Rome: The Eagle of the Twelfth: M.C. Scott

★★★★

The Rome Novels: Book III

War! Blood and dust! I hurried straight on to the next book in Manda Scott’s Rome series which, again, took me to a place I wasn’t expecting. Disconcertingly, after two novels focused on Pantera, we step away from him completely for much of this volume and instead follow Demalion of Macedon, a young horse-trader turned legionary in the XIIth Legion. If the first book centred on Rome and the second on Judea, this volume takes us to even more exotic regions: to Armenia and Hyrcania under the rule of the Parthian King of Kings. Knowing that I was in good hands, I pushed impatience about Pantera to the back of my mind, and let Scott unfold her story in her own compelling time.

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The Blood of Flowers: Anita Amirrezvani

★★★

Although this is the second novel I’ve read by Anita Amirrezvani, it was actually her debut, which drew on her rich Iranian heritage to create a story of love and loss set in dazzling 17th-century Isfahan. It’s a tale of overlapping relationships, largely between women: those between mother and daughter; between friends; and between an established woman and her poor relations. But, most of all, it’s a tale of craftsmanship – of carpets: the sumptuous Persian carpets designed by masters in the workshops of Isfahan and knotted with painstaking patience, which are splendid enough to be venerated as works of art in themselves.

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Equal of the Sun: Anita Amirrezvani

★★★

In 1576, when Tahmasb Shah of the Safavid dynasty dies unexpectedly, there is no designated heir to the Iranian throne. Sensing the chance to consolidate their power, factions within the ruling class weigh up the contenders. Pari Khan Khanoom has all the qualities of a brilliant Shah – intelligence, political acuity, generosity and compassion – but one major flaw negates all the rest: she is a woman. And yet she is determined to play a role in the struggle for the succession. As Tahmasb’s beloved daughter and most trusted adviser, she has helped to direct the empire’s policy for fourteen years and resolves to carve out a place for herself under the new Shah. But which of her brothers will succeed in claiming the crown? Based on the true story of Tahmasb’s ambitious, fratricidal sons, Amirrezvani’s novel turns the spotlight on their remarkable sister, as remembered by her loyal vizier, the eunuch Javaher.

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Esther: Royal Beauty: Angela Hunt

★★★

A Dangerous Beauty Novel: Book I

Ladies and gents, it’s time for another foray into Achaemenid historical fiction. This time we’ll be travelling via the medium of Biblical fiction – a genre which is not of any great interest to me, in and of itself, but which accounts for the vast majority of historical fiction set in the ancient Near East. As you’ll probably remember, I read a novel about Esther not very long ago and I was curious to see whether Hunt’s rendition of the story would have anything in common with Lofts’s beyond the bare bones of the story related in the Bible. The answer is: very little, but Hunt has evidently read her Herodotus, which means that this Esther has a weight of historical plausibility that Lofts’s lacked.

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Esther: Norah Lofts

★★★½

My enduring mission to hunt down fiction set in Achaemenid Persia brought me to this book: a retelling of the story of Esther by Norah Lofts, who impressed me with her King’s Pleasure. Expressly aimed at teenage readers, it’s a charming little book which conveys both Esther’s intelligence and the king’s humanity in a far more effective and engaging way than the painful film One Night with the King. It was so enjoyable, in fact, that I was willing to accept a fairly major historical swerve.

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Xerxes: George Frideric Handel (1738)

Handel: Xerxes

★★★★

(English Touring Opera at the Hackney Empire, 8 October 2016)

Xerxes and Spitfires both rank pretty highly on the list of things I get excited about, but I never imagined I’d have cause to refer to them both in the same sentence. Now that has all changed, thanks to English Touring Opera’s revival production, which transplants our favourite brat-prince to the airfields of the Battle of Britain. It opens with the glorious sight of our misguided king serenading a Spitfire (plane tree – plane – Spitfire – brilliant), as he contemplates his new campaign to rule the skies of Europe, and it’s sheer fun from there on in.

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The Long War: Christian Cameron

This really is going back a bit. I came across these books in January, which proved to be an odd month for reading: I had plenty of time for it, but little mental capacity. I was either waiting around at airports, wiling away transatlantic flights with a flimsy attention span, or wilting after intellectually intense days of training. In short, I needed good, solid entertainment and by chance I unearthed a series that was just the ticket: Christian Cameron’s Long War books.


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Artaserse: Johann Adolf Hasse (1730)

Hasse Artaserse

★★★

(Festival Valle d’Itria, Martina Franca, 2011)

In late February 1730, Hasse’s Artaserse opened at the Teatro S. Giovanni Grisostomo in Venice, mere weeks after Leonardo Vinci’s version premiered in Rome. (I think you all know the story of this opera by now. However, if you’d like to refresh your memory, check here and possibly also take a look here.) Musically there’s quite a contrast between the two versions. Vinci’s simple lyricism gives way to Hasse’s ornamentation, bells and whistles. And it’s not just the music that’s different.

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Xerse: Francesco Cavalli (1654)

Cavalli: Xerse

★★★★ ½

(Theater an der Wien, 18 October 2015)

Before Handel and before Bononcini there was Cavalli. This first take on the Xerxes story doesn’t enjoy anywhere near as much fame as its younger cousin, and to my knowledge has only been recorded once, in 1985, with the title role set for countertenor and sung by René Jacobs. It’s high time for another recording and, if Emmanuelle Haïm and her excellent cast could have their arms twisted to do it, we’d be in for a treat.

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