Tom Holt is perhaps best known as the author of comic novels, but he has written a number of other very accomplished novels as well, including two follow-ons to E F Bensons Lucia series, and a number of historical novels. I have read Meadowland, and have now read A Song for Nero. I still have a few more to read, including The Walled Orchard, Alexander at World’s End and Olympiad, and am looking forward to them greatly.
Meadowland was a tale of eleventh century Viking Scandinavia. A Song for Nero is a very different historical novel, based on the premise that the Emperor Nero did not in fact die in 69AD but went on the run, with a weasel-faced Greek thief named Galen. It is Galen’s story we are told here, and it is in turn comic and tragic, as all good tales of Ancient Greece and Rome should be.
It is for Galen to tell you his story, and the story of his travelling companion, and it is in the manner of a tale told around the fire, or indeed in a prison cell where Galen seems to spend quite a lot of his time, that the story unfolds. It is a wondrous and wonderful tale, and one which I, as the reader (or listener) was delighted to hear. It is intimate and yet wide-ranging, and touched, as always in Holt’s writing, with a wonderful use of the English language, and a droll wit which imbues the characters in all their environments. Thoroughly recommended.
I've been a big fan of Tom Holt for years now, and Olympiad (the historical novel released before this one) is one of my favourite books of all time. A Song For Nero continues to demonstrate Holt's strong flair for telling incredibly funny stories in a convincingly authentic-feeling ancient Greece. The book's lead character and narrator, Galen, is a typical Holt 'hero' - self-deprecating and sarcastic - and tells the story with a sustained dry wit that rarely lets up and managed to keep a big smile plastered on my face throughout. During the course of the book, Galen and Lucius Domitius - the former emperor Nero who is trying to conceal his identity following the death of his lookalike lover - get into a seemingly endless string of scams and near-death situations which are observed through Galen's eyes with Holt's trademark dry wit. The dialogue is snappy and funny, the characters all wonderfully believable and at times the book is extremely touching. A Song For Nero is a fantastic book about how two people who can't live with or without each other, and I absolutely loved it.
This book is the story of the Emperor Nero, his double Callistus, Callistus' brother Galen, and what might have happened if the Emperor Nero hadn't died in a ditch outside Rome. Despite some historical innacuracy, the book manages to evoke a dusty, raucous, long-ago time with great warmth and feeling. Told from the first-person perspective of Galen, I found the style to be a little grating initially, as the guy basically never shuts up. However, as the book progresses, the story really starts to flow; the humour and wit is everything you would expect from a Tom Holt novel, but the characterisation goes somewhat deeper, to great effect. The plot lurches from one outrageous scam to another, with the "heroes" dogged by their own sheer stupidity, until you wonder how they can possibly blag their way out of yet another certain death situation. I spent most of the book wanting to give Nero a good sharp kick, and there were several scenes which caused me to laugh out loud (to the consternation of fellow train passengers). I thought the ending was very clever, it tied up enough loose ends to be neatish, without being an audience pleaser.
This book is a brilliant piece of storytelling that simply does not let up from the first word to the last. Good (or do I mean bad?) old Nero is a fascinating figure who is always going to be irresistible to writers of historical fiction. He's kind of like the Michael Jackson of ancient history - capricious, extravagant, sensitive and eccentric and beguiling and exasperating and and and... So: was he mad, bad, or just misunderstood? Perhaps all three... Of course, we'll never really know, but numerous authors have attempted to shine a light on him, in one way or another.
Tom Holt has us peer at Lucius Domitius through the somewhat cracked and flawed lens of his garrulous Greek narrator, reluctant tall-story merchant Galen. This way we are seeing more of Galen than we are of Nero, who remains something of an enigma, but you get the feeling Galen would always be a more entertaining companion anyway!
The way our narrator tells it, the ex-emperor, presumed dead, is reduced to conning and stealing his way from one disaster to the next in the company of Galen, a somewhat unsuccessful criminal. Hilarity ensues. Oh boy does it ever ensue! You know how in the stories that survive from the ancient world, there is very often that 'extremely unlikely road movie' type set-up? Well, this is what we have here. The Odyssey is referenced, with our anti-hero painted as a sort of anti-Ulysses, but you might also be reminded of The Golden Ass (whose protagonist is, just like Nero, named Lucius, and who really goes through the mill, in various guises!). Impossible situations arise: how, you wonder, are they going to escape that? What piece of luck (good or ill), what slapstick scenario or jaw-dropping coincidence is going to intervene next? Galen's narrative propels you on a mad journey that is truly compulsive reading. The scope of the story - its sheer span - might well have dragged under the command of a less skilful storyteller than Holt. That it doesn't - that your attention doesn't lapse for a paragraph - shows what a very excellent writer he is.
There is none of that 'ye olde speke' that blights many historical novels. However, the turn of phrase subtly paints a believable backdrop of Roman times without clobbering you over the head with set-dressing. Holt has a lovely way with adjectives that sets the scene and clues you in to the everyday nitty gritty of life two-thousand-odd years ago.
The ending of the story is the only thing that grates in the whole piece. But only because it gives you a double-take, a moment of "Aargh!!" I won't say why; no spoilers! And thinking about it now, a few days after finishing the book, I can't imagine another ending that would do justice to the foregoing fable.
I first read this book a few years ago when I borrowed it from the library. It's taken me far too long to buy a copy for myself and during all that time it was in the back of my mind as one of those really memorable books that you think "I really must read that one again some time..." Now that I have, I want to read everything else Tom Holt has written. 'A Song For Nero' is a literary earworm that will colonise your mind's ear for sure. And if that's not a heartfelt recommendation, I don't know what is!
Holt's `A Song for Nero' commences with our two anti-heroes, Lucius Domitius Nero and Galen in jail, the latter reminiscing about the events that have got them from their first meeting at Galen's and his brother, Callistus', imminent crucifixion for impersonating the imperial Nero to their present incarceration. Opening with a question that all Imperial Roman scholars would love to know the answer to (Did Nero kill his mother and wife?) and not believing the answer, Galen banters with the tired ex-emperor detailing his life as a fourth-rate thief with his brother. After using a conversation with Seneca to establish the differences between epicureanism and stoicism, we move back to the present with Nero's and Galen's conviction and sentence for fifteen years hard labour only to escape by a quirk of fate when their precariously balanced slave wagon is rescued by the same Greek merchant that got them captured in the first place. There is an account of Nero's, Galen's and Callistus' flight from the Imperial palace and Callistus' subsequent assisted suicide, thus paving the way for Lucius Domitius and Galen to spend the next decade on the run from various officials during an inept crime spree. After managing to denude the son of the senator that Nero sent to the quarries for disliking his songs, the two wind up back in Italy by way of a grain freight ship and an argument working as farmhands on one of the latifundia. Subsequent realisation that their Sicilian benefactor is now hunting them down drives them to Rome where they meet, are forced to befriend and subsequently get killed, two of Nero's gladiatorial heroes, Alexander and who are working alternatively for Pollio and Blandinia, the former who loved Nero's music, the latter who, like the ganglords, Scythax and are actually tracking the pair down in the mistaken belief that Nero is actually Callistus. They all believe they know the whereabouts of the legendary treasure of Queen Dido of Carthage. Our erstwhile pair skip town and with the usual lack of foresight that they've shown throughout proceed to get Nero to play the harp at the nearest tavern owned by Amyntas, who promptly shows up with his brother and Myhrrine, trusses them up and takes them towards Utica to recover the lost treasure. This they do, dispose of the trio and in true Monte Cristo fashion manage to secrete it in a cave and promptly suffer a shipwreck, Galen managing to escape in a coffin. After selling his rights to the treasure to the pirates that rescue him he finds himself back in Phyle, Greece with a golden belt and enough money to set himself up as a landowner with his mother, two Syrian slaves and, in an abrupt twist, the alive Blandinia whom he purchases as a maid for his mother. His attempt at bucolic idealism proves too much for him and in another twist of fate, lending to the stoical philospohy that runs throughout the novel, he finds Nero who's now a flute player's assistant in Athen's and ends up with a fiery conclusion at his farm with the final players in this alternative act. There is a brilliant genealogical twist at the end and a satisfactory conclusion to this story in his life. This now the second of Holt's historic fiction I have read and Holt's text is littered throughout with historic nuance and subtlelty. Much of his humour and satire requires knowledge of the time in order to fully appreciate the skill that has gone into this latest effort and I would not hesitate to read any more. For sheer writing ability he is as good as McCullough and Saylor, and his ability to weave both plot and philosophy second to none. Highly recommended.
I have always been a big fan of Tom Holt's historical fiction. The Wall Orchard is, in my opinion, a vastly underrated classic. I really enjoyed the follow up, Olympiad but felt Alexander at The Worlds End was slightly disappointing. I was beginning to worry that it was a case of diminishing returns. However A Song For Nero is a return to form. Nero, was by all accounts pretty unpleasant but Tom Holt make him a sympathetic, if slightly whiny character. In his travelling companion Galen, he has given him a perfect foil - a petty thief who puts up with him despite not being sure he even likes him. The two of them are on a journey constantly trying to escape their pasts; the dictator who has made more than a few enemies and a thief who can't keep out of trouble. There is a twist at the end I won't give away but wasn't I expecting it. On this form, I hope he write another historical novel soon.
The story of Galen, a ferret-faced middle-aged Greek with no friends except for the most hated man on the planet - Lucius Domitius Ahenobarbus, known to history as the Emperor Nero, who perhaps didn't commit suicide in AD69 after all.
A cross between I Claudius, The Odyssey and Catch-22, this is one of the funniest books I've read for years. I won't spoil it by outlining the plot, but it's well worth the read. This is not the story of a lantern-jawed hero - in fact it's a book without heroes - but Galen proves to be more heroic and more loyal than even he would admit. Even Nero, despite the admission that as Emperor he was almost as bad as people generally believe, comes across as a human being with some redeeming characteristics.
I thoroughly enjoyed it and I think anyone with a sense of humour will do too.
I am a fun of historical novels. I always have been. So I had certain expectations from this book. Well I got a whole lot more! This guy is not just funny. He is hilarious!!! I never thought a book could be so much fun! He aproaches history in a very unique way that I thoroughly aprove. His work should be taught in schools! Everybody will be A students if they manage to keep their faces straight for a while.
Really interesting book and historically hilarious - read Tom Hollands books on Rome and you'll get more of the jokes. Basically, what would happen if Nero didn't die and went on the the lam with a Greek version of Fletcher out of Porridge...
For example, on high rise insulae (without plumbing);
"- or the darkness at noon in the narrow alleys between the tenement blocks, which are so high that a newly minted turd slung out of a top-storey window will smash your skull with the force of a fifteen-pound sledgehammer if you’re unlucky enough to be walking underneath."
A wonderful piece of alternative history until the end, then it segues into a "god, how do we bring this soap character back" weird sequence like twiddly violin bits in a black sabbath gig..
Sort of a cross between a Roman Empire travel show, a Sherlock Holmes mystery, the Life of Brian and a Dallas rerun.. Worth a read but you'll need not so much to suspend your disbelief as crucify it upside down with a Gladius up its bottom..
The story of the Emperor Nero, his double, Callistus, and Callistus' brother Galen. As funny and witty as anything you'd expect from the usual Tom Holt books, but with much more depth of character. The historical detail contains a few inaccuracies, but nevertheless manages to evoke a dusty, raucous, long-ago time with great warmth and feeling. Told in the first person from Galen's viewpoint, the style initally is a touch grating, as the guy basically never shuts up, but gradually Galen becomes more likeable and the story begins to flow. The tales of their thieving and impersonating become more and more improbable and convoluted, until you wonder how Galen and co can possibly get out of the mess they inevitably end up in. Personally, I spent the entire book wanting to give Nero a good sharp kick, yet in the context of the plot, even his actions and motives seem reasonable. I thought the ending was very clever, a neatish tying up of some loose ends without being an audience pleaser.