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Tuesday, July 26, 2011

"A Place Called Armageddon" by C.C. Humphreys (Reviewed by Liviu Suciu)

INTRODUCTION: C.C. Humphreys came to my attention with “Vlad: The Last Confession”; despite my deep misgivings about it being another stupid rehashing of the myth of Dracula, the novel was actually very well researched and offered maybe the best English language portrait of the real-life Vlad the Impaler and his lifelong fight against the Turks without glossing over his darker impulses, but without any Dracula nonsense either.

So when not that long ago, I found out about Mr. Humphreys' new offering "A Place Called Armageddon" about the siege of Constantinople in 1453, the novel became the number one expected non-sff of mine in 2011 and I bought it the first moment I could and read it asap. Ultra high expectations and what can I say: the author not only delivered but surpassed them and I will explain why next.

Before continuing, I would add two things: despite being a very well researched and reasonably accurate historical novel, "A Place Called Armageddon" is also brimming with the fantastic - there are prophecies, mystic books, alchemists and fortune tellers and while it is a stretch to call the novel speculative fiction, it should greatly appeal to sff lovers for those elements and the superb world building the authors manages in the book's almost 500 pages.

There a lot of nice touches in the novel that tie-in with Vlad: The Last Confession” including recounting of some earlier events there and a prophecy about one of the main characters here that we know how it will be fulfilled in the earlier book. Of course the structure of the two books is very different since "A Place Called Armageddon" is about a moment in historical time, so it essentially takes place over some weeks with a prologue a year before and an epilogue years later, while Vlad: The Last Confession” takes place over decades, so there is no particular order in which to read the two novels.

OVERVIEW/ANALYSIS: "To the Greeks who love it, it is Constantinople. To the Turks who covet it, the Red Apple. Safe behind its magnificent walls, the city was once the heart of the vast Byzantine empire."

When looking at a novel like "A Place Called Armageddon" that is about a pivotal moment in world history, moment that has been studied intensively across time and has been fictionalized in many novels of which in English, Dark Angel by Mika Waltari remains my big favorite, there are several aspects to consider.

Paramount remains reasonable historical accuracy, meaning being accurate about all main events of the siege and getting right the atmosphere of the time since I have never understood why someone writing historical fiction alters major events and says: "well you know, it's fiction"; why bother writing about event "x" rather than write a fantasy/alt-history in which you can modify what happened to your own heart's content?

And here "A Place Called Armageddon" delivers in spades with an impressive recreation of the major moments of the siege; as one of many such examples, the naval battle between the four big Genoese vessels trying to break the blockade and the couple hundred strong Ottoman fleet and the reactions of both the besiegers and Mehmed and his entourage, as the fight turned literally with the wind is done in such a manner that despite knowing very well how things ended, it still felt like reading it for the first time. And I could go on and on, from the firing of the huge siege gun, to the Galata crossing, to the various wall battles, everything is memorable and true to the numerous accounts we have of the siege.

The world building and the little details are pitch perfect: weapons, buildings, ships, armies, historical characters and their psychological makeup - the untried, moody and easily angered but brilliant young Sultan Mehmet whose determination to become Fatih aka "The Conqueror" and practical ideas keep the siege going despite the early reverses and the long history of failed sieges across almost 1000 years, the last major one being led by none other than his father, the late Sultan Murat a warrior of much higher repute than Mehmet at the time, Hamza Bey, the tanner's son from the middle of nowhere who became the Sultan's falconer and confidant and who knows that the siege will make or break Mehmet and his "new men" like himself so he does his utmost to "manage" the Sultan, intrigue with possible Byzantine turncoats and lead soldiers when it comes to crunch time, or the relatively new emperor Constantine who wears the same name as the founder of the city - a bad omen as the last (western) emperor of Rome was Romulus Augustulus after all - a notable soldier but untried as politician and leader of a state and whose continual defiance and determination in face of the steadily worsening odds is also unforgettable.

But "A Place Called Armageddon" is also a human story with four major fictional characters at its center. The twin Lascari brothers with vastly different personalities and destinies: Theon, the smart diplomat, confidant of Constantine and Gregoras, the formerly handsome and valiant soldier, exiled as a mutilated cut-nose traitor, now moonlighting as the Ragusan mercenary "Zoran" in the famous' Genoese condotierre Giovanni Giustiniani Longo's army and who wants nothing to do with his erstwhile native city.

And the women in their lives: Gregoras' former fiance and secret lover Sophia, now (un)happily married with Theon, mother of boy Thakos and girl Minerva who is turning to God for solace and hope amid despair and fortune teller Leilah, a former slave who tries to make her own way in a harsh man's world and whose prophecies inspire Mehmet among others, though of course there is a huge risk in fortune telling for the mighty.

In addition, there are two more important characters: Johannes Grant a Scotland alchemist who is badly wanted by the Sultan (dead) and by Longo and the Byzantines (alive) for his presumed knowledge of how to recreate the famous Greek Fire recipe and Achmed, a huge but gentle poor Anatolian peasant whose much loved daughter Abal's death at 5 mostly due to poverty, leads him to enroll in the "canon fodder" troops recruited for the siege and whose pov shows the siege from the rank and file Ottoman side.

Each of the characters is very distinctive and the interaction between them ranges from the expected to quite a few twists and turns. All these personal threads mix in various ways and produce a lot of emotional moments, sometimes in quite unexpected places. Despite the different and often opposite interests and goals, the author is very skilled at making us care for all his main characters, including the ones who would have been so easy to depict as "evil", like Theon Lascari or the Sultan Mehmet.

Of course by the same token, not everyone can succeed, so there is heartbreak galore, but there is joy too and the ending is just superb with an epilogue 7 years later, followed by one just three weeks after the end of the siege. This offers a chance at a great twist which actually surprised me though I have seen it before in a G.G. Kay novel.

Overall "A Place Called Armageddon" (A++) is a magnificent accomplishment, a novel that is both a recreation of a pivotal moment in history and a tale of interesting characters we get to care and root for.


ediFanoB said...

What a great review Liviu!
I love to read fantasy AND historical.
Your review is that convincing that I ordered a paperback copy immediately after I have finished reading your review.
Good for me but bad for my purse.

As you like to read historical as much as I do I you maybe interest in to read GUEST BLOG: Historical and Fantasy - Two sides of a Coin? - A L Berridge over at Falcata Times.

Liviu said...

Thank you for the kind words! This book was really a huge asap and I bought it the day it was released in the UK; hopefully it will come to the US too - Vlad came this year after the 09 UK publication; next big asap historical is another UK release on Aug 18 and another buy on that day, the second Killer of Men installment - Marathon - by Christian Cameron.

I completely forgot to spotlight it for August since I just pruned Robert's sff list and forgot to add it.

I completely agree with the guest blog you linked too and i always maintained that the best historical fiction is comparable with the best secondary world fantasy.

Chris Humphreys said...

Liviu, I just wanted to thank you for completely 'getting' my novels.

Liviu said...

Thank you for the kind words.


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