Even if it weren't a debut novel, the sheer prodigious immensity of The Shadow of Ararat would be stupefying. And I'm not just talking about length, either; jillion-word fantasy epics are ten-a-penny these days. First-time novelist Harlan has brought nearly two decades of experience creating historical war games, as well as an obvious lifetime of love for ancient history and archaeology, to this sweeping story set in an alternate ancient Rome. Rome, in Harlan's milieu, still exists well into the 7th century C.E., and magic plays a prominent role. If awards were handed out solely on the basis of excellence in astonishingly detailed and researched world-building, we could just hand Harlan his lifetime achievement award now and save time. But there are other elements to fantasy novel writing just as important, and it's in these areas Harlan shows he could use serious improvement. Although the scenes of military conflict — that is, any of the scenes in which Harlan brings his prodigious knowledge of military history to bear — are rousing, the fantasy elements fall flat on their collective faces, as Harlan simply does not make them make much sense for the reader. Harlan is a fabulous historian, but a dreary storyteller.
By 622 C.E., the Roman Empire has been divided in half (as it was by the 4th century), with the traditional capital of the Western Empire still nestled in Roma Mater under the benevolent rule of the emperor Galen. The Eastern Empire's capital, naturally, is Constantinople, where the emperor Heraclius finds himself faced with not only the constant threat of invasion from the Persians, but the scheming of the eastern dukes under his rule. Though the Western Empire seems more secure politically, its populace has been ravaged in recent years by plague; Rome faces a shortage of noble sons to fill positions of rank and even suitable legionnaires for its armies. The Eastern Empire, by contrast, has managed to avoid the plague and its population is healthy and robust; but it faces some immediate and dire threats.
The most pressing of these is Persia itself, which has harried the Eastern Empire for many years with the help of evil magicians who call forth dark reinforcements from the unseen world. Heraclius has decided upon a plan of invasion no less ambitious than something Alexander himself might have cooked up: nail the Persians before they nail Rome, regardless of the fact that no prior Roman attempt to take the Persian capital of Ctesiphon and unseat their King of Kings has ever met with anything remotely resembling success. This time, though, Heraclius has the full support of Galen. Though the Western Empire cannot muster much in the way of an army, Galen realizes that only a united Rome can presume to march upon Persia and have any hope of victory. So Galen journeys to Constantinople, leaving his younger brothers Aurelian and Maxian behind to mind Rome in his absense.
Maxian, however, is deeply troubled. A healer, not a politican, who possesses the ability to access the magic of the unseen world, Maxian detects that there is something deeply amiss in the Empire, and soon discovers what it is: an ancient curse laid upon the Empire, ironically originally designed to protect Rome from magical onslaught, has over the centuries actually been leeching the lifeblood from Rome itself, in a manner that Harlan singularly fails to explain clearly. In fact, there are many things about his story that Harlan fails to make clear, and this flaw literally suffuses the book from beginning to end, despite the obvious hard work that Harlan put into realizing his alternate ancient world for us. At no time did I ever have a clear grasp of the nature of the magic in Harlan's milieu. There is an "unseen world," apparently, from which forces both good and evil called be called forth. Necromancy plays a big part; both the bad guys and Maxian raise men from the dead to assist them (Maxian raises no less a personage than Julius Caesar, here called Gaius Julius, a potentially staggering plot element that Harlan does a dazzling job of nothing with). But none of the rituals or methods that mages employ in Harlan's world make much sense; I never really had a clear understanding of what Maxian was up to throughout the whole book. At one point in the novel we are quite suddenly treated to Maxian and his cohorts in an iron foundry in Constantinople, building an enormous mechanical flying machine for no apparent reason other than it will get him to the front lines of battle quickly! Whoa! Where did Maxian's knowledge to build this come from? If the technology to do this exists at all, why aren't the skies of Harlan's Empire chock full of these things? Questions...questions...
That is just one example of Harlan's slipshod plotting. The book is filled to bursting with intriguing ideas that Harlan introduces early on — say within the first couple hundred pages or so — only to seem to have forgotten hundreds of pages later. For example, this curse on Rome. Where did it come from? Exactly how is it harmful? What part will it play in the upcoming war against Persia? What exactly will happen if Maxian doesn't find a way to lift it? Does it have anything to do with the sinister sorcerer Dahak, who wields terrible spells for the Persians? So many questions that Harlan leaves unanswered. For instance, a potentially suspenseful plot element in which Maxian tries to figure out the deaths of several well-to-do merchant families that may be a clue as to the nature of the curse (one of the families has invented movable type) literally disappears from the story. We never learn why these particular families were killed, nor what they had to do with anything at all that transpires later in the novel!
Now of course one can point out that in series fiction, it is often the case that secrets exposed in book one are often not resolved until book two or three or nine. That's fine. Harlan's problem is that he just piles too much on at one go, and expects readers to keep track of absolutely all of it through a grindingly slow and endlessly meandering narrative. A better choice might have been to introduce some mysterious elements, resolve them, but have the resolution launch a new mystery — thereby leading the reader along more naturally and effectively.
The point of necromancy in Harlan's magical milieu remains elusive as well. We are led to understand that the reason Maxian resurrects Gaius Julius is in the hopes of learning something useful about events in Rome's distant past, so that Maxian, presumably, can combat this curse. But Gaius Julius doesn't really provide this information, and Harlan spends the rest of the novel having one of the most important men in world history acting as a lackey. (Another point: since necromancy seems neither uncommon nor shunned by mages in Harlan's world, why hasn't someone already gotten the bright idea of resurrecting Gaius Julius for any number of reasons years before, particularly since Maxian doesn't have much trouble finding Julius' tomb?)
Still, it's true that Harlan's deeply sloppy plotting may go unnoticed by fans of alternate history and historical fantasy who will rightfully be impressed by Harlan's research and skills at world-building. No doubt about it, the man knows his stuff. But then, even here, I found a much more prosaic problem with this book. To be blunt, it's just plain boring. See, The Shadow of Ararat is a multicharacter tale. Among the other characters we follow are Dwyrin, an adolescent Egyptian boy with untrained magical abilities who is sent away from his school in Alexandria to fight in the upcoming war because he causes too much trouble for his schoolmasters; and Thyatis, a highly resourceful female assassin who is much more interesting than Dwyrin (Dwyrin actually isn't very interesting at all) but still comes across as anachronistic, a character who seems to be there more to pander to the tastes of some gamers and fantasy fans. (Sexy female assassins sell books, you see.) In Harlan's episodic multicharacter approach, although chapters are generally brief, not much narrative progress is made from one to another, as Harlan does the thing of taking each character's thread of the story in turn. So we'll get anywhere from 15 to 20 pages of Maxian's story, then cut over to Thyatis, then Dwyrin, then Galen and Heraclius, finally getting back to Maxian after 50 or 60 pages. Result? A VLFN that moves about twice as ponderously as most VLFN's do.
Only in the book's last 200 pages or so (out of the paperback's 793) does the story offer up some of its most stirring sequences, particularly in its battle scenes. The passages detailing the plight of the Syrian queen Zenobia, who finds herself hopelessly besieged by the Persians in her desert city of Palmyra, yet refusing to believe that Rome has abandoned her or her people, are some of the novel's most successful; Zenobia, although a bit player, was in fact the book's most convincingly realized flesh-and-blood character in my estimation.
I cannot help but feel deep pangs of regret that, for all of the heartfelt love and dedication Thomas Harlan has clearly put into the creation of his first book (you don't often see labors of love this loving, I can tell you), my final judgment cannot be more positive. Yet of course, Harlan clearly has much talent and in certain areas, such as his commitment to authenticity in his research, I would willing to concede that he's got few peers in the field. What he needs to do, perhaps, is simplify. This kind of sweeping, epic storytelling would be insanely ambitious even for veteran authors the likes of James Clavell or Wilbur Smith; for a debut novel, well, Jeez...you have to admire Harlan's cojones, but that the whole thing is crushed under its own weight ultimately doesn't come as much of a surprise. A guy can't reasonably expect to write his very first novel and have it turn out to be War and Peace, any more than a first-time film director can expect to make Lawrence of Arabia. But I have much admiration and respect for Thomas Harlan and what he has attempted here, and it is for this reason that I will continue to follow this series, despite the looming shadow of Ararat's ambitious failure.
Followed by The Gate of Fire.