|Nicholas Nicastro: Empire of Ashes|
Signet (Paperback), ISBN 0451213661
Empire of Ashes, Nicholas Nicastro's latest historical thriller, tells the story of Alexander the Great. Machon, an Athenian Greek, serves as court historian for Alexander. After Alexander's death, the Athenians bring Machon to court on charges that he contributed to the downfall of a god, for the Athenians had long since deified Alexander. Facing death, Machon must accomplish a double task: to clear his name and to tell the truth about the man known as Alexander the Great.
The novel unfolds as a transcript of the court proceedings. The trial structure of Athenian law courts consisted of speeches given by the prosecutor and defendant, so Machon narrates the action as if to a jury. Perhaps Nicastro meant for this first person account to achieve a sort of intimacy or confessional atmosphere. However, such a device fails.
Machon attempts to relate the entire history of Alexander's exploits in the Middle East and Asia. As a result, the novel reads like a history textbook with a few colorful episodes thrown in for entertainment. Battles follow battles until the reader becomes as weary of them as Alexander's troops. Machon, a historian, possess a good head for the names of obscure tribes, important landmarks, and powerful people encountered in Alexander's travels. Unfortunately, Nicastro often drops these names into the text with the assumption that his fictional Athenian jury recognizes the references. An Athenian of the 4th century BCE may recognize them, but this 21st century CE reviewer does not. An index to names and places along with a timeline would have helped.
The first person point of view in the novel means that the reader rarely interacts with the subject of the book, Alexander the Great. We learn much of Machon's opinions of him, as well as of the opinions of others, but Alexander himself speaks little. In fact, Machon often recounts key episodes second- and third-hand, distancing us even more from Alexander. At no point did I receive a clear picture of Alexander as a living person or a character.
Nicastro wrote a novel about a topic that ultimately got away from him. I can only assume that the book was rushed to print to coincide with the recent film. At times the prose itself showed promise, but these elegant verbal twists could not revive the one-dimensional characters or tedious plot. History buffs already well-versed in the time period may wish to read this book simply to gain another perspective on Alexander. Other readers should look elsewhere.
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