28 January 2009


This is Christian Cameron's book Tyrant, rather than any of the other potentially applicable references for the term.

The great flaw of the thing is that it's not actually a book; I mean, it's bound properly between covers, the cover illustration is respectable if possessed of a dubious metallic sheen in key parts (something utterly beyond the author's control in any case...), there's a proper set of author's notes and a dedication and all, but we only get up to the troll fight, so this is neither the whole tale nor a thematically complete section of the tale.

So in one sense reviewing it is silly; the whole of the tale isn't there. In another, this is what has the covers, so presumably there is something to be said about it.

When I say "troll fight", I do not mean a literal troll, but a literary one; after the structure of Beowulf, the hero fights a troll (to demonstrate, yes, hero; Grendel, in Beowulf's case), the main scary monster (Grendel's mother), and then eventually the final battle in which the hero dies (the dragon in Beowulf's case).

What we have in Tyrant is up to the troll fight in the heroic progression of the protagonist, Kineas of Athens. Since I happen to know that this is a series and that there are pretty strict size limits on books these days in terms of publishable page count, that's not anything like the difficulty not getting to the troll fight in the first book would be.

This brings us to considering the fellow who is fighting the troll, which gets us to our hero, the exiled Athenian Kineas, sometime cavalry officer in the host of Alexander of Macedon.

I have trouble being fair to Kineas, because he's one of those people whose emotional complexity is a great deal larger than their ability to conceptualize or express emotions. We spend the book fairly tightly attached to Kineas' viewpoint, despite him having the approximate level of self-awareness of a couple pounds of haddock fillets. This makes me want to shake the fellow from time to time, but this cannot be regarded as a failure of craft in the writing. It's also clear in the text that he's going to have to correct this deficiency if he is to fulfill his heroic destiny. (And find a way to manage his fits of brutal temper.)

On the positive side, the resulting Kineas-filter on the narration results in a generally clean and sparse descriptive text which does not act to blunt events for the reader by attempting to impose a particular viewpoint. Stuff happens, and we get information about it, and can make up our own minds. Quite a lot of stuff happens; there is action and politics and travel and drinking parties and mighty striving, all quite cohesively inter-related and driven forward at a suitable tempo.

Kineas' military companions—the cadre of the cavalry unit he has been commissioned to create for the tyrant of the city of Olbia—are drawn in a necessarily spare and sparse style through Kineas' perception of them. This does not limit the effectiveness of the characterization if one is paying attention, though it does require that the reader pay attention, since the majority of that characterization is done through completely unflagged-for-significance descriptions of the habitual interactions of old comrades. (The unflagged for significance part is something I wish a great many more authors did.)

The feel of the classical Greek culture is very good; they think they're normal, and the text does an excellent job of presenting them that way. Which in part means that there are effectively no women in the story. (The Scorching Babe and prophetic eunuchs in dresses do not count as women for review purposes.)

This is socially appropriate for the period, but it does require the author to elide a few attitudes to avoid making the characters revolting to moderns. This is about the best that can be done with the problem of historical authenticity to a culture that is in its details seriously objectionable. Slavery is handled in much the same way, as a common fact of life. This is much better than making a moral point of it that would have been alien to any of the philosophies actually prevalent in that time and place, but it does require a suspension not of disbelief but of social judgement.

Which is not to say that the characters lack moral sense or social judgement of one another; these are classical Greek gentlemen, and they take their philosophical attainments as seriously as their military ones.

In particular, the core cavalry characters have all had long military service; they have been variously damaged by it, to the detriment of their ability to be contextually decent human beings, they're conscious of this, and they are all in various ways disparaging of glory as a motivation and of the presentation of glory in poetry. (Absolutely every Greek character we see talk, significant military experience or not, has an opinion about the Iliad and whether or not Achilles is a sound role model. This, too, is highly appropriate to the period.)

Of particular note is Kineas'—with haddock fillets for self-awareness—foil, the accomplished, consciously complex, and apparently badly conflicted philosophical Spartan Philokles. We don't find out what specific virtues he's driven to pursue nor who he really works for, but it's clear that he thinks about these things a great deal. He also talks about them elliptically and caustically at the slightest provocation.

The story is not in the period of Spartan power; this is after the Thebans broke that forever, and after Alexander destroyed Thebes, at that. Despite this, Philokles exists in an interesting tension between extremely un-Spartan characteristics—when Kineas rescues him from the sea, the other characters describe him as fat—and the killing machines of legend. The first thing we see him actually do, fat or not, is win a javelin throwing contest in a fashion fatal to one of his host's sheep.

I find Philokles almost more interesting than Kineas; with Kineas, it's fairly clear where the broad sweep of the plot is going to take him, but with Philokles, who is after all not the protagonist, I remain highly uncertain just what is going on. That uncertainty is something I value in books.

The only depicted material culture issue I'd raise with the book is that I refuse to believe anybody would use sinew bowstrings if they have access to silk. (Or linen, and the text makes it clear they have both.)

I am certainly interested to find to find out what happens in the next one, to the literary equivalent of Grendel's Mum.

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