Richard Blake's 'Aelric' books are a series of adventures novels set in 7th-Century Europe. There are many books written about Ancient Greece and Ancient Rome. The Aelric books are set later, at a time rarely written about. Rome has fallen to the barbarian invaders, but has remarkably survived as a city - it is now almost completely ruled by the Christian Church. The capital of the Empire is now Constantinople and the Empire is under pressure from the Persians in the East. The Slavs are invading Greece and there are various other bands of barbarians such as the Avars about, looking for any opportunity to move in and take booty.
The Church based in Rome is still on speaking terms with the Christians of the East based in Constantinople, but there are differences in their approaches to religion which will obviously cause friction later on. And there are also rumours of a new religion spreading out of Arabia. So it is a time of great change in the Empire.
Into all of this, add a young Englishman, Aelric. He's tall, blond, good-looking, intelligent and not too bad with a sword either. Aelric is English rather than British - that is, he is a member of the Germanic races that a few hundred years earlier took England from the Celtic Britons. Getting into a spot of bother with one of the local chieftains over the matter of the chief's daughter, he flees to the Continent and travels to Rome. The Romans can make nothing of his Anglo-Saxon name, so they call him 'Alaric' and he is almost always known by this name. We will use this name for him from this point onward in this Entry. He rapidly gets involved in a series of plots involving murder, treason and the future of the Empire.
The books are full of historical facts and give a very good impression of what it would have been like to live at that time. They are also full of sex and violence, which is probably equally historically accurate, but the sheer amount of it may be off-putting to some. Alaric loves sex and doesn't care who he does it with, male or female, slave or citizen. And the violent scenes can be extremely graphic - there are torture scenes, public impalements and wholesale slaughter. While Alaric himself has a keen sense of justice and tries to treat people fairly, those he deals with are not so high-principled and many people die along the way.
The books are interesting, exciting and funny if you can stomach the violence in them.
The first book was published in 2008 and there have been a steady stream of them at a rate of one per year since then. So far there have been six books. Alaric lives to a grand old age and eventually as an old man starts to tell the story of his life, so the story can tend to jump around a bit - he doesn't always tell events in exactly the order they happened, which can lead to some tense excitement.
Conspiracies of Rome
609 AD - Alaric flees Britain with his friend Maximin and travels to Rome. But Maximin is murdered soon after arriving in the city. Alaric investigates and uncovers a plot to overthrow the Christian Church and restore the old Pagan religion.
The Terror of Constantinople
610 AD - Alaric is sent by the Church to Constantinople, officially for an investigation into a matter of religious dogma. The Emperor Maurice has been ousted by a tyrant named Phocas who has established a reign of terror in the city. But every attempt by Alaric to finish his business and return to the safety of Rome is thwarted. It begins to look as if someone wants him there for some unspecified purpose. Meanwhile, rumours that a new contender for Emperor, Heraclius, will soon be arriving from North Africa and there will be war.
The Blood of Alexandria
612 AD - Now an important government official, Alaric is sent to Alexandria to see why the all-important grain supply from Egypt hasn't been arriving in Constantinople. His solution involves giving ownership of the land to the farm workers. Unfortunately the situation soon degenerates into another reign of terror and there are some decidedly suspicious goings on which may threaten the Empire.
The Sword of Damascus
687 AD - There is a sudden change of sequence in the fourth book. Events skip forward about 70 years to a time when the Saracens have conquered much of the Near East. The aged Alaric is kidnapped from his monastery in northern England, and brought by ship to North Africa. The book is rather slow starting, but eventually picks up when Alaric escapes and makes his way to Damascus, where the Saracens are very interested in his expertise in science and particularly in making weapons.
The Ghosts of Athens
612 AD - Back in sequence, Alaric continues the story of his return home from Alexandria. His boat gets diverted to Athens, now a thousand years past its days of glory. The young Englishman must chair a theological council and solve a murder before the city is invaded by marauding Slavs.
The Curse of Babylon
615 AD - Despite the title, this one is again set in Constantinople. Alaric is now one of the highest officials of the Empire. He receives a gift of the Horn of Babylon, a silver drinking cup in the shape of a horn, from an unknown donor. When he investigates, he is soon captured and uncovers a plot involving the Persians, a curse, and a plan to overthrow the Emperor.
To give a flavour for the style of the books, here are some quotations:
'We haven't been in Rome two days,' Maximin shouted, 'and already you're out all night - drinking, whoring and gambling, I've no doubt.'
- Conspiracies of Rome
But it was now that I conceived my true mission in life. This has not been wealth and sex and pleasure of the bestial kind - though I'll not deny I've managed more than the common share of all these. It is something of which Epicurus himself would have approved. My mission has been to save all that I could of the ancient learning.
- Conspiracies of Rome
And the Circus crowd in Constantinople does enjoy a good public execution. For all his other derelictions, Phocas certainly knew how to jolly the Circus along in that respect. A few years earlier, he'd had one of his best generals burned to death in the Circus. That hadn't gone down well with the armies of the East, which had downed weapons in protest, but it had delighted the crowd.
- The Terror of Constantinople
By treating these events as related, was I confusing two separate chains of causation? Possibly, but hardly likely. That would require two separate killers, both deciding to act on the same night, and both gaining access to a normally secure Legation.
- The Terror of Constantinople
... I knew well enough that the waters would eventually recede, leaving behind them a thick layer of mud. This would be the virgin soil in which the harvest would be sown come October, and from which, come March, the fabulous wealth of Egypt would be reaped. If those who sowed and reaped it had never yet seen much of this wealth, that, I told myself, I was here to change.
- The Blood of Alexandria
Some of the more imaginative - or perverted - divines have written about Hell as a series of levels, beginning with the moderately unpleasant and finishing with the indescribably awful. I suppose the long, dimly lit corridor that ran from that door under the whole length of the Prefecture would rank about halfway down the scale of horror.
- The Blood of Alexandria
It was Aramaic, and he was reading out something nonsensical from one of the more recent prophets. It was no worse than anything you hear in church every Sunday. But even if you aren't a believer, foreign religions always sound more stupid than your own.
- The Sword of Damascus
The Main Characters
Alaric is the narrator of the stories, so he is in them throughout, and everything we see is filtered through his sceptical view of the world. Some of the people encountered are real historical figures: Phocas and Heraclius were real Byzantine Emperors, Abd al-Malik was indeed the Caliph at the time of Alaric's journey to Damascus, and the Venerable Bede even gets a mention as a young novice when Alaric is in the monastery of Jarrow. But most of the characters in the books are fictional. Some feature in a number of books, while others appear in only one.
Maximin - saint and missionary, he converts heathens to Christianity using cheap illusions posed as miracles. He believes that despite the deception he is saving souls.
Martin - Alaric's cowardly secretary and companion. A freed slave originally from Hibernia (Ireland), he is a steadfast believer in the Church and hates both Alaric's sceptical views and the dangerous situations he gets him into.
Theophanes - an old eunuch in the higher echelons of the government in Constantinople. He develops a liking for Alaric while plotting a scheme to save himself, the Emperor and the Empire.
Priscus - an old-style Roman. Priscus was a real-life general, but the character ascribed to him is fictional. Equally happy leading an army or taking recreational drugs in a brothel, he has married the Emperor's daughter and is head of the Secret Police. A constant thorn in Alaric's side, Priscus is far cleverer than he first appears.
Meekal, formerly Michael, is Alaric's grandson. He has converted to the Muslim faith (hence the name change) and is now Governor of Syria. His newly adopted people believe in spreading the Faith by conquest, and he is determined to take Constantinople and make it the capital of an Islamic Empire.
Theodore - another real-life person, little is known about his early life. In Alaric's story he is a young boy adopted by Alaric while in Athens. His extreme religious views set him at odds with Alaric's liberal lifestyle.
Euphemia - a young widow living in the crumbling ruins of Athens. She seems to have lost all interest in life, but looks after her step-child Theodore.
Antonia - a young woman who wants to share in Alaric's adventures and investigations, but succeeds in continually getting him into more trouble.
About the Author
Richard Blake is a pseudonym for Sean Gabb. Gabb is an English author, lecturer and political activist. He has a degree in History from the University of York, and a PhD in Political and Intellectual History from the University of Middlesex. He has worked as Economic and Political Adviser to the Prime Minister of Slovakia, as Director of the Sudan Foundation, and since 2006 as the Director of the Libertarian Alliance. He has published a number of books under his own name including two novels, The Churchill Memorandum and The Break.
The Aelric books are published under the pseudonym Richard Blake, and very little biographical detail is provided by the publishers. This is probably to distance the books from Gabb's often controversial views on many topics. The distinction between socialist, conservative and libertarian are minor ones compared with the difference between Alaric's basically 21st-Century view of the world and the 7th-Century opinions of the people around him. It also somewhat protects Gabb from being ridiculed for writing books packed with sex and violence.
More Fun and Games
The aged Alaric telling his life history is in his nineties, while the last book ends when he is only in his early twenties, so there is still about 70 years of history to fill in. We can look forward to many more books about Alaric in the near future.