As those of you who follow this blog know, I sometimes include book reviews here. Recently, a writer asked me if I would review a piece of historical fiction, a novel set in ancient times. I was pleased at the request and agreed. However, for reasons that will become clear, I decided against a standard assessment of the book.
That’s because major problems in the treatment kept jerking me out of the narrative flow. The reasons why are instructive. But I do not plan to identify either the author or the book title. I will also do my best to mask the exact nature of the story itself. The problems I encountered illustrate, I’m afraid, why many historians don’t much like historical fiction.
The sample copy arrived in the mail and I immediately read the back-cover blurb. (I hasten to note that the cover art was very well done.) A glance at the first page or so heightened my excitement. Novels set in Classical Greek or Roman times are rather unusual. The story I was to review was set over a time period that spanned the later years of the Seleucid Empire.
To refresh your memory, the Seleucid Empire ruled a large part of the Middle East after the breakup of Alexander the Great’s empire. Antiochus the Great ascended to the Seleucid throne in 223 BC. He expanded and stabilized the empire, but also suffered a painful defeat against the Roman Republic in 188. After his death the following year, the empire declined. Thus, around 140 BC, the Jewish Maccabees wrested a semi-independent kingdom from the Seleucids.
The novel is written as the memoirs of three men, linked by family, whose lives overlap during this period. Each serves with the Roman Army. I began reading with much anticipation. However, after not too many pages, I began to lose the flow. I’d have a spurt of interest, and then feel like I’d been thrown off track.
I had been reading as a reader, but now I backed off a bit and began to read analytically. At first, I thought the problem arose from some distracting matters of writing “craft” – not directly relevant to the subject of this blog. But then came (cliché alert) “the straw that broke the camel’s back.” The narrator says that another character “needed to vent” about something terrible that had happened. This phrase, used in the sense of an emotional catharsis, is a rather modern Americanism. In fact, “vent” with a meaning of “express freely” did not appear in the language until around 1590 AD.
An “anachronism” is something considered “out of its time.” Some are blatant: A character using an automatic pistol during the American Civil War. (Automatic pistols – like the famous Colt .45 automatic – were not invented until the 1890s.) Others are harder to spot: A character checking his wristwatch while he waited for the Admiral Horatio Nelson funeral procession to start. (Lord Nelson was killed at Trafalgar in 1805; the first wristwatch appeared in 1868. Knowledgeable readers would consider this a blatant anachronism, but I suspect others might miss it.)
Of course, “the master,” William Shakespeare, is often accused of anachronisms in his plays – and rightly so. However, back then, very little study had been devoted to “what life was like” in those earlier times. Even classically-educated Elizabethans learned few details of daily life in ancient times. The lower classes knew nothing at all. So playwrights selectively used upper-class artifacts shown in historic statuary and frescoes, or contemporary props that would at least be familiar to their audience. Moreover, as just one example, reproducing Roman costumes, weapons, etc. for a stage production of Julius Caesar would have been far too costly.
But perhaps the most difficult anachronisms occur in the use of language … and that turned out to be why I could not really “get into” the story. The narrators of these memoirs are meant to be Romans, living in the period 220-140 BC. Although one endured years of slavery (as a captured soldier), they are from the upper classes of Roman society and are well-educated.
Early on, the story-teller refers to the first “Punic War.” Well … the Romans of the time did not call it that. The epic poem, Punica, was not written until at least 170 years after the Romans destroyed Carthage. The term “Punic” for “pertaining to Carthage” did not come into general usage until around 1530 AD.
No big deal. The reference quickly set the time frame, and I barely noticed the anomaly the first time through. But on the very next page, the narrator’s father remarks that he had “grown like a weed.” Somehow, that did no sound like something a Roman would say, so I checked it out. The first known use of that analogy was in John Heywoods Proverbs, published in 1546 AD. In fact, “weed” has no Latin cognate; it is Old English, from about 1400 AD and based on a Germanic root.
On the next page, the narrator states that he knew he could not “talk back to” his father. That phrase, in the sense of disagree or argue, dates from around 1800 AD, or later. Beyond that, both “talk” and “back” are of Germanic origin.
The use of specific words also began to distract me. “Booty,” as applied to captured wealth, dates from around 1450 and has a Germanic root. (The narrator later speaks of the “spoils” of war, a more appropriate term.) “Intelligence” in the sense of “information obtained from scouts and/or spies” did not come into usage until around 1550 AD. The narrator also says he participated in a “debriefing,” an egregious anachronism since that term did not exist until around 1945.
You may well feel that I’m being too picky. And it’s true that the presence of any one, or even a few of these anachronistic references would not necessarily be a problem. (Although even one would be a “deal breaker” for some readers.) But there are so many, including some that are considered modern clichés. When the reader cannot get through a few pages without encountering another one, the anachronisms become a major distraction.
And it did go on like that. At one point, in a span of three pages, the narrator used “intelligence” (for “information”) again, plus “britches” to describe some barbarian’s trousers. Besides these specific words, he also used the phrases “weak kneed” and “be his own boss.” First of all, “britches” is a Twentieth Century term. (There is a perfectly good Latin word – bracae – for trousers, by the way.) “Weak kneed,” used to show concern or nervousness, did not come into usage until 1850 AD. Moreover, “weak” is from a Germanic root. The “boss” phrase is quite modern. The word itself, from a Dutch (i.e. Germanic) term for “master” (baas), did not appear in English until 1640 AD
I tried to persevere after that, but a few pages later I hit the “needed to vent” usage. After that, I began skipping through the book, jumping ahead pages at a time. I continued to find language anachronisms, some repeats plus many new ones. To bolster this “unreview,” I even made notes about phrases whose origins I could trace. The examples I’ve used in this blog are only a third of those I recorded – and that list came from less than a third of the book. (There were also others that caught my attention, but I could not easily find their sources.)
Right toward the end, the narrator says, “What’s done is done” to denote unhappy circumstances that cannot be changed. This phrase first appeared in Shakespeare’s Macbeth, published around 1605 AD. “Done” itself, as the past participle of “do” is from Old English and is therefore of Germanic origin.
An author must tread a fine line between authenticity and being understandable to his/her audience. And English offers many, many choices in how to say something. Here, the author’s choices just didn’t sound right, coming from those characters. Thus, the narrators never convince me that they are actual Romans, telling their own stories. And without that “willing suspension of disbelief,” I did not much care what happened to them.
In the end, as noted above, I decided not to publish a standard review of this book. Sad. I really wanted to enjoy the book. The story itself is well-conceived, and the characters seem like they could be interesting. The author has clearly done a lot of research about that period of history, and has crammed an amazing amount of it into the text.
Some will surely think I’m being too picky about the anachronistic language, and perhaps they’re right. Without that, I would have probably enjoyed the characters, solid historical research, and a pretty good story. If you think you might be interested in reading the novel, send me a separate e-mail and I’ll identify it for you. (It’s available at Amazon and Barnes & Noble.)