An attempt by a half way educated Kiwi, who reads just a bit, to get his puny mind around the great world of literature!!
Wednesday, August 10, 2011
Ship Of Rome - John Stack
In his debut novel John Stack has brought to life the crux of the First Punic War, namely its naval component. And with it he has written a solid novel on this war that has been somewhat forgotten in light of the bigger, and better known, Second Punic War, of Hannibal and Scipio Africanus fame.
Whilst Ship of Rome is a solid novel it holds no pretense to historical accuracy. In fact for everything I liked about this novel Stack let himself down with some laziness in this area. To be sure artistic license has been used, and I can accept that. I can even accept at times an author has to shuffle facts etc around for narratives sake. But if a writer of historical fiction wants credibility, then he must do better than Stack has done here.
Firstly my biggest historical gripe is his skewing of the Carthaginians. According to Stack they are the aggressors here and not the Romans. Through his Carthaginian character Gisco, a huge tyrannical bully of a man, he paints the Carthaginians as war like belligerents, when in fact they weren't. In all reality Carthage was a trade based city that used its navy to protect its maritime trade routes. It wasn't a militarily expansionist city as Rome was, preferring to use diplomacy and trade to dominate the them Mediterranean world.
But Stack paints a different picture and tries to influence the naive reader into seeing the Romans as the aggrieved party. He over looks the trade aspect of Carthage, but not the fact that war sprung up between the two Cities. He is correct in the fact that the war became one of who would come to dominate the Mediterranean, but he mistakenly paints the picture of Carthage being a military power along the lines of Rome. Carthage was simply not this way inclined, as it was trade expansion inclined, not militarily and subjugation inclined, as Rome was.
So some sloppy skewing of history belittles this novel. But it goes further as Stack riddles it with the curse of the modern novelist, namely that of the formulaic clique. They are all here, and it is sad that he has fallen into this trap, because again I felt as if rather than lift himself above it, he has decided to just join the mediocre crowd. Here is an example. The two main Roman protagonists, Perenis and Septimus, visit Septimus' home in Rome. His sister turns up and she is the most beautiful woman Perenis has ever seen. I mean I saw that coming several pages before it happened! And of course the forbidden love crops up with Septimus trying to crush it! Cliqued run of the mill stuff, and unfortunately it blights the whole novel.
Also Stack makes the common mistake of using modern terms. For instance the military term' line of sight'. Now I'm pretty sure the Romans and Carthaginians didn't use it. And I also wonder if they used the nautical terms, port and starboard, in antiquity? I'm not sure, but they quite possibly didn't. But worst of all, and one I wish novelists wouldn't use is, 'make it so'. The problem for me is that it instantly conjures up images of, Captain Jean Luc Picard, of Star Trek fame!!
But for its faults it has some strengths. I like how Stack has used the internecine politics of the Senate as a backdrop. As well as the reluctant arrogance of the Roman legions in not believing they needed to change their fighting tactics in boarding Carthaginian galleys. Remember this is a naval warfare novel and Rome was a prominently land based power, with Carthage having the over whelming edge at sea. So Stack does highlight and use some historical facts, and does it well, but the important stuff he is just too sloppy with.
For me this novel is solid and competently written, and quirt entertaining in the process. But it paints no vividness, and I never had a picture in my minds eye from Stack's narrative. For everything I liked on one page there was a gaping hole on the next. And it is this that I must judge this novel on. The premise is great, but the historical context is sloppily portrayed, and I really was annoyed at how Stack has quite literally let the chance of a very good novel slip him by. His making the Romans out to be the good guys is nothing but pure fabrication, and he should have painted them, along with the Carthaginians in their respective historical lights. Instead he has taken the easy route out and produced something that lacks credibility, and is clique ridden to the hilt.
A novel that is frustrating in its being far less that what it could, and should, have been. Amazon has this with 3 1/2 stars out of 5 from 7 reviews. I give it 2 1/2 stars for simply being sloppily researched. A solid effort and a light breezy read. But a novel that held so much promise is let down by choosing to be cliqued, and mediocre in delivery, instead of looking to higher ground, and being a really good novel. At 362 pages long it provides enough to get your teeth into, and for all its faults, is still a reasonable read.