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Sunday, October 21, 2012

"Tom Swan and the Head of St. George - Serial Installments I,II and III" by Christian Cameron (Reviewed by Liviu Suciu)

INTRODUCTION: Starting with Tyrant, Christian Cameron has become the preeminent writer of our time for historical fiction set in Classical Greece and he has been getting only better in both style and structure. While I have been waiting for his recent novel Poseidon's Spear, I found out to my surprise that Mr. Cameron had embarked on a serial that takes place in the 1450's with plans to go for quite a while, if readers take to it and make it possible by supporting it.

"1450s France. A young Englishman, Tom Swan, is kneeling in the dirt, waiting to be killed by the French who've taken him captive.

He's not a professional soldier. He's really a merchant and a scholar looking for remnants of Ancient Greece and Rome - temples, graves, pottery, fabulous animals, unicorn horns. But he also has a real talent for ending up in the midst of violence when he didn't mean to. Having used his wits to escape execution, he begins a series of adventures that take him to street duels in Italy, meetings with remarkable men - from Leonardo Da Vinci to Vlad Dracula - and from the intrigues of the War of the Roses to the fall of Constantinople

Now with three installments out, first bought by me the moment I found out about it and read in the first free hour I had after that, second and third bought and read on their publication days, I decided to present short reviews of each to be followed in a few months by reviews of the next three installments which the author is now writing and should continue appearing roughly at monthly intervals starting in late November - early December. Try the first as it is an engaging short read of about 50 odd pages at a very reasonable price and if you get hooked on our hero's (mis) adventures, get the following two and support this wonderful series!

OVERVIEW/ANALYSIS: Tom Swan and the Head of St. George 1: Chatillon

The blurb gives a good idea of what the story is about, and I would add that the detail, accuracy and the no sentimentalism expected from the Greek World books from the author are present here. Our hero, Tom Swan, illegitimate son of an English Cardinal and prince and a tavern keeper, educated both in the ways of tavern by his mother and later at court by his father and finding himself at loose ends after the death of the Cardinal, decides to follow a patron from the nobility on the field of glory in France at the tail end of the 100 Years War.

Of course the field of glory turns into the mire of defeat, his patron dies in the final battle at Chatillon which shattered the English claims in France and the brutal character of this last campaign - brutal even for the times - means that prisoners are given no quarter and the book starts with their methodical execution, Tom being there in line and awaiting the inevitable...

"For good or ill, Thomas Swan had been one of the first men into the French gun positions and one of the last to be taken. So he was on the right of the line of captives as the blood-maddened crowd of peasants and foot soldiers killed Englishmen.
Swan was too tired to struggle. He thought about it. By the time he’d watched them kill a couple of men-at-arms worth far more than he was worth, he realised that they were all going to die."

However, by luck, Greek Cardinal Bessarion - a refugee from Constantinople and one of the main promoters of the union of the Greek and Catholic Churches as a last ditch effort to save the city from Islamic occupation, union that ultimately would be rejected by the Greeks who in quite famous words, would prefer the Prophet to the Pope - passes by and Tom tries a desperate gamble, begging for mercy in Greek...

"Swan pushed through his despair. It couldn’t hurt. It might even help.
‘Kyrie eleison, Pater! Kyrie, Agie Pater!’ he shouted in Greek.
All that learning ought to be good for something"

The gambit works and later Tom lies his way into being taken as a rich prisoner from a noble family who would pay a lot to ransom him, while the "money challenged" Cardinal bites the hook and takes Tom with him toward Paris where the ransoms are arranged. Of course things happen and Tom attaches himself to the Cardinal's party for good.

An excellent first part of what I hope to be a long series...

Tom Swan and the Head of St. George 2: Venice

The land of France becoming somewhat inhospitable after the first volume and anyway with business beckoning in Italy, there we go with the Cardinal and his party, now including our hero as newest member.

"Italy was a different world. The air was different. Farms were different. Food was delicious, women were beautiful, they flirted harder and they hit harder when offended. Men were quick to make friends and quick to draw knives.
Swan liked it.
They paused for a week in Florence, where Bessarion had relatives. Swan was enough part of the cardinal’s household that he had come to understand that the cardinal had an extensive network of informants and special friends who provided him with the essential information that allowed him to remain important and powerful – while impoverished."

The book is slightly longer then the first installment at close to 80 pages, but with less set-up it is almost all action so it is even a faster read. We see Rome, Venice, the sea and Constantinople 6 months after the fall, nasty noblemen, Jewish teachers, daring (or foolish) acts, pirates, Turkish warlords and of course the inaccessible and highly inadvisable to fall for girl...

With a cliffhanger ending, this installment is the best of the three - maybe the length, maybe the varied locations, maybe the new characters introduced - and it established the series as a top class one.

Tom Swan and the Head of St. George 3: Constantinople

Slightly shorter then the second installment, but with pretty much no setup, so again all action and a very fast read. It obviously starts from the cliffhanger ending and Tom waking up in a let's say interesting position with most of his body still not under his control, though one part conspicuously so...

"Swan tried to prop himself on his elbow, but he didn’t seem to be in full control of his body. One part of him was working very well – rather embarrassingly well. The rest – refused their duty."

And so it goes with fights, romance and the famous subterranean canals of Constantinople. More expansion of the series universe, more new characters, while Tom has to loot - ok, "repossess the contents" for the lawful master exiled forever by the Turkish occupation - the Cardinal's mansion, romance and more the beautiful inaccessible girl while fending off her very accessible but devious and nasty aunt and her angry father, a powerful Bey and Ottoman Sealord, save some Christian slaves and not least get away with it all...

If there is one niggle, another cliffhanger ending so volume 4 is another asap. All in all, Tom Swan
and the Head of St. George is a superb adventure series from which  I would read an installment a month for a long time and not get tired of.

As a bonus, I include the author's note at the end of this book, so you can see what new goodies are in store for us; though again, the author needs our support to be able to put these out!

"The tales of Tom Swan will be continued – if enough readers want them – Tom Swan and the Conqueror’s Ring – in which Tom, against his better judgement, will return to Constantinople to find the lost ring of Alexander – and to buy a whole city for the Pope. And perhaps end a war. Or maybe just start one."



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