When I finished Tim Leach’s debut novel, The Last King of Lydia, I was deeply impressed by the way he’d transformed a story from Herodotus into an elegant and beautifully-written meditation on fortune and happiness. Little did I guess that I’d have the pleasure of reading another of his books so soon (and a sequel no less!), returning to the sumptuous might of the Persian empire in the 6th century BC.
If anything, The King and the Slave is even more powerful than its predecessor: this is a darker place, in which horrific things happen, but the story is told with poetic grace and humanity. Leach, like his source material, revels in the breadth of the ancient world and its wealth of societies, from the nomadic tribes of the Middle East to the ritualised formality of Egypt. Since I haven’t yet got to this part of Herodotus, I had no idea what the rest of Croesus’ story would hold; and what a drama it is! Hubris, shame, honour, friendship, snatched moments of serenity, and a bittersweet conclusion which is nevertheless cathartic, as a good Greek tragedy should be.
What a thing it was, to be an old man and to see such things, to have no hope
of living long enough to forget them. There was always hope for the young,
that the world would heal and be reshaped as the decades pass, if only you
can survive to see it. An old man looks on the broken world that surrounds
him, and knows he will die there.
Cyrus, the great king, is dead: cut down in a battle to take an endless plain from the nomadic Massagetae, a people of no significance save that they have the temerity to stand against the ruthless expansion of the Persian empire. His army retreats in confusion. Among them is Croesus, the slave who was once the mighty king of Lydia but has spent almost half his life in Cyrus’ entourage as a curiosity, a reminder of fallen greatness, and a trusted adviser. As the throne passes to Cyrus’ troubled son Cambyses, Croesus longs for the courage and the wisdom to guide this young man to become as great as his father. But Cambyses is not Cyrus. Terrified by his prematurely fading sight, and driven by an all-consuming desire to prove himself greater than his sire, Cambyses plunges into a series of changeable obsessions and ambitions which gradually deteriorate into horrifying madness. His whims set Persia against the great and ancient Egyptian empire and even against the raw force of nature itself.
For the first time, Croesus finds himself in a world where a misjudged comment or a wrong step can lead to immediate execution: a world in which the whim of the king, and a mad king, is law. Using his rare relationship with the unstable young man, Croesus must try to find a way to save not only himself but also his beloved friends Isocrates and Maia from Cambyses’ murderous fury. His meditation on Cyrus’ fading energy could justly be applied to the fate of Cambyses’ rule as a whole: ‘It is possible to feel the cold more acutely in the presence of a dying fire than in front of no fire at all’.
Like the first book, this novel juxtaposes notions of kingship and simple human existence: the vainglory of rulers, who have the power to make the world a better place but so rarely the will; and the helplessness of lesser men, who have the desire but little opportunity. Croesus forms the perfect bridge between these two conditions. As in the last book, he is still haunted by Solon’s theory of happiness: that a man can never claim truly to be happy until he dies, and one can take the measure of his death. Mindful of this, Croesus has learned to do his best to live well and do good, even in a world which seems increasingly designed to throw him into the lap of the very worst of human nature.
But he finds himself swayed by his enduring, ill-fated affection for those who must suffer the terrible burden of kingship. There’s one particularly moving moment when, in the face of Cambyses’ megalomania, he comes to realise their own insignificance. Having grown up with stories of his descent from the gods – and the belief that the gods walked the earth only sixteen generations ago – Croesus finds himself in Egypt, a world more ancient than Lydia or Persia, faced with a list of temple servants stretching back four hundred generations. These humble men have their names recorded for eternity; Croesus’ own kingly ancestors have faded into oblivion and dust. ‘How little one life counted for, he thought, in that annihilating ocean of time.’ There are shades of Ozymandias.
I always say that a good historical novel should leave you itching to find out more. In the hours since finishing the book, I’ve been trying to fit Cyrus and Cambyses into my limited patchwork of Persian history (cobbled together from the Battles of Salamis, Thermopylae and Issus and the – it turns out – historically inaccurate plot of Artaserse). Since I’m writing this abroad, and thus deprived of Herodotus, I’m afraid this means Wikipedia. In a book as well-written as this, I never quite know what’s fictional and what’s fact, but much of it seems to be on the historical record.
For example, I was fascinated by Cyrus’ dream in the novel in which he sees Cambyses with black wings spreading from his shoulders, dripping oil across the known world. I initially took this for a fiction (and a striking one at that), but apparently the dream is recorded by historians, although they say Cyrus was dreaming of the future Darius I (the son of one of his courtiers) rather than Cambyses himself.* Once again, it seems, Leach has achieved the feat he managed in the first book: taking dry historical facts and alchemising them into a story so controlled and compelling that it feels like it’s being told for the first time. (None of that earnest weight of research here that plagues so many historical novels.) Clearly I must go back to Herodotus on my return home, and my Forgotten Empire catalogue from the British Museum exhibition on Ancient Persia. The history of this period looks very confusing, but absolutely gripping.
Like its predecessor, this is a thought-provoking, finely-crafted novel which opens up the thrilling vistas of a world that I simply haven’t had much of a chance to encounter before. Croesus makes a flawed but deeply humane protagonist and, even in the book’s darkest hours, Leach manages to fill his writing with sympathetic insights into his characters’ minds, whether they are kings, slaves or those who survive on the precarious threads of power that run between the two. I can’t wait to see what he comes up with next. Hopefully he’ll unearth more wonderful stories from the classical world – by which point, I promise you, I will have read Herodotus… Thoroughly recommended for those who enjoy thoughtful, powerful historical fiction along the lines of Renault and Yourcenar. Needless to say, if you do get round to reading Leach’s books, please do take the time to let me know what you thought of them.
* For another point of view on Cambyses’ erratic reign, see Andrew James’s Blood of Kings, about Darius’ rise to power.
I received a copy of this book from the publisher in exchange for a fair and honest review.