The Sword of Damascus

Written by Richard Blake
Review by Martin Bourne

Jarrow in the Dark Ages. Also the cold and wet ages, a particularly wearing combination for Brother Aelric, aged 94. Even worse, a pack of Vikings is threatening dire consequences unless the door of his monastery is opened. Surprisingly, they want him rather than plunder. It turns out they have been paid to bring him to their (unspecified) employer, who Brother Aelric suspects may be the Emperor of Byzantium. This is because he was once the Lord Alaric, legate extraordinary of the emperor, and his last departure from Constantinople was not a happy one. However, things are not as they seem, and the journey into the Mediterranean soon takes a very different course.

This is not an uplifting story. It’s good to see an elderly main character, and to see resolutions via intelligence rather than brute force, but aside from that, Alaric is a typical trendy modern anti-hero. He is cynical, worldly, profane and manipulative. As the story is told through his eyes, and people like that typically ascribe the same attributes and motivations to everyone else, it’s hardly surprising you feel like washing your brain after every chapter. All religious folk are selfish, cowardly hypocrites with sexual hang-ups; the Vikings are greedy, dangerous savages; those in positions of power always have ulterior motives connected to personal gain, and are probably involved in a conspiracy. The few genuinely sincere characters are seen as naïve dupes ripe for exploitation, although inevitably the perennial medieval underdogs, the Jews, come over quite well.

If you like your Dark Age stories to be, well – particularly dark – then you’ll love this.