A Novel of Betrayal and Warfare in Ancient Persia
There isn’t much historical fiction out there about Achaemenid Persia. Trust me: I’ve looked. There’s the Athenian Letters, written by a group of friends as a commentary on Thucydides around 1740 (effectively early fan-fiction), and there are a few novels about Esther aimed at a religious readership; but that’s pretty much it.
And so, like a thirsty man in a desert, I homed in on Blood of Kings. It tells the story of the rise of Darius: son of the deposed king of Parsa, an impoverished member of the Persian nobility, a seasoned warrior and inspiring commander, who brings down a dynasty to claim the throne of Persia for himself. Naturally this all has relevance for my Xerxes Project, because it gives me a glimpse of the brat-prince’s father in his younger days.
After a fleeting glimpse of Darius’s boyhood, we find him in the wild mountains of Bactria, where he is one of a party of scouts. Somewhere behind them marches the army of their king, Cyrus of Persia; somewhere ahead, cloaked in the darkness, are the forces of the hostile queen Tomyris, whom Cyrus seeks to engage in battle. Surprised by an ambush, the scouts scatter. Darius is the only one who succeeds in seeing the massive enemy army for himself, but his reports are derided by the scouts’ leader, the primped nobleman Vinda. As a close friend of Cambyses, the ambitious Crown Prince, Vinda appears to have instructions of his own to make sure that Cyrus goes into battle desperately under-prepared. And so Darius and his friends plunge into a battle which is driven as much by the dissensions within the Persian court as by the need for territorial expansion or consolidation.
In the years to come, as servants of the new king Cambyses, this will become a pattern. Driven by this unstable man’s vainglorious ventures, they form part of the mighty force that heads west for the subjugation of Egypt, the destruction of the worship of Ammon, and the obliteration of the Oracle at Siwa. This last doomed mission has gone down in history: the dispatch of an entire army into the sands, which never returned (archaeologists claimed, rather controversially, to have found the bones of the army a few years ago). Hardened by war, privation and the scorn of his superiors, Darius is motivated by only two things: first, his love for Cambyses’ niece Parmys and, secondly, his conviction that one day the crown of Persia is destined for his own head.
The book has glowing reviews on Amazon, along with laudatory blurbs from eminent sources. However, I suspect that many of these readers may have judged Blood of Kings on its recreation of the military campaigns. These are indeed very interesting; but since the book evidently wants to be seen as a novel rather than a fictionalised military chronicle, I’m going to judge it as such. And that’s where we have some problems.
But let’s start with the good. The battle scenes and campaigns are the best parts: full of vivid detail about the range of Persian troops, from archers to camel riders and cavalry and the crack infantry of the Immortals (the fabled Ten Thousand). Blood-drenched and full of grit and sweat, these sections give a plausible and almost cinematic sense of the kill-or-be-killed melee of ancient warfare. Even in peacetime James conjures up some thoroughly nasty scenes thanks to episodes of torture, the most memorable of which was an extremely detailed description of impaling. (In some ways, that was helpful because I’d been wondering exactly how they went about it.) This must have been what life was like in the ancient world: precarious, cheap and entirely dependent on the whims of all-powerful monarchs who may not have been quite as sane as they should be.
Almost equally impressive are James’s descriptions of the landscapes, which show off his familiarity with the region. He says in his Author’s Note that he spent three years living in the Egyptian desert near Siwa while researching the book, which perhaps explains why we spend so much of the novel stuck with Darius among dunes and sandstorms, while the Persian-set sections are slightly more perfunctory.
However, for a novel to be successful the characterisation has to be individual and powerful enough for me, the reader, to care what happens to these people. As I’ve said before, they don’t have to be nice: I like a bit of shadow and complexity, and a character could be full-on barking mad as long as I find them convincing. Unfortunately that’s where Blood of Kings falls down. Secondary characters are often painted with such broad strokes that they descend into cliché. You can tell within the first few words whether you’re supposed to like someone or not. Eunuchs come across as mincing and untrustworthy, which is surely a case of 21st-century discomfort being projected back into the past, onto a group of people who were not only crucial to the running of the empire, but often very powerful within it. Vinda, although he does grow more interesting towards the end, begins as a stock-character haughty nobleman, a dandy who drinks from crystal goblets on campaign and hasn’t a clue how to command men.
We see enough of Darius for me to feel some investment in his fate but, while the novel feels on fairly firm ground while off on campaign with the boys, it stutters whenever it tries to tackle romance. And that’s an issue, because it chooses to place great emphasis on Darius’s relationship with Parmys.
I wanted to like Parmys, but she turned out to be a mere shadow of the competent, proud and dangerous women who really inhabited her world. She never makes it beyond the two-dimensional ‘pretty princess’ stereotype: a delicate beauty with a ‘pink rosebud’ mouth, who is little but a cipher for Darius to adore, protect, rescue and attain. In a attempt to show us that she Has Depths, she occasionally she curls up by a cosy fire with her favourite clay tablets. (Achaemenid scholars: did Persians really settle down with a good book? Wasn’t literature still primarily recited aloud at this period?) Poor Parmys is disappointingly bland when compared to the real Persian women I’ve come across: Darius’ formidable queen Atossa; his ruthless daughter-in-law Amestris; or his manipulative and cruel great-granddaughter Parysatis.
But perhaps the most amusing and unrealistic thing about this romance was the lovers’ memories of their ‘moonlit trysts’. Now, come: I can be a softy and I’m sure moonlit trysts are wonderful, but they belong to kitschy romance rather than to a novel like this which aims to have blood, sand and dirt under its nails, and takes itself is so seriously as to give many characters their original Persian names rather than the customary Greek transliterations. When the young Parmys is locked in the ‘seraglio’ (the very existence of seraglios at this period is a matter of academic debate), she persuades Darius to sneak in to see her. And so the book veers into the realms of star-spangled Arabian Nights fantasy:
He had found a way into the palace gardens and on moonlit nights
they had shared trysts beneath a cherry tree, among the peacocks
and nightingales. It had been romantic and beautiful.
Some of my friends may be reminded, with amusement, of the opening scene of Artaserse. They are not alone. Leaving aside the kitsch for a moment, there’s also the worrying issue that Parmys just wants Darius for his looks. His friends and fellow soldiers know him as a shrewd, smart and dynamic warrior, but to Parmys he’s more of a proto-teen hero. The infatuated princess daydreams of his ‘expressive mouth … broad shoulders, straight-backed carriage, and soft, low voice’. It just doesn’t ring true for the characters or, indeed, for the genre. Nor does the fact that, even months of travel apart, these two lovers are so in tune that they instinctively know when the other is in danger. At one point, as Darius is close to death, ‘He knew without a shadow of doubt that [Parmys] was thinking of him at that very moment, willing him to be safe’, while at another moment, ‘Darius had an unshakeable feeling that Parmys was in mortal danger.’ This, again, strays into sugary romance and jars with the tone of the rest of the book.
I did my best just to ignore the romance and focused instead on the one character whom I liked very much indeed. It was a relief that I liked him, because I’d been impatiently waiting for his appearance in the book and had been hoping he’d be well-written. This was the stout, genial and often slightly sozzled nobleman Megabyzus: an old warrior from a distinguished family who’s cheerfully gone to seed, and who reminded me slightly of a Persian Falstaff with more integrity. (His rather brilliant grandson and namesake has become something of a historical favourite of mine over the last few months, and is partly to blame for the genesis of the Xerxes Project.) In the novel, Megabyzus injects a much-needed note of down-to-earth humour: for example, while Darius moons over the distant Parmys, he makes an endearing attempt to offer philosophical comfort:
‘Plenty more ducks in the pond, eh? And believe me, they’re all
much of a muchness. Been married to my wives
for twenty years now and still can’t tell them apart.’
You old romantic, you.
It’s a curious kettle of fish, this novel. I came to it with high expectations on the basis of the reviews and, had it been entirely focused on the military element I think I’d have enjoyed it more. However, the addition of the romantic theme weakened the book as a whole, throwing the occasionally awkward characterisation into high relief. Oh, and I must just mention one final moment that made me laugh: at one point, one of the characters comments warningly on ‘Greeks bearing gifts’. The Persians might well have felt this sentiment (and who’s to blame them?), but it’s surely inaccurate to put this quote in the mouth of a man who lived a full half-millennium before Virgil wrote it in the Aeneid. As well have him quoting Shakespeare.
So, how to sum things up? If you enjoy military historical novels then you might well thrill to the sieges, charges and carefully described tactical engagements. If you are looking for a more rounded piece of historical fiction, this might not be the first place to come; though, as I’ve said, it is virtually the only thing out there about the Achaemenids. However, as I realised shortly after starting the book, much of Darius’ story falls within the shadow cast by Tim Leach’s two excellent novels about Cyrus, Croesus and Cambyses. Thoughtful and elegiac, The Last King of Lydia and The King and the Slave might not have quite the blood-and-guts immediacy of James’s battle scenes, but I find them more powerful and successful as a whole. So, for the general reader, I might recommend turning to Leach first; even though James’s book does give you a vivid idea of how it might actually have felt to go out and wage war in Ancient Persia.