Review of The Pillars of Hercules by David Constantine

Title: The Pillars of Hercules
David J. Williams writing as David Constantine
06 March 2012
Night Shade Books
 mythology, historical, steampunk, alternate history
eARC from the publisher via NetGalley
Rating: 3/10

Alexander of Macedonia has just taken over Egypt, a province of the powerful Athenian Empire. His conquest marks the beginning of his campaign to crush the Empire as a whole. He believes himself to be a god, the son of Zeus, and it seems like nothing will stand in his way. Everyone speaks of the sorcery that Alexander has at his command – Greek fire, deadly war machines designed by his former tutor, Aristotle, as well as the seemingly god-like ability to control the weather. And Alexander isn’t just planning to conquer the Athenian Empire. Beyond the Pillars of Hercules – the gateway to the outer ocean – lies the lost city of Atlantis and powerful artefacts of the ancients. If Alexander can get control of such secrets, he won’t stop at conquering the Athenian Empire – he’ll aim for world domination.

Helping the ambitious prince is his ever-loyal lieutenant Eumenes, and experienced generals like Perdiccas. Many are trying to stop him or take the treasures of Atlantis for themselves. Alexander’s cold-hearted father, Philip, has sent his bastard son Ptolemy to thwart the legitimate son who wants to rule the Macedonian Empire. Barsine, a Persian noblewoman, holds a deep grudge against Alexander for conquering her homeland, and possesses the means to undermine his goals. She recruits a pair of soldiers to help her – a Gaul named Lugorix who wields an axe he calls Skullseeker, and a Greek archer named Matthias. The Athenian commander Leonidas is determined to save his Empire from slaughter as he pits his forces against Alexander’s.

These intertwined narratives clash in battles of blood and flame, with swords, axes and battleships going up against automatons, gunpowder and siege engines. Myth and magic are intertwined with science, in a novel that combines steampunk, alternate history, mythology and the ancient world.

It’s a pretty weird genre mash-up, but it sounded like an interesting idea. Unfortunately it failed. Miserably.

I don’t know what to start with, so I’ll start at the beginning, when I had hope. I generally liked the characters, of which there are many. Too many, I eventually realised. The story is made up of multiple strands, and the author, David J. Williams writing as David Constantine, frequently adds or removes POVs from the narrative, even towards the end (it’s really irritating). Not all the characters are likeable and some – like Alexander – could have been fleshed out more, but the narrators were interesting enough. Although I could handle the large cast of characters however, I was struggling to get a grasp on the politics and military strategy, simply because I have no head for that stuff and my mind tends to wander. To make things easier, I clicked over to the Wikipedia entry on Alexander the Great in order to get a better idea of what was going on. Instead I found that Constantine had little interest in historical accuracy and an article on Alexander wasn’t going to help much, except to confirm that some of the major character really did exist.

According to his website for the novel, Constantine’s intention was, in part, to explore the question of what might have happened had Alexander gone west, rather than east. In Pillars of the Earth, Alexander doesn’t die in Babylon as the history books tell us, but conquered it and continued east to Afghanistan. It’s there that he receives an order from his father to come home, so he turns around and returns to Pella, Macedonia, attacking Egypt on the way. This brings me to another major historical difference – at this point in Alexander’s life, his father had been dead for over a decade, and he was already King of Macedonia. Here, however, his father is alive and the two are caught in a power struggle for the throne. Philip is king, but Alexander’s army is more powerful, and their relationship has always been tense at best.

Alexander’s mother Olympias is long dead, although in reality she outlived both her husband and son. I was a bit miffed about her absence. Other than Alexander, she was the one character I wanted to see – the woman who claimed she’d been impregnated by Zeus and given birth to a god. I would have loved to see her interactions with Alexander, convincing him of his divinity. Instead, Constantine killed her off in favour of a more mundane father-son conflict.

Technically, all this puts the novel in the alternate history genre. However, it feels a lot more like the author is just exploiting an historical narrative to write an action adventure novel, without much respect for his source material. Constantine would hardly be the first to do this, and I can’t say I haven’t enjoyed wildly inaccurate books or movies simply because I thought they were fun. But in this case the author goes way too far and it really pissed me off.

My biggest issue was the language. Alternate history is fine. Steampunk in the ancient world sounds cool. But your characters cannot bloody speak in modern slang saying things like “awesome”, “what gives” and “dig this”, or high-five each other after blowing up enemy ships. The dialogue also has a very brash American quality to it, which makes it even worse. At one point, Barsine says “Suck on this” before firing a torpedo. The Macedonians are referred to as “Macks”. Matthias crudely says “Fuck you very much” to a man he doesn’t like. There is also mention of the terms “turkey shoot” and “human pretzel”. Pretzels?! Really? They didn’t even exist then! I’m fairly sure turkey shoots didn’t either.

I already hated Constantine’s writing because of this, but my opinion of it was further lowered by the fact that the book was riddled with errors. I usually don’t mention this when it comes to ARCs, because they still have to go through a final proof. In this case however, there were way, way more errors and inconsistencies than I’ve ever seen in an ARC and I just couldn’t see Constantine as anything other than a sloppy writer.

Then there’s the steampunk aspect, which also contributes to the historical authenticity issue. The idea in itself is fine, but there’s lot of tech that seriously pushes the boundaries of plausibility, usually for the sake of big explosions. Barsine, the Persian noblewoman, has a ship that can travel at high speed, fire torpedoes, and be converted into a submarine. Alexander has a hoard of war-machines designed by Aristotle. In this novel, Aristotle isn’t portrayed so much as a philosopher as a sorcerer/scientist. Magic and science are intertwined, in the sense that those who don’t understand things like periscopes or bombs call them magic, while those who know how they work call it science. Aristotle’s designs include a giant siege engine, automatons, and something called a Leviathan – a huge, mechanically controlled human figure. The siege engine and Leviathans were ok, but I couldn’t imagine how they’d program robots or have missiles and torpedoes. Constantine just pushes his premise way too far with little explanation for how these things are possible, to the extent that it feels like you’re reading about modern warfare.

The author’s final major crime is relying far too heavily on artificial mystery. The characters in the know keep their plans from others and the reader, so that you’re never sure exactly what’s going on until a plan is executed, and even then you might not know why. Sometimes, they don’t even keep significant information from you. A character might just see something worrying (like a bunch of soldiers coming at them), but they still won’t say what it is until later. To facilitate this, Constantine switches the POV every few pages, as if to create a diversion. So at the moment when it something momentous could be revealed, the POV switches so we can’t find out what it is. Constantine keeps this up right until the climax of the novel, when he starts switching POVs every few paragraphs.

As far as maintaining the mystery is concerned, this tactic works. But mystery should be tense and exciting whereas this is just extremely irritating and confusing, especially when almost every character is one step ahead of you. It also makes it devilishly hard to keep up with the complex plot and the large cast of characters. By the end I was so tired of it all I couldn’t give a fuck about the big secrets at the end of the Earth. I just wanted the damn book to end. My rating dropped from 5 to 3 because every sentence was setting my teeth on edge.

This story might have worked as a big-budget Hollywood blockbuster. It wouldn’t take up more than 2 or 3 hours of your time and there’d be sexy people and mind-blowing CGI to keep your attention off all the ghastly flaws. Instead, you have to spend a good few hours making the effort to read it, and it’s painfully obvious how much this doesn’t quite feel like the ancient world. If you really don’t care about any of this as long as someone’s getting an axe in the face every couple of pages, then there’s plenty for you to enjoy. If not, it will probably make you want to scream.