THE TALE OF KRISPOS by Harry Turtledove
The opening chapter of The Tale of Krispos really sucked me in. There is realism, which I’m always a fan of, and there are hardly any wasted words. At least that’s how it is at first — but more on that later. Harry Turtledove does a great job of describing what is going on by working the information you need into the narrative in natural ways rather than just straight-out telling you certain facts.
The three books that make up The Tale of Krispos — Krispos Rising, Krispos of Videssos, and Krispos the Emperor — are based on the life and times of Basil I, the founder of the Macedonian dynasty of Byzantium. As such, this story rests in the fantasy sub-genre of alternate history. There is a little bit of magic, though it doesn’t play a role in the day-to-day lives of most people. Fans of David Gemmell‘s historical fiction, such as Lion of Macedon, will find themselves in fairly familiar territory. Even readers who are not very familiar with their history should at least recognize the setting, which bears a strong resemblance to the Roman Empire of the mid-9th century AD. Many of the names from the history of the time pop up in The Tale of Krispos. One example is the character of Tanilis, who was actually named Danielis in real life, though of course spelling was anything but standardized back then anyway. The role she plays in the book would have been very similar to the one she played in Basil’s life. Harry takes some liberties with history in order to make his main character more palatable to readers, and some of the plotters against him more sinister and deserving of their just rewards. He also messes with the historical timeline a little bit in order to have events occur at more opportune moments in the book. Of course, that’s not a problem, since I don’t expect a one-hundred percent factual account anyway. (Heck, I don’t expect a one-hundred percent factual account from history, either — but then, I’m a bit of a cynic.)
As I said, the book starts out with quite a bit of realism, though it does falter a little as it goes on. The realism is not necessarily the gritty kind found in GRRM and the like, though that crops up infrequently, but more of the — well, the boring kind, really. For instance, peasants are given a realistic chance of fighting back against trained soldiers — i.e., very little. But you can tell Dr. Turtledove is a historian, and I was quite impressed at his detailed depictions of life on a farm — and in the palace — in the 9th century. Unfortunately, as he goes on he falls into rambling about things we don’t particularly need to know. And not just historically-detailed info, either; I really didn’t need to know every single time that Krispos used the chamber pot, though I think I found out. I’d love to have this book in digital format so that I could do a quick search for those two words to see how often they crop up. I think the number would be depressingly high. And the creed of the god Phos is repeated verbatim every time it is mentioned, so instead of just saying that someone recited the creed he quotes it over and over again. Other times he just rambles. Here is one example:
“After that, Krispos spent a good stretch of time staring at the float and waiting for something to happen [like the readers]. Fishing was like that sometimes. He had sometimes thought about asking Zaidas if sorcery could help the business along, but always decided not to. Catching fish was only part of the reason he came out here in his little boat. The other part, the bigger part, was to get away from everyone around him. Making himself a more efficient fisherman might net him more fish, but it would cost him some of the precious time he had to himself. Besides, if fishing magic were possible, the horny-handed, sun-browned sailors who made their living from their catch would surely employ it. No; maybe not: it might be feasible, but too expensive to make it worthwhile for anyone not already rich to afford it. Zaidas would know. Maybe he would ask him. And maybe he wouldn’t. Now that he thought about it, he probably wouldn’t.”
To argue against myself for a moment, this is actually an excellent way of showing how Krispos is relaxed and letting his mind wander, without merely saying it. On the other hand, he does this a fair bit as the books progress, so I think he just needed to get on with it.
It’s funny, because there are some sections where I wanted more detail, such as during military campaigns where I didn’t really get a good grasp of how the terrain looked, but when it came to things like meals… well, my goodness, Mr. Turtledove must be a connoisseur; he could stretch the description of a dining experience out to three or four pages.
Another issue I have with the books is that I found it hard to connect with the main character, Krispos. Perhaps it’s because this is historically-based and the characters don’t have that larger-than-life aspect of many out-and-out works of fiction. I found Krispos to be interesting and even in some ways admirable, but not really someone I could especially empathize with throughout the story. Although he has some depth to his character there were elements missing that made him less well-rounded than he could have been. Overall he was shallow.
Speaking of shallowness, Krispos seems only able to connect with the female characters through sex. Come to think of it, that’s true of basically all of the characters. But if a female character is mentioned by name, you can pretty much guarantee that Krispos will end up bedding her sooner or later. I know that is a bit of a spoiler, and I apologize, but the book is so predictable in this respect that I think I can include it without giving anything important away. There is a heck of a lot of sex in this book. It’s not graphic, but what it lacks in detail it makes up for in frequency. Oh, and homosexuality seems to be strangely anachronistic in the way it is depicted here. Much of the first book is filled with modern phrases saying “it’s perfectly normal” and “there’s nothing wrong with it” and so forth, which is quite at odds with the historical setting of the very Catholic 9th century Roman Empire, where it was strongly condemned. There is one scene in particular that not only does nothing at all for advancing the story, it is actually quite out of place. The author seemed to be pushing an agenda.
There are few strong supporting characters. Actually, there are a couple of characters whom the author spends quite a bit of time developing and making big portentous statements about and then… nothing. That was irritating. I think he was overly enamored of them, but couldn’t properly decide what to do with them. The third book, Videssos the Emperor, which takes place much later than the first two, introduces some new characters with whom we spend time with, but the first two books don’t stray at all from Krispos’ viewpoint.
The three books, if you buy them separately, are self-contained stories that follow on logically one to the other, though they can be read individually. The endings are all rather abrupt, though.
The Tale of Krispos is a reasonably well-written and fairly enjoyable, if not gripping, story. It could have done with a much tighter edit — or the author could have spent more time describing things other than meals and bodily functions. This tale will be of interest to fans of historical fiction or people who are after fantasy that has a fair whack of realism rather than being a big, stirring saga full of dragons and damsels in distress.
Mark Pawlyszyn, one of our earliest guest reviewers, has always tended toward the creative side of life and had careers in music and painting before settling into his current position as the owner of Unique Images Photography. Mark has visited and lived in twelve countries and can ask for directions to the bathroom in several languages. He currently lives in Canada with his wife, Sherri.
The Videssos Books (The Tale of Krispos) — (1987-2005) Publisher: As they faced one another in a duel of survival, the Roman tribune Marcus Scaurus held the spell-scribed sword of a Druid priest, and the Celtic chieftain Viridovix held a similar sword, bespelled by a rival Druid sorcerer. At the moment they touched, the two found themselves under a strange night sky where no stars were familiar and where Gaul and Rome were unknown. They were in an outpost of the embattled Empire of Videssos — in a world where magic and dark sorcery would test their skill and courage as no Roman legion had ever been tested before.
The Videssos Cycle
The Tale of Krispos Omnibus
The Time of Troubles