Last year one of my favourite books was The Shepherd’s Life by James Rebank. I was surprised. It’s not that I’ve got anything against sheep, it’s just that before reading it I never would have thought I would become so fascinated by sheep and shepherds. The fact that I did is testament to the quality of James’s writing.
I was thinking about that book reading Luck Bringer by Nick Brown and I was thinking who knew I could become this interested in triremes and hoplites? But with writing this good why wouldn’t I?
“The smell of a trireme hits you, a mixture of sweat, urine, damp wood and salt. In rough weather this is augmented by vomit, and in battle by the effect of looseness of bowels as fear grips the heart.”
Luck Bringer is the story of Mandrocles, a teenage boy, who is handed over to the Greek renegade general, Miltiades, by his father to get him out of a bit of trouble he’s got into at home. In this case definitely a jump from frying pan to fire. The Persian army is on the prowl and Miltiades ends up fleeing to Athens, where he is viewed with suspicion both by the aristocrats, (the Alkmaionidai), and the demos. The boy gets his nickname “The Luck Bringer” because early on he deflects a blow intended for Miltiades and the device is a clever one because, as the bringer of luck, he becomes a talisman never allowed to stray too far from the general’s side and is therefore an observer of the politics, trickery and villainy which swirl around his master.
One of my favourite scenes is when a play “The Sack of Miletos” is being performed in Athens:
“The bloody slaughter scars our soil
Our young dead now, thrown from walls
Maidens ravaged, crones lamenting
Youths gelded in the blood pit …”
The performance causes a riot because the sack has taken place relatively recently and the populace is frightened that this is exactly what will happen to Athens soon at the hands of the Persians.
Characters you may have heard of (Themistocles, Aeschylus, Pythagoras) either appear or are referenced. Here’s an entertaining description of Pythagoras:
“I tend to think of him as a potentially decent military engineer gone astray. His notions of the soul and eating beans, his long windedness and lack of understanding of the affairs of men may have won him a reputation for wisdom … but to me he was a potentially good craftsman who became crazed.”
There are also some funny and scathing comments about the Spartans, who failed to turn up and help the Athenians at The Battle of Marathon, which is the climax of the book. This was the battle in which a ragtag army of 10,000 Athenian hoplites beat a professional army of 20,000 Persians.
“And where were the Spartans, the showy, heel dragging buggers then, when the whole world held its breath as the Persian Empire turned its full might on a small city?”
“Everything that’s good or makes sense about life is inverted in Sparta. A place that chooses a regime that keeps thousands down so that a small group can waste the richness of the land in this type of posturing vanity.”
Reading this book reminded me how much I enjoyed fiction set in the classical age and how little of it I have read since I devoured Mary Renault, Rosemary Sutcliffe and Robert Graves in my teens. At the beginning I became slightly confused by the politics but that ironed itself out soon enough.I loved the descriptions of the triremes and what it was like to be in one when it rammed another ship. The moment Mandrocles puts on his heavy helmet and his world narrows to the eye slits will stay with me for a long time. If you want to know what it was like to fight at the Battle of Marathon my guess is this is as close as you’ll get. Luck Bringer is an example of a vivid imagination fertilizing the seeds of detailed historical research. A great read. And I do love that cover. Below is the link to Nick’s website.