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The sword of Damascus is a work of historical fiction by Richard Blake and is set in the 7th century, it's main character is the Lord Aelric a 96 year old British noble who is a monk in the monastery at Jarrow and whose student is the future venerable Bede. This is the fourth novel featuring the character Aelric and the book is written as a first person perspective through the eyes of Aelric. The book begins in the monastery at Jarrow with an attack on the monastery by mysterious Northern men, presumably Vikings; they are after Aelric and want to take him back to the Byzantine Empire for something. Aelric accepts his capture and is along with two younger colleagues taken back towards Constantinople, along the way the ship is shipwrecked and the group become fugitives in Northern Africa.
That's the genesis of the story, this is the fourth of Richard Blake's novels to feature the Lord Aelric and after reading this novel I have no interest in finding the other three novels. I have a policy of always finishing a novel no matter how bad it is, this policy has only failed for three books and a book has to be truly awful for me to stop reading it. This book almost joined as a fourth but I battled through to the end, and well let's say it was a constant disappointment throughout. The book begins with a decent interesting start, a raid on a famous monastery, a decrepit old man is taken back towards the Empire he helped rule a life time earlier and with plenty of hints of skulduggery and old news coming back to haunt him. That was the start the first fifty pages read like this is going to be a decent adventure/mystery story set in the full blaze of the early days of the Byzantine Empire and I looked forward to plenty of action and adventure.
That was when the author decided to use the old technique of going backwards in time to move forward the storyline, so we are transported back 80 years or so to a younger fitter Aelric and his antics in Constantinople all those years ago. The main problem with this is that the chapters aren't dated and the first person narrative doesn't alter between him as a 20 year old and him as a 96 year old, confusing it is and does the story from 80 years ago make any sense well no not really. After the second or third going back in time, the reader starts to get the feeling the author has only added these sections because he likes graphically discussing sex and violence which is hardly suitable for a man in his Nineties.
Anyway after the initial interest my reading soon waned, the all action nature of the antics of a 96 year soon change from interesting to barely believable, the author gives this very old man almost super-human capabilities. The old Aelric is involved in desert marches, knife fights, fist fights, and fulfilment of lust and desire. That would be almost believable but for the fact for all the other parts of the novel the author keeps reiterating through Aelrics own words that old age is de-habilitating and that he is barely a man anymore but that old man is still capable of besting two young men in a knife fight?
Slowly the plot unpicks itself, those flashbacks are made clear and characters of little importance at the beginning become prominent and the fate of Empire hangs on Aelrics aging shoulders. Did I care at this point? Not really, the characters whilst well researched and thoroughly defined give the feel of transience, they are in the book only to shine light on the central character that of the corrupt king in waiting Aelric. I feel that the book has tried to do too many things, aimed at placing Aelric at the centre of the world at the time has rather pushed the boundaries of possibility and trying to write a story of an old man travelling for many months on ships, camels, horse and cart whilst fending off brigands, pirates and corrupt officials whilst still grumbling about swollen teeth, bad breathe and painful knees is too much of a push. I think the book would have worked as an old man's memories of time past when he fought pirates and was at the centre of the Empire but as it is the book is not realistic and as such loses the reader.