I downloaded the kindle version recently as this is a period I love very much and it is also a period few writers lend their pen to. I was interested to see how Mark Walker would approach the siege of Amida, both after the description written by Ammianus Marcellinus in his Roman History and also Harry Sidebottom's first Ballista novel about the siege of Dura Europos (which borrows heavily from Ammianus in certain details). What I read was a revelation. Mark Walker has fashioned a novel in which various voices layer in a mosaic fashion to reveal the events around the siege from different perspectives - we have the Horatius, the Roman commander, his familial god, various other Roman officers, the Sassanian commanders and their Kidarite allies, all commenting and describing the same events from different angles. This is both effective and dramatic. It places the novel onto a higer plane than simply a description of a siege in an heroic light and allows a level of satire and bathos to reflect the events in a modern manner.
Don't get me wrong, while the novel as a whole is wrapped in layer of satire which gently mocks the heroism of the main characters, this is a novel also filled with well written action and drama. Battles flow realistically and show that Mark Walker knows the period very well. I have always enjoted reading Ammianus' description of the siege but with 'Amida' I felt I was getting closer to the more intimate side of events which Ammianus only hinted at. Lovers of action will not be disappointed in this novel/
However, what sets the novel apart is the 'otherworldy' dimension in which one of the main characters is killed off early on but remains as shade and who comments on and influences of other characters, too. In aperiond on which old values and old gods were disappearing and a new religion was fast supplanting the old ways, Mark Walker succeeds in capturing that transitional insecurity and also allows a reader to feel that otherworldy characters would exist side by side among those caught up in the fighting.
If you are looking for a novel set later than the usual Scarrows and Sidebottoms, as it were, and which deals with war and battle and siege but also plunges you into an authentic Late Roman period, please but this book. As a writer myself who loves this period, I cannot praise it highly enough!
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Amida is a short novel by current standards, but packs a lot into its 269 pages. How historically accurate it is, or how many of the characters are based on real people, I do not know, but it is a rewarding read which has a sense of authenticity. The story - a vastly outnumbered band of heroes attempt to hold the fort until reinforcements arrive - is a classic archetype which has done sterling service down the ages and Mark Walker's variation on the tale has all the action, adventure, honour and sacrifice which might make it appeal to Hollywood. Think of Gladiator and Braveheart in a siege situation.
But Walker's work is more serious than these, painstakingly striving to avoid the revisionism of putting modern attitudes in the hearts and minds of ancient characters such that the book has the feeling of age in every sense. Amida feels like an old fashioned book. One written not with the breathless pace of a modern blockbuster - though the narrative is exciting enough in places and the book is certainly compelling once it gets going - but one deliberately and carefully constructed using the voices of earlier centuries. Just for instance as many Victorian novels unfolded as a series of letters and journals, so does Amida. We hear the voices of the garrison commander, his military rival, his lover in letters and military reports reflecting on recent events or on their own past lives. If the effect of this is to give the book a sometimes distant, once removed character - there is a sense in which certain key events happen "off stage" only to be reported on later - it also adds to the feeling of antiquity, that this events are remote and lost in time. Likewise the use of multiple voices well represents the different faiths and philosophies of the time, Christianity being given an all too rare fair representation alongside pagan beliefs, which are for once not fashionably romanticised and glamorised. Old fashioned but always relevant themes of honour, piety and loyalty are central to the tale. Some may consider Amida crosses uncomfortably into fantasy, or belongs under a heading of "magical realism" for its inclusion of household deities and the spirits of the departed as characters in the narrative. What Walker is doing is certainly nothing so post-modern as "magical realism" and nor is it strictly fantasy, though it may be fantastical - there are supernatural characters interacting with the living in Amida as a natural reflection of the world views of the characters in the story. To them the supernatural is a natural part of the world and gods and the newly departed are as essential to the narrative as they were to Homer. Remove such elements and the result would be half the story, as in the recent film Troy. In kin with that film, and the aforementioned Gladiator and Braveheart, Amida delivers on the action front with several detailed, apparently well researched and startling epic battle sequences. Followers of grand scale ancient combat will be well satisfied by the military set-pieces, while the plot builds to a powerful climax building a sense of inevitability and impending doom, all the while offering hope and taking unexpected twists so that little quiet works out as imagined. Clichés are set-up only to be subverted, though some may find the resolution of one central rivalry anti-climatic. Nevertheless, for those who have grown-up with the likes of Quo Vadis, Ben Hur, Spartacus and other larger than life adventures Amida offers a refreshingly multifaceted and thoughtful vision of the ancient world. A highly commendable first novel.
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This novel kept me reading for several evenings, and made me reluctant to stop. Its recounting of the siege of Amida by many different voices, coming from equally diverse cultures, makes Amida seem like a deadly whirlpool into which many thousands of people of all kings are drawn. If I have one criticism, it is that occasionally characters express attitudes that are more typical of the twenty-first-century West than of the fourth-century East.
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