Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Review - The Sword of Hannibal by Terry McCarthy

Short review: A mercenary. A mission of revenge. A lack of appearances by Hannibal.

A Punic army
Infected by saboteurs
To steal some treasure

Full review: Set during the Second Punic War against the backdrop of Hannibal's dramatic march from Spain, across the Alps and into northern Italy, The Sword of Hannibal is a historical fiction piece that follows a rootless mercenary as he navigates the perilous landscape of the war between Carthage and Rome. As in The Wrath of Alexander the Great (read review) McCarthy's other work of historical fiction set in the ancient world, the title character never actually appears in the book. To the extent that Hannibal has an effect on the characters who do appear in the book, he is completely unaware of it. Not only that, the sword mentioned in the title doesn't even really belong to Hannibal, and doesn't actually feature in the story much.

Despite the misleading nature of the title, the book itself is decent. The central character, a seafaring mercenary named Strabo who begins the book recently having been in the service of Rome, finds himself washed up on shore on the coast of Carthaginian-occupied Spain. He rescued from certain death at the hands of Carthaginian soldiers, taken prisoner by, and eventually joins up with, a rag-tag band on a mysterious mission to exact revenge upon one of Hannibal's officers. Strabo, an experienced soldier with a background as metalworker, quickly determines that much of the band is militarily inept, better at hunting than fighting. To accomplish this secret mission, Nargonne, the leader of the band, sends most home, leaving only the most capable of the group. This also has the effect of reducing the band to a manageable number of characters for the story, and moving the action of the book to what is clearly McCarthy's favorite military arena - covert, commando-style operations.

Strabo learns that Carthaginian rule has exacted a heavy toll on Asturia, the village the other members of the band hail from. A Carthaginian officer took a liking to one of the Asturian women (who happens to be the twin sister of Molena, the lone woman in the band Strabo joins), and when they protested, he took her anyway, impounded the fishing fleet they rely upon for their livelihoods, and imposed a heavy (and unpayable) fine upon them. In turn, Nargonne has come up with a secret plan to reverse these fortunes. To gain revenge upon the Carthaginians, they join the Carthaginian army just as it sets out on its historic march. The rest of the book follows Nargonne's convoluted plan to rescue the kidnapped woman, eliminate the Carthaginian officer, and get enough treasure to pay the weighty fine. The side effect of having the Asturians travel with Hannibal's army is that McCarthy can show off his historical knowledge by presenting the panoply of mercenaries in the army (including the famous war elephants) and show the various stratagems Hannibal used to hide the movements of his army from Roman spies and overcome the enemies who impeded his progress towards Italy.

Because Strabo starts the book as an outsider, he learns of the various plans as the reader does, and usually doesn't learn everything about a plan until it is underway, resulting in a fair amount of suspense. As the main plot of the book progresses, the story also shows personal journey of Strabo from hardened, rootless mercenary to an integral member of the Asturian band. Having presented a potential love interest in the book in the form of Molena, Strabo, of course, must fall in love with her. Eventually, Strabo becomes not only accepted as a member of the group, but the hinge upon which their plans rely (one wonders how the Asturians would have accomplished their plans if they had not stumbled upon him since none of them have the requisite skills to pull them off), and ends up as literally the last man standing. The transformation from being a man without a place to call home to a loyal member of a village he has never seen is a stroke of serendipity for the Asturians who benefit from Strabo's talents, but is set up well enough by the events of the book that it does not feel forced.

What does feel forced is the subplot involving Strabo's search for a high quality sword and its eventual resolution. Strabo spends much of the book looking for a superior weapon to arm himself with, making do in the meantime with a series of captured weapons, all of which have their own limitations. Eventually he stumbles across what is clearly a superior steel sword, but the circumstances under which he finds it are so contrived as to be seriously implausible. One could understand such weapons being highly prized, but for an army on the march in hostile territory, keeping them in the manner and location where Strabo finds his superior sword is quite simply stupid. Weapons are tools, which means they must be in use to have value. On the other hand, the book suffers from the fairly common problem of ineffective armor. In short, armor appears to have almost no protective value for anyone who fights in the book. Shields are more likely to be used to hit someone over the head than to block an incoming blow. As a result, it seems like Strabo's quest for a superior blade is somewhat useless, given that there is no real need to cut through anything more substantial than human flesh.

This is a relatively minor issue though, and seems to be common to many books that deal with combat in the pre-gunpowder era. The only substantial weakness of the book is the convoluted plot the protagonists rely upon which is so twisty at times that their successes strain credulity. The heroes' plans also rely heavily upon the villains reacting in exactly the way the heroes predict they will, which makes this element of the story somewhat implausible. Even so, with reasonably interesting and well-written characters coupled with decent use of historical events as a backdrop, The Sword of Hannibal is a decent piece of historical fiction and a reasonably enjoyable way to spend a few hours.

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