Book review: The Curse of Babylon by Richard Blake
By the 7th century, the Roman Empire was in tatters… Rome was a pile of rubble, Greece was virtually lost, Spain was overrun by barbarians and Saracens from the East were on the march.
Centre of this fast-crumbling empire was Constantinople, a glittering city of wealth, poverty and decadence, and the ideal power base for Richard Blake’s cynical anti-hero Aelric to wheel and deal his way through one of the murkiest periods in world history.
These decidedly unglamorous dying days of the Roman Empire have proved an original and atmospheric backdrop to Blake’s darkly funny and hugely entertaining series whilst delivering a fascinating insight into a little known corner of the past.
The Curse of Babylon is the sixth outing with the aged, earthy and cantankerous Brother Aelric of Jarrow, better known in his younger days as Lord Alaric, an English adventurer whose Machiavellian cunning raised him to the lofty heights of the Roman Senate.
Brother Aelric is now aged 98, living back in England but still causing trouble, still making murder his ‘speciality’ and still looking back down the long years at his adventures… and misadventures.
Here we join him in 615 AD as an ambitious 25-year-old Roman legate and spy virtually running Constantinople for the absent Emperor Heraclius.
Without any apparent opposition, Lord Alaric dominates the vast city from his magnificent fortified palace, pushing forward reforms which are the empire’s only hope of survival and the only way to restore its wealth and greatness.
But his domestic enemies are waiting for their moment to strike back and the world’s most terrifying military machine – the vengeful Persian tyrant Chosroes and his army of up to 50,000 men – is assembling in secret beyond the mountains of the eastern frontier.
The plot to destroy the English upstart, considered by many in the city to be no more than a ‘barbarian immigrant,’ begins when he is sent the fabled 1,000-year-old Horn of Babylon, an ancient and cursed treasure.
As the danger mounts, Alaric must face kidnap, revolution, a brutal invasion and a defiant and headstrong young woman called Antonia who has fallen on hard times.
Alaric will have to call on new and unexpected forces to try to save the empire but will he find the personal happiness that has so far eluded him?
The Curse of Babylon sees Blake and his lawless, self-serving star on top form as he runs amok through the East with his motley cast of corrupt cohorts… and devoted fans need have no fear that a little love interest for Aelric has softened the edges of his caustic wit.
What next for our Roman master of mischief?
(Hodder & Stoughton, paperback, £14.99)