Wednesday, 24 October 2012

The Coming of the King (by M.C. Scott)


One of the most freeing things about writing historical fiction, rather than non-fiction, is that it gives the author the opportunity to offer a reinterpretation of the text, and that reinterpretation can be as radical as you want it to be, with no need to provide evidence to back up your theories. Some ideas, the sorts of ideas we all hold about historical characters and events, can only be explored in this way because there simply isn't any evidence to support them. This is doubly - probably triply or even ten-times-ly - true of the ancient world, because nearly all our evidence for the ancient world is so spectacularly unreliable that we don't really have much of a clue what we're on about most of the time anyway. And it is hundred-times-ly true for anything involving mystery religions or the early development of Christianity, about which we know almost nothing.

Authors of historical fiction, then, have a great big playground to splash about in - working within a basic climbing frame of historical evidence (which they can choose how closely to stick to anyway), they can make up whatever games they want. The only problem for the reader is, if the games stray frequently and far from the more usually told story, it can get a bit confusing. The Coming of the King is Scott's sixth Roman-set book and the first one I've read; I suspect if you follow Sebastos Pantera's adventures from the beginning, with the deviations from history as you know it introduced gradually, it all makes a bit more sense. But, discovering them all at once in this sixth volume, the major reinterpretations I noticed included (spoilers follow):

Nero was right after all - the Great Fire of Rome really was started by a Christian, specifically, by Saulos (St Paul)...
who is completely evil...
and is trying to destroy Jerusalem for personal reasons I can't quite remember.
Jesus was a Galilean rebel called Yehuda/Judas...
who was taken down from his cross early...
by his pregnant wife (or lover, something like that)...
and survived.
He had been leading a War Party wanting to wage war on the Roman Empire (zealots, presumably)...
which is now being led by his grandson Menachem...
along with another grandson, Eleazir.
The hero, Pantera, has had some kind of romantic relationship with someone related to Jesus (daughter, possibly).
Saulos (Paul) was killed by Pantera in Jerusalem (not executed in Rome, as Christian tradition usually suggests).
Oh, and Nero didn't murder Poppaea, but he has married a eunuch (so, following about half of Suetonius' gossip).

That's a lot of reinterpretation and frankly, I got lost. Perhaps more significantly, the Author's Notes at the back suggests that Scott included these interpretations because she believes them to be factually true, which is another issue all together. Scott mentions a few books in the Note, several of which, if I saw them in a student's essay bibliography, would lead me to mark the essay down for using inappropriate secondary sources. These include Daniel Unterbrink's The Three Messiahs (a quick Google didn't bring up any reviews, but he mentions how indebted he is to I, Claudius in the intro, which tells you quite a lot about it) and Joseph Atwill's Caesar's Messiah (which is, quite frankly, bonkers - there is very interesting work to be done on the relationship between the Gospels and satire, and between the Gospels and Greco-Roman novels, but suggesting that Titus Caesar invented Christianity - a man who oversaw the deification of his father - is not it). (Martin Goodman's Rome and Jerusalem, which she also mentions, looks rather better).

All of which is to say that it's all very entertaining as a novel, as long as these speculations aren't taken for history. To be honest, the only re-interpretations here that I find really historically plausible are the suggestion that Poppaea could have died in childbirth (quite possible) and that idea that Jesus was rescued from the cross before death, which fits with the Biblical records of Him dying unusually quickly - and I personally don't believe that, because I'm a Christian and I actually do believe that He was the Son of God and rose from the dead etc etc etc. But assuming you're not a Christian, that one does actually fit quite neatly. Whether He had descendants or not is something we can never know, though personally I've always thought if He did, and they survived, you'd have thought they'd have made themselves known at some point. Maybe they were embarrassed by the family history.

Aside from dramatic re-interpretations of history, there's an interesting fantasy-vibe to much of this novel. Iksahra the Berber (persistently described as having black skin - I always though Berber people tended towards lighter skin tones than, say, Ethiopians, but I could be wrong) travels everywhere with a tame cheetah and hunting birds, and constantly reminded me of Hunter from Neil Gaiman's Neverwhere, especially when she started developing a thing with Hypatia. Hypatia (presumably named for the later philosopher) is attached to the cult of Isis (always good for fantastical creations, as we don't know much about it) and both she and young Kleopatra (not that one) have premonitory dreams and can see and hear the souls of the just departed (which must be quite distracting in battle). Prophetic dreams, and prophecies in general, quite often crop up in historical novels including The Roman Mysteries and I, Claudius, though they aren't always mentioned quite as often as they are here. The dreams referred to throughout this book don't really match the way ancient texts use omen dreams - these dreams aren't symbolic, nor do they carry a message from a deity. Literal prophecy dreams like these (in which Hypatia and Kleopatra live events before they happen) are very rare in ancient texts, but here Hypatia makes decisions based on them. And then there's Pantera, who can smell blood from three streets away. To be fair, I think my immediate reaction to that line says more about my own personal obsession with dodgy vampire fiction than about the book.

Camels! These were in Birmingham. Probably cold, poor things, but they seemed quite happy.

This book presents an exciting adventure story and it reads well. The prose isn't always to my taste - it tends to spell things out a bit and is rather overly dramatic - but Scott includes evocative descriptions of the desert and of the ancient cities, some of my favourite things (there were camels!). At one point towards the end, we briefly followed a soldier who decided to get the heck out of Dodge in a rather beautiful digression that was quite affecting. I found the characters a bit too perfect to be really likeable in most cases, but Kleopatra was well drawn and I liked Menachem, who seemed the most three dimensional character. I also quite liked Scott's interpretation of Josephus - although I like Josephus because I like his writing, like Scott, I see him as something of a conniving, selfish character. If you enjoy sand, blood and intrigue, and won't be constantly distracted by your conviction that the lead character is a vampire, you might enjoy this.

9 comments:

  1. Hmmm... doesn't sound like my cup of tea exactly. I get pretty annoyed with historical fiction that changes accepted history so dramatically, and on top of that the author states she believes it to be realistic! Present it as an "alternate version of history" (parallel universe?) and then I can be ok with it!
    But perhaps you're right... maybe reading from book 1 onwards makes it feel more acceptable?

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    1. Perhaps. Gotta say, not really my thing - but I'm very aware of just how biased I am against something that makes Jesus a terrorist and St Paul evil!

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  2. Yeah, I'm pretty much with CrazyCris on this one.

    Berbers are definitely not what one could black (unless you're a Victorian Brit or something who used it to describe any person of color). Berber skin tones are essentially the same as any other North African, most of whom are of Berber descent anyway.

    If Jesus had any offspring and assuming they did, too, then there are literally millions of people today who are descended from Jesus. It's just like how most western Europeans can include Charlemagne among their ancestors. And Jesus has an extra 1200 years to spread his genes around. Most of the schlocky novels that use this McGuffin go to great lengths to imply that each and every generation only had one child in order to avoid this problem.

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    1. I must admit, I've avoided The Da Vinci Code partly to avoid all that stuff!

      Glad I was right about Berbers - I was pretty sure 'black' (and the darkness is repeatedly emphasised) wasn't quite the right description.

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    2. I didn't have much of a clue about that when I picked up the DaVinci Code... I had no idea how bad it would be either! :p

      Berbers are definitely NOT black! Mediterranean-brown with dark eyes and black hair usually. Occasionally a light-eyed redhead will be born, thanks to those pesky Vikings causing trouble all over the Med! ;o)

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    3. Well, I suppose technically some of the western Tuareg could be described as black, but that's because they've mixed a lot with the sub-Saharan peoples of Niger and Mali over the last 50-100 years. But that's really an outlier and most Berbers aren't all that different from Arabs, Levantines of other sorts, and southern Italians and Spaniards.

      The Vikings probably found plenty of light-eyed redheads already there. After all, the Vandals beat them by several centuries. Not to mention plenty of Gauls and other Germanics brought in during the Roman era.

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    4. Right you are! I forgot about Roman troupes from around the Empire sowing their wild oats all across the Empire! :p
      I just usual refer people to the Vikings when they have trouble believing in the existence of Spanish redheads! ;o)

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  3. Not quite my cup of tea either....

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