Desert God, by Wilbur Smith
HarperCollins, (2014), Hardcover, 432 pages
Basically, Wilbur Smith is an an author I can take or leave as I see fit. I have read a few of his books over the years, but have never really followed his long-running series, just dipping in now and then to read a particular title that for some reason has caught my fancy. The sole exception to this is his River God series, set in a semi-fantastical Egypt. I have read every one of the four books in the series, and found them all enjoyable, even if he plays fast and loose with the history of Ancient Egypt, which is neither or there really, since he makes no pretense of writing a historically accurate story. The main problem is that the books have come out so far apart it is difficult to remember what has happened in the previous stories. Although the books are all self-contained, it would help to have a refresher of the previous tales at the beginning, just to remind one of where the principal characters have come from. In this particular story, the Hyksos invaders, portrayed here as sub-human brutes (reminiscent of Tolkienesque orcs) rather than the simple nomadic Semitic people they really were, have been driven out of Upper Egypt but still occupy the Nile Delta, cutting off the true Egyptian regime from access to the Mediterranean. Taita, the ageless adviser to the young Pharoah, conceives a plan to enlist the help of the other superpowers of the day, Babylon and Minoan Crete, in driving the Hyksos from their ill-gotten conquests, but of course the story is never as simple as that, since to do so, Taita will have sacrifice the two virgin princesses he dotes on to marriage with the Minoan ruler. An entertaining enough story, if not intellectually challenging, fast-moving, with stirring battle scenes, wonderful descriptions of the ancient world and a truly epic denouement. I am not going to say this is great literature, it is not, but if you are not picky about historical accuracy, and are really craving a light read that also satisfies your itch to immerse yourself in the ancient world, this is well worth your time.
Rome’s Last Citizen: the Life and Legacy of Cato, Mortal Enemy of Caesar, by Rob Goodman & Jimmy Soni
St Martin’s Griffin (2014), Paperback, 384 pages
One of the best things to come out of HBO’s sex & violence epic series Rome, was the re-introduction to a general audience of the character of Marcus Porcius Cato. A lot of people, informed by basic history lessons at school and popular fiction afterwards, have come to assume that the backlash against Julius Caesar by Rome’s elite was directed by the arch-assassins Brutus & Cassius, because most people have only heard of the culmination of the anti-Caesar campaign, namely the fatal events of the Ides of March. In fact, the anti-Caesar campaign had been ongoing for more than a decade, and its spiritual leader and stoutest, most unyielding opponent of Caesar was Cato the Younger. As was faithfully depicted in the Rome TV series, Cato alone remins staunch in his hatred of Caesar, when all the other Republicans wavered at some time, and some broke. This unyielding quality is celebrated in this interesting book, as the authors examine Cato’s eventful life, his defiant death by his own hand, and the impact this Stoic philosopher has had up until the present day. The book begins with George Washington trying to rally his starving troops at Valley Forge by putting on a popular play about Cato, playing up his defiance of Caesar’s tyranny and refusal to bow down, as an analogy of the Continentals’ struggle against the British. As the book shows, this unyielding resistance of Cato’s has been purloined by various individuals & groups throughout history since to support their own particular causes. I must admit that I found this theme less interesting than the excellent biography of Cato himself, which places him firmly back in the context of his times, depicts him warts and all, including his intransigence, his rudeness and occasional hypocrisy, and gives a good a explanation as you will ever get as to why Cato was Cato. As a lover of Republican Rome (and yes, I did actually enjoy the HBO series despite it playing fast & loose with history at times, any depiction of the Roman Republic on the big or small screen is to be savoured), I found this book fascinating. I predict history buffs and anyone who appreciates a good story about an intriguing individual who has sadly slipped from the public consciousness in recent years will likewise enjoy it immensely.