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Men of Bronze, by Scott Oden

Carla
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Men of Bronze, by Scott Oden

Postby Carla » Tue January 6th, 2009, 3:21 pm

Edition reviewed: Bantam, 2006. ISBN 978-0-553-81791-1. 476 pages.

Men of Bronze is a military adventure set against the background of the Persian invasion of Egypt in 526 BC. I recognised the two Pharaohs in the story, the Persian king, the Persian commander Darius (later to be Darius the Great) and the Greek mercenary Phanes of Halicarnassus as historical figures, and the author’s note says the Egyptian priest Ujahorresnet is historical. I think all the others are fictional, although this is a period of history I know very little about so don’t quote me on that.

The power of Egypt has dwindled since the glory days of the god-kings, and now the Egyptian army relies on foreign mercenaries (“Men of Bronze”) for much of its strength. Bedouin desert raiders menace the eastern frontier, and beyond the desert the empire of Persia looks on Egypt’s wealth with hungry eyes. When Hasdrabal Barca, a Phoenician mercenary general in charge of the eastern frontier, intercepts a secret Persian message, he realises that another key mercenary commander, the Greek general Phanes of Halicarnassus, has defected to Persia. The ensuing conflict pits these two, the most able of the mercenary commanders, against each other in a brutal struggle. With Egypt’s survival at stake, Barca will find his military skill tested as never before – and when he encounters the beautiful freed slave woman Jauharah he will have to face the guilt of a crime that has scarred his soul for twenty years.

To describe Men of Bronze as “action-packed” would be an understatement. Battle, assassination, skirmish, street fight and riot follow each other with scarcely time for the characters – or the reader – to pause for breath. The hand-to-hand combat scenes in particular are frequent, vivid, detailed and full of blood and guts. The central character, Hasdrabal Barca, is shown as an awesomely efficient killing machine, capable of despatching six trained Greek assassins single-handed. I wasn’t keeping score of the total body count, but it was a lot. Readers who like graphic blow-by-blow combat descriptions will probably find much to enjoy; readers who dislike violence should steer clear.

The tone and style of the novel have something of a flavour of heroic fantasy. On his blog, the author has expressed his admiration for RE Howard (for example, this entry [[url]http://scottoden.blogspot.com/2006/01/happy-100th-reh.html][/url]), the creator of Conan the Barbarian, and I can recognise some of that influence in Men of Bronze. Characters are larger than life, make dramatic declamatory speeches, and engage in struggles to the death in which no compromise is possible. Hasdrabal Barca reminded me of Conan, and some of Conan’s successors in fiction, with his near-superhuman martial ability, devotion to his code of honour and apparently effortless ability to inspire men to fight and die for him. That said, I found Barca more interesting than many a fictional warrior superhero. He bears the guilt of a crime of passion committed many years ago, and the rage and self-loathing resulting from that act provide the wellspring of his fighting prowess while at the same time cutting him off from human feeling. When he meets Jauharah, a freed Arabian slave woman, the growing attraction between them awakes in Barca a wish to learn to love and trust again, but he fears the possible consequences.

Barca dominates the novel, and the other characters play supporting roles. Barca’s adversary, the Greek mercenary Phanes, is also his polar opposite, a man with no honour who is obsessed only with his own glory. If Barca personifies honour, Phanes personifies hubris (in its modern meaning). Jauharah, coming to terms with freedom for the first time in her life, is an attractive character, and I also liked the merchant-turned-warrior Callisthenes (although I admit to being surprised that he could apparently turn from a plump rabbit of a man to an expert killer in a matter of a few months).

I can’t speak for the historical accuracy of the novel, as I know almost nothing about Egypt or the Persian Invasion. What I can say is that the setting and descriptions felt authentic within the context of the story. Egypt is a pale shadow of its former power, and its priests and rulers are surrounded by reproachful monuments to past glories. The multiplicity of gods, and the Egyptian obsession with death – sometimes at the expense of life – are well drawn. Despite the epic flavour of the novel, the war isn’t shown as a struggle between the forces of good and evil. Because Egypt is the country being invaded, and because it’s the country we see most of and the side the hero Barca is fighting for, there’s a tendency for the reader to identify with Egypt. But Egypt has its share of corrupt officials, fools and cowards, and Persia has at least one thoroughly honourable commander.

The battle between Egypt and Persia that forms the climax of the novel is worthy of an epic, as armies clash and men die in mud and blood. I could practically hear the Hollywood soundtrack thundering in my ears. And the poignant ending felt exactly right.

Two useful, if rather small, maps at the front are invaluable for understanding the geography. There is an extensive glossary of terms at the back explaining everything from gods to troop types, although I found I could work out most of the unfamiliar words and phrases from context and rarely needed to refer to it.

Epic military adventure, political double-dealing and a touch of romance, set against a convincing background of collapsing empire.
PATHS OF EXILE - love, war, honour and betrayal in Anglo-Saxon Northumbria
Editor's Choice, Historical Novels Review, August 2009
Now available as e-book on Amazon Kindleand in Kindle, Epub (Nook, Sony Reader), Palm and other formats on Smashwords
Website: http://www.carlanayland.org
Blog: http://carlanayland.blogspot.com

annis
Bibliomaniac

Postby annis » Tue January 6th, 2009, 5:15 pm

Thanks for another great review, Carla. I must look this one out. I have read and enjoyed Scott Oden's "Memnon", the story of Memnon of Rhodes, (375-333 BCE). Memnon was another mercenary- the commander of the Greek mercenaries employed by King Darius III of Persia. The Greeks and the Persian Empire were at war and Persia was clashing with the Macedonians whose up and coming young general, Alexander, is proving a major threat. Full of action, but also well-developed charcterization.
I see that he has a book due out in 2010, titled "Lion of Cairo", so it looks as if he's gone back to Egypt for inspiration though I'm not sure of its subject. Ah, a check of SO's blogsite tells me that he calls it a "historical sword-and-sorcery novel", so rather a change of pace, though not too surprising given his interests.

*Edit The name Hasdrubal Barca is familiar - is he meant to be one of Hannibal's ancestors, I wonder?
Last edited by annis on Tue January 6th, 2009, 6:49 pm, edited 5 times in total.

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Toelistangan
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Postby Toelistangan » Wed January 7th, 2009, 6:18 am

I have read Men of Bronze and Memnon, and I love both. Those books are quite bloody, but the main characters (both are mercenaries) are very interesting.
Hasdrubal Barca has no relation with Hannibal, he is a fictional character. I think the name Barca was a generic Phoenician name.

ali

Carla
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Postby Carla » Wed January 7th, 2009, 11:09 am

You're both ahead of me - I have a copy of Memnon but haven't read it yet. On the strength of Men of Bronze I'm looking forward to it. I have an idea that Lion of Cairo is set rather later, sort of medieval Egypt, but don't quote me on that.

There's a historical Hasdrubal Barca (with a 'u') some centuries after Men of Bronze, but as far as I know Hasdrabal Barca (with a 'a') is entirely fictional. I think I read somewhere (no idea where) that he is intended to be from the same family as the one that went to Carthage and so he would be a sort of fictional relation to Hannibal's ancestors. But I may well have got that wrong.
PATHS OF EXILE - love, war, honour and betrayal in Anglo-Saxon Northumbria

Editor's Choice, Historical Novels Review, August 2009

Now available as e-book on Amazon Kindleand in Kindle, Epub (Nook, Sony Reader), Palm and other formats on Smashwords

Website: http://www.carlanayland.org

Blog: http://carlanayland.blogspot.com

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Volgadon
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Postby Volgadon » Wed January 7th, 2009, 2:14 pm

Barca was the Phoenician variant of the semitic word for lightning. Seems to have been an ordinary sort of semitic name from Barak in the OT down to the current president elect. It does smack of laziness to me, IE the first Phoenician name the author found, but I am probably being uncharitable.

Carla
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Postby Carla » Wed January 7th, 2009, 4:40 pm

All things are possible :-) I read it as a sort of 'nod' to readers who would get the reference to the more famous Barca and go, "oh, yes, Phoenicia, Carthage, Hannibal - cool".
PATHS OF EXILE - love, war, honour and betrayal in Anglo-Saxon Northumbria

Editor's Choice, Historical Novels Review, August 2009

Now available as e-book on Amazon Kindleand in Kindle, Epub (Nook, Sony Reader), Palm and other formats on Smashwords

Website: http://www.carlanayland.org

Blog: http://carlanayland.blogspot.com

annis
Bibliomaniac

Postby annis » Thu January 8th, 2009, 1:27 am

Posted by Carla
All things are possible :-) I read it as a sort of 'nod' to readers who would get the reference to the more famous Barca and go, "oh, yes, Phoenicia, Carthage, Hannibal - cool".


That's how it struck me, Carla- almost like a little in-joke for the reader.

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Volgadon
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Postby Volgadon » Thu January 8th, 2009, 8:20 am

"annis" wrote:Posted by Carla


That's how it struck me, Carla- almost like a little in-joke for the reader.


I dunno, for me it would be like having the protagonist of a novel in 18th century Italy be a Corsican with the surname Buonoparta.

annis
Bibliomaniac

Postby annis » Thu January 8th, 2009, 5:09 pm

It's the gap in time which provides the interesting possibility that this particular Barca might be one of Hannibal's ancestors -- the events in "Men of Bronze" take place three centuries before Hannibal's time.
It would be like your hypothetical Corsican Buonoparta turning up in a story set in Italy during the fifteenth century, and you thinking -hmm- I wonder if the author intends me to speculate that Napoleon might have descended from him (or someone like him)?

just had the thought that this fictional ancestor of Napoleon's could well have been a mercenary too :)
Last edited by annis on Thu January 8th, 2009, 6:01 pm, edited 2 times in total.

Carla
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Postby Carla » Sun January 11th, 2009, 7:29 pm

"annis" wrote:It's the gap in time which provides the interesting possibility that this particular Barca might be one of Hannibal's ancestors -- the events in "Men of Bronze" take place three centuries before Hannibal's time.
It would be like your hypothetical Corsican Buonoparta turning up in a story set in Italy during the fifteenth century, and you thinking -hmm- I wonder if the author intends me to speculate that Napoleon might have descended from him (or someone like him)?


Yes, that's more or less how I read it. Although the name didn't greatly fuss me one way or the other.
PATHS OF EXILE - love, war, honour and betrayal in Anglo-Saxon Northumbria

Editor's Choice, Historical Novels Review, August 2009

Now available as e-book on Amazon Kindleand in Kindle, Epub (Nook, Sony Reader), Palm and other formats on Smashwords

Website: http://www.carlanayland.org

Blog: http://carlanayland.blogspot.com


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