June 18, 2010
That's All She Read [...]
My regular readers are watching me spread my wings and read novels from other than the Middle Ages. Thanks to the proliferation of independent publishing, and in the case of Libertas, many more small publishers, divers authors' love for and knowledge of so many more times and places is becoming available. This novel is a case in point.
The time is the first century BC, the place Roman Spain. I should say "grudgingly Roman" Spain, but then that is one of the themes of this novel. Pito is a young boy whose heritage goes back to the seafaring Phoenicians. He lives in a town in south central Iberia which has been "civilized" by Roman influences. The Romans did an excellent job of coming in to a culture, offering the best of their civilization, sewage disposal, clean wells, communications systems, and so forth, and winning their tacit support of "the Roman Way". The trouble is that the Romans did not stop there. Ultimately it was the sword they wielded to command loyalty. In Libertas what Pito and his people face is Julius Caesar just as he is angling to be God and Emperor. The two sons of the great Pompey are in Spain to try to keep it Julius-free, part of the on-going and fascinating struggle between republicanism and dictatorship throughout the Roman Empire. The younger, Sextus, is a charismatic and fun-loving fellow, very clever and just flexible enough to be a survivor. He befriends Pito, who turns out to have a flair for engineering and invention in general. He develops a signaling system to warn the republican armies of Julius Caesar's movements. Sadly the resistance is not successful, many of the leaders are killed, and the rest are refugees. Pito's family is enslaved and he leaves with no less a celebrity as Agrippa for Rome.
Thanks to mischance Pito winds up in Sicilia, which just happens to be where Sextus has flown. He remains and helps this old friend to develop some improvements in weaponry in exchange for Sextus finding and rescuing his family, who are now slaves in Rome. It is the downfall of Julius Caesar, "Et tu, Brute" and all that, that facilitates their emancipation. Pito and family return to Spain where they discover that in Caesar's wake the petty warlords they set up have gone to town, especially Arsay, Pito's long archenemy. Arsay is a real S.O.B. and is crucifying people right and left. The mountain people, Celts I assume, are only too happy to help Pito and his friends fight Arsay's force. They are outnumbered and "outgunned" and though encouraged by a talking eagle who tells Pito to get over himself, Pito is not so sure they can win.
There are several things I really liked about this novel. One is that it takes place in a new time and place for me. I mean, I have read about the depredations of Julius Caesar in Gaul in Druids by Morgan Llywelyn, and about the Peninsula Wars in Portugal and Spain in Bernard Cornwell's Sharpe novels, but putting Spain and the Roman era together was fascinating. I am starting to want to know more and more about more and more times and places. I personally find historical fiction offers a more human and identifiable way of telling about a place and time, so I am in hog heaven with books like Libertas.
One thing I have discovered about myself is that I am most drawn to novels with what they call in Hollywood "a good ensemble cast". Translated to novels, that means distinct characters who are believable because they think differently, they talk differently and they act differently. Forrest did a fine job with this. Besides Pito, who is daring but painfully aware of the odds he is up against, and Sextus who is not surprisingly bound to become a sort of swashbuckling pirate, there are Liandra, Pito's early girlfriend who becomes a leader and warrior in her own right - nicely done, Alistair! - Ziri, the Berber who is mystical, Pito's mountain friends who are rather like Native Americans in that they live on the land, value it, and stick to themselves, Agrippa, valiant and capable, and, of course, Arsay, the epitome of the big dumb bully who is nevertheless able to take over.
The spirituality in this novel tends to an amalgam of polytheism, angels, mystical monotheism, and Earth religions. Eagles symbolize for Pito and the reader the overwhelming power of the elemental. One eagle promised Pito he would be a light to his people. And in regard to that, the next thing I liked about this novel is how Pito handles this knowledge, not at all the brave and bold hero but with self-doubt, fear he has to fight to control, and plenty of humility.
"Libertas" in this novel is not just freedom from oppression of the Romans but Pito's invitation to and initiation into what the author calls "covenant", a bonding and promise between people that is their free choice, and the sort of freedom symbolized by the eagles and their flight, their oversight of all below. In contrast, the villain Arsay subscribes to eagles as a spiritual force, but he wore eagle feathers, as a way to co-opt the power for himself.
My single favorite thing in the novel is one line, describing Agrippa's men's departure from the nomad camp where they have stayed for some days: "the hardened soldiers among us were moved, waving last farewells to the women each had befriended." Befriended! What a wonderful way to describe the bonding, even temporarily of sexual partners! What a female-positive and refreshing approach to the whole issue of soldiers and the women they take to their beds while in foreign places. I think Richard Sharpe would understand that line. Along with Liandra and her companion Cassia it is clear from this characterization of friendship between the sexes that Forrest embraces the strength of women. Bravo!
There were times when I thought the action skipped forward too abruptly,the plot becoming ragged. Artna eripts while Pito is in Sicilia, but I am unsure what the point of this was as it did not seem to me to advance the story. Nevertheless this was a thoughtful and at the same time exciting novel.
The publisher, Queastor, sent me a copy of the digital file of this book in exchange for a review, which I have finally gotten to. I read it using the text-to-speech feature on my Kindle 2.