Review of Pride of Carthage

As far as I know, there aren’t a lot of studies concerning the subject matter of historical novels published in English. If I had to guess, I would say the majority of historical novels deal with either the Roman Empire or WWII. Considering how many books are written on these subjects and how much I read historical fiction, some might assume that I have read a great many novels featuring characters with Latin names or events that took place somewhere between 1933 and 1945. Such an assumption, however, would be wrong. Partially because so much has already been written about these epochs and partially because we learn a great deal about both in school, I used to avoid historical novels dedicated to these topics. I decided to break that rule when I read David Anthony Durham’s Pride of Carthage and I am glad that I did.

While a great many novels have been written about the Second Punic War, Pride of Carthage is one of the few novels I know that is told almost entirely from the perspective of Carthaginian characters. This does offer some advantages in terms of brand differentiation but there is one big downside to telling the story from this point of view: the Carthaginians were the invaders. Generally speaking, the people who initiate wars of aggression are not very sympathetic characters. Whether the story takes place in Winterfell or pre-Columbian North America, creating sympathetic characters is key to capturing reader interest so telling the story from the Carthaginian perspective poses some obvious difficulties.

Durham confronts the challenge with impressive grace and portrays Hannibal Barca in a way that helps readers understand his intelligence and his motivations. Considering Hannibal’s reputation as a genius military strategist, a great many writers probably would have been tempted to use the first chapter to showcase his knowledge of battle tactics. Durham, however, chooses a different tack and uses the first chapter to showcase Hannibal’s genius as a military commander. The scene is not very long but does a great job of showing how Hannibal was able to win the loyalty of common soldiers and why so many soldiers were willing to follow him into such perilous straits.

When it comes to understanding the motivations of this long-dead general, no scene does this better than Imilce’s private conversation with Hannibal. Imilce, his first wife and his ardent supporter, pushes him to explain why he is so keen on war with Rome. His initial answers are rather milquetoast—glory, justice, freedom, and vengeance—and could have come from the likes of Hirohito or Bolivar. The scene gets truly interesting when Imilce presses Hannibal and he confesses he is motivated more by marital pride than martial pride. He promises his wife that “in two years you will be able to look from the balcony of this [room] or any other place you choose and know that all the Mediterranean world is yours to shape. How many men can say that to their wives and mean it?”

This explanation differs markedly from his more public proclamations—at one point in the book, he explains that Carthage needs to take the offense against Rome because Rome will become the undisputed hegemon of the Mediterranean otherwise, a rather prescient observation undoubtedly informed by Durham’s knowledge of the Punic wars—but this private admission is the one that truly stands out. To think that something so simple and pure as striving to give a significant other something no one else has can lead to something so ugly as war is both fascinating and horrifying.

Considering the book is about Hannibal Barca, no reader should be surprised that large-scale battles play a large role in the story. Personally, I like the descriptions of the Fabian campaign, the Battle of Cannae, and the Battle of Zama best but the answer will probably differ from reader to reader. To be fair, there are probably some readers who won’t enjoy these scenes at all but the political intrigue and the narrative arcs are more than enough to carry the story along. I recommend this book to anyone interested in Mediterranean history, albeit mainly from the African perspective as opposed to the European perspective, or to anyone interested in military fiction.

The novel is available on Amazon and in most libraries.

Review of Gunpowder miniseries: lots of flash, not much bang

The 2017 miniseries Gunpowder was headlined by Kit Harrington (better known to most audiences as Jon Snow) and backed by HBO but it hardly seems to have left an impression with most TV viewers. Viewership numbers are not disclosed on TV by the numbers but judging by the figures posted on Metacritic and Rotten Tomatoes, critics were not very impressed with Gunpowder. Having finished the series not too long ago, I can understand the lukewarm reception it received.

Just to be clear, Gunpowder was not a bad show. The pilot is quite entertaining and so is the follow up episode. If the final episode had been stronger, Gunpowder would probably be remembered as a pretty good show. Sadly, the finale failed to live up to the preceding episodes and, considering there were only three episodes in the entire miniseries, this drop in quality had outsize consequences.

The strongest character in the show was Guy Fawkes, both in a literal sense and a figurative sense. He endures brutal, ceaseless torture at the hands of his captors but refuses to divulge the names of his fellow conspirators, even when it is abundantly clear that plot to bring about a “restoration of true religion” has failed miserably. Eventually, his captors tire of torturing him and haul him before a cheering crowd for an execution ceremony that could rival a flowery death in its gore.

Were he a weaker man, Fawkes might have had to endure the unceremonious death that many of his Catholic brethren suffer, but he summons the last of his strength to issue a feral roar and leaps off his hanging post to spare himself a painful ordeal. In life, as well as captivity, his impressive strength is plain to see and he easily bests his fencing opponents in a gripping fight that serves as a highlight of the second episode in the miniseries. From a character standpoint, Guy Fawkes is also one of the strongest in the ensemble and it’s a shame actor Tom Cullen did not get more screen time. That may have meant cutting back on the scenes involving Catesby’s young son, but that probably would have been for the best anyway.

Perhaps the biggest error the show makes is that it passes up the chance to say something important. Religious terrorism is an incredibly important topic when it comes to modern life and almost every major world region is affected by it in some way, shape, or form. Guy Fawkes may not be the Western world’s first religious terrorist but he is certainly an early and interesting example. The pilot does a great job of making it clear to viewers that Catholics suffer brutal persecution in post-Elizabethan England and the motivations of the Gunpowder conspirators are pretty understandable considering the fate of Catholics discovered by law enforcement.

To be fair, there are moments where the show explores the way hardliner policies can contribute to extremism, the conversation between Father Garnet and Sir Wade is a great example of this, but they are few and far between. Instead, a great many scenes are dedicated to the relationship between Catesby and his son, a dynamic that has some importance for the plot but is not interesting enough to merit so much screen time. The show creators, however, seem to disagree and the final scene of the show deals not with the Gunpowder conspirators, or their would-be victims, but Catesby’s son. Had the show just focused more on the major characters and taken more time to explore the interesting questions raised by the Gunpowder plot, the miniseries would have been much stronger.

Review of The Moor’s Account

Historical fiction is a relatively small genre. Most bookstores in the US do not have a historical fiction section and the genre is not nearly as popular as fantasy or science fiction. Owing to authors like Laila Lalami, that could soon change. The Moor’s Account serves as her first foray into historical fiction and represents a towering accomplishment for the genre.

Set during the early days of Spanish colonization of the Americas, the novel follows the travels of a Moorish slave referred to in primary sources as Estebanico. Her decision to focus on Estebanico, referred to in the novel as Mustafa al-Zamori, is just as laudable as it is noteworthy. Had she written the novel from the perspective of Vacas or Navarez, she would have had far more resources at her disposal in terms of research tools. Despite the difficulties involved, Lalami chose to make Mustafa the protagonist of the novel and gives readers a character who provides some fascinating perspective on matters regarding race, war, and religion.

The story begins with the Navarez expedition having just landed in “La Florida” and the protagonist remarks in the opening sentence that “it was the year 934 of the Hegira, the thirtieth year of my life, the fifth year of my bondage—and I was at the edge of the known world.” The opening line is not particularly complex in terms of structure or diction, but it does a great job of setting the tone for the story.

Most Americans are not familiar with the Hegira–after all, Muslims make up less than 2 percent of the US population and the Gregorian calendar is used throughout most of the world these days. By invoking the Hegira, Lalami lets us know upfront the protagonist does not come from a traditional Western background and gives us information that savvy readers can use to better understand the setting. Moreover, by referencing the specific number of years that the character has spent as a slave, we learn the character was not born into slavery but forced into it, an important distinction that hints at a backstory which Lalami explores in subsequent chapters with enviable grace. Nonetheless, it is probably the final clause of the opening sentence which merits the most attention from readers.

A number of authors have remarked that almost every story can be boiled down to two basic plots: a stranger comes to town or a character goes on a journey. With the final clause, we know we have the latter but, importantly, we also know the character is journeying into the unknown. As a result, we know early on that the protagonist will probably be exposed to a great many unfamiliar sights and some of the most memorable scenes of the novel include these unfamiliar sights, such as when Mustafa comes face-to-face with an alligator for the first time. Considering that Mustafa and his captors have never seen an alligator before, it is all too easy to understand the terror that Mustafa experiences as he watches the animal attack a fellow slave.

To think the Moor’s Account is a simple travelogue of pre-colonial North America would be a mistake though. Where The Moor’s Account really shines is how it encourages readers to think about history. Almost anyone who has learned about the Navarez expedition knows that it was an absolute disaster and that the vast majority of the crew perished. Álvar Núñez Cabeza de Vaca was fortunate enough to survive and historians have long turned to his writings on the Navarez expedition to understand the event. Whereas many authors would have felt bound by the official account, the Moor’s Account subverts Vacas’ retelling on multiple occasions to give Mustafa more agency and to give the Amerindians more voice.

In doing so, the author encourages readers to take a more critical view of this primary source and its purported veracity. If events unfolded as they did in the novel, would Vacas have included that kind of information in the official account? The account that Vacas provided to notaries strongly suggests that Navarez bore sole responsibility for the failure of the expedition and that the surviving crew members, the Moor included, were selfless missionaries for Christ during their time with the “Indians.”

The portrayal offered by Lalami in The Moor’s Account is decidedly more complicated. Not only does Vacas share some of the responsibility for the failure of the expedition in Lalami’s retelling, she also strongly suggests that the survivors were much more keen on assimilating into Amerindian society than proselytizing, a concept that would have been truly shocking in 16th century Europe. Furthermore, the Moor never truly converted to Christianity in Lalami’s retelling and helped save the expedition on numerous occasions, something Vacas would have elided for numerous reasons. Lalami’s account is fictional of course but it raises many interesting questions about how we engage with history and the importance of critically examining the established orthodoxy. I would highly recommend this novel to fans of historical fiction, or those keen on literary fiction, and will be sure to keep an eye out for more of Lalami’s work in the future.

The book is available on Amazon and can be requested at most libraries.