, has done is to research several dozen traditional positions and honours with roots as ancient as the Anglo-Saxons or as recent as the mid-20th century, to provide a brief history of each, and to describe the present holder of each, including comments on what he does in the real world. Because, while many of these are associated with particular titles in the peerage, or with feudal baronies, some are the province of local landowners or professional men. Some, like the Boy Bishop of Hereford, were in abeyance for generations, being revived only under the present monarch. Some, like the Captain of Tynwald, involve real responsibility and legal training. Being the Lord of the Manor of Worksop, on the other hand, only takes money — but you get to present a fancy glove to the monarch at the next coronation. Each article also includes a an artful portrait. If you’re a closet medievalist, or a student of the peerage, or merely a collector of fascinating historical trivia, you will find a great deal of material in this thoroughly delightful volume that is unknown even to most Brits. (1/31/09)
Randers-Pehrson, Justine Davis. Barbarians and Romans: The Birth Struggle of Europe, AD 400-700. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1983.
This first-rate survey is proof, to me, that you don’t have to be a tenured academic to write solid academic history. The author (like me) is a librarian of broad and deep experience. She also did graduate study at Heidelberg and the Sorbonne, and acted as a translator and foreign-language editor for the federal government. This study of the transitional period between the classical world and medieval Europe takes the position (with which I have long agreed) that Rome never really “fell,” and that Rome and the Germanic tribes were not bent on mutual destruction. That’s far too dramatic and self-conscious an interpretation of events. Rather, the Germanic peoples (most of them, most of the time) admired and envied what Rome represented and wanted in on it. Rome, its internal resources stretched dangerously, saw the outsiders as a source of military strength and agricultural labor. Both sides profited from the contact. And the Germans, most of whom didn’t actually desire to become Roman, found themselves more and more Romanized, while the empire found itself slipping farther and farther into the Germanic orbit politically and culturally. The author’s method is to center her highly literate discussion on the geographical settings of great events, from Rome, Ravenna, and Constantinople, to Barcelona, Trier, and Carthage. She describes the life of the times both from the bottom up and from the top down, which is about as much balance as one may achieve at the remove of fifteen centuries. Over a long period of time, she visited almost every location she mentions and the volume includes more than eighty illustrations and color plates, mostly supplied by her. Her style is educated, yet colorful, which makes it a good starting point for the nonspecialist who has developed an interest in the period. There are no footnotes, but the bibliography is extensive and detailed. (1/31/09)
Cornwell, Bernard. Sharpe’s Tiger. NY: Harper Collins, 1997.
Richard Sharpe, already six years a soldier at the age of twenty-two, is a natural at his trade. Even so, as a private in the Light Company of the 33d Foot, he’s only seen one armed engagement (a few shots fired in the fog in Flanders) and now, marching across southern India to take part in the British assault on the walled capital city of Tippoo Sultan, he’s thinking seriously about deserting. It’s 1799 and Britain is consolidating its first real hold in India. Napoleon is pinned down on the Nile and the few French troops acting as advisors and allies to the Sultan don’t have much hope even of survival, much less success. Sharpe has more personal problems, in the form of the venal Sgt. Hakeswill, who is determined to remove Sharpe permanently and an incompetent major who fears Hakeswill. The machinations of the two result in Sharpe being flogged, but he’s pulled out of his punishment before it kills him by Col. Arthur Wellesley, assistant commander of the army, who requires his services as an infiltrator and spy. It’s a complex plot but Cornwell tells it all very adroitly, and with a minimum of literary invention (true military history being often more dramatic than fiction), and the reader will be drawn deeply into an exciting and entirely believable story, at the end of which Sharpe will have sewn stripes on his sleeve, aided greatly in the capture of the city, and earned the respect of a young officer. Chronologically, this is the first Sharpe novel in the series and if you want to follow our hero’s career properly, this is where you should start. (1/30/09)
Eversz, Robert. Zero to the Bone. NY: Simon & Schuster, 2006.
I enjoyed Eversz’s first two rather intense noir mystery novels a great deal, but I worried whether extending them into a branded series (“A Nina Zero Novel,” the jacket says) might bode ill for the quality of his writing. I’m pleased to say I was wrong. This fifth outing continues the psychological exploration of Nina Zero, Los Angeles paparazza and parolee (manslaughter, for the details of which you need to read the series from the beginning), who used to be plain Mary Ann Baker, nice girl in angora sweaters. Her abusive father, the death of her mother, and the murder of her prostitute sister, however, plus her stay in prison, have turned her into a very different sort of person. This time she gets caught up in a very ugly string of rapes when one of her photo models is strangled. Meanwhile, her juvenile delinquent niece, now fifteen, comes to visit and then to stay, but Nina underestimates the kid’s abilities. She also becomes unwilling involved with a homicide cop, and the eventual outcome of that is left ambiguous after the novel’s bloody conclusion. Eversz always does a terrific job of blending exploration of the very dark side of L.A. with Nina’s still-evolving personality and her relationships with her journalistic partner, her toothless Rottweiler, and her father. The city and its film community are major players in each book, too. The author certainly doesn’t crank them out — the first novel in this series of five was published in 1996 — but I’m glad he’s taking the time to keep them from becoming routine. (1/27/09)
Heather, P. J. Goths and Romans, 332-489. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1991.
Even with a background in classical studies, I’ve always been much more interested in the supposed “barbarians” who gave the Greeks and the Romans so much trouble, especially the Visigoths and the Franks — perhaps because I have all sorts of Gothic, Frankish, and Celtic DNA in me. Like so many studies of this type, Heather’s work began as his doctoral thesis on the effects of the Goths on the empire of Rome, especially in Greece and the southern Balkans, where the Goths first ran into the Romans and the Amalring family began to reach its greatest power. He was also interested in looking more closely at the history of the Goths written c.550 by a scholar named Jordanes, of whom almost nothing is known — but whom Heather is convinced was more of a publicist than an uninterested historian. Not a bad supposition for any writer of that period, actually. But since every writer on the Goths and their motivations and actions since then has been based very heavily on Jordanes, reevaluating his influence has probably far-reaching consequences. Along the way, though, the author was pulled off course by his growing fascination with the Goths themselves, and this study takes him places he hadn’t expected to go. The result is to see the Gothic invaders (or militant migrants) as a people who might have blended more easily than most into the Roman world and its seductive culture, but whose ruling clans made sure their people retained their self-identity. This was especially true of those Goths who joined with Attila in the 5th Century. In fact, it is due probably to the continued influence of the Amals and the Balthi that we even consider the Goths an important and separate people. For a thoroughly scholarly work heavily laden with footnotes, this is still a very readable work and I can recommend it to anyone who shares my interest in Late Antiquity and the Early Medieval period. (1/26/09)
Cornwell, Bernard. Sharpe’s Rifles. NY: Viking, 1988.
It’s 1809 and Richard Sharpe, professional infantryman in the Peninsular Campaign and until recently a sergeant, has been granted a battlefield commission to lieutenant — which, actually, he’s not too happy about. And he hates being the battalion’s quartermaster, but that’s the only job his superiors will trust him with, since he’s not a gentleman. His battalion of the 95th Rifles has been decimated by the Imperial French in northern Spain and Sharpe is the only officer left. Gathering together the remnant of his unit (who don’t trust him either), he tries to find a way to get them to Lisbon, where the Royal Navy might be able to pick them up. And then he runs into a charismatic Spanish cavalry officer who convinces him to help in capturing Santiago de Compostella, the spiritual heart of Spain, from the French. Don Blas Vivar is the custodian of an ancient and holy artifact which he believes will stiffen the national spine of his country, and Sharpe, though he’s completely nonreligious, has his own reasons, in the shape of a very attractive young English girl trapped in Spain with her aunt and uncle. The love interest is destined not to go the way he hopes, but Sharpe will find himself developing into the kind of commanding officer he needs to be. There are nearly two dozen books in this series, now, and this one, while it’s the first novel actually written, is ninth by internal chronology. I’m a longtime fan of Napoleonic naval adventure novels, but having discovered that Cornwell is terrific at conveying the feeling of infantry life two centuries ago, and that he does a very creditable job of describing combat scenes, I’ll be hunting up the rest of Sharpe’s adventures. (1/23/09)
Ford, Michael Curtis. The Ten Thousand. NY: St. Martin, 2001.
In 404 BC, the generation-long war between Athens and Sparta ended with the defeat, humiliation, and occupation of Athens. Both sides had been nearly prostrated by the struggle, however, and the recovery of Greece would take many years. One of the effects of the end to the conflict — it could hardly be called a peace — was that thousands of Greek soldiers from Athens, Sparta, and numerous other polises were left to shift for themselves wherever they happened to be. Large numbers of unemployed veterans can always be dangerous, however, and there was a certain amount of relief among the city-states when Prince Cyrus, brother of King Artaxerxes and pretender to the throne of Persia, began hiring enormous numbers of experienced Greek soldiers as mercenaries. One of those who hired on was Xenophon, a young Athenian officer of middling rank. The Greek army, ten thousand strong, gathered at Sardis in Asia Minor and marched off with Cyrus for many months, almost to the door of Babylon, where the prince was killed in battle. The Greeks were stranded, with no way to retrace their path across the desert and back across Anatolia. Finally, when the Persians treacherously killed nearly all the senior Greek officers under a flag of truce, Xenophon took command and led the trapped Greeks in the only direction available to them — north, to the Greek trading settlements on the southern coast of the Black Sea. That meant many more months of trudging through Assyria and the wintery mountains of Armenia, fighting the local tribesmen almost every step of the way. The Kurds, especially, were almost the death of them all. The army survived numerous disasters and suffered horrific losses, but they finally made it, a full year after leaving Sardis. That’s the story in a nutshell.
When I was in high school, many years ago, I spent a large part of my allowance on books. Because I was fascinated by the ancient world and had dreams of becoming a classical scholar, I favored the inexpensive Modern Library editions of the Greek and Roman authors — among them Xenophon’s Anabasis, from which Ford’s first novel derives. The original reads, in fact, very much like a novel itself and it’s surprising that there haven’t been more works of fiction based on it. Ford does an excellent job putting meat on the bones, putting the narrative in the mouth of Themistogenes of Syracuse, Xenophon’s aide and lifelong companion. The descriptions of life in the army, the rendering of the peculiarly Greek world-view, the effects of events on the human spirit, all are sensitively described in a way that reminds me of Cecelia Holland, Mary Renault, and Steven Pressfield — and that’s high praise. Theo’s rather edgy relationship with the beautiful Persian refugee Asteria is somewhat less well done and is actually a bit of a distraction from the main story, but I suppose a love interest is mandatory. The historical accuracy of Ford’s writing is very high, and that balances things out. I had read several of his later novels before picking up this one, and I can say that his work has only improved, but it’s nice to see that he began his writing career at such a high point. (1/20/09)
Jones, A. H. M., et al. The Prosopography of the Later Roman Empire. 3v. in 4. (Vol. 1: AD 260-395; Vol. 2: AD 395-527; Vol. 3: AD 527-641 [in 2 parts]) Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1971-1992.
Prosopography is a methodology in historical research by which the collection and examination of data — the external, objective characteristics — of the lives of a large number of relatively ordinary individuals in a carefully defined group can lead to a perceptive analysis of the nature of the group as a whole. This is the opposite, in fact, of the “great men” approach to history and it has found increasing favor with scholars over the past couple of decades — although its roots go all the way back to Theodor Mommsen. In doing my Master’s thesis in the 1970s — an investigation of the population of northeast Texas through coding and analysis of data from public records, including several successive censuses — I was following a prosopographical method before I had even heard the word. Which is to say that while prosopography seems to be applied mostly to the ancient and medieval worlds, especially in the projects undertaken by the Modern History Research Unit under Katherine Keats-Rohan at Oxford, it certainly isn’t limited to that. This huge set, however, is solidly classical. It attempts to present in compressed form (and largely succeeds) everything can be ascertained, from all surviving sources, about virtually every recorded individual in Roman Europe from roughly the end of the reign of Valerian (which is simply where the previous project of nearly a century ago left off) to the middle of the Heraclian dynasty in the Eastern Empire. (The main exception is full-time religious figures.) Since my own particular interest in this part of history is in Late Antiquity and Early Medieval, this scope suits me perfectly. Each entry, some of only a few lines and others of up to three dozen pages, lays out what is known about each individual in formulaic fashion. There are many cross-references. Most of the text is in English, but there are a considerable number of brief excerpts in Latin and Greek. In the later volumes a great deal of information is brought together about the Romanized “barbarians” (though reliable information is much harder to come by in the later period), so “Roman Empire” is not entirely descriptive. This is a remarkable piece of work, the result of many thousands of man-hours by scores of researchers. Methodologically, a printed work of this kind is unlikely ever to be produced again, however, since the advent of inexpensive personal computers and user-friendly databases and statistical software make organization of data much more flexible and open-ended these days — especially with online access by students and researchers. (1/19/09)
Kirino, Natsuo. Real World. NY: Knopf, 2008.
Once upon a time, in the suburbs of contemporary Tokyo, there lived four high school girls who all were a little out of step with the rest of their world and were therefore friends. There’s Toshi, who is the good girl, the striver who spends her entire summer vacation in cram school, and who doesn’t hate her parents. There’s a boy next door about her own age, a nonentity she thinks of as “Worm,” who one morning murders his mother, then steals Toshi’s bicycle and cell phone. Soon, she and her friends are chatting with the fugitive by phone, giving him aid and comfort, and warning him not to involve them in his crime because it could be very inconvenient for them. Each chapter continues the story from the p.o.v. of one of the others, giving the reader an often profoundly different perspective on what it means to be an alienated teenager in today’s Japan. After Toshi, there’s Yuzan, mannish and not very attractive, who’s gay and still in the closet, whose mother died three years ago, and who has no idea at all what she’s going to do when she gets out of high school — except maybe try to become a professional transvestite. She dreads the possibility of her friends finding out about her sexual orientation (as if they didn’t already know), but she’s also taking the first steps in making contact with other girls like her, by hanging out in gay bars in Shinjuku. (In some ways, Japan is very different from the U.S.) And there’s Kirarin, whom her three friends think of as a sweet girly-girl type, cute and cheerful and all on the surface. They don’t know about her sexual escapades, her online chat-room persona, her gay male friend. And she’s secretly a member of another girl-group entirely, all of whom are boy-oriented good-time girls who spend their nights partying and sleeping around. She has, as she says, underground roots branching out in all directions. She’s becoming fascinated with the fugitive, too. I mean, how often do you get the chance to meet and hang out with an actual murderer? And there’s Terauchi, the self-consciously intellectual one of the four, who thinks deep, analytical thoughts she doubts her friends could understand. And now Worm wants her to write him up a proper manifesto — “or a poem, or something; it doesn’t matter.” But Terauchi, too, has secrets. In fact, it doesn’t take the reader long to notice that each of the four girls has a side to her — or thinks she has — that she feels unable to share with her three best friends, who are supposed to be providing each other with support against the trials of teenage life. And for that purpose, each of the four has one or more friends outside the group, mostly unknown to the others. And, finally, there’s Worm himself, who’s on the run on a series of stolen bicycles, stopping at every convenience store he passes for the benefit of the air conditioning. He’s still trying to work out exactly why he murdered his old lady and why he hated her so much in the first place. Sometimes, she annoyed him so much he felt he could just work her over with a baseball bat. And so he did. Now, it still hasn’t quite sunk in that he no longer lives in his old world, that he has created a new reality for himself. And how far can a seventeen-year-old boy flee on a girl’s bike? More than that, can he keep his sanity? As Worm slides farther and farther into fantasies of being a soldier trying to outwit the enemy, you wonder if he will be able to stop at one killing. But it’s the sudden, multi-tragic ending that will take your breath away. Although this is her third novel translated into English, Kirino has actually written eighteen novels, plus scores of short stories, and has originated a whole new school of Japanese fiction: feminist noir. She’s won a number of awards and several of her books have been made into films in Japan. Why has it taken so long for her to be noticed in the U.S.? (1/14/09)
Anderson, Poul. The Boat of a Million Years. NY: Tor Books, 1989.
Poul Anderson is one of the great authors of the 1950s whom readers of my age grew up on, along with Heinlein, Simak, Bradbury, and Asimov. Sadly, his best work is far behind him. Though described as a novel, this one isn’t. Rather, it’s a series of mostly short, often disconnected episodes poorly stitched together. The theme is an old one: There are immortals living among us, only a few of them, who can die — but not of old age. They reach maturity and then a plateau from which they never decline like the rest of us. They watch their spouses and children and friends grow old and die. Eventually, they must move on and take new identities, in order to escape the awe, and then fear, and then hatred of the people around them. And they either learn to cope with the realization of their differentness, or they don’t. As I said, an old theme. Heinlein did it with Lazarus Long (though in his case it wasn’t chance genetics), and there have been any number of “Wandering Jew” tales and vampire stories. I’ve even written a few myself, because it gives one a chance to play with a variety of historical settings. Anderson establishes a handful of immortal characters here, the oldest being Hanno the Phoenician, and in the first three-quarters of the volume he sets them in various backgrounds over the past two thousand years. Sometimes the result is merely a pleasant little vignette, and you have to wonder why he bothered. The best of these is a chapter called “No Man May Shun His Doom,” probably because it was published originally as a short story. In the last section, set in the future, the little band of undying have finally joined up to explore the stars — sort of an obvious destiny for people who live forever, and most readers will see it coming a mile away. Anderson’s grasp of history is (of course) accurate and detailed — perhaps a little too much so for many readers — but the book itself just sort of sits there and stares at you. (1/12/09)
Sheffield, Charles. Between the Strokes of Night. NY: Baen Books, 2002.
I’ve always heard good things about Sheffield’s hard-science novels, and I’ve tried several of them, . . . but, somehow, I just can’t get interested in them. The author’s style simply leaves me cold. This one appears to be about finding a way to expand into the far corners of our galaxy without violating the limitation imposed by the speed of light. But I’m not sure about that, really, because I only got about 40% of the way in and then gave up because so little was happening. I was also put off by the author’s apparent belief that nearly 30,000 years in the future, so little will have changed where people are concerned, both socially and culturally. Even given names are pretty much what you would find in a present-day phone book. Sheffield’s science may be reliable but his imagination leaves a good deal to be desired. (1/11/09)
Connelly, Michael. The Brass Verdict. NY: Little, Brown, 2008.
I’m not a big fan of the “police procedural” subcategory of mystery novels, so while I like Connelly’s work, I’ve never read any of his Harry Bosch stories. In this one, a sequel to The Lincoln Lawyer, Bosch appears as a supporting character — but he’s still in the background compared to Mickey Haller, hard-working defense attorney and (now) recovering prescription drug addict (after having been shot in the first book). Mickey’s been getting himself clean and has taken no clients in more than a year, and now he’s about to get back into things, when a whole caseload drops unexpectedly into his lap. Jerry Vincent, an attorney with whom he had a reciprocal practice-support agreement, has been murdered and Mickey has to get up to speed in a hurry. The prize is the case of Walter Elliot, a big-name movie producer accused of killing his wife and her lover. Elliot seems to have no doubts whatever that he will be cleared at trial. His certainty puzzles Haller until various other details begin to turn up — some of which make him wonder if whoever hit Vincent might be watching him, too. Meanwhile, Bosch is investigating the Vincent murder but he also has something going with the FBI that he won’t tell Haller about. Connelly does an excellent job of explaining the lawyer business as well as legal proceedings and strategies — especially jury selection — using both the main story and the various side cases a working attorney has to juggle. In fact, that’s often the most fascinating part of the book. Considering the way this one ends, it’s unclear whether Mickey Haller and his three Lincoln towncars will star in another novel (there’s also a neat little tying-together of Haller and Bosch at the very end, which seems to promise more contact in the future), but I’ll certainly be watching for it, just in case. (1/10/09)
Pratchett, Terry. Nation. NY: HarperCollins, 2008.
Pratchett built his considerable reputation on his first “Discworld” novels, which were subversively funny and had a certain Monty-Python-ish flavor. He’s still writing them, of course, and there are about thirty-five of those books now, including a couple of self-contained sub-series. But a strange thing happened in the process: The more recent episodes, while still droll and witty and a great deal of fun in a style Pratchett has made his own, have also become far more serious in what the author has to say to his readers. Pratchett is one of the most humane (and humanistic) writers of our time, an immensely kindly soul with a razor tongue when it comes to coercive politics and religion, and he wraps his carefully worked-out opinions in narratives and plotlines that are both simple and straightforward on the surface and quite complex in their depths. This latest parable/novel is being marketed as a YA book — but, like all the best young adult books, it should be read by thoughtful adults, too. The “nation” of the title is a small island in the South Seas, which to Mau, a boy on the cusp of becoming a man, is the whole world. The time is the 19th century — but not quite our 19th century. There’s a king in England, for one thing, instead of a queen. Or, at least, there was a king, until a plague hit England and wiped out the 138 people necessary to move a comparative nonentity of a colonial governor up the line to become the next monarch. His daughter, Daphne (as she thinks of herself, because her real name is Ermintrude), is on a ship going to join her father at Port Mercia when an enormous tsunami picks up the ship and tosses it into the jungle on Mau’s island. She’s the only survivor. Meanwhile, all the people of the Nation were down on the beach, waiting to celebrate Mau’s return from the Island of Boys, and all of them are killed by the same wave. Now, Mau is the Nation. And his linking up with Daphne is about the only thing that keeps both of them sane. Then other dazed survivors begin to drift in from other drowned islands and Mau suddenly finds himself carrying a great deal of responsibility. But the most important thing to him is getting answers. Why did the gods do this to them? Intoning “the gods are mysterious,” he realizes, is just an adult way of shrugging and saying, “Just because.” And what will he do when the other Europeans — the other trousermen — come to rescue Daphne? After reading (and, for the earlier ones, rereading) each of Pratchett’s books over the past few years, I have my own question: Why isn’t he on the annual Honours List for a knighthood? (1/07/09)
Saberhagen, Fred. The First Book of Swords. NY: Tor, 1983.
I may have made a tactical error, beginning this first volume of a trilogy before I had the second and third volumes in hand and standing by. Saberhagen is an old-school writer, best known for his “Berserker” series (which was also the model for Star Trek’s Borg). This is straight sword-and-sorcery, but not really in the classic, Tolkien-esque mold. Saberhagen has the knack of combining fancy and fact in a way that’s foreign to “high fantasy.” It’s 50,000 years in the future, after the end of our present technological age — 2,000 years in the future even of Saberhagen’s “Empire” series, upon which this present trilogy builds. And society is more or less medieval again. Barons and knights and dukes run things, with millers and blacksmiths and yeoman farmers occupying the lower rungs of society. But there’s also sorcery and mythological beasts, the most powerful of which are dragons of many and diverse species. Most important, though, is the return of the gods — or that’s how they represent themselves, anyway. And the gods are engaged in playing a game (a motif Saberhagen often invokes). Young Mark is the focus of the narrative, the second son of a blacksmith who lost an arm to Vulcan while helping in the manufacture of twelve swords of power, each of them with a different profile or personality. The sword Mark’s father was given in payment for his arm has come down to Mark, who now finds himself on the run from the forces of Duke Fraktin, who wants to obtain as many of the swords for himself as possible. He becomes involved with Nestor, an ex-knight turned dragon-hunter, who possesses another of the swords and is also of interest to the duke. Balancing the Bad Guys in this power struggle is Good Sir Andrew, a do-gooderish sort who also provides a bit of comic relief. Saberhagen’s narrative style is straightforward and unadorned, letting the story tell itself, and it works. If you’ve read a lot of fantasy and semi-fantasy in its various forms, you’ll be interested in seeing how he sets up the story within the real-world constraints he has set himself. I would have made some different choices, though. Vulcan, for instance, belongs to the Roman pantheon, but most of the society in this future world seems to be northern European in origin; I would have depicted the smith god as Wayland, for consistency. (But perhaps there are unmentioned reasons for all that, since parts of this novel are derived from earlier books and series I haven’t read.) It’s also strange to hear distances by wagon and the length of a sword blade described in metric measurements. But that’s carping, and the story, which ends here with Mark in possession of two of the swords and escaping the destruction of Sir Andrew’s castle, is well worth reading as he and his companions move off into the next stage of their adventure. Now if I can only find those other two volumes. (1/03/09)