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Wednesday, March 21, 2012

The Pillars of Hercules by David Constantine with Bonus Q&A with the author (Reviewed by Mihir Wanchoo)

Read an excerpt HERE
Order the Book HERE

AUTHOR INFORMATION: David Constantine is a pseudonym of David J. Williams, who is a history graduate from Yale and has also some experience being a spoke in the wheel of corporate America. He also worked as games designer for Relic Video Games and then was inspired to write his own twisted version of the future, the Autumn Rain trilogy is the final product of that attempt.

OFFICIAL BLURB: Alexander, Prince of Macedon, is the terror of the world. Persia, Egypt, Athens . . . one after another, mighty nations are falling before the fearsome conqueror. Some say Alexander is actually the son of Zeus, king of the gods, and the living incarnation of Hercules himself. Worse yet, some say Alexander believes this . . . . The ambitious prince is aided in his conquest by unstoppable war-machines based on the forbidden knowledge of his former tutor, the legendary scientist-mage known as Aristotle. Greek fire, mechanical golems, and gigantic siege-engines lay waste to Alexander''s enemies as his armies march relentlessly west--toward the very edge of the world.

Beyond the Pillars of Hercules, past the gateway to the outer ocean, lies the rumored remnants of Atlantis: ancient artifacts of such tremendous power that they may be all that stands between Alexander and conquest of the entire world. Alexander desires that power for himself, but an unlikely band of fugitives-including a Gaulish barbarian, a cynical Greek archer, a cunning Persian princess, and a sorcerer''s daughter-must find it first . . . before Alexander unleashes godlike forces that will shatter civilization. The Pillars of Hercules is an epic adventure that captures the grandeur and mystery of the ancient world as it might have been, where science and magic are one and the same.

FORMAT/INFO: The Pillars of Hercules is 396 pages long divided over twenty-four numbered chapters. Also includes an Appendix and map of the Mediterranean world of 330BC. Narration is in the third person via Lugorix the Gaulish barbarian, Eumenes, Leosthenes an Athenian general, Matthias the archer and a few other minor characters. The Pillars of Hercules is self-contained, concluding the novel’s major storylines, however the author might write a sequel to it.

March 6, 2011 marks the Trade Paperback publication of The Pillars of Hercules via Night Shade Books. Cover art provided by Daren Bader.

ANALYSIS: The Pillars of Hercules was a book which I was itching to read simply based on its blurb details. A tale of Alexander the great and with major steampunk elements, it seemed too good to be true. Lastly I also learned that David Constantine was a pseudonym for SF writer David J. Williams. I had previously enjoyed his Autumn Rain trilogy and so I was very much enthused to how he would fuse alternate history with his brand of octane action sequences.

I’m guessing based on the basic blurb and genre contents of the book, many bloggers were interested in it. However as I was reading it, I came across several reviews which didn’t draw a favorable picture of the book and they were from reviewers whose opinion I do admire. They all made various valid complaints about it though. I was a bit confused by it all as while I was reading the book, I did come across several of the issues however didn't find them to be that much of a bother. To begin with the alternate theory postulated in this tale is that Alexander never died in his Eastern campaign and decides to conquer the west and the Athenian empire. Philip the king of Macedonia and mortal father of Alexander is alive and distraught at Alexander’s plans. He has spies among Alexander’s crew and Eumenes a loyal greek general is the person who supplies us with a POV into the Alexandrian camp. The team of individuals that are trying to stop Alexander and his party from reaching their objectives is a motley crew consisting of Lugorix the Gaul barbarian, Matthias the Greek archer, Barsine a Persian princess and Eurydice, a person of great interest. Things get hairy when Alexander’s invasion of Alcibiadia coincides with the first meeting of the princess and the mercenaries however things are never what they seem and thus begins the journey which will see many parties try to reach the Pillars of Hercules as no one actually knows what lies beyond but everyone wants to be the first to find out.

A couple of pointers about the book since I knew it was written by the same mind that produced the Autumn Rain trilogy, I anticipated the type of prose, style of the book and its cliff hanger twists. The book begins quietly however this docile period extends for only a few pages until the mayhem begins on every page and in almost all POV chapters. The action similar to the author’s previous books is on a scale which belied belief. Adding to the epicness is the presence of mechanical gargoyles, armors, submersible ships, etc things which basically have no reason to exist in that specific time period however this is not the same world as ours and while we share certain characteristics, it has its own unique flavor. I for one was completely enthralled by the book’s scope and the author’s imagination. It did not disappoint me at all and so I was a bit stumped as to why the other reviewers disliked this book so much.

I’ll be first to admit that all the points raised by the reviewers are valid ones and I share their concern in regards to their presence. So let’s begin with the litany, one of the major ones which was brought up was the choppy prose mode with which the author operates. I believe this is the author’s quintessential style and previous readers of his books will agree with me about this. However it’s a style which requires complete focus and attention from the reader as the author slips in lots of stuff in between which makes sense and helps build the overall picture. It works for some and doesn't for many, if you fall in the latter camp then this book is not for you. The second point that was brought up was the language and swear words used by the characters is very 21st century and it seemed out of place amid the Mediterranean world and this is a very valid point, the author doesn’t give any justification for it and this sticks out more than once. This however is something which can ruin the read for many readers and is purely subjective as it didn't completely hinder my read. Lastly there was a point bought in a review from one of my favorite blogs about the absence of female POVS and this one is absolutely dead on. The book would have been so much interesting from the POVs of Barsine, Eurydice and even Olympias (had she been alive), the author though is not one to shy away from the female perspective considering the main protagonist of his debut books was a female however his decision is surprising and ultimately one can chalk it down completely to authorial decision.

Now on the parts as to why I’m so enamored by the book, for starters the scope of the tale and the sheer imagination of the author is brought to the fore during the climax of the book when a lot of details are revealed to the reader and therefore certain things in the story (such as the level of technology) make a lot of sense. I quite LOVED this aspect, the absolute coagulation of various myths with scientific theories which totally point to a different conclusion. The author manages to out do himself with this effort, if the readers were astounded by the ending of “The Machinery of Light”, then “The Pillars of Hercules” does its absolute best to blow one’s mind away with its revelations and so the author has to be lauded for writing this tale. I don’t know what or how he does it but when it comes to imaginative plot threads, David Constantine aka David J. Williams has few equals among his contemporaries or even his peers. The prose pattern is one which I expected and yet I sensed it was done in better than the previous books. Readers will have to be cautioned in regards to this book as they might have to read some excerpts to get a proper handle about the type of book this is. There's also the action sequences which are numerous and scattered though out the tale, one thing about them is that they can be a bit disorienting as the author frequently changes perspective in between. Lastly I would say that ending is what thoroughly made this book stand out for me and won me over inspite of its faults. So I would ask all readers to at least read all the way to the ending and see the full scope of revelations to make their mind about the book.

CONCLUSION: David Constantine makes an exciting entry into the field of Alternate history and does his best to blow all assumptions about steampunk out of the water so as to speak. I enjoyed his take on Alexander and a Macedonian world which never existed. Brimming with SF edges masquerading as fantasy this book is a weird amalgamation of several genres that makes the end content a unique hybrid. Not everyone will be enamored by this effort, however readers looking for a different style and narrative energy might find a book which challenges them and provides an ending which can be only described as mind-blowing. Welcome to the wild world of the Pillars of the Hercules, and as the characters discover for themselves, so will the readers that things are never what they seem to be!

BONUS Q/A with David Constantine

Q] I have to say, I was completely floored by the scope of your imagination. How and where did the kernel of this story arise from?

DC: I've always been fascinated by the ancient world in general, and by Alexander the Great in particular. But the problem with history is that one knows what happens. So I started to envision an alternate history, and things came together from there...

Q] Can you tell us more about the world that “The Pillars of Hercules” is set in and some of the book’s major characters?

DC: PILLARS is set in a version of the world of 330 B.C., in which Alexander the Great has just conquered Persia, and now turns his attention to the last remaining world power that stands in his way, the Athenian Empire. We focus on a small group of adventurers--a Gaulish barbarian, a Greek mercenary, a Persian princess, and a sorceror's daughter--who are all that stands between Alexander and his uncovering of the lost artifacts at Atlantis that will allow him not only to conquer the known world but to uncover the secrets of the ancients..secrets that will allow him to acquire powers beyond the reach of man.

Q] With your previous trilogy, you imagined a futuristic world wherein warfare has taken a new guise, with this book you presented an alternate ancient world. Can the readers hazard a guess that you love to postulate alternative world scenarios and then cause destruction on a mass scale in them, any thoughts about this?

DC: I wish to plead guilty as charged.

Q] On your book cover, there’s a tagline “A saga of the ancient world – As it might have been!” I’m sure many readers would be curious as to know more about why and how this world shares more commonalities than imagined from actual reality.

DC: Well, the actual ancient world was far more "steampunk" that most people realize. From the Antikythera (the world's first analog computer, a device of more than 70 gears), to Heron of Alexandria's steam engine, to the weapons that Archimedes deployed at the siege Syracuse, this was a world that was a damn sight more fascinating than the usual swords and shields you usually see in historical depictions. So creating an alternative version of that merely involved amping up the volume.

Q] In your appendix you talk about Alexander the Great and how various historians have painted a rosy picture of him and his acts, but there’s also been a surge wherein the rosy picture has been scrubbed with the truth. What are your thoughts on him?

DC: The idealized view of Alexander popularized by writers like Mary Renault (which still ranks as some of the best historical fiction ever done) has been out of sync with Alexander scholarship for some time now. Alexander's ruthlessness didn't stop outside the battlefield; in fact, he didn't hesitate to conduct political murders, and--given the ruthless nature of the Macedonian court--he probably wouldn't have survived if he hadn't. We also have to take stock of the king's megalomania, which is pretty well documented, and overshadows the last several years of his life. So whereas Renault found Alexander to be an ideal protagonist, I found him to be a fascinating antagonist--all the more so as maybe the Alexander of PILLARS really might have had the gods whispering in his ear....

Q] I particularly loved how you incorporated a few regional mythologies within your story. Your story while seemingly fantasy had quite some SF tweaks to it. What lead to this choice?

DC: It's probably not too much to say that this is a book that looks like a fantasy novel, but is really science fiction. What many of the characters see as magick is actually tech-based, but of course they don't have enough scientific knowledge to realize that. In this world, scientists and sorcerors are the same thing. (Not that anyone save the reader needs to know that.)

Q] With the story ending the way it did, I have to ask will there be a sequel? Have you envisioned this book as a standalone or the start of a new series?

DC: The book operates as as standalone, but without question this is a world I'd love to revisit at some point. So stay tuned...


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