11 August, 2011

Libertas, by Alistair Forrest. Book review

Edition reviewed: Quaestor2000, 2009. ISBN 978-1-906836-07-8. 218 pages. Also available as an e-book in various formats at Amazon Kindle and Smashwords.

Libertas is set in the first century BC in southern Spain and the Mediterranean, against the background of the civil war between Roman generals Julius Caesar and Pompey the Great. The historical figure of Sextus Pompey (younger son of Pompey the Great) is an important secondary character, and other historical figures including Julius Caesar, Gnaeus Pompey (elder brother of Sextus), Marcus Agrippa and Titus Labienus make brief appearances. All the main characters are fictional.

Melqart, nicknamed Pito, is the son of a respected baker in the quietly prosperous mountain town of Munda in Hispania Ulterior (modern southern Spain). When the Roman army decides that Munda’s location is of strategic importance, Pito’s talent for invention earns him a role as a surveyor, map-maker and deviser of a signalling system. But when Munda finds itself the focal point for a savage battle in the Roman civil war, Pito’s old enemy, the villainous local thug Arsay, sees his chance to seize power. If Pito is to survive and rescue his beloved family from slavery, it will take all his courage and ingenuity, not to mention the help of unexpected allies…

Melqart (Pito), the central character and narrator of this adventure tale, is an unusual and likeable hero. A reluctant warrior who only fights if he has to, Pito would much rather solve a problem by applying his brains than his fists. He turns out to be a talented inventor, coming up with innovations such as a mirror signalling system, a retractable keel and a torpedo. Pito is drawn to knowledge in all its forms, from the library of scrolls left by the Greek philosopher Archimedes* in Syracuse to the spiritual wisdom of the enigmatic mountain hermit Uriel. He also has a semi-mystical relationship with the magnificent mountain eagles that patrol the skies above Munda. Indeed, the eagles are as important as the human characters, intervening decisively at crucial points in Pito’s life.

The historical Sextus Pompey displayed considerable enterprise after his father’s defeat, not only managing to avoid getting killed but setting up for a while as a successful pirate and operator of a maritime protection racket on the island of Sicily. He is a memorable character in Libertas, a rogue with style, wit and charm who, despite his shrewd eye for the main chance, is generous and immensely loyal to his friends, including those of modest status like Pito.

Pito’s adventures take him far and wide across the Mediterranean to the desert kingdoms of North Africa and the volcanoes of Sicily, encountering a variety of different cultures and people. Details of daily life – baking bread, a village feast, growing and preparing food – are described with as much care as the dramatic scenes of battle, storm and volcanic eruption. The landscape of southern Spain around Munda (modern Monda) is beautifully portrayed, with its craggy peaks, aromatic mountain pastures, rivers, ravines and olive groves. Pito reflects from time to time that Munda is a little corner of Paradise on earth, and it would be difficult not to agree with him.

Libertas shows how a largely peaceable and prosperous community can be suddenly devastated, just because it happens to be a convenient place for a battle between rival foreign powers. The inhabitants of Munda have little or no direct involvement in the conflict between Roman political factions, but the war arrives anyway with all the random violence of a hurricane, wreaks its havoc and leaves the bewildered survivors to pick up the pieces as best they can.

The Battle of Munda in 45 BC was a real event, although its location is uncertain according to the Author’s Note. Here it is placed near modern Monda, inland from the Costa del Sol. The fictional coastal village of Apollacta is a clever play on the modern name of the coast – it translates as ‘Apollo’s Shore’ or the coast of the sun god. Holidaymakers heading off for a break in the sun this summer might like to pack a copy of Libertas and imagine what this popular corner of southern Spain might have been like two thousand years ago.

A short Author’s Note at the back summarises some of the underlying history, and two maps at the front show the location of Munda and a plan of the town as imagined in the novel. Particularly useful is a map showing the battlefield of Munda in detail and the dispositions of the forces involved, sensibly placed in the relevant chapter so the reader can refer to it during the gripping battle scenes.

Fast-paced adventure tale of invention, courage, friendship and survival, set in the idyllic landscape of southern Spain against the background of the civil war between Caesar and Pompey.




*Yes, that Archimedes, he of the “Eureka” moment, the Archimedes screw, etc.


6 comments:

Annis said...

Thanks for the review, Carla. IYou've reminded me that I bought this novel some time ago and it has somehow disappeared into my chaotic book pile in the meantime! Must go and hunt it down :)

Carla said...

Let me know what you think of it when you find it and read it, Annis! I'll be interested in your thoughts.

Gabriele C. said...

Lol, I hear you about TRB piles. Mine can support the roof of a Roman temple by now. ;)

Kathryn Warner said...

Mine too, Gabriele...I can barely open my front door any more for the piles of books. :)

Carla said...

Gabriele - how many columns? :-)

Kathryn - so many books, so little time...

Rick said...

So very true ...