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A Trifecta of Reviews

June 11, 2004

It has been some time since I’ve offered up a book review. The main reason for this absence is the reduction in my typical reading levels that my writing has necessitated. And, perhaps, because I’ve read a few less-than-inspiring novels over the past few months.

That streak, however, has been broken. The last three novels I’ve read have all been, in their own unique ways, outstanding. They are vastly different in their stories, their writing styles, themes, and just about anything by which they can be compared. Yet each I would recommend without hesitation to just about anybody.

Book One: The Dream of Scipio by Iain Pears
Even describing the plot of TDOS is a difficulty. The story is a meandering one, following three men from three vastly different times, all living in and around Provence. The first is Manlius Hippomanes, a Roman aristocrat and intellectual who must watch as Rome’s power crumbles to dust. The second, Olivier de Noyen, is a medieval court poet trying to unravel the meaning of Manlius’ philosophical works while Europe is hit by the Black Death. The third, Julien Barnevue, is a 20th century scholar of de Noyen’s, who unearths Manlius’ manuscripts. All three must live in a world where civilization hangs on by the edge of a knife, and all three must contend with the complexities of love, duty, and virtue, which will finally lead each, in their own way, to come to the simple conclusion of what to do to preserve the flicker of civilization and humanity.

While TDOS is difficult to describe with anything resembling brevity, it is an absolute joy to read. A meandering novel that is written more thematically than chronologically, jumping between the centuries, and even between the years in those centuries, at a whim. It is not fast-paced in the slightest, but it is refreshing, and thought-provoking. If your average novel is a beer, this one is a twenty-year-old single malt. Everything from the nature of love to the nature of art, civilization itself, religious fanatacism, and even anti-Semitism is explored. Questions of duty, ponderings of how we interpret the past versus how it actually played out. All, in the end, to make the reader ponder the questions: what is virtue, what is love, what is truth, and what, most of all, is civilization?

I could not recommend a book more highly. It is not a difficult read, in fact it is probably the most well-written novel I’ve read in years. Each page is a delight. The turns of phrase are excellent without being forced and pompous. Yet the novel retains its depth and soul. Read it, you will not be disappointed.

Book Two: Grant Comes East by Newt Gingrich and William Forstchen

Grant Comes East is the sequel to Gingrich and Forstchen’s excellent Gettysburg. To truly enjoy it, you must read its predecessor first.

Gettysburg, really, is an alternative history equivalent of Michael Shaara’s The Killer Angels. Both do an outstanding job telling the story of those fateful days in July, 1863, but where Shaara sticks to the history, Gingrich and Forstchen take the road that might have been, the road where Lee listens to Longstreet, and embarks on a flanking march around the right of the Union forces. The tide-turning battle is avoided, and the ensuing battle turns into another glorious victory for the Confederacy, rivalling Fredericksburg.

Grant Comes East picks up immediately thereafter, with the Army of the Potomac shattered, the great cities of the north engulfed in riots, and Grant racing to bring his victorious Army of Tennessee east. For Lee, the road to Washington is open, and he knows he must take it, even though he knows the city is ringed by perhaps the greatest fieldworks in the world.

Like Gettysburg before, Grant Comes East is so well thought out, so painstakingly detailed, and so aggravatingly realistic that it is possible to actually believe for a moment you are reading history. Though from the south, Gingrich thankfully avoids the usual trap of glorifying the Confederacy, and indeed its officers make several mistakes. Lee and Longstreet are glorified, but so too are Lincoln and Grant. Sherman, too, in his own gruff way.

These two novels show a formidable knowledge of the Civil War. The attention to detail not only in the uniforms, regiments, officers, and weapons, but also in the themes of the war and the concerns of the times, is literally astounding. One, especially one well-acquainted with the war, staggers under the sheer weight of the scholarship brought to bear.

If you are a student of the Civil War, these two novels cannot be missed. Yet even if you are a casual reader, these are worth the read. As I recommended to a friend, read Shaara’s novel first, then pick up Gettysburg and Grant Comes East. You won’t be disappointed.

Book Three – 1632 by Eric Flint

I knew I would read about this book the moment I learned of its premise. A small town in modern day West Virginia transported back in time to the 17th century, plopped down in Central Germany in the midst of the Thirty Years War? Yes, please.

Going in, I also knew that this novel would either be outstanding, fun sci-fi/alternative history, or it would be a terrible, laughable train wreck. I am please to say it is the former.

I think the last time I had so much fun reading a novel was probably with one of Lindsay Taylor’s Falco mysteries. There are moments of hilarity, heroism, and sentimentality, and just out and out pump-your-fist-in-the-air badassness. And on top of it all, the historical scholarship is pretty strong.

Thrust back in time with no means of returning home, the residents of Grantville, WV, quickly take the situation into their own hands, forming their own version of the United States in the middle of Thuringia. As the book itself says, they start the American Revolution, complete with its revolutionary ideas and founding principles, a century and a half early. They find allies, particularly among their neighbors and a band of Scottish cavalry, but they also find plenty of enemies arrayed against them.

The battles are joys to behold. Americans on dirt bikes, armed with rifles, shotguns, and pistols against arquebusiers and pikemen. The high school rocketry club buildilng rocket artillery. German recruits armed with pump-action shotguns and bayonets.

For me, though, the joy of the book was in the personal interactions. In the way that the many romantic relationships in the book developed, and in the way that the native Europeans take to all the technologies that we take for granted. As they grow accustomed to things like televisions, microphones, and artificial light, the way they look upon those who follow them, those exposed to the wondrous technologies for the first time, is great.

Nowhere near as thought-provoking as The Dream of Scipio, or as painstakingly compiled as Grant Comes East, 1632 is still an excellent novel. To sound like a lame movie critic, it’s a “rollicking good yarn!”

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