05 January, 2009

Men of Bronze, by Scott Oden. Book review

Edition reviewed: Bantam, 2006. ISBN 978-0-553-81791-1. 476 pages.

Men of Bronze is a military adventure set against the background of the Persian invasion of Egypt in 526 BC. I recognised the two Pharaohs in the story, the Persian king, the Persian commander Darius (later to be Darius the Great) and the Greek mercenary Phanes of Halicarnassus as historical figures, and the author’s note says the Egyptian priest Ujahorresnet is historical. I think all the others are fictional, although this is a period of history I know very little about so don’t quote me on that.

The power of Egypt has dwindled since the glory days of the god-kings, and now the Egyptian army relies on foreign mercenaries (“Men of Bronze”) for much of its strength. Bedouin desert raiders menace the eastern frontier, and beyond the desert the empire of Persia looks on Egypt’s wealth with hungry eyes. When Hasdrabal Barca, a Phoenician mercenary general in charge of the eastern frontier, intercepts a secret Persian message, he realises that another key mercenary commander, the Greek general Phanes of Halicarnassus, has defected to Persia. The ensuing conflict pits these two, the most able of the mercenary commanders, against each other in a brutal struggle. With Egypt’s survival at stake, Barca will find his military skill tested as never before – and when he encounters the beautiful freed slave woman Jauharah he will have to face the guilt of a crime that has scarred his soul for twenty years.

To describe Men of Bronze as “action-packed” would be an understatement. Battle, assassination, skirmish, street fight and riot follow each other with scarcely time for the characters – or the reader – to pause for breath. The hand-to-hand combat scenes in particular are frequent, vivid, detailed and full of blood and guts. The central character, Hasdrabal Barca, is shown as an awesomely efficient killing machine, capable of despatching six trained Greek assassins single-handed. I wasn’t keeping score of the total body count, but it was a lot. Readers who like graphic blow-by-blow combat descriptions will probably find much to enjoy; readers who dislike violence should steer clear.

The tone and style of the novel have something of a flavour of heroic fantasy. On his blog, the author has expressed his admiration for RE Howard (for example, this entry), the creator of Conan the Barbarian, and I can recognise some of that influence in Men of Bronze. Characters are larger than life, make dramatic declamatory speeches, and engage in struggles to the death in which no compromise is possible. Hasdrabal Barca reminded me of Conan, and some of Conan’s successors in fiction, with his near-superhuman martial ability, devotion to his code of honour and apparently effortless ability to inspire men to fight and die for him. That said, I found Barca more interesting than many a fictional warrior superhero. He bears the guilt of a crime of passion committed many years ago, and the rage and self-loathing resulting from that act provide the wellspring of his fighting prowess while at the same time cutting him off from human feeling. When he meets Jauharah, a freed Arabian slave woman, the growing attraction between them awakes in Barca a wish to learn to love and trust again, but he fears the possible consequences.

Barca dominates the novel, and the other characters play supporting roles. Barca’s adversary, the Greek mercenary Phanes, is also his polar opposite, a man with no honour who is obsessed only with his own glory. If Barca personifies honour, Phanes personifies hubris (in its modern meaning). Jauharah, coming to terms with freedom for the first time in her life, is an attractive character, and I also liked the merchant-turned-warrior Callisthenes (although I admit to being surprised that he could apparently turn from a plump rabbit of a man to an expert killer in a matter of a few months).

I can’t speak for the historical accuracy of the novel, as I know almost nothing about Egypt or the Persian Invasion. What I can say is that the setting and descriptions felt authentic within the context of the story. Egypt is a pale shadow of its former power, and its priests and rulers are surrounded by reproachful monuments to past glories. The multiplicity of gods, and the Egyptian obsession with death – sometimes at the expense of life – are well drawn. Despite the epic flavour of the novel, the war isn’t shown as a struggle between the forces of good and evil. Because Egypt is the country being invaded, and because it’s the country we see most of and the side the hero Barca is fighting for, there’s a tendency for the reader to identify with Egypt. But Egypt has its share of corrupt officials, fools and cowards, and Persia has at least one thoroughly honourable commander.

The battle between Egypt and Persia that forms the climax of the novel is worthy of an epic, as armies clash and men die in mud and blood. I could practically hear the Hollywood soundtrack thundering in my ears. And the poignant ending felt exactly right.

Two useful, if rather small, maps at the front are invaluable for understanding the geography. There is an extensive glossary of terms at the back explaining everything from gods to troop types, although I found I could work out most of the unfamiliar words and phrases from context and rarely needed to refer to it.

Epic military adventure, political double-dealing and a touch of romance, set against a convincing background of collapsing empire.

Has anyone else read it?


Kailana said...

I have never heard of this book before but it sounds interesting!

Gabriele Campbell said...

I loved that one.

Meghan said...

It's great; there aren't many books out there that are so good at making you feel like you're in the cities mentioned and it's a subject not well-covered. Good read.

Anonymous said...

This book delivers an exceptionally vivid sense-of-place without ever making it feel as if you're reading the author's research. Truly tasty historical fiction that plays to all the reader's senses. Wish there was more out there like it.

John Hocking

Scott Oden said...

Thank you for such an excellent and balanced review, Carla! I'm glad you liked the book ;)

It actually started life as a Conan book back in the late 90's, but a friend convinced me of the futility of writing pastiche at that point (the only place to publish it would have been Tor, who had the license). Before I chose Late Period Egypt, it was set in Babylon during the reign of Nabonidus and pre-Islamic South Arabia. It just seemed to fit best in Egypt, though.

Anyway, thanks again!

Constance Brewer said...

yes, yes, I think I have. *g* Good stuff.

Unknown said...

Never heard of it but I am certainly interested in reading it, thanks for bringing it to our attention

Rick said...

I hadn't heard of it, but it sounds worth a read! And what a fascinating 'backstory' of how it evolved from heroic fantasy into historical fiction. This says a great deal about both as subgenres of Romance (in the original broad sense).

Interesting turn on convention, too, with a Phoenician protagonist (complete with Carthagenian-sounding name) and Ionian Greek bad guy.

Carla said...

Kailana, Carol - it's well worth reading.

Gabriele, Meghan, Constance - glad to hear you also liked it! I thought it was excellent.

John Hocking - hello and welcome. Yes, it's an excellent read.

Scott - glad you liked the review. That's fascinating that it started life as a Conan story. I didn't know that, and just thought the style had carried over from your admiration of REH.

Rick - indeed it is. I was thinking how well it fitted the old concept of Romance when I was writing the review. Are the Phoenicians normally cast as the bad guys? I'm familiar with the Noble Greek/Noble Roman, which I guess derives from the popularity of classical education, so I suppose the Punic Wars tend to give Carthage (a Phoenician colony) a bad press, yes?

Rick said...

The Greeks regarded the Phoenicians more as competitors than outright enemies - at least the Athenians did, and the Big Olive perspective is what has come down to us.

So in the wardrobe box of handy stereotypes I expect to find them cast in a sort of Dutch/Jewish role - shrewd merchant types who take calculated risks but are not quite to be counted on. A heroic Phoenician seems very against stereotype!

Carla said...

Rick - now there's an aspect of classical Central Casting I didn't know about! You learn something new every day :-) In which case, all the more credit to the author for going against stereotype, even if I didn't know it was against stereotype when I was reading.