Book review: The Sword of Damascus by Richard Blake

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Age has not entirely wearied Brother Aelric of Jarrow and the years have not yet condemned him to a sedate and sedentary lifestyle.

He’s well over 90 and should be taking it easy ... but the year is 686 AD and the former Lord Alaric, Legate Extraordinary to the Roman Emperor, is heading off to Damascus to face siege, kidnapping, a terrifying chase and a confrontation that will settle the future of mankind.

Aelric, Richard Blake’s duplicitous and deadly 7th century antihero, returns for his fourth adventure and this time he must use all his wile and wit to help combat the triumphant Muslim caliphate which is sweeping up from Arabia to threaten Constantinople itself.

Only his natural cunning and courage – death holds little fear for a man already ‘far over its threshold’ – have kept Aelric alive in the dangerous and fast-crumbling Roman Empire.

Aelric is currently teaching Greek and Latin in an old monastery in the wastes of Jarrow where he writes his memoirs and waits for death.

Well that’s the theory... in practice, he’s all set for another amazing mission in the so-called civilized world far from the shores of Britannia.

No sooner has he escaped a siege by northern barbarians on the monastery than he is setting sail for the ravages of the Mediterranean.

In faraway Damascus, Aelric could be very useful to Constantinople’s defenders as he knows the secrets behind Greek Fire, the flame-throwers that have kept what is left of the once-mighty Roman empire safe until now.

But as well as those who seek Aelric’s help, there are other dangerous factions who want to prevent him sharing his knowledge.

Fortunately, Aelric has a ruthless streak, unwithered by the passage of years, but has he met his match this time?

Aelric is a marvellously imagined and wildly eclectic character – when he is not bemoaning his loss of teeth and hearing, his nosebleeds, shivering attacks and other symptoms of old age, he is either harking back to his glorious youth or dispassionately dispatching those who get in his way.

Blake surrounds him with an entertaining mixed bag of characters from the ‘God-bothering’ Brother Cuthbert and Aelric’s put-upon serving boy Wilfred to the psychopathic teenager Edward and the Saracen leader Meekal.

We travel into the heart of a fascinating period of history which saw the survival and resurgence of the Byzantine Empire in the first century of Islamic expansion.

As always, Blake’s plotting is as brilliantly devious as the mind of his sardonic and very earthy hero. This is a story of villainy that reels you in from its prosaic opening through a series of death-defying thrills and spills.

It’s to be hoped that the ageing Aelric will live long enough to take us on another of his remarkable adventures!

(Hodder, paperback, £7.99)