Tuesday, 31 May 2011

Rome: Kalends of February

I was wrong in my last review; it turns out that, somewhat counter-intuitively, this actually is the episode in which Julius Caesar gets murderlised. There is a reason for this - it's on the Kalends of February that, in the Rome version of events, Caesar announces he will be creating a hundred new senators, which proves to be the final straw for the conspirators and, indirectly, the downfall of Niobe. In real life, Caesar would have filled the vacant seats in the Senate (caused by all those messy civil wars) much earlier than a month before he died, but we probably shouldn't let that bother us.

As the episode opens, Dodgey Soldier and The Godfather (formerly known as Boring Soldier) have become minor celebrities, thanks to their dramatic exit from the arena last week. Dodgey is still recovering from his wounds, but The Godfather is busy having it away with his wife in front of an audience as part of a truly peculiar ritual on their new land while she expresses surprise that Caesar (who has just given them the land, hence the ritual) might be a bit put out that The Godfather took it upon himself to rescue a condemned criminal.

Pullo makes a bid for freedom from the 'hospital' (I'm pretty sure the Romans didn't have those) and is brought back to The Godfather's house to make even more of a nuisance of himself. Niobe catches Eirene holding a knife to this throat and points out this would not end well for Eirene herself, who would definitely be the prime suspect if Dodgey were to be found murdered. She then orders Eirene to look after Dodgey, possibly as some kind of punishment? It doesn't make much sense. Eirene spits in Dodgey's food. Good for her.

Caesar has decreed that a hundred new senators will be created and tells The Godfather that he will be one of them. Caesar did fill vacant seats with his own supporters, including centurions and men who'd fought for him, but as I said, I suspect he did it a lot earlier than a month before his death. The reason for the placement of The Godfather's promotion here, of course, is to tie his and Niobe's story to Caesar's for the finale. The Godfather is Caesar's most feared bodyguard, thanks to his antics in the arena, so the conspirators have to get him out of the way, so they spill the beans about Niobe's affair to him just as they're murdering Caesar. It's an ingenious way of tying the stories together (even if it is a bit reminiscent of Carry of Cleo in the set-up) and works rather well, and according to Cassius Dio Caesar did have a bodyguard of knights and senators. The only minor problem with this is that it does mean one of the more fascinating aspects of Caesar's personality and behaviour towards the end, his supposedly casual attitude towards the possibility of his own assassination, has to be left out, which is a shame.

We are reminded of Caesar's close relationship with both Antony and his slave/freedman (never have quite worked out which he is) Posca which will make the scenes of Posca trying to save Caesar and Antony finding his body that much more poignant. I particularly like Caesar and Antony's exchange, in which Antony wants to know why Caesar trusts him. Caesar tells him 'If you were going to betray me, you'd have done it long ago' and Antony replies 'Don't think I wasn't tempted,' which is a nice reminder of how ruthless they all are while also, strangely, reinforcing Antony and Caesar's mutual loyalty.

I'm delighted to see Calpurnia's ominous dream get reasonably full treatment - we don't see the dream itself, but her concern and Caesar's dismissal of it as just a dream feel both sweet and true. Brutus and Servilia, meanwhile, are attempting to gain the favour of some god or other for their assassination attempt, in a slightly odd scene that seems intended to be generally portentous.

Dodgey goes out to get a prostitute/floozy/one-night-stand but sends her away when Eirene spots them heading into the house together. Miraculously, from this point on, Eirene softens towards him. Yes, girls, when a man has brutally murdered your lover, all he has to do is refrain from sleeping with a prostitute in front of you and you will find yourself suddenly drawn to him, so eventually all will be forgiven. (Please note all readers of any gender: This Is Sarcasm).

The conspirators and Cicero stand symbolically high up and sneer at the new senators, while Caesar waves at them, looking like he knows something's up. Later on, they discuss the knotty problem of getting The Godfather out of the way for the main event without killing him and therefore making themselves unpopular. Brutus insists on the importance of killing Caesar on the Senate floor because this somehow makes it honourable and not murder, which is especially ironic given that Caesar wasn't killed on the Senate floor, the Senate were meeting in the Theatre of Pompey that day and he was killed there (underneath the statue of Pompey, as depicted in Shakespeare's version).

Niobe and The Godfather have a sweet bedroom scene together because Niobe is Doomed and this is Poignant and Tender. Servilia sleeps alone because all her lovers realised what a psycho she is and left her. She suddenly remembers that she knows all the gossip about The Godfather because Octavia told her, having heard it from Octavian during their secret-swapping, and that this may prove useful in getting him out of the way. She then invites Atia and the kids over for Murder Day, while Dodgey tells Eirene he's going out to a shrine to ask for forgiveness and asks her to come with him. Eirene does, because she's clearly insane.

The town crier (who, by the way, uses the most fantastic gestures which I assume come from Quintilian's description of the gestures used in legal speeches) informs us that the Senate is in session and the plinky-plonky Music of Doom informs us that Sh*t is About to Go Down. Some old woman claiming to be working for Atia comes up to The Godfather and tells him the truth about Niobe's baby and he runs off in a fury, leaving Caesar to the knives. Mark Antony is also dragged off and Posca can't go into the Senate anyway.

Caesar's murder finally gets under way, starting with a remarkably undignified scuffle but carrying on in suitably bloody fashion while Brutus watches with his mouth gaping open like a fish. Finally, Cassius shoves a knife into Brutus' hand and forces him to put the last cut into a dying Caesar. Caesar, having received multiple wounds to the lungs, says nothing, though he does give Brutus a rather heartbreakingly sad look. He then pulls his toga over his head, which is both historically accurate and genuinely sad.

I can see why the writers decided to leave That Line out. Saying it in Latin would sound daft because very little Latin is used in this series. Saying it in English means having to choose between Shakespeare's 'Brutus' or Suetonius' teknon, which could be translated as 'child', 'boy' or 'son', words which all have different connotations in English. Not all ancient sources attribute any last words to Caesar at all so it's perfectly acceptable to assume he said nothing (especially given all the stab wounds in the chest area). The scene is also rather effectively played so that you can almost hear Caesar saying The Words as he stares at Brutus, even though he doesn't actually say them. I have to confess, though, that if it were me, I would have had him say 'And you?' (leaving out the vocative 'Brute?'). Those words are just so expected, thanks to Shakespeare, that it's almost disappointing not to hear them, or some of version of them.

We interrupt this assassination fallout to return to Niobe and The Godfather. He rants and rages and waves a knife at her. She tells him she thought he was dead and promptly throws herself off the balcony. Since Niobe was one of my favourite characters, this is rather upsetting, but story-wise it works. We suspect The Godfather would never actually have stabbed her, but he had the legal right to do so and presumably she was also motivated by guilt and worry about their future. The first time I saw it, I was torn between feeling that this was a suitably tragic and dramatic end to this particular plot, and worrying that I wasn't remotely interested in The Godfather (formerly known as Boring) without Niobe.

Cassius gloats over Caesar's body and Brutus continues to look like someone just ran over his puppy, as if he can't quite believe what he's done. Mark Antony makes it in to the historically inaccurate scene of the crime, sees the body, and backs away, looking angry, sad and probably a little bit nervous as well, though none of them go after him.

Servilia explains all this to Atia as if it were her personal triumph over Atia and nothing to do with dictators or politics at all (perhaps she's right). She also informs Atia that she's going to make her suffer, presumably blissfully unaware that Caesar adopted Octavian in his will and she will, therefore, come to regret this bit of crowing quite a lot. Octavian is certainly not impressed with this turn of events.

We see The Godfather cradling Niobe's body and looking at the unfortunate toddler like he doesn't know what to do with him, which he probably doesn't (the child actor here looks impressively like Niobe).

And after all that fantastic drama, what do we finish on? Dodgey and Eirene walking away from a roadside shrine, hand in hand. I suppose it's nice to end on a more peaceful image, one that's about forgiveness and love rather than death and destruction, but it's a bit frustrating after such a fantastic climax to end on the one note that, for me, really doesn't ring true.

This is a great season finale, which ties up Niobe and The Godfather's story nicely while leaving the historical story on a note that certainly represents an ending, but also creates something of a cliffhanger, as Mark Antony walks away into Shakespearian fame. The double climax of Niobe and Caesar's deaths is very effective and the decision to deal with Caesar first and Niobe second works as well - the audience know what happens to Caesar, so his death is dramatically satisfying but without the thrill of the unexpected, ensuring that Niobe's quieter death has maximum impact, as the audience have no idea what it going to happen to her, so her story keeps their attention even after the big events at the (inaccurate) Senate have taken place. The acting all round is great and of course it's a necessary shame to see Ciaran Hinds' Caesar go, he was brilliant in the role. James Purefoy as Mark Antony is probably the most impressive, in his combination of calm, anger and distress conveyed entirely through a facial expression, but Hinds' dying moments are also tragically beautiful. For me, the only shame is that Dodgey and Eirene's story, which I find peculiar and totally implausible, has to intrude on an otherwise excellent finale, but on the upside it does give us a prettier image to go out on, ready for more blood and guts in season two.

Saturday, 28 May 2011

King Arthur: Stories of the Knights of the Round Table (by Vladimir Hulpach)

When I was little, I had a couple of big compendium books I really loved. One was A Treasury of Literature for Children, which was a collection of excerpts from longer novels and poems (the story of Rikki-Tikki-Tavi from The Jungle Book, an extract from What Katy Did, 'A Smuggler's Song' and so on). King Arthur: Stories of the Knights of the Round Table, a collection of various stories relating to Arthur and his knights, was the other.

When I read it, though, I always skipped the first chapter. The second chapter told the story of Merlin's childhood and the third finally got to the birth of Arthur (and therefore, to me, the interesting bit) but the first explained how the kingdom of Britain was, in fact, founded by Trojans. This chapter, I'm afraid to say, did not interest me at all!

The story given in the book (which I presume became attached to Arthurian legend somewhere in the medieval or early modern period, though I don't know when) is that Ascanius' grandson Brutus was exiled after accidentally killing his father and was led to Britain by Artemis through a dream. However it got attached to Arthurian legend, the intention is clear - to make Arthur a great Classical hero as well as a British one and to tie the Britons, like the Romans before them, to Homeric legend. Julius Caesar's invasion of Britain is reimagined as a meeting of ancient kinfolk and Arthurian legend is made part of a larger Classical story.

This only means anything, though, if you are already familiar with Classical mythology and can enjoy drawing links between the two systems. I didn't know anything about Classical mythology as a child, so, being an obstinate child, I wasn't interested in it. This problem is compounded by the fact that the story is taken right from the Trojan War to the founding of Britain, through Aeneas, Ascanias, Silvus and Brutus, and the story whizzes through the whole of the Aeneid and more in a few hundred words, leaving no time to get to care about any of the story. Plus, the only thing I did know about Classics at the time was that Brutus killed Julius Caesar, so I was also really confused.

Going back to it as an adult, the chapter still feels a bit rushed, but works much better. Artemis, orders given in dreams, people accidentally shooting relatives and going off to found new kingdoms all seems much more familiar to me now and the tying together of the two mythologies is quite fun. I've no idea if this book is still in print, but I'm glad I still have it - it's beautifully illustrated by Jan Cerny and I always enjoyed its retellings of the Arthurian legends as a child. I'm glad it includes the Classical sections as well, as I can really appreciate them now - no more skipping Chapter One!

Wednesday, 25 May 2011

The Mummy Returns (dir. Stephen Sommers, 2001)

Comments are open to everyone again but salespeople please note, I will not allow any adverts on my site except those authorised by me (currently just Amazon, through their Associates programme).

Spoilers follow, though this film is far from unpredicatable anyway!

The first time I saw this film, on a borrowed video, I watched something like four times in three days. I honestly couldn't tell you why! (I think I might have had flu or somthing). Whereas The Mummy was a quality action-adventure film, The Mummy Returns is deeply, deeply silly. There's a mad hot air balloon with a boat-thing strung underneath it, an army of skeletal pygmies, The Rock as a badly CG-ed scorpion, and Brendan Fraser's American serving in the French Foreign Legion turns out to be from an orphanage in Cairo and is actually an ancient Magi, while Rachel Weisz's English librarian suddenly turns into Xena Warrior Princess as she starts remembering a past life an as Egyptian princess who, for reasons passing understanding, has been trained in martial arts.

And yet, it is still fun silliness. The leads are as likeable and watchable as ever and Fraser and Weisz have really nice chemistry as a refreshingly happily married couple. The humour is still there, the handsome men are still there, and the whole thing looks pretty good (slightly outdated special effects notwithstanding). Evie's death produces an odd moment that doesn't quite fit the rest tonally, but the audience can be pretty confident that she isn't going to stay dead and the whole thing just has a sweetness about it that's lacking from an awful lot of films lately (especially 'darker and edgier' sequels - Pirates of the Carribbean, I'm looking at you. Though I haven't seen the fourth one yet, so maybe that one lightens up again).

In the film's opening sequence, the Scorpion King offers his soul to Anubis in exchange for life. Anubis as the featured god makes sense, as he was god of the dead and the underworld (which is why the airline in True Blood is called Anubis Air), plus he gets an army of jackal-type creatures, which is fun. His minion, the Scorpion King, can be killed with the Spear of Osiris, who was another god associated with the dead and the underworld, so that sort of makes sense, in a way.

Desert oasis in Tunisia

The concept of 'offering your soul', though, strikes me as a rather Christian thing that doesn't really seem to fit ancient religion. Anubis is associated with death and the afterlife, so he'll presumably get his mitts on everybody's souls at some point. The idea of a god wanting to take your soul in return for something strikes me as an idea that only really works if you only have two choices, as in the Christian idea of selling your soul to the Devil, as opposed to God. Maybe I'm wrong though - does anyone know any mythologies with a larger pantheon where a person might offer their soul to one god exclusively? It's certainly not an idea I've come across in ancient religion (unless it was part of the secretive mystery cults, where you might expect a better afterlife thanks to your service to the god in this life - but since you would still worship all the other gods when necessary as well, you weren't really giving your soul to one in particular, just offering them extra service).

At the beginning of the film, I got quite excited to see Evie actually doing some proper archaeology, brushing a relief with a proper little archaeologist's brush. Five minutes later, however, Rick turns up and whacks half the wall down. Then a bad guy tramples on the relief as it lies on the floor. Ah well. Digging in the sand for weeks in order to turn up a few tablets like in real archaeology just wouldn't be very exciting. And archaeologists in earlier eras really were much less careful with ancient stuff than modern ones are (Heinrich Schliemann famously destroyed half a dozen levels of archaeological remains at Troy, trying to get to the mythical Bronze Age city).

I wonder why the Scorpion King had a little series of pictures demonstrating exactly how to kill him on his wall? Interesting choice on the interior decoration front, that one.

This is a daft film, and I'm not quite sure why I thought it warrented so many viewings in one weekend (I must have been delirious) but it's still good quality family fun. It even features a non-annoying kid with a British accent! Alex is genuinely likeable, which is a great relief and is down to both good writing and an occasionally stilted but generally endearing performance from Freddie Boath. The moment when the handsome Ardeth Bay (Oded Fehr) is about to fight an enormous army of jackal things and they turn to dust just as they reach him is also really quite awesome. When all's said and done, this is a film with hot men fighting each other in the desert, Rachel Wesiz kicking bottom, quality comic relief from Boath and John Hannah and a mummy vs a giant, badly CG-ed scorpion thing. Really, what's not to like?!

Some handsome men

Sunday, 22 May 2011

Xena Warrior Princess: Death Mask

'So he's the one that made you so... aggressive?' Understatement of the week goes to Gabrielle. After a steady diet of Spartacus: Blood and Sand and True Blood, both of which feature blood-drenched revenge stories in which normally Stoic characters snap in postumous defence of dead loved ones, it's quite strange watching the more family-friendly Xena version. Xena's on an arc of redemption, and unlike Spartacus, Eric Northman or her own alter ego Lucretia, she must fight the case for bringing the bad guy to formal justice (even though she later knocks out a bunch of guards just because she can't be bothered talking her way in to court). Her brother Toris, to her chagrin, is after the more traditional sort of revenge.

This episode is set firmly in Medieval Fantasyland. Bad guy King Cortese's crown looks sort of Viking-Anglo-Saxon-y, only slightly more geometric (it kind looks like something from Stargate) while his robes are brightly-coloured pseudo-Oriental style. His guards do look a bit more ancient.

There's nothing overtly Classical in this episode, but of course, revenge stories go back pretty far in human history. In Greek myth, vengeance was an obligation in certain cases - the most famous stories explore the ramifications if that obligation conflicts with another, equal one. So for example, Orestes is pursued by the Erinyes (Furies) because he was obliged to avenge the murder of his father, but this required him to commit an equally horrific crime, and murder his own mother. In the end, Athenian justice unsurprsingly comes down on the side of the father, but still, it was a dilemma.

Xena's story does share some qualities with Orestes'; like Orestes, Xena's brother unexpectedly discovers his long-lost sister while hunting his family's murderer and needs her help to succeed. Xena herself is, of course, much more physically proactive than Orestes' sister Electra, a character who first appears in Aeschylus' play Libation Bearers in a fairly passive, information-delivering role, takes a bigger role in Sophocles' Electra and actually jumps in and gets her hands dirty in Euripides' Electra. Xena is closest to Euripides' Electra, who holds the sword as Orestes kills Clytemnestra, but Euripides' Electra is actually more bloodthirsty than the redemption-seeking Xena. All the same, there's a definite Orestes-and-Electra vibe to the two siblings working together, and in Gabrielle, they've even got a third wheel wandering around in the background, as with Orestes' friend Pylades.

Gabrielle spends much of the episode hanging out with Cute Village girl, leading to amusing scenes like this.

The episode is somewhat marred by Cortese's mad over-acting and Xena's weird springing jumping move partway in but on the upside it does have lines like:
King Cortese: 'I want them for execution by the morning!'
Guard: 'What time?'
I also like the climax, in which Xena offers Toris the death of Cortese, but tells him that it won't make him happy, and he will cross a line he can't go back over (though this would be more effective if the same character hadn't been working as an assassin at the beginning of the episode). For someone whose village was wiped out, Xena has a surprisingly large number of living relatives, but it's always nice to see them every now and again. I hope future episodes will explore Gabrielle the Trainee Warrior's relationships with her family as well, since she's changed so much since they last saw her.

Thursday, 19 May 2011

Caveat Emptor (by Ruth Downie)

The blog now has its very own Facebook page! You can find it here. This involved creating an account for 'Pop Classics', so Facebook now addresses me as 'Pop', which is very weird and makes me sound like someone's grandfather...

Following on from Tuesday's interview with author Ruth Downie, today I'm reviewing her latest release, the fourth in her series featuring Gaius Petreius Ruso, physician and investigator. It's called Caveat Emptor in the States, and Ruso and the River of Darkness in the UK. I'm going with Caveat Emptor, partly because it's more closely related to the plot and partly because it's quicker to type. The review copy was kindly sent to me by Hasan Niyazi over at Three Pipe Problem, with Downie's permission. Spoilers follow.

When I reviewed Thornton Wilder's The Ides of March, I talked about the various different ways of approaching historical fiction. Like The Ides of March, this novel fits into the third category of works of historical fiction, the kind that is, more or less, a story about twenty-first century people in Roman clothes. This is not a critcism and not a negative quality - as the comparison with Wilder indicates, this is a deliberate choice on the part of a novelist to create an entertaining story with a likeable hero (and heroine) for a modern audience. And unlike The Ides of March, the resolution to this story depends on Roman issues and Roman problems. It could not have happened in the twenty-first century, and so it is not so far along the extreme end of the imaginary scale as Wilder's novel (which, while based around the death of Caesar, used a twentieth-century political incident as part of its final plotting). This is an historical story that could only take place at the time and place in which it is set. It's the language, characterisation and some elements of the setting that modernise it, creating a nice balance between a historical story and relatable heroes.

It's clear from Downie's interview that she's particularly enthusiastic about archaeological research, and it shows in her story. The plot revolves around coinage and her descriptions of the various coins are clearly those of someone who has handled these things and who is fascinated by them. (This is also why I prefer the American title - I like the inversion of 'buyer beware' to refer to the need to beware of the coins, not the purchased item). Other bits and pieces of Roman stuff are scattered liberally throughout the novel, providing lovely bits of period detail about bathhouses, funeral rites and especially, on a less archaeological note, the tensions between the various British tribes and between the Britons and the Romans.

It's in dialogue, vocabulary and characterisation that our characters show themselves to be a wee bit less Roman. On the superficial side and related to the mental associations of the vocabulary more than questions of accuracy or inaccuracy, there's things like the 'reception' at the mansio with its 'night porter', which sounds like the hotel I used to work in, and the 'laundry basket' dirty socks are kept in - there is absolutely no way to demonstrate whether or not Romans had laundry baskets, but the use of the item somehow feels so utterly domestic and familiar, I end up picturing the blue thing I got from Tesco's. Then there's the baby who somehow manages to sleep on a Roman road (it would be far too rough) and who is fed water and some form of animal milk at only a couple of weeks old when his mother dies - perhaps the Romans did do this but it isn't a good idea and really, you'd need to find a wet nurse as soon as possible (the characters do mention finding a wet nurse, but they put it off).

More seriously, there are 'servants' and 'maids' running around all over the place. This rather reminds me of translations of the Bible, which are forever throwing the word 'servant' around when they mean 'slave'. In Roman society, there were slaves and there were freedmen (and freedwomen). A freedman might stay and do the same job he or she did as a slave but with a wage, or they might leave and set up their own business. No Romans would run around town looking for a 'housekeeper', they would buy a new slave. Come to that, unless the previous 'housekeeper' had been freed in the dead man's will, you wouldn't need to find a new one after a death because the old one would belong to the next of kin or beneficiary of the will (though, since there's no mention of wills, perhaps the dead man didn't leave one). We don't know much about Roman Britain, but in a town striving to adopt Roman customs, I'm pretty sure this would still be the case (and the British almost certainly had some slaves as well).

On the character side, Ruso, like all Roman detectives, has a very modern outlook, as does his (British, outspoken) wife. He occasionally considers the gods but not often (to be fair, I think that was probably true of a lot of Romans as well), he puts his trust in medicine and forensics (like Cadfael, a forward-thinking medieval Crusader turned monk), he marries for love (at least, the second time) and most tellingly, he has no slaves.

The great benefit of all this is that the reader can really sympathise with the main characters and enjoy a story with a fair number of twists and turns without being distracted by passing judgement on a hero who enjoys gladiatorial games or keeps lots of slaves. Every literary Roman detective is like this to an extent, some more than others. Ruso and Tilla are fun, likeable characters and you can really feel for them over the course of the story, both when they're endangering themselves looking for a murderer and during their more personal problems. They are also pleasantly three-dimesional, fully-rounded characters who have plenty of flaws, even if they're not specifically Roman flaws - the downside of this is that occasionally they have to do really stupid things for the sake of the plot, but that's fairly common.

The book is easy to follow for those who haven't read Ruso stories before, which is good (though it will of course spoil the earlier books!). It features a colourful cast of memorable characters in a vividly depicted setting. The shady figure of Metellus in the background adds to the danger and the intrigue and the ending is distinctly bittersweet - once again, the constraints of the historical period do come to the fore at this point and any kind of justice has to be achieved in a thoroughly roundabout fashion. That, I suspect, is a very Roman quality.

All in all this a fun read with a likeable cast and offers a pleasant opportunity to read something set in Roman Britain that isn't about the Ninth Legion! (Though it is a little bit about Boudicca...)

Tuesday, 17 May 2011

Guest Post: Interview with author Ruth Downie

Apologies to subscribers for the onslaught of slightly odd posts yesterday. I've been doing some minor redesign on the site, trying to make it easier to navigate, and I nicked Billie Doux's excellent idea of back-dating some posts to 2000 so that they can stand as 'homepages' for my regular series, as it were. I've also put a few adverts on the site, which I hope are not too instrusive.

Today's post is a guest post by Hasan Niyazi from Three Pipe Problem, and is an interview with author Ruth Downie. Ruth writes a series of Roman-set 'detective' novels about army physician Gaius Petreius Ruso, and the fourth, Ruso and the River of Darkness in the UK and Australia or Caveat Emptor in the US and Canada, has just been released. I'll be reviewing Caveat Emptor on Thursday but in the meantime, I'll hand you over to Hasan.

What was the key inspiration that led you to write stories based in an historical setting?

The usual advice is to ‘write what you know,’ but when I began to write I was spending most of my time rushing between a part-time job and looking after small children. Writing was a way to escape, so I was on the lookout for a story as far from my own life as possible.

We were on a family visit to Hadrian’s Wall when I read that the Roman troops ‘were not allowed to marry the local women, but were allowed to have relationships with them’. This early example of the military having their cake and eating it set me wondering what life must have been like for those two very different communities, Roman and native, occupier and occupied, living side by side.

The historical sleuth genre is becoming increasingly popular, what do you think is the explanation for this?

My first thought here is that the aftermath of a serious crime now involves a crowd of professionals and a lot of technology.  There isn’t much room for the amateur sleuth to get past the yellow police tape and the white paper suits – which narrows down the crime writer’s choice of protagonist.

Historical fiction can take us back beyond the development of a professional police force, to a time when an enthusiastic amateur from a different walk of life might realistically have stood a chance of solving a mystery.  So I wonder if the breadth of scope is part of the appeal.

Also, since ‘history’ in general is enjoying a revival in popular culture at the moment, you could say that the detective story is a useful vessel in which to travel through time.

Were the writings of Conan-Doyle or Edgar Allan Poe influential in your development of your Ruso Series?

Anyone working in the detective/mystery genre owes a debt to the writers who pioneered the form, but it’s so long since I read any Poe that his influence must be well buried!

As for Conan Doyle – Ruso is certainly no Holmes but there’s definitely a structural inheritance.  The partner as a sounding-board for the detective’s ideas; the idea that a mystery can be solved by careful observation and deductive reasoning; the lurking existence of a powerful enemy across several episodes  – and come to think of it, the ‘two gentlemen and the housekeeper’ setup in the first Ruso book – they’re all there in Conan Doyle.

It is well known that Sherlock Holmes was based on Dr Joseph Bell, a Lecturer in Medicine who mentored Conan-Doyle. Is Gaius Petreius Ruso based on anyone in particular?

No.  I never find it helps to have real people in mind when I write, because they tend to get in the way.

Much of writing – the way I do it, at least - seems to be about beating one’s head against a dead end until a useful idea falls into place. Ruso sprang from something else I was trying to write, where the main character embodied the tensions of the time by having a Roman father and a British mother.  I can’t believe how long it took me to realise that the parents, who could actually move about and speak to each other, were much more interesting than the memory of them in the son’s head.

Can you describe some of the historical research that goes into your books?

It’s just as well publishers have deadlines, because without them the books would never get written: I’d be too happy doing the research. I like to wander around the locations of the books, visiting museums and taking far too many photos. Often the setting dictates part of the plot:  once I’d seen the maze of tunnels and staircases and corridors beneath the amphitheatre seating in Nimes, it was obvious that Ruso had to chase somebody around them.

Back at home, there’s plenty of written evidence to explore but it’s patchy. The Romans left us everything from official histories and epic poems to tombstones, election slogans and rude graffiti,   but Britain only seems to feature in the histories when somebody important was here.  We have very little idea of what was going on here at the start of Hadrian’s reign, except that the Army had to deal with some sort of trouble.

Since the Britons themselves left no written records, the field is open to speculation – and to archaeology. I have to confess something of an obsession here. It’s not strictly necessary, for the sake of the novels, to spend several weeks of each summer covered in mud and suncream while attempting to scrape out the remains of a Roman sheep farm from a Northamptonshire hillside.  It is, however, enormous fun. And perhaps it serves as a reminder that most of our ancestors were not famous generals or politicians but ordinary people, making a living as best they could.

On the subject of making a living, I did have a couple of characters who were obliged to tread grapes. In the interests of authenticity, and probably because I was stuck with the plot, I put a bunch of grapes in a washing-up bowl and tried it. Grapes are very slimy.

Some of the most fascinating aspects of your books are the descriptions of the interactions between Romans and the native Britons. Are the dynamics of these accounts congruent with the historical record?

It’s surprising how little the native Britons figure in the Army letters that have been unearthed at Vindolanda. Just about the only mention calls them ‘Brittunculi’, which translates as something like ‘wretched little Brits’. One gets the impression that unless the natives needed suppressing or taxing, the Army was largely preoccupied with its own business. However, the way that small settlements sprang up outside the forts suggests that there was plenty of trade going on with individual soldiers, and occasionally we find native wives and families mentioned on tombstones.

There must have been serious tensions, though.  A legion was an expensive unit to fund, and the fact that three of them were stationed here for much of the occupation suggests the Britons could not be trusted to run their own affairs.

Finally – and I think this is what makes the period really interesting - the Britons, who were split into various tribes, couldn’t agree amongst themselves. For instance, Tacitus tells us that Caratacus’s resistance to Rome finally ended when he fled to the queen of a northern tribe for sanctuary - and was promptly arrested and handed over. That same queen also fought a civil war against her own husband.

There’s archaeological evidence for division, too. In the south, many of the tribes seem to have been keen to adopt imported fashions and move out of their traditional roundhouses. Further north, there’s no sign of the locals building themselves smart new Roman-style villas. They had a huge wall put up by the Army instead, with defensive ditches on both sides. I think that’s a fair hint that not everyone was clamouring to be part of the Empire.

Cases from the legal career of Marcus Tullius Cicero are precious surviving glimpses of Roman investigative processes. Have these and similar accounts been influential in crafting the structure of your stories?

Someone once described the story of Cicero’s ‘Cluentius’ case to me as being ‘worthy of the plot of Dynasty’ – and indeed it is. His speeches are great examples of how to sway a jury (including all sorts of hearsay and insinuation that would be totally inadmissible today) but not many people would be wealthy or influential enough to have such a lawyer on their side. That was if they ever got to court in the first place.

We don’t know what the ‘grassroots’ legal system was for ordinary people in Britain, where most of my stories are set, but if it was anything like Rome, there was no state prosecution service.  It was up to the victim, or someone acting on their behalf, to bring a case. It’s widely believed that Roman citizens could appeal to the Emperor (as St. Paul did) but if you were a common-or-garden Briton, that wasn’t open to you either.  You might try complaining to the authorities, or your tribal leaders, or the local centurion, but you would have to wait at least 1400 years for the police to arrive. So a private citizen like Ruso might just feel moved enough by injustice to want to do something about it. As for the Cluentius case– it’s a marvellous tale of sex, murder and family betrayal, but I haven’t yet figured out a way to fit it all into one book.

What advice do you have for aspiring fiction writers?

Find friends who write, and encourage each other.  Write about what fascinates you, and be prepared to rewrite. Don’t give up.

What is a memorable site from antiquity which you have visited?

Pompeii and Herculaneum are the most evocative sites, but my favourite remains the unostentatious Northamptonshire sheep farm, because I’ve been part of the team that’s uncovered it.  (www.whitehallvilla.co.uk)

Your book is available in hard copy, audio and electronic edition. As an author, do you feel it is important to maximise the audience for your work through these different media?

To be honest an author has very little control over this sort of thing, but I’m delighted that there are now several options for people who don’t find printed books practical. I also think it’s important that readers can access books in whatever way they find easiest. There are so many competing demands on people’s time, and whilst hardcore readers will always hunt out a book, others will simply give up and do something else instead. And that’s a shame.

Many thanks to both Hasan and Ruth! I'll be back with my review of Caveat Emptor on Thursday.

Saturday, 14 May 2011

Rome: The Spoils

So, when we last left Rome, before Spartacus: Gods of the Arena started, Dodgey had just demonstrated why he's called Dodgey, Boring was being boring, Caesar had Triumphed and Atia was trying to persuade Octavia she's not a psycho, with limited success. This episode opens with Dodgey murdering someone, so presumably he's now a hit-man on top of everything else. Boring, however, is now a magistrate and has started to meet his clients as patron, which involves sitting in a chair, throne-like, surrounded by his family. Quite why his entire family want to watch all the proceedings I'm not sure, but he's pulling off the big man in town thing rather well (being mean to former friends etc) so I think the time is right to re-christen him The Godfather.

The Godfather (formerly known as Boring) insists that Pullo is 'dead to him' and tries to persuade his old friend that he can't help Caesar's disgruntled veterans. Dodgey is not doing so well, getting robbed by prostitutes and turning down tasty mouse for lunch.

Caesar invites The Godfather and Niobe to one of Atia's dinner parties (he calls it a symposium, but those were men-only-except-dancers-and-prostitutes Greek dinner parties, so he's being misleading there). Caesar also has himself declared Dictator for Life and has the fifth month named after himself, which causes Cassius to look like he's swallowed something sour. Brutus, meanwhile, is just mildly amused at a bunch of graffitti showing him stabbing Caesar, to emulate his ancestor who killed the last king. Brutus notes that the plebs like to see the rich fight because 'it's cheaper than the theatre and the blood is real' and I can't help thinking he probably has a point there.

It's time for Cassius and Brutus to start having Shakespearian conversations about Caesar, death of, the future of the Republic, etc. but they stay impressively far away from actual Shakespearian dialogue for the moment (it's just so tempting for writers, when such juicy dialogue is right there ready to use).

Dodgey is getting really sloppy and I can't help thinking maybe he's attempting the Roman version of suicide by cop. He's going soft, letting old ladies live and hallucinating them afterwards. The Godfather has managed to get something for Caesar's veterans and for his old friend but the bit of land in question does not please, so the old friend continues to whinge and I kind of wish we could set Dodgey on him. Although I've seen the series before so I know what happens, I can't help thinking that maybe this should be Dodgey's purpose from now on - he can just be unleashed on anyone who's excessively annoying.

Mark Antony enlists Octavia to help him get back in Atia's good graces, which is interesting considering the two of them (him and Octavia, that is) will end up married with a daughter someday. Niobe is terribly nervous which is rather sweet, while the others talk about her in the way that the characters in Gosford Park talk about the girl with only one evening dress. Octavian approaches The Godfather to ask him to help Dodgey, who's on death row for murder, having murdered one of Caesar's enemies (so Caesar can't help because he doesn't want the blame). Caear absolutely forbids them to help him, so of course they will.

Atia and Mark Antony have make-up sex and even they come across as quite sweet fo once. Poor Niobe is less happy, having overheard the comments about her dress. Octavian sends Timon to find a lawyer for Dodgey and quite frankly I'm amazed that Timon is still alive, I'd have thought he'd be a goner ages ago. Having a lawyer does Dodgey no good, of course, because he's guilty as sin, though it's quite fun seeing the court case. I especially liked seeing an open air court case, as many of them were in ancient Rome (on Roman law-courts in general, see Caroline Lawrence's excellent summary here). And it isn't a proper Roman drama without a court case, though name-checking Cicero and then doing a court case he's not in is just a tease (even I, with my all-consuming hatred of Cicero, would be intrigued by seeing him in action in the courts, though probably no actor could live up to his reputation). The Godfather turns up so that his old friend can whinge at him again and explain his plan to save Dodgey, which The Godfather has to talk him out of. Dodgey is condemned to death in the arena, to no one's surprise.

Caesar and Brutus have slightly double-edged dialogue about fathers and sons (still umming and aahing around the possibility of Caesar being Brutus' father) and Caesar asks Brutus to deal with a problem he has in Macedonia, which Brutus refuses because it's hard to stab someone in the back from a distance of several hundred miles. Caesar admits he doesn't entirely trust Brutus, which Brutus has the cheek to be annoyed about. Caesar points out he can order Brutus to go and Brutus just gets crosser until eventually he gets so cross that he resorts to sarcasm.

Dodgey prays for Eirene and The Godfather to Janus, Gaia and Dis, which actually kind of makes sense for someone who's about to die (Janus, god of doorways, of ends and beginnings, Gaia is earth, in which the dead are buried, and Dis is the underworld). He's then sent into an arena which is much, much smaller and less impressive than anything seen on Spartacus: Blood and Sand or Gods of the Arena. This is probably reasonably accurate, since Rome had no permanent arenas at this time, though I would have thought the capital city would have had a slightly bigger and more impressive temporary arena, all the same.

Dodgey is no Spartacus, or Maximus; he just sits on the ground and tells the other gladiators to kill him, no matter how much they taunt him. This is all very dull for the audience and is wasn't planning suicide-by-lawyer before, he is now. That is, until the gladiators insult the Thirteenth Legion as a whole. That gets him going, and he's up and chopping. I have a feeling this scene looked more impressive the first time I saw it, before Spartacus: Blood and Sand - now it can't help but look kind of tame by comparison.

I do fondly remember the next bit though, one of the highlights of the series. Dodgey gets attacked by a steady stream of gladiators while The Godfather watches, Dodgey killing them all, yelling 'Thirteen!' all the while. Eventually a big gladiator with an evil-looking mace (literally, it's got an evil spiky head on it) comes out and stands over Dodgey, who's a bit tired out by now, ready to finish him off - and suddenly, The Godfather runs right on in, also shouting 'Thirteen!' and takes on evil-mace guy (and there is a fairly gory leg-chopping shot in there as well, plus a prolonged death). Evil-mace guy finished, he helps Dodgey up and they just walk out of the arena. It's all very touching and bromance-y and you feel so uplifted by the whole pride-brotherly-love-friend-saving thing that you forget that a) assuming you're in a culture with a death penalty, Dodgey fully deserves his several times over and b) Dodgey is a condemned criminal, it doesn't matter how many 'house' gladiators you kill off, or how many friends help you - you still have to die, unless the emperor himself happens to be around to save you, and they don't have an emperor yet. You can't just walk out and decide you've now paid your debt to society.

It is revealed to the audience that it really was Caesar, through his chief slave and a thug, who ordered the murder Dodgey was sent down for, and we cut straight from this into Brutus telling Servilia he'll get together a murder plot with Cassius. He's quite upset about it, but clearly he really doesn't like Macedonia (and who could blame him, considering what's in store for him there - maybe he's psychic). End of episode (which felt shorter than usual - I must have been watching longer things lately).

This is a nice little episode, made up mostly of quiet moments and then building to a rousing finish and nicely dramatic climax - Dodgey and The Godfather finally become truly sympathetic, interesting characters and we're really getting to the meat of the political story now, to the bit you can't help eagerly anticipating from the moment Caesar appears on screen. There's still a fair amount of plotting to come first though, and the next episode ensures we don't get too excited too quickly by calling itself 'The Kalends of February' - it's not all over just yet.

Wednesday, 11 May 2011

Classical Places in Popular Culture: Britain

The news had an item today about how Lonely Planet apparently gave Britain in general a bit of a pasting in its most recent Guide. The good news is, two places close to my heart seem to have come out of it rather well - Birmingham, where I've lived for more years in total than anywhere else in the country, and Bath (left), home of Britain's best preserved Roman remains.

Britain was one of the furthest flung posts of the Roman Empire, and our Roman remains are, shall we say, not always that impressive. (I'm talking about England and Wales here, of course, since the Romans didn't get to Ireland - Northern or otherwise - or Scotland). There's a reason that Blackadder's Roman incarnation wondered why they were trying to keep the Picts out of the Empire by building a three-foot high wall. I'm not sure exactly what the problem was - presumably a combination of climate and looting by Anglo-Saxons and Vikings, who took the Roman bricks and stone to make their own buildings - but very few Roman ruins in this country come up any higher than ankle level.

Roman villa near Gloucester, with CurrentHousemate walking away from the camera!

Saxon church in Escomb, near Durham, built partly with Roman bricks and stone, identifiable by the diamond-pattern markings on them (viewed on an excrusion during this year's Classical Association conference).

In some places, there are reasonably impressive remains underground, which are dug up and then covered up with a somewhat dingy-looking corrugated iron hut thing.

Interior of the best-preserved section of a Roman fort near Durham, also part of the CA conference excursion, with Claudius the plastic Roman in the top right hand corner

The exterior of this section of the fort, under this time wooden hut-thing, surrounded by less well-preserved sections

This is quite good though - follow a sign for a 'Roman mine' in North Wales and you'll never find it, though you'll probably get a very nice walk in the process and will almost certainly see some sheep.

We do have one spectacularly well-preserved set of Roman remains - the baths at Bath (so impressive we named the town after them). These are much better preserved, and although this preservation is due largely due to lots of later additions (especially Georgian, I believe) it makes the Baths that much more impressive to look at and they are the highlight of our Roman archaeological sites (along with Caerleon, which I haven't seen because I couldn't afford to go to the CA conference that year).

You're not allowed to dip your fingers in the water at the baths at Bath, so naturally, OldHousemate(theRomeone) and I did no such thing. Ahem.

With these being far and away our most visually impressive Roman remains, it's not surprising that if Roman Britain is required, programme-makers will try to get them in there - though few go to the lengths of Bonekickers, which kept Boudicca alive far longer than history did and in a different part of the country, just so that they could set their episode about Boudicca at the Baths, conveniently located near where they were filming at BBC Bristol.

I couldn't find a picture of them in the Baths specifically, because all the photos relating to this particular episode were from... my own blog. No one else is interested in Bonekickers. I don't blame them.

Most pop culture representations of Britain, however, don't bother with real Roman ruins, they just build sets and set stories in Londinium (London) or Camulodunum (Colchester), the major urban centres of Roman Britain. (Colchester has an excellent museum with Roman section, which I haven't been to since I was 10 years old, but it was very good). Just lately, they all seem obsessed with the probably-fictitious disappearance of the Ninth Legion north of Hadrian's Wall, in dark, wet, atmospheric Scotland (see Centurion, The Last Legion, The Eagle etc.).

This was the only picture of Scotland I could find on my computer (it's in Glasgow and when I was little I thought this actually was Sydney Opera House). Just pretend it's a dark, damp, atmospheric forest.

As you can tell from the pictures, the British climate is not quite like the Roman/Italian one and this is usually a major theme in depictions of Roman Britain. Every Roman who is ever sent to Britain, whether it's Kenneth Williams' Caesar, Lindsey Davis' Falco, a character from Chelmsford 123, or even Blackadder, will complain about how cold and wet it is. To be fair, they have a point (hence the mass exodus from Britain to the Mediterranean every summer) though for the record, I do have a friend from Texas who actually likes the climate here. It's not that terrible... really...

My birthday present from CurrentHousemate this year - note pouring rain in the background

As this picture reminds us, the most interesting use of the British landscape in a Roman-set story recently was last year's two-part Doctor Who finale, 'The Pandorica Opens'/'The Big Bang'. Rather than go hunting for some decent Roman remains and trying to build an episode around them, Steven Moffat took the whole thing even further - he simply went for the most impressive historical monument we have in this country and built an episode around that, on the quite sensible grounds that it was already there during the Roman period, so there was no reason not to go there with Romans.

Romans at Stonehenge!

Me at Stonehenge!

I love this double layering of history, like the ruined Roman villa in Britain where the lovers meet in the 2006 film version of Tristan and Isolde. And it's certainly a nice way to mix two of
the major elements of pre-1066 British history together.

All in all, Britain doesn't do that badly as far as pop culture Romans go, though in defense of my country, I would like to point out that the sun does shine here sometimes. Just not very often.

See? Sunshine!

Sunday, 8 May 2011

Doctor Who: The Curse of the Black Spot

There's Classics and Archaeology all over this series of Doctor Who - I don't think I've ever seen so many bloggable episodes in one series! (Bearing in mind River is certain to return by the autumn if not before, and we might be seeing Rory the Roman again as well).

This episode had a lot of very promising ingredients for a Doctor Who story - Pirates! Treasure! A Curse! Hugh Bonneville! Rory! Matt Smith continues to grow on me and much of the episode featured a nice, traditional adventure story with a bit of danger, and the TARDIS going missing, which always ratchets up the tension nicely. A few flaws at the end - Rory dying holds no dramatic power whatsoever any more because he's done it more often than Harry Kim and we didn't need the reminders of the Doctor's apparent (and equally drama-free) impending doom and Amy's maybe-pregnancy, because this was a stand-alone story and should, therefore, have stood alone. On the other hand, I'm sure we'll see Captain Avery and his crew again in the future, and I look forward to that, pirates are always good fun. And the Doctor's characteristic dislike of firearms is back to normal after last week's unusual fondess for bottom-kicking, so all's well with the world again.Link
I blogged about Sirens in general a good while back, when reviewing the Red Dwarf episode 'Psirens'. To sum up; ancient depictions of Sirens often included wings, which never get into modern depictions, and I don't think they became sexy until after their most famous appearance in Homer, though this was a point of some debate. The main difference between this Siren and your classic Sirens was that she functions best in becalmed water, rather than dashing people to their deaths against the rocks, for which I presume rough seas would be more effective; plus, of course, she's entirely well intentioned and not a psychopathic killer at all. This episode does rather make you wonder what other forms Voyager's holographic Doctor could have taken (wonderful as Robert Picardo is in the role). The Doctor kept calling her a mermaid, which was mildly irritating - although Sirens are sometimes depicted as mermaids in later (non-Classical) works, this one definitely had legs.

I rather like the reinvention of the Siren as an essentially benevolent (sort of) force, though the inversion is less dramatic for being a bit too reminiscent of other relatively recent Who episodes (Moffat's own 'The Empty Child/The Doctor Dances', chiefly, and people going poof! but turning out to have been transported, not killed, appeared in 'Bad Wolf'). Her music was nicely ethereal and is one of those things that's really hard to do, like casting Helen of Troy - how do you decide what the most beautiful song in the world sounds like? (I like Ariel's little ditty from The Little Mermaid, myself). The idea that she appeared beautiful and sounded beautiful if you'd been injured, almost like a drug, solved this problem rather nicely, as we could imagine she looked and sounded even more beautiful to those under her influence.

I was less keen on the Doctor's reference to 'folklore' that says the Sirens go after treasure ships. Perhaps there's some post-Classical folklore that has them do so, but Greek Sirens just like to crash ships for the lolz, usually - which in some ways can be more frightening and more interesting, though of course it wouldn't fit this story. Talking of interesting, why did Avery become a pirate? We never did find out. Perhaps he's going to show up again later and explain then, though I would have preferred an explanation here - again, this is supposed to be a stand-alone episode. Russell T Davis had a knack for making episodes feel complete and surprising you by picking up on them again later (the watch from 'Human Nature/The Family of Blood' that reappeared in 'Utopia', for example) but there are so many hanging threads this series nothing really feels complete.

Some major plotholes here (why aren't the Doctor, Amy and Avery put straight in the sickbay? why does CPR have a 100% success rate on TV, when it has a 20% success rate in real life?!) but this was a fun run-around with lovely production values and I'll be quite happy to see Avery and his crew again, as we undoubtedly will. If they bring more Classical creatures with them, so much the better!

Friday, 6 May 2011

The Tough Guide to Fantasyland (by Diana Wynne Jones)

A couple of bits of housekeeping: I've made comments available to registered users only (anyone signed in to OpenID can still comment) in an attempt to avoid spending another morning deleting viagra salespeople from my comments sections. So far, unfortunately, it doesn't seem to have worked - I'll leave it this way for a while and if it doesn't do any good, I'll open up the comments to anonymous users again (if you're the viagra salespeople who keep leaving inane but vaguely relevant comments linked to your viagra-selling site on the blog, please stop doing it. I am never going to let you push drugs, legal or otherwise, on my blog and if I ever decide to advertise anything on here, that will be my decision and mine alone).

I also have a new article up at Sound on Sight, on the six best films based on a television series.

The Tough Guide to Fantasyland is a comic A-Z of common fantasy tropes written by Diana Wynne Jones back in the mid-1990s. It's written in the form of a travel guide for the adventurous Tourist (i.e. the protagonist) about to set out on a Tour of Fantasyland. The obligatory map is provided at the beginning, of course, and for some reason includes, alongside The Smoking Mountain of G'wd, the River Smealt and the Sea of Caysif, small town labelled 'Nuneaton'. This was rather surprising - I went to the railway station there once, but had no idea it was a gateway to Fantasyland. It certainly made me laugh to see it on there, though.

The rest of the book is an alphabetical encyclopedia of sorts, each section headed with a Gnomic Utterance starting with the appropriate letter (things like 'Insights are always valuable, even if they only show you your duodenal ulcer'). This includes an entry for the Vestigial Empire; the 'most civilised' part of the continent, where both food (non-stew-based) and baths are available, with the only decent roads in Fantasyland, lots of white villas and vineyards and it has 'a parliament and a senate'. The Vestigial Empire is quite clearly a clinging remnant of the Roman Empire, existing alongside the medieval setting of the rest of Fantasyland.

Like so many recurring themes in sword 'n' sourcery, this particular theme originates with Tolkien, whose Gondor has a vaguely Byzantine feel alongside Rohan's Anglo-Saxon Cossacks (another entry in the Guide). It has its roots in history, especially in Tolkien's version, as the remnants of the Roman Empire continued to exist in the form of the Byzantine Empire while early medieval western Europe developed slowly into late medieval western Europe.

The Vestigial Empire as Wynne Jones describes it, though, is not quite Tolkien's ageing glory of Byzantium and even Tolkien was creating fantasy, not writing history; all in all the whole trope is rather unfair to the Byzantine Empire. Byzantium was a large and prosperous Empire which survived the fall of Rome by a thousand years (it fell when the Turks invaded Constantinople in 1453). Although it was, technically, the continuation of the Eastern Roman Empire, it was really a force and a culture in its own right and, historically, should never be dismissed as just a lingering 'vestigial' outpost of fallen Rome.

Tolkien started the downgrading of Byzantium's fantasy equivalent when he portrayed Gondor as a fading, suffering, shrinking shadow of its former self (excluding the ending, of course). The common Fantasyland Vesitigal Empire, as described by Wynne Jones, is even more Roman and even less impressive. It is quite clearly playing on the idea of Rome, but a Rome shrunk to a much less powerful force and struggling to survive against a fantastical Dark Lord. This is the most traditional, Victorian view of Rome imaginable, as a corner of 'civilisation' against barbaric tribes and countries with no decent roads, food or buildings (I should probably reiterate here that Wynne Jones' book is satire - she is deliberately highlighting the corniest fantasy tropes around, not endorsing them!).

There was one other somewhat bizarre bit of Roman stuff tucked away in the book. The book contains black and white, sort of old fashioned feeling illustrations throughout - I couldn't find the illustrator's name, so presumably it was either Steve Crisp, who designed the front cover, or Wynne Jones herself. Under the entry for 'Palaces' was the following illustration:

This is not a palace. It is quite clearly a drawing of Birmingham Town Hall. I recognise the entrance in the nearest corner, where we went in to see my brother play some kind of musical instrument in something, and to see Nosferatu with live accompanying organist at Halloween a couple of years ago.

Birmingham Town Hall

I didn't have a picture on my computer from the right angle, but here's one of mine from the snow last December - you can just about see the town hall in the far left side, behind the merry-go-round (which is part of the annual Frankfurt German Market) over the other side of the steps from the Floozie in the Jacuzzi.

I'm not sure what's more puzzling about this particular illustration - the fact that a drawing of the town hall of Britain's second city has been used to illustrate Fantasyland, or the fact that it's included under 'Palaces'. Birmingham Town Hall, you see, is such a good replica of a Roman temple that our lecturer in our first year undergraduate class told us all to go and have a look at it so we could understand Roman temples better.

A Roman temple in Nimes, which I haven't yet seen in person, unfortunately.

Clearly, the Vestigial Empire has somehow, possibly through the portal in Nuneaton, extended itself into our world, where it's old temples are becoming palaces. For fantasy kings. Or something.

Anyway, The Tough Guide is well worth a read if you're a fantasy fan as it's good fun and some of it is hilarious - the entries on 'Horses' and 'Swords' were especially high points for me.
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