November 23, 2005

An Oblique Approach,
In the Heart of Darkness, by David Drake and Eric Flint

I first read these books about five years ago, and found them to be a rollicking (if gory) good time. I'd borrowed them (and their sequels) from my brother, which is always a problem if I turn out to like the books, because he wants them back. And then, by the time I want to read them again, they are out-of-print. I managed to snag my own copies of these two, and some of the later books are still in print, but number three is selling used for absurd sums of money.

When I re-read a book, I make it a rule not to read any previous reviews before writing a new review; what I'm writing about this time is how the book struck me this time. In this case, though, I broke my rule--and discovered that my original review really does capture the spirit of these books pretty well. So well, in fact, that I'm going to break another rule and reprint a review:

* * * * *

These are the first two books in the duo's "Belisarius" series, a series with one of the silliest premises I've seen in a long time. I'm tempted to tear these books apart in at least six different ways, and the only thing that's stopping me is how much I'm enjoying them--which is considerably.

First, let me describe the background. It is early in the reign of Byzantine Emperor Justinian the Great, back for yet another walk on our stage. Belisarius is his best general, and perhaps one of the greatest generals of all time. But then a hermit comes to Belisarius with a mysterious crystal that brings visions, and this is where Belisarius' story and our own history explicitly part company. For the crystal reveals that a new empire, the Malwa empire, has arisen in India. The Malwa are bent on conquering the world--and they have weapons we would recognize as cannon, grenades, and rockets. These weapons are still incredibly primitive by modern standards--the rockets are particularly erratic and hard to control--but they are far in advance of anything available to the Romans. The crystal has come to aid Belisarius to defeat the Malwa; the future of the human race depends on it.

First and foremost, these are war novels; the details of each campaign and each battle are described with loving details. It's the sort of thing one could imagine Byzantine soldiers of fortune reading in their off-hours, perhaps serialized in the latest issue of Swords and Scabbards magazine, right before the "mercenaries wanted" advertisements. And, perhaps because they are war novels, the authors have loaded them up with mounds of casual, cheerful profanity, and school boy jokes that ought to grow tiresome after a while--but somehow they don't. There's lots of arch banter from almost all of the good guys that sits oddly on many of their lips, and which should detract from the tale--but somehow it doesn't.

Perhaps it's just that I came to these books immediately after reading something by Dorothy Dunnett, and that I'm trying to hold them to a higher standard than I ordinarily would--but despite all of the silly, profane, juvenile elements, the fact remains that I'm having a rollicking good time. There's just something delightful about watching a collection of superbly competent folk cheerfully and cleverly kicking the bloody hell out of some nasty people who desperately deserve it. Perhaps it's cathartic.

What can I say? If you have any taste for alternate history, and don't mind profanity and body parts gaily strewn about in pools of gore, you should give these a try. You might not respect yourself in the morning, but you'll have an entertaining night.

Posted by Will Duquette at November 23, 2005 11:19 AM