PROS: An interesting premise that maintains its freshness by being audacious; interesting plot twist causes readers to reexamine the premise.
CONS: Undeveloped and unchanging characters; unclear and muddled point of view; pacing.
VERDICT: A disappointment that never quite lives up to the promise of its concept.
The year is 330 B.C. and Alexander, in a bold campaign after conquering the Persian Empire, has decided (against his father’s wishes) to take on the Athenian Empire directly, starting with their rich province of Egypt. This is a very alternate history, one where Philip isn’t dead and Athens is still a power to be reckoned with. Also: Alexander is fighting this war with steampunk and clockpunk technology, ranging from giant machine men to gigantic siege engines to incendiary devices — not to mention strange power sources, large maps rotated on gimbals, and much more. This is not your typical Ancient Historical Novel, or Alternate History novel, either.
Pillars of Hercules is the creation of David Constantine, better known for his 22nd century sf technothrillers written as David J. Williams. I have not read any of those novels, so this is my first exposure to his work. Set against the backdrop of a world that never was, Pillars of Hercules gives us a number of characters from multiple factions of the Athenian-Macedonian conflict. There are more than just the two sides, and plenty of treachery, hidden agendas and secret information in the conflict. Taking the antikythera mechanism as historical divergence point, the author creates an “Ancient World that wasn’t — but should have been” (in his words). Clockpunk, steampunk devices abound in a universe where Athens and Macedonia are deadly enemies, and other players on the board are pawns, allies and trying to stay out of the way. Devices of every description can be found here.
The majority of ideas put forth in Pillars of Hercules are a triumph of inspiration. The mechanisms in this book are about as realistic as any other steampunk novel, and then some. It sets the ancient clockpunk/steampunk dial to 11 just to see what happens. If you ever thought that describing the siege of the cyclopean walls of an Ancient Greek city could be improved with the addition of impossible siege engines and robots, this is the novel you have been waiting for. The action sequences in this novel work extremely well and — whether depicting the siege of a city or a ferocious fight along the Danube river — they simply come alive.
But the novel has problems. While the dialogue and feel of the novel are extremely modern, it feels much more like Reservoir Dogs than Alexander in its tone and cadences. Distinct voices in the characters rarely come to the fore and there is no growth and development really to speak of. Relationships between the characters range from artificial to non-existent. Characterization is simply thin. There are also point-of-view problems and inconsistencies. The novel never quite decides if it wants to be a close third-person or a more omniscient point of view, and the focus changes without warning. Also, in a more contextual problem, we switch characters without warning. One moment, we’re following one of Alexander’s generals, the next we’re following the mercenaries. It kills narrative momentum, and worse, seems designed so that the reader isn’t made aware of certain things before the author is ready to reveal them. Finally, the pacing of the timing of events is off. Time does pass as the characters move around the Mediterranean…however, the time it takes to go places is not taken into account.
There is an unexpected twist about two-thirds through the novel that does help explain the strange technology and the world in which its presented. I won’t mention the nature of the twist, but it did help me re-assess what I had read to this point and absorbed. But, given a point of the plot that felt a bit discordant at the time, it feels like the author wanted to have his cake and eat it too in manipulating the events as to where people go and why.
The novel tried its hardest to entertain me, and it did to some degree. But the problems with the book are serious ones. There are some really neat ideas in here, and as someone interested in ancient history and culture, I was primed to love this book. The lackluster parts of the book, though, made loving the book far more difficult than it should be.