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Thomas Harlan

Shadow of Ararat
Tor, 1999


A grand new epic of war between the Roman Empire and Persia--a war fought with armies both conventional and magical, with brightest swords and darkest necromancy. Amazon.com

- Amazon.com , 12/2/2005

The premise of Shadow of Ararat is a good one: it is the 7th century and the Roman Empire still rules, still worships the old gods. A claim of Roman citizenship is one of the highest goals to which a man can aspire. But this is an alternate history, and the author is allowed one major difference between our familiar Rome of the history books and his enduring Empire. Again he's chosen well, at least for fans of speculative fiction. Magic works in this Rome, and thamaturges labor beside centurions to protect and defend both East and West. Even with the aid of magic, sustaining the Empire has been no easy feat. Just when it seems the last barbarians have been won over as allies and the twin capitals of Rome and Constantinople can take a breather, Persia begins to threaten. As the book opens, Galen Atreus, Emperor of the West, and Heraclius, Emperor of the East, join forces to overthrow mad Chroseos II, Emperor of Persia. So far so good, and soon to get better. As we follow the course of the war against Persia, it quickly becomes obvious that Harlan knows his stuff. The strategies of war are drawn up with a loving hand, as is the deal-making, the false promises to beleaguered allies, the mustering of troops, the marching, the assaults on enemy strongholds. The big picture is fine indeed. Where Harlan runs into problems is in the realization of the people who carry out his schemes, and in the little, day-to-day details of anger and sadness, pain and joy, of actually being alive. Harlan follows four main characters who are of varying degrees of importance in the campaign against Persia, and for the most part they are a wooden lot indeed. Dwyrin MacDonald is a young Irishman with a magical gift who has been sent to a school of sorcery in Upper Egypt. Partly through his own shenanigans and partly through political game-playing, he is prematurely initiated and sent to fight with the Roman army, even though he can barely control his gift for calling fire. To me Dwyrin is the most boring of the four leads. Though he will doubtless assume more importance during the next novel (don't tell me you thought this was a stand-alone!), until late in this novel he is the perfect example of the passive main character. Things happen to Dwyrin--he doesn't do much on his own. He is expelled from school. His orders are lost and he is handed over to a slave ship. He is acquired by an evil sorcerer. Note all the "be" verbs. Thyatis Julia Clodia is a Roman centurion, a covert warfare specialist, and leads her unit behind enemy lines to break down the defenses of enemy cities and end a siege before it evens begins. I found Thyatis Julia the most unbelievable of the four leads. Her position as a young, beautiful female leader of grizzled veterans is never explained, save to have her wonder why they follow her. She doesn't know, and neither do we. She does have some of the most fun in the book as she travels about, fomenting rebellion as she tosses back her long tresses. Ahmet is an Egyptian priest/sorcerer at Dwyrin's school who gets an attack of conscience when the boy is kicked out and sets off to rescue him. Ahmet meets up with Mohammed (yes, that Mohammed) instead. They join Roman allies Nabatea and Palmyra, desert cities facing superior Persian forces without Roman aid. I found Ahmet the most inconsistent of the four leads. The level of his power is never commented on, never tested, until the end. I had no inkling of his abilities, and I get the feeling Harlan didn't either. He just needed a good sorcerer at the end, and Ahmet was available. Finally, Maxian Atreus, Emperor Galen's youngest brother, is a healer-magician who discovers a "curse" protecting the State from inimical magic but also preventing nonmagical progress. He sets out to lift it at any cost. Maxian is the most sympathetic and finely-detailed character, but my main problem with him (and this concerns the whole book) is his magic. Since there are academies for magic it has apparently been somewhat systematized, but at the end of the book I have no idea how the magic of this world works. Maxian starts out with rather modest powers, but by the end of the book he is one of the most powerful sorcerers in the world. How did this happen? Yes, he resurrected Julius Caesar (a rather fun character, by the way) but how did that give him greater power, and why does it continue to grow? In the best fantasies, the fantastic element is as rigorously worked out as any scientific principle. Harlan may have done that, but it doesn't show in the book. I must emphasize that this book is nothing to be ashamed of for a first novel. Harlan obviously knows Rome. But in his next book he needs to work on his characters and to forbear from pushing the plot around just to get from point A to point B. I wanted to marvel at the grand sweep and scope of the spectacle he presents, but when he showed it to me through the eyes of characters I cared nothing about, the confetti faded and the balloons all went flat. So to speak. Oh, and I hope he stops describing the clothing. I got so tired of tunics with simple stitching at the collar and cuffs. Honest to gosh, it was just like a Cher concert.... - Lori White 10/99

- Lori White, 10/1/1999

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