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Ally Johnsen (London, UK)

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Hannibal: Pride Of Carthage
Hannibal: Pride Of Carthage
by David Anthony Durham
Edition: Paperback

1 of 2 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Hannibal - the man that no-one knows... because everyone knows the general, 1 Dec. 2012
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For all I am about to say about this book, it is one that I struggled to put down (my boss is not happy with me, put it that way). And please bear in mind that I have made it a point to memorise Livy XXI-XXX, Polybius' Histories & Appian's Romaike, so I know full well a lot of the chronological inaccuracies in this book (even though the historians themselves made a fair few mistakes themselves). However, I was inclined to be generous, being in such a mood while reading it. Even so, I cannot praise the author's narrative enough. It was compelling, fast moving and fluent, despite what I perceived to be poor literary decisions with regard to the source material.

The greatest literary criticism I have is: why bother telling any of the story from the point of view of the Romans at all? Where the Romans were, for the most part, Carthaginians (or Carthaginian allies) were sure to be found. As was expected, the passages as told of Romans lacked detail, emotion or proactivity and many parts were ill-conceived (I mean: what is it with everyone and pairing Fabius & Africanus?!). To me, and I write this as an unashamed Roman advocate whether of the Second Punic War or otherwise, there was little need to tell the story from a Roman perspective, not even Africanus'. Include the episode at Locri and that could tease the reader into anticipating what is to come. Then, display all of Hannibal's wisdom and world-weariness when the two men face each other when they parley before the battle of Zama. His appraisal of the younger man would be sufficient for the reader. This is supposed to be called 'Pride of Carthage' isn't it?

In so saying, if there is one thing I am disappointed in, it's the lack of narrative as told by a Carthaginian spy. Hannibal was widely known to have created an extensive network of information gatherer's in the Roman realm, so why not include one as a character. Never mind none of their names were known, better authors could have done a lot worse than what the author has done with the book as it is. Have a spy (or two) be part of the story and there is plenty for them to do and almost no limitation to their scope of activities. Key to this is having him (or her) be a resident in Rome and they can observe all the actions, reactions and decisions of the Senate. And if feeling adventurous, let him/her be caught, when acting in frustration as the war draws to a close. Just a thought...

To pick apart the issues of historicity, I believe would be a pointless exercise, because the author has done a sterling job amassing even just a fraction of what was, in reality, a stupendously large cast and to bring these twenty-years of nigh-unceasing action into just a single volume deserves a lot of praise. Sure, it feels truncated (or rather, it is truncated), but y'know what? I don't care that much. It's enough that, though I know about every major event that happened during this time, I still kept thinking to myself 'what happens next?! what happens next?!' But, having said that, I was a little let down by the lack of drama in the Hannibal vs Marcellus struggle that lasted the best part of eight years. Fabius was his enemy in strategy, Marcellus was his enemy in tactics, but Africanus was his enemy in poetry, shall we say. Much more could have been made of this contrast, if only to build a gradual sense of burden on Hannibal (whose descent to mental exhaustion seemed a tad abrupt). And on that note, as someone who could give you a full biography of Publius Cornelius Scipio Africanus, I was rather put out towards the end when his military skill was downplayed to the extent that it was demeaned. However, I put this down to the pro-Carthaginian sentiment that the book is trying to engender. As I said, I was inclined to be generous.

I had mixed feelings at best about the inclusion of a fourth Barca brother, not least because he was called 'Hanno'. With Hannibal as his brother, it's like calling your first and second sons 'Jonathan' and 'Nathan' and it was a tad irksome. Still, he brought his own strands to the plot and it did not suffer for it much. Likewise, I was surprised to see Sophonisba portrayed as the youngest of the Barcid daughters. It worked, mind you, but it rather sidelined the Barca family's rivalry with the Gisco family which I felt could've done with expansion beyond a petty tit-for-tat that was portrayed. And having said that, Hasdrubal Gisco... bemused by absence...

But, when all is said and done, I enjoyed this book far more than I thought I would (to be fair, I wasn't expecting to enjoy it at all). Well worth the buy, so long as you don't go into it expecting a fully historically accurate account. From a literary perspective, it is a fine piece giving an interesting and entirely plausible illustration of Hannibal, not the general, but the man, and I think he would feel it a pity that the world has forgotten what kind of a man he lived as when his mind was not on wars.

Scipio (Carthage Trilogy)
Scipio (Carthage Trilogy)
by Ross Leckie
Edition: Paperback
Price: £9.99

3 of 4 people found the following review helpful
1.0 out of 5 stars A story that does justice to no-one, 12 May 2012
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If you wish for a historic illustration, prepare to be woefully misinformed; if you wish for a thrilling read of action set pieces, prepare to be alternately confused, bored and only occasionally excited; and if you wish for a dissemination of human nature, prepare to be patronised.

I do not know whether I am more enraged or disappointed by this book. Never have I so desired to scrawl my criticisms (both literary and historic) in a book more than when I read this. I know that liberties with historical events are taken for the sake of dramatic licence, but here, it gains no such purpose, and indeed suffers for its alterations. In fact, it amazes me that the one obvious storytelling device is not used for this epic saga, and any scholar should be ashamed not to realise it - Polybius.

Anyway, as a piece of fiction, I would call it mediocre at best since it sways from the pompous to crass far too much and far too easily and is dreadfully paced, with virtually all of the incidents of note occurring within the last fifty pages which seem terribly rushed. Meanwhile, much the first half reads like a poor classics lesson of whose purpose I cannot currently fathom. If it is the story of a well-travelled polyglot, then that would be all well and good, if lacking in meaning and intent, but if it is a dramatised version of the biography of Scipio Africanus, then I denounce it unreservedly. From the start, he is presented as an arrogant individual who looks down upon the ill-educated of the Senate, when in reality his attitude was one of resignation and weariness. And the retelling of his childhood somehow succeeds in making him appear both insightful and surprisingly dim-witted (and I wonder at the necessity of creating an Octavian-esque mini-adventure for him when there was plenty more, and true, adventure to be had later on, almost all of which is inexplicably skirted over). Worst of all, though, is that the introduction of a succession of rivals was pointless and petty (even Cato's effectively postscript role), when the reality, as demonstrated by events (Sucro/Locris/Messana, even the aftermath of Cannae is poorly dealt with), provide Scipio with enough such challenges to overcome, never mind the military ones.

The historical inaccuracies are so many and so constant that to list them all would make this less a review and more a treatise on how to butcher a great man's achievements. And it is worse that these inaccuracies come in all forms: whether they are anachronisms ('primus pilus' was a Marian rank, its Polybian equivalent was 'primus prior', while tribunes are hardly mentioned at all and not once did I read the word 'imperium'); chronological liberties (the Siege of Saguntum took eight months, 'a short siege' he says); playing with numbers (the survivors of Cannae constituted two legions' worth); misrepresentations (to be expanded upon later with much vitriol); poor naming (why did he name a scout 'Calvus' when this was Scipio's uncle's agnomen, a point of which bothered me to no end); or plain alteration of events (in particular, the deaths of Pomponia, Sempronius, Mago & Lucius Cornelius Scipio, the Scipios' involvement in the Macedonian/Syrian wars and Publius' assumption of offices). Some are more easily forgiven than others, which is ironic given the fact that for the first time in my life, I feel remorse for Marcus Porcius Cato (a man for whom I generally express contempt), as he is (dis)credited for being an ingrate roughly fifteen years before his first appearance in Livy! And to cap it off, there is a chronology at the end, a fair few details of which are wrong!

However, the following points are worthy of mention and, I believe, justify my ire towards the author, and I will not even bother with the errors made concerning Africanus' character given how many there are:

Gaius Laelius - while it may be fanciful, and indeed possible, it was never reported or even rumoured (and such a thought never occurred to his accusers) that Laelius and Scipio were anything more than brothers nor that there was any cause for antipathy between them during their lifetimes, most notably the attempt of rape on Scipio's sister (whose existence is questionable, and whose character appears closer to that of his daughter). And while he was indeed a novus homo (note, Laelius was, not his father), he valued his loyalty to Scipio over his financial ambitions - he was born, raised and died a man of moderate means. Opportunism is never a word I'd use to describe him, especially during the consular election of 190BC. What rankles most is that Laelius was never 'ennobled', and indeed, he was noted to be a plebeian consul who still sought to make his fortune. In any event, ennobling had little point at this stage of the Republic now that many plebeian families held influence equal to or greater than their equestrian neighbours.

Masinissa, Massiva, Syphax, Sophonisba, Hanno the Great, Hasdrubal Gisco, Aemilia Tertia (his wife!!), Lucius Manlius Vulso, Gaius Atilius Serranus, Marcus Junius Silanus, Publius Licinius Crassus Dives, Marcus Cornelius Cethegus, Tiberius Sempronius Gracchus, Lucius Marcius Septimus, Gaius Cicereius, Appius Claudius Pulcher, Quintus Caecilius Metellus, Marcus Pomponius Matho, Publius Cornelius Scipio Nasica & Gaius Claudius Nero (seriously, I could go on all day) - all conspicuous by their absence, many of whom had a hand in either aiding, restricting, competing with or shaping Scipio's career. And there is absolutely no mention of his family (i.e. Aemilia Tertia, his sons, Publius & Lucius, and his daughters, Cornelia Africana Major & Minor).

Iberia - while the events following Cannae shaped Scipio as a man, Iberia defined his skills, whether they were military (Ilipa, which is neglected altogether), political (the Mutiny at Sucro) or diplomatic (securing aid from the northern Iberians), and brought him the acclaim that he rightly deserved. Yet the five years of Iberian campaign covering the three great battles are condensed into a handful of pages when this was such a pivotal period of his career. By the end of it all, the reader is still unsure of Scipio's legacy to the Roman military, considering how trumpeted it is before he takes command. And even from a literary perspective, the Continence of Scipio is an episode that would make many a romantic author salivate, given the dramatic opportunities it provides.

Fabius - confusingly portrayed as a foolishly Frankenstein'd combination of Fabius Pictor and Fabius Maximus. As the former, Pictor and Scipio had few, if any dealings, and was still quite vigorous at the time (being in his mid-thirties at the outbreak of war), and if as the latter, might I remind the author that he was the worst of Scipio's political enemies during this time?

Lucius Cornelius Scipio Asiaticus - and I use his full name to show how ill treated he was. The misrepresentation of Publius' brother was probably what outraged me the most, more so than that of Gaius Laelius. Lucius was most definitely older than Publius, probably by no more than two or three years, since the three individuals mentioned herein were playmates as youngsters and remained close until Publius' death. If anything, Lucius was more self-effacing than his brother (being quite aware of his inferior talents), but was important in his contributions in Iberia (Siege of Orynx), and came into his own as a leader (he was the victor of Magnesia). And it takes minimal research to find that he outlived his brother by many years. Indeed, the novel's version of Asiaticus more resembles Africanus' son (also called Lucius) than his brother.

Now, I think I had better stop there before the treatise I warned against really materialises, but suffice to say, this is just a fraction of what was wrong with this book, be it the Brothers Scipio's whereabouts, Publius' whereabouts, certain battles (if not all of them mentioned) and even Hannibal (if he sired a bastard, he would have been a Tarentine, and Scipio and Hannibal are recorded to have been very enamoured of each other and on the two documented incidences of their meeting, spoke highly of each other and considered their national animosity a pity).

Come to think of it, if it was supposed to be Africanus recounting his life to his scribe, then at least make the scribe Cicereius... there is no *facepalm* loud enough.

Scipio Africanus: Greater Than Napoleon
Scipio Africanus: Greater Than Napoleon
by Hart
Edition: Paperback
Price: £12.99

1 of 2 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars An immodest author for a modest general, 28 April 2012
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Perhaps my use of the word(s) 'modest' a tad too much, but it is still fair, in my opinion. I've read this book more times than I care to count, and continue to enjoy it on each occasion. There is little that I can fault it for, and so that is what I will do.

While it is a smooth and enjoyable read, even for laymen, the good Captain's language can come across as pretentious, and it is sometimes unfortunate that he makes no effort to cover this up. However, such occurrences are few throughout the course of this, albeit short book, and largely confined to the political phases of the biography, I suppose to downplay his distaste for Cato. And his comparisons with Frederick II, Napoleon and other later commanders, while they may be true, are for the most part unnecessary, as the skill of an individual need not be judged by comparison, particularly in the case of someone so talented in the various facets of war (moral, political, logistical, grand strategic, strategic, operational and tactical... a point of which Liddell Hart makes that I feel too few authors do about the skills of other generals they so loudly trumpet) to the extent that you need only look to his achievements as a private citizen, let alone as a servant of Rome.

All in all, an engrossing read of an oft-overlooked or dismissed commander, possessing of a certain greatness of mind so lacking in many with whom he is compared (though, not, rather ironically, Hannibal).

Hellgate: London (PC DVD)
Hellgate: London (PC DVD)

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars For your amusement..., 22 July 2009
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Right, then... why did I buy this game? It's set in my home city, and it was dirt cheap. When I bought it, I thought, wow... a game set in London, quite a rarity that, and I was quaintly surprised that my piece of crap PC manages to run it with minimal lag. The graphics are okay, good in fact, even on the lowest resolution. The story is ridiculously linear for an RPG, there's only one way to complete each mission, which got irritating: go through the map, kill everything in sight and hope you completed the quest... and that's it! Side quests do nothing more than XP grind and get you often crappy equipment and money you don't need, and for the most part you'd want to avoid them for the simple reason that the voice-acting is atrocious, that and the fact that what you hear and what you read are completely unrelated. And the 'dynamic maps' malarkey? Maps for different places are the same, maps for the same place are different, if you get that, waste of code if you ask me. As far as the RPG aspect is concerned, the worst heresy is the similarity in the classes, Cabalists are essentially Technicians only with hokey. And there is virtually no point in even playing as a Summoner, you just stand there, occasionally getting a familiar when one gets offed, and collect whatever your minions kill.

So, why did I enjoy it? I found it tremendously amusing, and don't ask why. Purely from a gaming perspective, it's fun, but repetitive, even to the point where I finally did stop going 'come, come, my pretties, behave' to my minions at about level 15. From a critical perspective, well, it's mediocre at best.

Call of Duty: World at War (PC)
Call of Duty: World at War (PC)
Price: £3.19

2 of 3 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars A downer after previous CoD's..., 29 Jan. 2009
Aaaah, what a pity that they didn't do more with the subject material for this latest incarnation of our favourite fish. Nice idea, but rather hesitantly carried out. Oh sure, the game play was in your face and 'exciting', but the narrative was very fractured and stuttered and the general mechanics, mission play and variability was sorely lacking. Unfortunately, it doesn't build much on CoDs 1 and 2 as far as the Russian missions are concerned, I'm getting a little tired of Stalingrad, just as well there was only one arc there, but then one wonders, what was the point of including it in the first place, and the way it starts is waaaaay too gimmicky. Just give me three snipers to hunt down, would have given me a better thrill than just picking off five German soldiers loitering around. Last think content-wise: I like tanks. I like them so much that I replayed the Tank Squadrons missions in CoD 2, repeatedly, a lot. We had Seelow Heights, but it just didn't have the same speed as the desert battles. And being a WW2 buff, T-34's, being one of the most reliable, well armoured and well armed (considering cost) tanks in the world, it just could not compare with thrill of driving the wispy paper coated spitball throwing Crusader that zipped around making a nuisance of itself, knowing that a single well-aimed shot renders it a pile of slag.

It may have been a more mature than previous FPS's, but its gore was excessive and I've seen enough severed limbs and halves of bodies for a lifetime after playing the multiplayer for just an hour. It kind of detracts from 'it's just a game'. It's the kind of violence that belongs in films: watch it once, then skip to the bits we want to watch again.

So: good graphics; valid story (if poorly executed); uninspiring gameplay; idiotic levels of severed body parts, only upshot: GARY OLDMAN!!

Three out of five (and I think I'm being generous)

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