Review of ‘Britannia: Part 1: The Wall’ by Richard Denham and M J Trow

urlUnfortunately, “The Wall” – an opening novel in what must be at least a duology by Richard Denham & M J Trow suffers from both historical inaccuracy, modern vernacular and phrases uttered from the mouths of ancient characters, sloppy grammar, and being “overstuffed”. By the latter, it is meant that the authors have crammed every Roman word, place, action and belief they have ever learned about Roman Britain  into four hundred plus pages. The result is a poor effort that will barely have the likes of Simon Scarrow or Harry Sidebottom yawning about lower book sales, let alone quaking in their caligulae.

Yes, I am being harsh, but given the advent of the e-book, the opening of the novel marketplace to anyone to write their beloved opus has meant a swamping of mediocre offerings and this is one of those. This is not to say there isn’t a faint glimmer of promise. The authors know a little bit about the period – or, at least, have read a lot about it – and, at times, the action of the novel – usually when a two-character interaction is occurring – keeps the reader interested enough to turn the page. Possibly what saves it is the four characters, which gives the authors four chances at hooking the reader. Given the differing personalities you’re likely to find one interests you. In my case, Vitalis. Leocadius will appeal to 20-somethings but he’s, well, he probably reads FHM magazine; Paternus is dour but moral, a candidate for Stockholm Syndrome…in this case Votidinari Syndrome; Justinus is most like a character you’d find in Scarrow’s books. Almost a bit like Centurion Macro, if more two-dimensional.

The meat of the book concerns four limitanei (more on that term later) as they chance upon the Picti, Anacotti, and Saxons massacres at Hadrian’s Wall, then race south to Eboracum (York) where a bout of lying to the Praeses, Ammianus of the VI Victrix, means that Justinus, Vitalis, Paternus, and Leocadius  all get promotions and sent on a uplifting tour. What follows is the a liberal historical retelling of  “The Great Conspiracy” – a real event in the history of Roman Britain. We swiftly open with our authors first attempt at a battle scene with the additional massacre of 120 arrogant Romans. The descriptive narrative is clearly aimed at teenage boys, but the gist is that the enemy is epitomized by one Valentius, leader of the barbarians.

After that the narrative moves to Londinium where we follow our four “heroes” as they advance their careers, impregnate daughters of consuls (and others), hook up with barbarian princesses, meddle in Mithras v Christianity problems (we get to meet Pelagius, with his heretical defiance of Rome and Bishop Dalmatius), start working for the future Emperor Theodosius, indulge in gladiatorial combat (the scene with Leocadius fighting in the arena is almost a copy of the Commodus v Maximus denouement scene in the film “Gladiator”), then partake in the Final Battle where some die, some don’t, and the reader is left with a quizzical eyebrow raise. Don’t worry – these aren’t spoilers.

The problems with this novel are legion:

Firstly, the treatment of women as sexual playthings bordering on misogyny. Best summarized in one awful single sentence mid-terrible “erotic” fantasy of a virgin giving herself up to Leocadius. I believe the actual sentence was:  “a virgin who goes like a wild ass”. A candidate for The Literary Review’s annual Bad Sex Award.

Focusing on the opening thirty or so pages, historically, the novel  suffers quite badly. In the opening pages we are told they are in the region of Valentia. This was formed in 369A.D. but our novel is set in 367A.D.. Other examples include the term “limitaneus” – not actually the singular nominative of limitanei – which been made up by the authors; “contubernia” in 3rd century A.D. were comprised of ten men, not eight as Google might have you believe; A “semisallis” was an Eastern Empire military command, not a Britannic one; “saddlehorns” are referred to in the same paragraph as ‘Roman horned saddles’ – they are different types of saddle, the first didn’t exist in the period of the novel; there is a lot of fantasy details about obscure tribes like the Vectriones. E.g. “They never washed and women ruled them”. Really?

Aside from this it is the use of post-Roman  idioms and phrases that stand out. We’ve got phrases such as: “rhyme or reason”, “settle a score”, “smoke and mirrors”, “chip off the old block”, “a bed of roses” , “all a-twitter”, “a maul of shields”, and my personal favourite – “bedroom hanky-panky”. In its defence the last did make me laugh.

A lot of sentences start, criminally, with “And…”

Syntactically there are mistakes: “four hour’s march”, “Colisseum”, “Saturmalia”, “praeses”. Twentieth century vernacular: “blokes”, “riff-raff”, “boss”; Medieval words: “peasants”, “parley”. There is the use of term “Duke” well ahead of its time. “Dux” is the correct appellation.

The narrative is confused at times. For example,  the authors tell us the dead all had “their eyes, some closed, some wide open” yet later tell us “Justinus only knew Flavius Tarquinius by the name on his arm…his head was battered to a pulp.” If his head was battered to a pulp then his eyes sure weren’t open or closed. Another example: the characters arrive at the first massacre and tells us “no guards on the ramparts. No birds, either. No rooks. No ravens” yet at the end tell us “Only the ravens circled like tiny insects.” There’s too much inconsistency in the narrative.

To round it off there are strange tropes like: “He tossed his head towards the horsemen on the skyline”, “The garden…smelled so aromatically of the afternoon’s burning leaves.”, “His head came up and he raked them with that fierce gaze of his”, “in the spirit of democracy which the Republic had stolen from the Greeks”.

All of the above in the opening thirty or so pages of the novel….the rest of it goes on in similar vein. So much so, this reviewer had to plow ahead ignoring the poor history, the poor narrative and focus on the action and events of the novel whilst understanding this was a fantasy action tale loosely based on actual historical events. So, was the novel gripping? In answer, from page 250 onwards the writing improves – suggestive perhaps of one author being more skilled than the other.  But not massively. Yet scenes become set descriptively before narrative. The painting is better done, the images there. This occurs especially in Vitalis and Decius Critus’ furtive midnight inductions in the Mithraeum; is nicely done in the scenes of where Longinus finds out Julia is pregnant.

In conclusion, the next effort needs to be much, much better. That novel needs to cut its “information” down, ensure what is stated is historically accurate, focus more on character understanding and subsequent actions by them, lose the schoolboy battle scene fantasies. Then…it will be worth a few hours read.

Categories: Richard Denham and M J Trow

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