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Despite being a lover of English history, my area of interest is generally within the Tudor period and perhaps a few generations before and after that time. I am fully aware of how the Roman legions shaped our country, or perhaps destroyed it for a time depending on how you look at it, yet I have very little interest in learning about their ways and culture.
Attila by William Napier is based upon the first few years in the life of the boy who will come to be known through the ages as Attila the Hun, the name coming about quite simply because he was a boy named Attila and of royal blood within the fearless tribe known as the Huns.
As a very young child he was given to the Romans as a hostage, while a prominent Roman family gave one of their sons to be held at the camp where the Huns reside. This was to ensure neither races would attack the other, with the onus on the captor to keep their charge healthy, well fed and relatively happy. The word hostage didn't quite mean the same then as it does in today's language; the moral code amongst humans was generally stronger and the child hostage Attila was given free run of the Roman palace where he was housed, he was well fed and given an education befitting a Roman prince. This is one thing which shows in what high esteem the Huns were thought of by the Romans as a whole, in a.d. 408 (the year in which this novel begins) the Huns were just one of several murderous races known as barbarians and greatly feared within the walls of Rome.
As far as I can tell, knowing little of this period, the book is written with a slightly biographical slant yet the author has also woven the most exciting and wonderful story around the facts. We are introduced to Attila initially through a prologue written by a great scribe of the time; he remains nameless until the end of the book and certainly I will not reveal his name here as when you learn who he is, and who he represents, it will hammer home the importance of this scribe and give extra credence to the story.
Attila loves being a Hun; he daydreams of sitting astride his saddleless pony, galloping for miles across the countryside without encountering the rough and materialistic Romans. He yearns to see the people of his own race and, despite being treated fairly well, begins to despise the weak Roman Emperor Honorius and his vicious sister, the Princess Galla. Galla is a strange character, I found her rather likeable despite her cruel streak. At just twenty years old she was the power behind Rome; her brother being rather weak minded found the whole experience of governing terrifying, nowadays we'd perhaps label him as autistic and this was how his character was portrayed within the story. Galla, on the other hand, knew exactly what she wanted and was cold and ruthless enough to get it.
It's at the very beginning of the book that we learn how unhappy and confined Attila is, he begins formulating an escape plan. Indeed he formulates several escape plans but they are always foiled at the last minute, or else they are so well thought out that he does escape but is quickly recaptured before he can get to the open plains where he feels most at home. I felt enormous pity for Attila at those times, his thoughts are written in such a way that you cannot help but sympathise. His longing to be with his own people, and his disgust with the excesses of Rome, was enough for him to take such great risks for his freedom that it was hard to keep in mind that we are reading of a boy who is aged roughly just ten years old.
The dangers Attila faces are well written and lend some excitement to the book, although if you're looking for a fast paced adventure story then you may find this novel a little slow going. Much of what you read within the story are the private thoughts of Attila and the book is so amazingly descriptive of the scenery that whole chunks of certain chapters contain little else. I don't mind this in a novel as I do like to be able to picture the scene, but I'm fully aware that lots of reader do not like this overly descriptive approach. To be fair to the author, however, he applies short anecdotes or an interesting fact to his description so it definitely doesn't read like padding and much of his description actually comes to be integral to the story, allowing the reader to get an idea of the topography of ancient Rome and the countryside beyond the great walls of the City.
Attila meets various people throughout his struggle for freedom, some foes but a surprising number of otherwise loyal Romans are sympathetic to his plight. His benefactors are a Roman general, Stilicho, and Serena his beloved wife who loves this angry little barbarian like a son. It is revealed early on in the story that Stilicho is part barbarian himself and this is undoubtedly why he takes such risks to help Attila, his fate is typical of the cruelty of the Roman Empire and this loyal soldier is treated abominably. I think the death of Stilicho was what turned Attila from a vicious yet vulnerable captive, whose dreams of escape invariably come to nothing, to an enraged young man who will face death at every turn to be reunited with his people and family.
As far as I can tell the book spans roughly four years, only the first chapter is dated but from the changes in Attila's body and mind I would suggest he is roughly fifteen years old. He has a terribly angry character, but then he has suffered much in his short life, yet despite living amongst the opulence of the Roman court he has no stomach for the rich excessive food or the voracious and very public sexual appetites of the people. Other young hostages are enjoying the wines of the land, drinking themselves into oblivion on a nightly basis in the company of whores but the one time Attila is coerced into joining them he ends the night with such feelings of guilt and revulsion that he never returns.
I didn't realise until I came to write this review that it's actually the first in a trilogy based around the life of Attila the Hun. The Gathering of the Storm is the second book and chronicles his life as a young warrior, while the third, The Judgement, is the tale of his adulthood and the legacy he left that meant his name is still known some 1500 years after his death. I shall certainly read those two books in the near future to get a 'potted history' of this fearless warrior.
A final thing worthy of note is the clever way that the author has used the front and back few pages of the book to give us a list of notable historic figures, plus Roman language place names along with their modern day counterparts. This was extremely useful to me during the first few chapters as I was able to use the lists to fully acquaint myself with principal characters in the story, and also to see in my head where these far flung countries and settlements were in relation to a modern map.
I completely recommend Attila, for more readers than I originally thought actually. Those who love history will enjoy the setting, readers who like an adventure story will love Attila's lifestyle and even people who just want a good story to get their teeth into will certainly have something here! The story is a respectable 465 pages long and you can purchase a paperback copy from Amazon for just £3.49, a small price to pay for such a thrilling and interesting tale of one boy's battle to free himself of the crumbling Roman Empire.