16 July, 2009

Claudius, by Douglas Jackson. Book review

Transworld, 2009. ISBN 978-0-593-06062-9. 328 pages

Set during the Roman invasion of Britain under Emperor Claudius in 43 AD, Claudius features a number of historical figures in important roles, including Claudius himself, his strategist and political fixer Narcissus, the Roman generals Aulus Plautius and Vespasian, and various British tribal rulers including Caratacus, Togodumnus, Cogidubnus, Boudicca and Cartimandua. The main characters, Rufus and his elephant, are fictional.

A Roman invasion force of four crack legions and their associate auxiliaries is marching to conquer Britain. With them is Rufus, a young slave and the keeper of the Emperor’s elephant, the majestic Bersheba. Against them stands Caratacus, king of the Catuvellauni and leader of the British tribes, a man of great courage and ability but hampered by his erratically aggressive brother Togodumnus and uncertain which of his allies he can trust. The stage is set for a brutal showdown between the legions and the British warriors – one in which Rufus and his elephant will play a vital, and possibly fatal, part.

The title is something of a misnomer. Although there are a few passages told from Claudius’ viewpoint, for the most part the central character of the novel is Rufus, the slave, elephant handler and fighter trained by an ex-gladiator introduced in the first novel in the series, Caligula (review forthcoming in due course). Occasionally the narrative looks back to the events of the first book, but you don’t need to have read Caligula to read Claudius. Both books can be read as stand-alones. The story is told in third person from a variety of viewpoints, cutting back and forth between the Roman side and the British side, so the reader gets to see the build-up to battle from both sides of the conflict. It also allows the reader to get to know other characters besides Rufus, of whom the most compelling for me were Caratacus and a (fictional) scout and warrior of the Iceni tribe called Ballan.

A newspaper quote on the back cover describes the novel as “visceral”, and if that means “lots of blood and guts” it’s a pretty accurate description. With the Romans murdering little children and torturing old people, and the Britons conducting appalling human sacrifices, the novel is even-handed in its brutality. The violence is described in the same graphic detail that characterised Caligula, with very little left to the imagination. I think it’s fair to say that this is not a book for the squeamish, and those who like to read at mealtimes should consider themselves warned. As with the previous novel, I found the shock value wore off surprisingly fast, and began to wonder if this was going to be a catalogue of gruesome atrocities of the sort that leaves me thinking that both sides deserve each other and can I vote the elephant for Emperor?

Plough on to halfway, though, and the novel steps up a gear as the violence becomes focussed to a definite purpose, the battle for the crossing of the River Thames. This decisive battle occupies most of the second half of the book, and is in my view the best bit. The use of multiple viewpoints is extremely effective, both in the build-up to the battle and in the battle itself. It allows the reader to see the complexity of stratagem and counter-stratagem as both sides lay cunning traps for each other, and it shows both the individual dramas of the key players and their part in the greater whole. Suspense is built and maintained by cutting back and forth between the players at critical moments in classic cinematic style. The Batavian auxiliaries (here going by the delightful name of “river rats”), the Second Augusta’s legionaries, the British defenders and the Romans’ British allies all get their share of the action, and there’s even an ingenious role for Bersheba the elephant.

In the absence of a historical note, the reader is left on their own to work out the historical basis of events and where any alterations have been made. I’m not an expert on the Roman invasion and can’t comment on the historical accuracy or otherwise. I can say I was surprised to see the Iceni taking part in the battle at the Thames, since Tacitus explicitly says, “We had not defeated this powerful tribe, they had voluntarily become our allies”, and I thought Verica would be older than he is portrayed if he was issuing coins in the reign of Tiberius. I’d have liked to see the author’s take on these items and any others, and was mildly disappointed by the lack of a historical note.

It looks to me as if the novel is leaving scope for a sequel to make a trilogy (any takers for the third one being called Nero?). A pair of talismanic brooches that end up in the hands of two charismatic queens, both of whom have dramatic if contrasting parts to play in the further history of the establishment of Roman Britain, the appearance of Nero as a distinct if minor character and a questioning note to the Epilogue could all be lead-ins to a further adventure for Rufus and Bersheba.

Battlefield action during the Roman invasion of Britain, with lots of violent battle scenes, some shady palace plots, and an elephant.


Kathryn Warner said...

Great review, Carla. The novel sounds very interesting and I like the idea of Bersheba the elephant, but as I'm very squeamish, maybe not quite my cup of tea! Shame about the lack of an author's note, too - not compulsory, of course, but something I really appreciate in histfict.

Meghan said...

Battlefield action during the Roman invasion of Britain, with lots of violent battle scenes, some shady palace plots, and an elephant.

I am sold because of this awesome review...and the elephant.

Gabriele Campbell said...

The author has a blog, maybe you can post your questions in the comments.

I'm really pissed at Amazon.de. This is the second time they can't get me a book that's out in the UK until the end of September. I don't get it.

The first was Ben Kane's The Silver Eagle which I picked up from Waterstones in Edingburg (neiner, neiner, stupid Amazon), but this time I won't be so lucky. Though I'm tempted to cancel my preorder and find another way to get the book.

Daphne said...

Thanks for the review. This keeps showing up on my Amazon recommendations but I do tend towards the squeamish, so I think I'll skip it.

Carla said...

Alianore, Meghan, Daphne - The elephant is terrific, as much a character as any of the humans. I thought the graphic violence was toned down a bit from Caligula, but "visceral" is still a pretty apt description.

Gabriele - why not try The Book Depository? They are usually competitively priced with Amazon, offer free shipping anywhere in the world, and I've heard a lot of favourable comments about their service.

Constance Brewer said...

You had me at the elephant... and lost me at the violence. Maybe I'm getting old, but too much violence doesn't do it for me. Of course, now I'll have to peek at it just to see for myself...

Rick said...

The elephant sounds fun, the 'visceral' violence perhaps unsettling.

I haven't said more because my knowledge of Rome is shocklingly sketchy (blame H.D.F. Kitto!). I'm only finally getting around to learning some Roman history!

Carla said...

Constance - Yes, do see for yourself and don't take my word for it; I'm sure it will appear on your side of the Pond fairly soon. I was most taken with the elephant :-)

Rick - The elephant is great fun. Oddly, I found the violence more revolting than unsettling as such; the shock value wore off surprisingly fast (I found this was even more the case with 'Caligula', which is more gruesome). I think that's because there's not much left to the imagination. Sherlock Holmes says somewhere, "Where there is no imagination there is no horror", and I think there's something like that going on here, at least for me.

Anonymous said...

Hi Carla, thanks for taking the time to review Claudius, I really appreciate it. You make a lot of very fair points. With Caligula I was finding my way a bit and, looking back, some of the graphic scenes are more an aspiring writer trying to show how clever he is at descriptive writing than a novelist weaving a story.
I thought I'd toned things down a bit in Claudius - one reviewer thought there wasn't enough violence and it was bit dull - but I suppose that's subjective.

Doug Jackson

Carla said...

Hello Doug and welcome. I agree the violence was noticeably toned down in Claudius as compared with Caligula - from my point of view that's a good thing! I certainly wouldn't call Claudius dull.