Friday, February 11, 2011

Review - The Wrath of Alexander the Great by Terry McCarthy

Short review: Alexander is laying siege to Tyre, which has the Book of the West, but Barkane is awesome, and will do anything to get them before Alexander does.

Weapons are useless
His fists can punch through armor
Barkane is awesome!

Disclosure: I received this book as part of the LibraryThing Member Giveaway program. Some people think this may bias a reviewer so I am making sure to put this information up front. I don't think it biases my reviews, but I'll let others be the judge of that.

Full review: At the outset, I have a quibble with the cover. I understand that an author often has little or no influence on the cover that is attached to their book, but this seemed to me to be so glaring that I could not let it pass without comment. The title of the book - The Wrath of Alexander the Great - should be an indication of the time period in which the story takes place, that is during the life of Alexander the Great. However, the cover picture shows a trident superimposed on a collection of soldiers that are clearly dressed in Roman regalia, complete with what appear to be legion standards. Instead of showing Greeks, Macedonians, or even Persians, the cover instead provides a wholly anachronistic picture. This, as one might expect, gets the book off on the wrong foot.

This is unfortunate, since the book itself isn't actually bad, and the historical information it contains appears to be accurate. Unfortunately, the story itself has a number of problems in plotting and character that prevent what could have been a really good book from being anything more than a fairly average book. Oddly, despite Alexander's wrath being prominently featured in the title, Alexander doesn't actually appear in the book, and his army, occupied with one of the greatest feats of military engineering in history, serves as little more than a framing device for the story.

The story takes place after Alexander has smashed the Persian Empire, and has set his sights on the trading city of Tyre. Tyre, located on an island off the coast of what is now Lebanon, is supposedly impregnable with walls that rise directly from the sea preventing any invading force from landing to lay siege. Alexander famously undertook to change geography to his advantage, and had his soldiers build a causeway that extended the half mile distance from the mainland to the island. Against this backdrop is placed the protagonist of the story, a Carthaginian soldier named Barkane whose mission is to enter Tyre with a select team of Carthaginian warriors, recover state secrets of incalculable value to Carthage, and escape.

Barkane starts his task by seeking to set free a pirate captain named Sajan being held prisoner and condemned to death by the Cypriot navy. At this point, one of McCarthy's annoying literary devices rears its head - the escape is told from Sajan's perspective, and since he takes what turns out to be Barkane to be a drunk imprisoned with him he refers to Barkane throughout the chapter as "the drunk". This gets old really quickly, and is especially silly when it becomes obvious to everyone, including Sajan, that "the drunk” is not drunk at all. Yet he keeps referring to "the drunk". We are also told of Sajan's hatred for all things Greek (Sajan is a Phoenecian) and how he had been hunted and captured and condemned at the behest of one of Alexander's generals, a man named General Bousardis. Almost immediately Sajan's actions begin to make no sense at all. After he is rescued from certain death by Barkane and his men, his reaction is to immediately turn on them and throw his lot in with a bunch of Greeks. Eventually, he even throws his lot in with General Bousardis, joining up with the man who actively tried to have him killed in the opening chapters of the book. Why he does this is a complete mystery. It seems as if he just acts like an ungrateful pain in the ass through much of the book just because it is necessary for the plot complications to work. This sort of bizarre character action marks much of the book, and while Sajan's bizarre behavior is among the most egregious, it is not the only inexplicable element to the story.

Barkane himself is supposedly a brilliant and unconventional military tactician. But for most of the book Barkane is made to seem smart mostly by the expedient of having his enemies behave stupidly. His enemies fall for absurdly simple tricks - he bluffs his way into a Greek held town by having his men execute a cavalry maneuver supposedly unique to Alexander's elite "Silver Shields" that is so simple that untrained soldiers are apparently able to master it while on the run in less than a day of practice. One wonders exactly how stupid the Greeks he is dealing with are given this background. When discussing Barkane's plans McCarthy also uses and reuses another somewhat annoying literary device, often times "hiding the ball" from the reader, having half his plan known and having Barkane sagely pull on his half-ear and smile cryptically while refusing to reveal the remainder of his devious plan - while at the same time telling the story with Barkane as the viewpoint character, meaning that keeping his plan a secret makes no sense at all.

Before going further, I have to discuss one of my pet peeves about depictions of combat in the age of armor which doesn't just crop up now and then in The Wrath of Alexander, but litters its pages. If one were to count the number of times in the story in which Barkane or one of his men punches, kicks, elbows, or knees a fully armored man and doesn't break his hand, foot, or other appendage on that man's armor, one would be counting for a very long time. Soldiers in the era before gunpowder wore armor for a reason, and one of those reasons is "punching them in the nose" becomes singularly ineffective. (The sequence on page 138 is pretty typical, Barkane grabs two Greeks by their helmets and bangs them together, knocking one out, and then punches the other in the nose. One wonders how their helmets are supposed to prevent battlefield injuries from swords and spears if they can't even prevent fisticuffs from knocking them out). Every time Barkane kicked or punched some armor-clad enemy I groaned a little bit and lost a little bit of faith in the book. Also of seemingly little value are shields, with even the elite "Silver Shields" cavalrymen seemingly carrying their moniker only sparingly, and when they do, the shields are of little use other than getting in their way. Conversely, despite the hyper-effectiveness of fists and feet, weaponry seems to be of at best random usefulness. At times the composite bows carried by Barkane and his men seem incredibly deadly, at others they are completely ineffective, flipping from one extreme to the other without rhyme or reason. In one sequence, Barkane refuses to arm himself with a proffered knife, preferring to fight unarmed because somehow that is more effective. Granted, there are plenty of myths about martial arts masters being more deadly with their bare hands than with a weapon, but they are basically just that, myths. The only time a man with a weapon is less dangerous than one who is unarmed is when the man with the weapon is untrained, which category Barkane is decidedly not supposed to fall into. In short, all of the fighting sequences in the book are so wildly inaccurate that they are often unintentionally hilarious.

The story jumps about, as the Macedonian General Bousardis and his supposedly elite "Silver Shields" (who don't seem to be all that elite in practice) first set out to recapture Sajan, then set about hunting down Barkane. There are double crosses (mostly inexplicable ones undertaken by the apparently schizophrenically insane Sajan), near escapes, and desperate fights. Barkane picks up some unexpected allies, a couple of damsels in distress, and finally makes it into Tyre (and after hiding the ball for much of the book, finally reveals why he went to the trouble of rescuing and then riding herd on Sajan). In the end, the mission ends up not making much sense - one wonders why the MacGuffin had to be recovered, which proves to be really difficult, as opposed to destroyed, which would have been much, much easier. Like most of the plot elements of the story, the reasoning behind this goes unexplained. Having led Bousardis across much of Syria, Barkane confronts him in Tyre, outwits him, is betrayed by someone close to him, and is saved by serendipity. Barkane's method of recovering the MacGuffin is supposedly really sneaky, but it really appears to be so obvious that it is hard to imagine anyone would fall for it, even someone who seems to be as buffoonish as Bousardis, another inexplicable element of the story.

Finally, one element that just kept nagging at me through the whole book is this: Barkane is on the wrong side of history. While it is all well and good that he is a patriot who loves his adopted city of Carthage, it is Greek civilization as spread by the Macedonian conquests that forms the basis for our civilization, not the moribund and hidebound Carthaginian culture. While the Greeks left behind culture, learning, philosophy, and art, the Carthaginians left behind next to nothing. Through the book the informed reader feels the tension between rooting for Barkane to succeed (he is the hero of the story after all) and realizing that his victory will be ultimately meaningless and probably counterproductive. In the end, while the historical elements of the book are generally not too far off, the bizarre and inane actions of many of the characters, coupled with keystone cops style combat scenes, and a plot that makes little sense at all results in a book that is merely adequate. While the idea of a commando in ancient Persia sounds really interesting, the execution is just not sufficiently well-polished for this book to be worth more than a lukewarm recommendation.

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