Tuesday, 24 February 2009

‘Caligula’ – Douglas Jackson (Corgi)

Is it me or were all the Emperors of Ancient Rome more than a little bit mad? It’s a well known fact around here that I never paid an awful lot of attention to my history lessons but I did watch loads of Sunday afternoon films (you know the ones) and they were chock full of Roman Emperors letting the power go to their heads and killing people in lots of new and interesting ways.
Nero’s name is always the first name out of the hat when it comes to mad Roman Emperors but Caligula is definitely up there as well. One of my New Year’s resolutions for the blog was to shake up my reading a little bit and read more historical fiction (so long as it has plenty of sword fighting etc, like a fantasy novel but full of stuff that actually happened...) and Douglas Jackson’s ‘Caligula’ came along at just the right time...

Rufus is a young slave who believes that his luck has changed for the better, training animals for the gladiatorial games under a master who has promised to free Rufus and make him a partner in the business. However, luck can change the other way just as quickly and Rufus suddenly finds himself looking after the Emperor’s elephant. Life at the Imperial Court is dictated by the Emperor’s ever changing moods and his constant fear that people are plotting against him. This paranoia is not misplaced though. There are at least two plots to kill Caligula and Rufus is about to become embroiled in both of them. In a court where something as innocuous as a look can be seen as a sign of treachery can Rufus play both sides and escape with his life?

I’ve said it before and it’s worth saying again; I’ve pretty much forgotten what I learnt in my history lessons so can’t really comment upon how historically accurate ‘Caligula’ is. Jackson writes confidently though and doesn’t make many references to historical events, suggesting that he knows what he’s on about (and feels that he doesn’t need to overdo it in this regard) and is happy to let the story take centre stage.

The story itself is a mixture of full on bone crunching action, in the arena, and subtle machinations in court leading up to a bloody conclusion. While the emphasis is on physical confrontation and armed combat things move along at great speed and I completely got into what was happening on the page. Jackson isn’t one for leaving out any details, be warned though that this is also applied to some of the more unfortunate beatings that minor characters must suffer... These passages are perhaps best not read while you’re eating! Jackson has the ability to keep things running smoothly, keeping the reader’s interest in the meantime.

It’s a shame then that this isn’t the case when the plot shifts into the Imperial Palace. Scheming and plotting are the order of the day, with a long game being played by all sides and everything dependant on what mood the Emperor is in at any one time. This slow patient approach, on the part of the players, really slows things down and can be very annoying considering that certain characters are particularly good at hiding their motivations. At times I was left with no idea what was going on, only the knowledge that everything turned out ok in the end...

It’s a good thing then that the main characters are accessible and have plenty to recommend them to the reader. Rufus’ progression from naive slave to player of the game of intrigue (still a slave though) is compelling and we get to see how personal tragedy shapes his development. The gladiator Cupido is also a good character to spend time around as well, his internal conflict between honour and doing the right thing is an ongoing theme and ends in the only way such a conflict can.

‘Caligula’ is rather a ‘stop start’ affair but enjoyable nevertheless. There are hints that we might see more of Rufus in future books, I’d certainly be interested in seeing where his story takes him next.

Seven and a Quarter out of Ten


Daya said...

I love a good historical fiction, although I must say "Rufus" makes me think of the protagonist as a cuddly mutt.
This is definitely going to be added to my ever-growing 'to-be-read' list!

Anonymous said...

If you enjoyed this sort of thing try "Imperium" by Robert Harris. Its a fictional autobiography of Cicero told from the viewpoint of his slave/scribe, Tiro.

Its is *not* an action packed story in the way you describe - rather, a story of political intrigue, mostly telling the tale of how Cicero rose through the ranks of Roman politics.

Lots of intrigue and political double dealings - GREAT STUFF.

Trinuviel said...

I thought that "Caligula" was beyond awful! Awkward writing, sloppy research and very poor characterization. The end-play was not only a blatant disregard of historical record but also impropable to such a degree that it became downright ludicrous! It is quite possibly one of the worst books that I have ever read.

I haven't really read much historical fiction set in the Antique world - but would recommend Sharon K Penman's novels. They are set in Medieval England, are quite historically correct and contain some truly compelling characters.

Trine, BookspotCentral

James Button said...

If you fancy something a little different, the Bernard Cornwell novels (not Sharpe) such as Azincourt and his Arthurian series are good ones.

Graeme Flory said...

Trinuviel - It's good to have someone here who knows more about the history than I do (although I suspect that anyone reading this knows more about the history than I do...)
I get where you're coming from with the awkward writing thing, I'd probably have to read the book again re. the endgame though...

Michael/James - Thanks for the recommendations! If I ever get the time I will check them out...

Daya - I knew there was something about the name 'Rufus' that was bugging me, now I know!
Thanks for pointing that one out! :o)

Trinuviel said...

I recently wrote a review of it over at BookspotCentral where I detailed the things that didn't work for me. There's also a little bit about the historical sources on Caligula.


Michael said...

I have read little historical fiction, but two books I particularly enjoyed and should suit you (as they are packed with swordfights) : Gates of Fire by Steven Pressfield (story of Thermopylae adapted in the comic 300), and The Blue Wolf by Yasushi Inoue (story of the greatest conqueror of all time - really - Ghengis Khan)