2 out of 10
I recently completed a module on the Later Roman Empire called Christians, Barbarians and the Fall of Rome. Roughly 4 months of lectures, study, exams, essay and there was not one mention of Attila the Hun. I decided this was false advertising so I bought The Attila trilogy by William Napier to fill in the gaps hopefully in an enjoyable way.
(small disclaimer before we proceed: I actually really enjoyed tha module, just in case anyone going to Maynooth reads this, it’s taught by Dr. Michael Williams, stick with him through the tedious Christian history because the Barbarian section is brilliant)
It turns out I should have just bought a textbook on the Huns. The first half of the book is extremely tedious. I can normally get through a book this size in a few days, a week at most but this took weeks because I really didn’t enjoy it, I didn’t look forward to reading it at all and couldn’t have cared less what happened to the pompous little Attila. The book deals with Attila’s boyhood in Rome and his attempts to return to his people. The Huns exchanged him with the son of a roman nobleman as insurance, so that both sides would have an incentive to remain allies rather than declaring all-out war on each other.
The first half of the book is crammed with so many ‘facts’, useless information and tidbits about the ancient world that on almost every page I can feel Napier thinking ‘I spent time researching this so I’m damn well going to stick it in, relevant or not.’ This along with extensive descriptions (pages about the food at a feast, or the words of a preacher who’s never mentioned again) really drag down his story and slow up the pacing. It feels like he’s just stretching it into a trilogy for the sake of tradition, using all this as filler.
However, despite his relying on this infodump more than plot or characterisation for the first half I found myself questioning the reliability of every statement. I understand that when writing historical fiction you have to choose a version of history and stick with it, offering alternative theories just messes up narrative continuity, but I feel he is taking liberties all the same. Allowing for the fact that he wrote this in 2005, perhaps dominant theories were different then, it still seems like he got a lot of information about daily life wrong. He is setting up the trilogy for a clash of cultures, Romans freely offer opinions on those barbarian Huns whereas Attila scorns Roman decadence periodically but it all feels extremely forced and over the top. The description of a Roman feast at the start is so over the top indulgent that it felt like it came out of the Satyrica (An ancient novel specifically exaggerating the efforts of freedmen to join the upper classes in order to cast scorn upon this kind of decadence) rather than historical documents where descriptions of a groaning feast table are much more meager. A lot of the characterisation of barbarians by Roman characters is not in line with modern thinking on the ethnography of 4th century Rome but I won’t go on about this because as I said Napier did have to pick a version of history and he seems to have gone with he one that suited his ‘totally opposed cultures’ theme in every way.
His characters are blessed with remarkable foresight and psychic ability. All of them are constantly predicting the future accurately, General Stilicho even refers to the Dark Ages at one point, centuries before they happened and almost 1,000 years before the term was in general use. This foresight is apparent when Attila gets into a street fight in Rome as a twelve year old, he accidentally kills a man and all the onlookers see him as a threat, a powerful man, someone who they should soon fear rather than a young lost boy whose arrogance has just been cut back to size when he makes this mistake. Later an entire Roman century is more than happy to give up their lives to defend the hostage boy. Attila is fourteen at this point and with no opportunity in the two years to train, no mention of him having any knowledge of how to use a sword he is able to fight alongside them. From snivelling boy after accidentally killing someone to fierce warrior, and indeed one of the only survivors of the battle, is a little hard to believe without at least some mention of practicing. Genetics seem to be doing all his work for him.
I found there were inconsistencies in tone, language and technique in the novel. Archaic seeming language, almost attempting to imitate Virgil and ancient historical chroniclers frequently gives way to modern phrases, slang and curses with an extremely jarring effect. Because he relies so heavily of fact for most of the novel an extremely mystical scene with an old woman who turns into a young girl, can read their thoughts and induce visions seems extremely out of place and almost irrelevant. One thing in particular that annoyed me was his insistence on italicising any word or phrase that was not in English. He doesn’t have to follow the academic standard when writing fiction, it’s a minor thing that breaks flow but I found is especially annoying when characters were speaking. What’s even more annoying is when a character says a Latin phrase and then the english translation in the one breath. They’re supposed to be speaking in Latin al the time anyway so why would they need to translate the words for each other? I would have preferred if the narrator provided the translation or if it was all in English because the use of Latin, Celtic and Hunnish words seems like another instance of him doing too much research and being determined to show it off.
However the book picks up a lot towards the end, for one reason or another he seems to run out of things to say and there are very few written sources on the Huns so once he gets all his lecturing out of the way the story isn’t too bad I’m willing to forgive the aspects of his style I didn’t enjoy so long as the story becomes much faster paced and as I can’t afford a different book on Attila now I’ll continue with the series.