In the fourth instalment of the Tyrant series, Christian Cameron's King of the Bosporus gives readers everything they could hope for in a work of historical fiction set in the time of Alexander's successors. The novel comes replete with exemplary pacing, non-stop action and that most elusive of all traits, verisimilitude.
We find ourselves once again in the ancient environs of the Euxine, the Black Sea. This time, we're following the fortunes of Satyrus and Melitta, the grown-up twins of a Scythian mother and Greek mercenary father, both violently taken from them in previous novels in the series. The villains are Upazan, their father's killer, and Eumeles, the tyrant who ordered their mother's death.
While Upazan and his horsemen ride uncontested on the Sea of Grass, their mother's ancestral home, Eumeles rules the Black Sea kingdom that should rightfully be theirs. As the narrative moves deftly back and forth between Satyrus's and Melitta's adventures, we can only wonder if they will endure the battle scars and political intrigue long enough to reclaim their kingdom.
Cameron's painstaking research into ancient warfare, coupled with his own military background, makes for battles at sea and on land that are authentic and compelling. As well, his way of creating characters that are not riddled with modern sensibilities or driven by contemporary ambitions or desires effectively sustains our suspension of disbelief.
Indeed, when it comes to Satyrus and Melitta, we feel an ironic distance from them that seems entirely appropriate. After all, their cares and concerns are nearly two and a half millennia removed from our own. Cameron has been careful not to make them necessarily wiser, nobler or more heroic than those who serve with them. They are young protagonists who are sometimes confident, sometimes conflicted, but at all times eminently human.
For instance, at one point, Satyrus must decide whether or not to execute a group of prisoners . As he walks along their ranks, he sees that none of them "looked like any comforting, easy, evil thing he could name. They looked like beaten men, cold and empty of hope, kneeling on a beach, waiting to die." Although the opportunity to use heavier brushstrokes presents itself, Cameron relies instead on a characteristic simplicity and subtlety of approach in the moment when Satyrus must decide their fate, by doing nothing more than connecting him with his surroundings, and a childhood memory: "The whole beach was silent, as the fires crackled, dry oak and beech and birch driftwood from the north. Satyrus could smell the birch, the smell of his childhood fires." The Tyrant novels may be driven by end-to-end action, but their real strength lies in what Cameron does in moments such as these.
As with other books in the series, Tyrant: King of the Bosporus will no doubt attract a selective audience. Not everyone can be drawn into following the idiosyncratic manoeuvres of a crew disembarking an ancient trireme to participate in a land skirmish at night, or the careful and calculated redistribution of oarsmen as a vessel turns to ram the enemy.
However, in reading Cameron's latest, I couldn't help thinking that fans of the series, and of the slings and arrows of ancient warfare, won't simply find themselves eagerly hovering above the ancient Euxine watching the action unfold …
They'll be over the moon.
Glen Downey is a children's author and graphic novelist living in Oakville, Ont. He has written about warfare, ancient and modern, for young readers.