Sunday, February 23, 2014

Book Review: House of War

House of War by Hamilton Wende has a number of story threads running through it: British academic Sebastian Burke’s life-long quest to find the lost Royal Diaries of Alexander the Great, detailing his life with Roxane, slave bride and love of his life; Claire Finch, an independent American documentary producer, who has her own dark secrets to resolve; the murder of two American servicemen by terrorists in a hotel bar in Tashkent. Add to that the various goals and ambitions of lesser characters involved with Sebastian’s quest. The setting is Afghanistan, the ultimate destination being the city of Ay Khanoum, specifically the Temple of Ares now in ruins and guarded by a militant warlord, hoping to claim his place in history. Woven into this story is Sebastian’s anguish over the death of his brother in Rhodesia, when Sebastian was just a boy.

I’m a sucker for anything to do with ancient history and archaeology. Alexander the Great is also one of my favourite characters. A quest, both internal and external, an archaeological dig, politics, romance, what could any reader want more than this exciting mix? Author Hamilton Wende has created a compelling, spell-binding read, and the main question that will possibly rear in readers’ minds is: do the Royal Diaries actually exist, and will Sebastian find them? Apart from this overriding theme is another, darker theme underpinning the entire book. The theme of obsession, coupled with that of war. Characters, both modern and historical, are beset with obsessions and surrounded by war. Alexander’s obsession to conquer took him on a path of rampant war and destruction. His inner insecurity and turmoil within his soul turned him at times into a monster. Sebastian wrestles with the demons of his past, the background of the war in Rhodesia, and his inability to accept things about himself. Claire, too, has issues that will not go away. Their background is war-torn Afghanistan and the physical dangers surrounding their journey.

Alexander fighting King Darius III of Persia at the battle of Issus.
The characters are interesting but, in many places, overshadowed by Alexander. He looms large over everything. The author cleverly intersperses snippets from Sebastian’s manuscript about the Royal Diaries into the text, following the path of the modern-day protagonists as they get nearer the dig site. Such tiny teasers told me so much about Alexander, a giant among men, prone to violent rages, overweening pride, and terrible cruelty, and yet capable of great compassion, tenderness, kindness, and generosity. A compelling, charismatic leader whose personal magnetism drew people to his side and kept them there. In fact, I was delighted when, at the end of the book, the author indicates the full manuscript is available on his website. I urge readers to take the time to hop over there. It is well worth it.

Alexander is the subject of the book and, whether by accident or design, he tends to cast the others into the shade. Sebastian comes across many times as weak, indecisive, and filled with self-pity; Claire starts out with an abrasive domineering attitude that is often annoying. The other players in the game of war engineer some interesting plot twists, and of course several are not who they appear to be. Political enthusiasts will have plenty to chew over regarding the 2002 Iraqi invasion, an added angle that has its place here. There is a wonderful shoot-out ending that was the only possible resolution to this fascinating story. The only part I did not really like was the romance between Sebastian and Claire. For me it was as if two broken people had drifted together out of desperation. And yet, real people are imperfect, indecisive, torn with unresolved issues, and perhaps this is what makes these characters work well within the context of this story. This is a fascinating read and I am busy with the author’s next book about Sebastian Burke.


ccarpinello said...

Thanks for sharing this. Sounds right up my alley. Going to take a closer look.

Fiona Ingram said...

Definitely a five star! I know you'll find it interesting, given your passion for ancient history.