Friday, March 1, 2024

Microreview: The City of Marble and Blood by Howard Andrew Jones

Continuing the story of Hanuvar in his struggle against the empire that destroyed his home and enslaved his people.

In Howard Andrew Jones' Lord of a Shattered Land, we were introduced to Haunvar, an old, surviving general of a city state that resembles our own Carthage, that was squashed by an empire that resembles Rome. This makes, for the historically astute, Hanuvar an expy of Hannibal. However, this is not the Hannibal you probably know, when he was leading armies with elephants over the Alps, but his later, lesser known career. After the defeat of Carthage, Hannibal went around the Mediterranean like a Cassandra, warning all and sundry that the Romans were coming. Turns out, he was right.

The older Hanuvar in this world is a more active character than that, and has dedicated himself to freeing his people and opposing the empire's plans and he makes a start on that in the first book.

The City of Marble and Blood picks up Hanuvar's story.

Like the first book, this is an episodic book progressing through Hanuvar's plans and attempts to free the people of lost Volanus out of their bondage in the Deruvan empire. However, this is not quite a "more of the exact same" sort of book to the first volume. Jones changes up the formula in a couple of different ways.

First, early on in the book, and perhaps the story most resembling the first volume in tone and style, he has a magical accident that deages Hanuvar, making him look like a young man. With decades off of his appearance, Hanuvar is given a freedom of action that he did not have in the first book, especially since the empire is now half convinced he is back from the dead to wreak vengeance (recall that he was supposed to be dead at the end of the War). Young Hanuvar has the abilty to move somewhat more freely as a result. But it is clear, he learns, that this "blessing" really is a deadly curse, and dealing with it is a plotline that runs through the book.

But it must be said that, aside from that plotline, and an unusual episode where we get Hanuvar to be the general he once was, this book has a markedly different scope and tone. The first book had our Voluscan hero ranging all through the Empire and beyond, looking for survivors, building up connections. In The City of Marble and Blood, as you might guess from the title, the action is far more limited. A lot of the action takes place in the Deruvan capital itself and its nearby environs. 

In keeping with that limited locale, the focus also changes to a less sword and sorcery and a more straight up intrigue and political machinations and deadly rivalry sort of affair. Instead of Hanuvar dealing with lots of magicians and monsters, his foes this time are conspirators, plotters and foreign agents. Hanuvar, for all of his attempts to avoid doing so, has gotten himself mixed up in the fate of the empire, for good or ill. He'd rather not get involved, but it comes clear to Hanuvar that if he doesn't, the small gains he has made so far in freeing members of his people are going to be wiped off the board.  It's a good dynamic tension, but it is definitely a change from the first book.

What doesn't change, and something I did not mention in my first review, but should mention here, is the extremely interesting literary conceit of both the prior book and this one. There must be a strain of readers who don't care much about the context and framing and metafictional aspects of a story, but there is a richness to writing and thinking about the concepts of "Who is telling this story?", "What is their point of view?", "What can be leveraged from using the point of view not just of the characters, but the entire narrative itself?".  The best example where you will immediately see this is the novel Dune, which you will doubtlessly recall is full of epigrams and quotations from Irulan, and clearly the whole book has been edited by her. 

Jones doesn't disappoint in this regard. Both the prior volume and this one are subtitled "Freely adapted from The Hanuvid of Antires Sosilos (The Elder) with the commentary of Silenus, by Andronikos Sosilos The Younger". This allows Jones to do some clever and interesting things. The main text we are reading is written by Sosilos the Younger. The adventures in the two volumes to date (and I am looking forward to the third) is "his" work. We are reading his adaptation of the Elder's work. But in this text, Jones also has passages, often at the beginning of the episodic stories, but sometimes at the end, that are direct quotations from the Elder himself, rather than the Younger's rewriting of it. And then there are Silenus' footnotes (aka the commentary) where he discusses the text as a historical artifact, and will talk about this adaptation in the context of the original story. 

Now, Jones is not quite as fully literary minded as, say, Ada Palmer, or Mary Gentle, and so this commentary and point of view of readers and storytellers doesn't quite run rampant and deeply change the narrative. Jones, I think, at heart, wants to be a straight up storyteller in the mold of Harold Lamb. But even so, given that he is transmitting a story of a classical historical biography through the ages, he could not (and rightly so), resist using the framing devices to provide additional depth. 

And it's completely in period for this sort of story. As it so happens, I've been recently reading a couple of books about aspects of classical history. The diligence of the writers involved mean they are always commentating on what sources they have, which ones they don't, and sometimes we get a particular story as a summary by author x, who read a work by author y that is now lost. So it is a bit of a game of telephone, and while in our world, it frustrates historians who want to know the "real story", in a fantasy novel, it adds an air of mystery and ambiguity to the tales. 

One could even say that these books are showing the evolution of Hanuvar from a straight up historical figure into something somewhat more mythic in his scope (there is a whole tradition of fantastic tales, for instance, of Alexander the Great).  I would not start with this second volume, even given the change in tone for the most part as outlined above. If you like the first book, this second book does change the focus but keeps the strength of what makes these books fascinating and compulsively readable for me.


The Math


  • Strong central character
  • New focus and changes to Hanuvar keep his story fresh
  • Engaging meta-narrative

Reference: Jones, Howard Andrew, The City of Marble and Blood, [Baen, 2023]

POSTED BY: Paul Weimer. Ubiquitous in Shadow, but I'm just this guy, you know? @princejvstin.