Warning! Spoilers ahead.
Afterwards, if you just can't get enough of me (I know I can't), click here for an interview Mr. Donoghue asked me to do for OLM.
Harm Him, Harm Me
By Steve Donoghue
Blood of Eagles: A Novel of Ancient Rome (The Bow of Heaven, Book III) By Andrew Levkoff Peacock Angel Publishing, 2014
The caustic, sharp-witted Greek slave Alexandros, the narrator of Andrew Levkoff’s Roman historical fiction trilogy “The Bow of Heaven,” is certain by the time he reaches the ripe old age of 49 that he knows the key to a happy life – obscurity:
Ignorance and superstition have far more allies in this world than open-mindedness and tolerance. Greatness, I have observed, is a highly overrated commodity, to be shunned with the zeal of the devout. Seek rather the halcyon shadow of anonymity if you desire a happy, contemplative life.
Such insight comes late to Alexandros himself. For the last thirty years, he’s been the slave and agent of the famous Roman plutocrat and triumvir Marcus Crassus, trusted by his famously wealthy master on many missions large and small, as Levkoff has chronicled in the first two books in the series, The Other Alexander (2011) and A Mixture of Madness (2012). Wealth and notoriety have come to Alexandros almost by osmosis, and although he might desire a happy, contemplative life (Levkoff leaves open the possibility that he’s every bit as hungry for fame as his master), it’s further out of reach with each successive volume.
Indeed, the conclusion of A Mixture of Madness seems to leave all futures out of reach for Alexandros. Having been caught by Crassus trying to conduct a covert negotiation to head off the war Crassus is fomenting in the Roman East, Alexandros is crucified on the banks of the Euphrates by his former master and left to die.
It’s an ending that would seem to preclude all new beginnings. “No one climbs off a cross,” as one character in Blood of Eagles says. “Once you’re up, the only way you come down is with a lot of help, by which I mean to say – dead. You come down dead.”
Alexandros comes off his cross more dead than alive, rescued at the last minute by two renegades from the huge Parthian army then massing in Syria in anticipation of a Roman invasion. One of those renegades, a champion archer named Melyaket, strikes Alexandros as “brushed by something extraordinary” (“and generally speaking, whenever that happens in this life, no good can come of it"), and it’s Melyaket who at first spirits Alexandros deeper into the interior of Parthia, away from the eight Roman legions of Crassus – and also away from Livia, a medicus with the legions, Alexandros’ wife and the mother of his baby son Felix. Alexandros, who otherwise characterizes himself as “a steadfast advocate of the power of the inertia of circumstance,” wants to tempt his own incredible good luck surviving Roman crucifixion by returning to the power of Rome in search of his beloved – a course of action at first made impossible by the fact that Melyaket is himself being hunted, by a smooth-talking one-eyed Parthian general named Scolotes.
From these elements Levkoff fashions a smart and gripping narrative as Alexandros’s travels in Parthia teach him a great deal about Rome’s inveterate enemy, the polyglot kingdom Marcus Crassus, inflamed with ambition, hopes to conquer, undaunted by that kingdom’s size, or wealth, or rumored ferocity in battle. “The more skilled the opponent,” he insists, “the greater the glory when he is vanquished. And glory is the chief prize with which I must return to Rome.” That this glory is beyond the reach of a man commanding seven Roman legions never occurs to Crassus (“There is no nation of Parthia,” one character says, voicing a common sentiment; “there are only ten thousand villages who pay taxes to [Parthian King] Orodes. Ask any herdsman or farmer what country they live in and they will scratch their heads"), who’s busily preparing his war with his son Publius as his chief lieutenant and his wife Tertulla worrying on the sidelines.
Even a beginning student of Roman history will know at the outset of Blood of Eagles how incredibly wrong such thinking is. Crassus, so spurred by a hunger for military glory that he undertakes his Parthian adventure without the approval of the Senate back in Rome, will lead his eight legions and thousands of auxiliary forces in a grueling march across rebellious territory and open deserts in order to strike at the ranks of the Parthian king, ignoring both local offers of a shorter route and warnings that the Parthians have developed a fighting force called cataphracts: heavily-armored men on heavily-armored horses – essentially, medieval mounted knights ten centuries early.
In the spring of 53 BC, sixty-one-year-old Crassus thus led his forces into unknown territory against a misjudged enemy. The Roman tactical intelligence had long since been suborned by Parthian bribes, and the Parthian strategy – alternating between cataphracts and an endless, punishing stream of arrow-fire – decimated the forces of Crassus while suffering virtually no casualties in return. The fight, very nearly a massacre, took place near the town of Carrhae, and Carrhae has entered history as one of the worst defeats in Roman history. Over 30,000 Romans were killed or captured. Young Publius Crassus’s head was cut off during the battle and mounted on a spear for his father to see, and Crassus the elder was killed in a melee that resulted when tense truce negotiations broke down. The story that the head of Crassus was later used as a prop in the Bacchae of Euripides for the amusement of the watching Orodes is just macabre enough to be true.
This famous tragedy looms over the story Levkoff tells of Alexandros’s struggle to be reunited with Livia, their struggle to gain their freedom, and beyond all else, the remarkably complex and evolving relationship between Alexandros and Crassus. “Three decades,” Alexandros thinks when reflecting on the length of his servitude. “How many marriages last as long? How many lives? I had served no other master. I had had no other employment. I knew which shellfish made him ill, which wines he favored. I knew more of his secrets than even his wife.” And Crassus himself feels likewise, as he confesses early on in the novel:
“I have seen men who have lost an arm or a leg in battle cry out from the pain they swear stabs at them from the severed limb. Alexander is gone from me, but I feel his absence already. I know it, his presence will long longer – not like a lost limb, but as a ghost – his voice in my ear, correcting, chiding, arguing. Always so cocksure of himself, always that look when I had had enough banter and reminded him of his place; that faint sneer that said he scoffed at the error of my decision. Curse him if he wasn’t right half the time. When, on the odd chance I’d admit I was wrong, to his credit, he was never smug. Well, not often.”
This complicated dynamic is the heart of the “Bow of Heaven” trilogy, in which the wit and self-assurance of Alexandros is shaped in response to Levkoff’s best fictional creation, a Marcus Crassus far more nuanced and believably human than the flinty, greedy caricature readers have been hissing in Plutarch for two thousand years. Levkoff’s Crassus is a memorably three-dimensional man, “a good man and a great man” who’s nonetheless deeply flawed, caring for Alexandros and yet sometimes murderously angered by him (it was Crassus who’d ordered him crucified, but it was also Crassus who’d orchestrated his rescue). The safe-passage Crassus issues for Alexandros in the East gets right to the point: “Alexandros, beloved of Crassus. Harm him, harm me. Disobey him, disobey me.” And Alexandros’s reactions are an equally multi-vectored combination of bitterness and filial devotion. “For more than thirty years,” he realizes, “I had sat panting at his feet, begging for scraps of affection and recognition, and when I was thrown a morsel and got a pat on the head, how the sun would shine!”
Even in the shadow of this three-volume centerpiece relationship, Levkoff works to bring his secondary characters to life – and he has quips to spare even for minor characters like Dario Musclena, the chief medicus of Crassus’s army, who’s described: “Haughty blue eyes, grey curls, aquiline nose; he might as well have been a statue. Most of his subordinates would have preferred him that way.” And when Livia first learns of her husband’s alleged death on the cross, Levkoff gives a very effective description of the seismic nature of intense grief:
… as a doctor she should have known that the eyes are only the last stop on the journey of tears. Great sobs welled up from inside her like whales breaching. Grief, a curling breaker, swept her up, then took her breath as it threw her down. She gasped for air, aware of nothing save her own wretchedness. After a time, she felt arms around her – a cradle for the infant she had become.
￼(The arms are those of Crassus himself; the relationship between the old Roman autocrat and Livia is very nearly as tangled as that of Crassus and Alexandros.)
“Power rests with one in a thousand men,” Alexandros observes. “The rest of us either live in fear of brushing up against those who have it or of losing the tiny bit of it we have convinced ourselves we possess.” As a slave when Levkoff’s series starts off, Alexandros could have very little expectation of possessing power except that reflected from his famous master. And yet by the time we meet him in the pages of Blood of Eagles, he’s a seasoned wielder of power himself, as short-tempered and thoroughly disillusioned as Crassus himself, with one key difference: he’s experienced first-hand the vicious turns Fortune can take, and it’s given him a respect for disaster Crassus doesn’t share. The passages in which Levkoff shows the intelligent, calculating calm with which Crassus marches to his doom are wrenchingly ironic, and Levkoff repays the rich man’s hubris by adding a sadistic but very believable twist to the legend that once the Parthians had killed Crassus, they poured molten gold down his throat in order to mock his legendary greed. The first “Bow of Heaven” book, The Other Alexander, is very much composed in a key of humor, but by the events of Blood of Eagles, the tone has come to tragedy at last.
“Publius Crassus is no more,” Alexandros says to the Parthian general who wins the day. “You killed him.”
“No. Others, yes. That honor was not mine. Today I defended my home against an invader. The Roman killed himself when he crossed the Euphrates. Just as I died a little when I awoke this morning.”
“Yet you still take air.”
“And isn’t that what makes life thrilling? The choices we make, the chances we take.”
“Unless it becomes absolutely necessary,” Alexandros responds bitterly, “I endeavor to maneuver myself into as many unthrilling situations as possible.”
So he keeps saying. But readers of “The Bow of Heaven” trilogy know otherwise, and newcomers will be glad he’s wrong. This series has the careful research and traditional pacing of Steven Saylor’s best Roman historical novels, as multifaceted a portrayal of Roman slavery as anything found in historians like R. H. Barrow or K. R. Bradley, and, in Levkoff’s Marcus Crassus, as convincingly multi-faceted a fictional portrayal of a Roman titan as we’ve had since Thornton Wilder’s Julius Caesar nearly 70 years ago. Blood of Eagles squarely faces the blunt tragedy of Crassus’s death – and the surprising multiplicity of the land and people that killed him.
Steve Donoghue is a writer and reader living in Boston with his dogs. He’s recently reviewed books for The Washington Post, The National, The Wall Street Journal, The Boston Globe, Historical Novel Review Online, and The Quarterly Conversation. He is the Managing Editor of Open Letters Monthly, and hosts one of its blogs, Stevereads.
The release of Blood of Eagles is still scheduled for December 6. Thanks for your understanding.
Ten years in the making! A virtual cast of thousands! Peter Jackson, Ridley Scott in deathmatch for rights!
At long last, The Bow of Heaven trilogy will be off the bucket list with the release of Blood of Eagles. I admit, it took a bit out of me. Here is a picture of what I looked like when I began writing this 1,400 page saga in 2004:
And this is what I look like now:
Sometimes, I even look like this, especially in the morning (ask Steph):
Pre-orders are now being accepted here for a December 6 release.
More good news. The first book in the trilogy, The Other Alexander, will be available for free beginning November 26 until Blood of Eagles goes on sale.
So, you're probably thinking, that's it for Alexandros and company. Andy's had it up to here with togas and swords and bows and arrows. No duh. Having said that, a prequel entitled Melyaket, a Tale of Ancient Parthia, is planned for release either in 2016 or 2017, depending on how quickly I record the audiobook for A Mixture of Madness.
Wait, what? It's true, I'm going to give it a shot. The first audiobook is doing quite well, so I thought I'd try my hand at this voice acting thingy. It could be fun, although the only place that is even remotely soundproof in our house is our clothes closet. Claustrophobia, here I come.
Sometimes not winning feels just like winning. And remember folks, book three of the The Bow of Heaven trilogy will be out by the end of the year. The working title is Blood of Eagles. Thank you all for your patience.
HNS Indie Award Shortlisted Author : Andrew Levkoff
Reading (pardon the pun) between the lines, Patterson also fears for the future of those monolithic publishers who are getting elbowed out of the selection process of what the public should be reading. Who are these nefarious nudgers? Why, it is the great unwashed public itself. Heaven forbid they be allowed to decide what they want to read!
The heart of the target of Patterson's campaign is Amazon, also a bookstore, but one that happens to champion ebooks and new, even self-published authors. It is no longer necessary to beg for an agent or sift through a pile of publishers' rejection letters while waiting and hoping to get published. Anyone can upload their oeuvre and if people like you and me like it, it may just become a best-seller.
Rather than go through Patterson's argument point by point, I'd like to introduce you to J. A. Konrath, another best-selling author who also happens to be a champion of self-publishing and has been almost since its inception. Here's a link to his post regarding Patterson; if you listened to the NPR interview and felt that James was sprouting a halo and wings, I urge you to consider the flip side of this discussion. Here it is: http://jakonrath.blogspot.com/2014/02/konrath-on-patterson-deux.html
Mom had me bundled up so thoroughly I could barely move to adjust the instrument, let alone climb the backyard stairs that led to the roof—I looked like a golem with a baseball bat. I remember, too, that my coat had these flat, metal snaps that locked together in what I imagined might be similar technology to that used by Dr. Frankenstein to secure his creation to the laboratory table. My cap had those ears that pulled down from the inside in what was the height of young men's haberdashery chic for 1961. I was enough of a nerd to incorporate the coat into my daily flights of science fiction fantasy as space cadet uniform, radiation shield or upper body strength super-enhancer, but even I knew that hat had "dork" written all over it.
I don't remember how she found it, but one day when I got home from school and tossed my dinosaur repulsion barrier (coat) on my bed, its large, circular communicator (yellow bus pass) glowing brightly, I realized I had thrown it on top of something she had left on the bedspread for me.
It was a book, but unlike previous works that opened the world of science and discovery to me, like Paul de Kruif's Microbe Hunters and All About Dinosaurs by Roy Chapman Andrews, this one looked like an airplane
This cinder block, written in 1939 by Hungarian Zsolt de Harsanyi, translated into English by Paul Tabor, was a biography of Galileo Galilei called The Star-Gazer, and although it was twice as thick as any book I had read up until then, I consumed its pages as if they were made of Hershey bars.
Now, fast forward 50-odd years or so to a strange package arriving in the mail last week. Another book, the one pictured to the right, in fact. One of the two authors was Dr. Zsolt Harsanyi, the grandson of the man who penned The Star-Gazer. Dr. Harsanyi directed the first assessment of biotechnology for the U.S. Congress' Office of Technology Assessment and served as a consultant to the President's Commission for the Study of Ethical Problems in Medicine and Biomedical and Behavioral Research.
And here he was, having found me through the miracle of the interweb, mailing me his own 1981 work on the ethics of bioengineering. Did I say 1981? I did. Dr. Harsanyi was one of the first to wrestle with the "can we/should we" questions of genetic engineering. I had posted a comment about his grandfather's work someplace like Goodreads, and Dr. Harsanyi had used (I imagine) his NSA contacts to find out where I lived. His kind note to me was written from the Budapest Marriott!
I hate to get sappy (no I don't, not really), but I imagine Galileo would find it as astonishing and wondrous as I that two strangers could reach across the planet and find each other in this marvelous way. I wish my mother was still around so I could tell her this story. She'd flip.
Since you have naturally bought it already, please tell your friends so they can get it (ridiculously) cheap starting this Sunday. www.amazon.com/dp/B00AI4GX90
Since the publication of A Mixture of Madness last December, I have had a little difficulty striking the flint under the tinder of book three in The Bow of Heaven trilogy. Not only have the vicissitudes of life intruded…. What kind of a word is that, anyway? Vicissitudes. For one thing, it's a word whose final "s" is almost always inextricably wrapped about the "o" in the phrase "of life." For another, it's a word whose meaning has eluded me for the past, oh, 40 years. I thought it meant a necessary intrusion, but it doesn't. It means ups and downs, an alteration or variation in the state of things. It's one of those words that shouldn't have a negative connotation, but does, like "frisbee" or "sherbet."
As I was saying, the imposition of life, planning a trip to Italy, buying a house, preparing to leave my day job to write full-time, these stressors, while they have not quite given me a case of writer's "b-word," have stolen hours and attention from the keyboard. Once you stop writing on a daily basis, once in fact, that you've left your virtual pen and ink drying in the sun for weeks at a time, is it hard to get started again? A bit, yeah. Especially when you're trying to pull together characters and chronology from two previous novels and 900 pages of narrative.
"Oh stop your bellyaching and get on with it!" That was the imagined voice of George R. R. Martin, who has a tad more to remember than I as he soldiers on trying to stay ahead of HBO.
A nice review came in last week. I mention it because of the odd sensation of vertigo I experienced just before I clicked on the link sending me to the site where I could read it. I wish I was the kind of person to whom reviews were like rain on a duck's beak, or better still, that stalwart sort who, with backbone stiff and chin held high, shuns them altogether. I'm not. I read them and try to learn from them. I will even accept your castigation and admit that when a particularly inspiring review flies across the threshold, the bellows of encouragement begin pumping harder. (Aren't true artists supposed to be consumed by their calling, eating to write, not the reverse? Okay, that's not me either. Guess I'm an untrue artist.)
Last year I was honored with the silver award in historical fiction by Readers' Favorite for The Other Alexander. A prerequisite for winning an award this year for A Mixture of Madness is a good review from the nice folks at RF. So when the email came in announcing the review's arrival, I found my toes curled over the edge of an egotistical precipice: I realized that anything short of a 5-star review would be bitterly disappointing. Yes, they did like it, it did capture five of the fiery buggers and I breathed a huge sigh of relief. But this mixture of madness (!) must stop. Should I now be crushed if AMOM doesn't do as well as TOA when the awards are handed out? For crying out loud, who gives a flying Fig Newton, as long as a few folks out there are buying the books and enjoying them?
Ahhhh. There's the rub. Awards help sell books. They get you noticed, and help do for self-published authors what the traditional publishing houses used to do for their stable of authors under contract. In the end, however, it is just too crazy-making to worry one way or the other. So my advice to aspiring authors which I must work to heed myself is this: submit your work for the reputable awards, hope your work is regarded with kindness, and keep your head down and your fingers limber. Kurt Vonnegut said it best: "Write to please just one person."
Possibly due to a stint in an English grammar school in the '60's, or to a mother who feigned an English accent whenever she was nervous, I was taught to omit it. I didn't even know until recently there was any debate about it; anyone who tossed the extraneous mark into a sentence was not only wasting a keystroke but possibly inciting to riot in as many as three or four post-graduate composition aeries around the globe. Read on and you will see, as I did, that there are occasions where the little curly devil's presence is appropriate and appreciated.
(Apologies to Billy Tucker for the black eye I gave him in 5th grade. Billy, please pass along a current address and I will remit the $2.00, with interest.)
So here goes. February 1, the exclusive, prestigious guardians of all fictional writings historical, responsible for ruining innumerable toes of otherwise impeccable Sloane Street brogues as they are slammed unceremoniously out into a cold London drizzle, the Historical Novel Society has seen sit fit to bestow (for the second time running) an Editors' Choice accolade on the second book in The Bow of Heaven series, A Mixture of Madness.
Last year, the Society was kind enough to single out the first book in the series, The Other Alexander, with the same honor. Here is what they had to say:
“I am ancient now far beyond my fair share of years,” Alexandros, the slave Alexander, tells us at one point in Levkoff’s lavishly detailed and exuberantly intelligent second volume in his “Bow of Heaven” series about the smart, opinionated philosophy student who becomes the slave to the wealthiest man in Rome, Marcus Crassus. Readers need not read the first volume in order to enjoy this current one, and Roman history buffs will be able to guess the shape of the new book’s plot: Crassus, financier, doting father and husband, disgruntled triumvir, and would-be conqueror of the East. Levkoff has Alexander the slave at his master’s side through almost everything, without ever sentimentalizing his slave status (Crassus may like Alexander, but he’s also quick to threaten floggings when he’s in a bad mood) or filling the character with improbable braveries.
The book is filled with intrigue and action, especially in its final act when Crassus is bent on marching to the hostile kingdom of Parthia and almost certain doom. Along the way, Alexander himself grows and changes (“I love and am loved,” he tells us at one point, “I have friends, and a life that may justly be called my own"), and readers are drawn along by the author’s sharp ear for dialogue and his impeccable dramatic timing.