The Skystone, Jack Whyte (I)

I wrote this before finishing the book… which is why it’s been written at all, since I still haven’t finished the book. I wrote this, and promptly stopped reading. I’m sure I’ll finish it at some point… but I’m giving up on keeping this review until I do; I may as well through this up now.


Unusually, I’m starting to write this when I haven’t yet finished reading the book in question: I’m about two-thirds of the way through. In the case of “The Prestige”, I started writing early because I could not contain my excitement; this time, I’m salvaging my thoughts, because I don’t know whether I can finish, or, if I do, when that may be.  And yet The Skystone is by no means a terrible book.

The Skystone is the first volume of a multi-novel epic retelling the story of King Arthur – or so it says on the cover. In fact, it’s one of two volumes telling the story of Publius Varrus, a native of Roman Britain shortly before the withdrawal of the legions, and of his experiences as a soldier and a smith. Together, the two books form the foundation of Whyte’s Arthurian retelling, in which we see Arthur and his companions as the last light of Rome lingering on into the Dark Ages, but the Arthurian connexions are at first sly and easily missed. As a teenager, I read and enjoyed the first two novels, but for some reason never ventured on to the rest of the series.

The first thing that strikes the reader on opening the volume, after a dull authorial essay establishing some facts about Roman Britain that are later explained explicitly or implicitly in the text itself anyway, is the prose style, which is intriguingly straightforward. The quote on the cover calls the prose ‘as straight and clean as a Roman sword’, and it is – but the quote does not mean quite what one might think. The prose is not basic, sensationalist, or unobtrusive: instead, it is precise, measured, even self-conscious. It is the voice in writing of Publius Varrus, a man of evident intelligence and considerable knowledge, but not of literary education, and it reads like the writing of a man determined not to embarrass himself, but also to be honest and to tell all – not unlike the sort of curious speech one sometimes sees in courtroom dramas, when sordid incidents are recalled with delicate language. So, Varrus employs the largest number of instances of the word “phallus” that I’ve ever seen in one novel, and has no difficulty, for instance, telling us about how agonising his bowel movements are after a painful injury, yet does so in a dispassionate manner that manages to be both direct and roundabout simultaneously.

The prose style perfectly captures Varrus’ character: self-consciously cerebral, but often in the thick of the action, whether personal or military; and at the same time it supplies a solid fundament against which other elements of his character can be established: while he is not an ‘unreliable’ narrator in the normal sense, he can be a misleading one, as his careful writing style often belies his less civilised elements – he drinks and fornicates excessively at times, and he clearly has a furious temper when provoked. He does not lie about any of this, but we see him, as it were, through the eyes of his own better self, which puts us right in the heart of his dichotomies even when there is ostensibly little dramatic material to base his complex character upon.

If I like the writing, then, why am I struggling with the text? Because there is so little dramatic material. The early part of the novel, I found greatly enjoyable, if a little slow, as we see, in convolutedly nested flashbacks, various incidents from Varrus’ military career, which serve to establish the character of Varrus, of his friend and commander Caius Britannicus, and of their antagonists, the Seneca family. This section of the novel compels through its fractured narrative and full stock of incident, which animate the slow prose and distract from the novel’s wider flaws. Once this introduction is out of the way, however, the narrative gradually slows to a halt: a series of episodes fail to give overarching direction, and the ostensible plotline set up to motivate the characters plays such a quiet second fiddle to the urge to exposition that it lacks the dramatic tension it requires. The third plotline, which will take us through the final third of the novel, is impersonal and hard to empathise with.

The key word to explain what is wrong with this book is ‘exposition’. I do not mean that there are long speeches explaining backstory – although there most certainly are. I’ve sat through two different lectures by Varrus about the principles of ironworking already! But no, the problem is that the entire novel is exposition. It serves to introduce us to key characters and move those characters into the necessary positions for the drama of the second novel (at least, so I hope – I remember the second volume having a far more dramatic pace to it), and as a result it often has a mechanical, railroaded feel to its progression. Most of this set-up is unnecessary in the strictest sense – most could be told through flashbacks in an expanded second novel – but it feels as though Whyte is being too respectful of his characters to compress their lives in that way. There are two instincts fighting against one another here: to tell the story of Arthur, which requires this little Roman introduction, and to tell the story of Publius Varrus; in consequence, Varrus gets more time than the first purpose requires, but less than the second purpose would suggest.

Now, I like Varrus, and I think the second purpose is the more interesting – but in a way, I’m glad Whyte didn’t follow it entirely, because there’s just not enough of Varrus to talk about at length. That is the second problem with this novel. There is little dominating plot, because that comes in the second book and this just sets things up, so we’re left with a vignette of a Roman life – but that life is not interesting enough. These are characters to serve a narrow purpose, and they could serve it well – they’re likable, and more importantly easy to empathise with – but as the book goes on and the uncompelled attention is allowed to linger on them, it becomes increasingly clear how flat and dull they are.

Publius Varrus is a Mary Sue. He’s a brilliant soldier – a skilled fighter and leader, helping his general construct one of the finest military units in the world. He’s also intelligent, with an inquiring mind. He’s also clearly well-educated on many subjects, even if not formally. He’s also devoutly religious, though not to the extent of it interfering with his life in any way or making him off-putting for any non-Christians in the audience. He’s a brilliant smith, naturally. He’s seemingly liked by, without exception, absolutely everyone he meets, aside from a couple of Obvious Villains. Oh, and he’s an incredible archer, by the way. He’s also a paragon of virtue (barring a little uncouth manly indiscretion here and there, and some anger issues), but he’s devastatingly humble and never realises how wonderful he is (though everyone else does). No woman can say no – mostly they have to throw themselves on him, though, since he’s far too polite and selfless to ask. He does pick up a distinctive injury early on, but it never seems to really debilitate him. He is, as will become apparent, central to the ‘reality’ of the Arthurian myths, and along the way he and his friends and family introduce a whole wave of innovations, including the Celtic Cross, and the Welsh/English longbow (the explanations for those two are individually perfectly fine and believable, but they feel unnecessary and together enhance the ‘Publius Varrus – Wonder God’ problem).

It’s not just Varrus. All of his friends are similarly wonderful and perfect, while his enemies are without any redeeming features. He ponders repeatedly whether the Senecas are actually the perfect personification of all the evil of the Empire, and Britannicus the personification of everything good – and it’s hammered home that this is due to ‘breeding’, and that the Seneca family has no ‘good’ members, and hasn’t for centuries, if ever. They are almost supernaturally evil.

If that strikes you as a worryingly right-wing approach to character traits, you won’t be surprised by some of the political views expressed by the ‘good’ characters. In essence, Varrus and (particularly) Britannicus are Libertarians – they repeatedly complain about government regulations, which are apparently the only really bad thing about the Empire, and would never for a moment consider that slavery might be good or necessary (though everyone else thinks that Rome was built on slavery, these two believe that slavery is destroying the Empire –though clearly it’s taking its time!), though the issues arising from the fact that Britannicus is unbelievably fantastically wealthy and employs a great many servants never impinge their consciousness. Britannicus believes that Rome will fall, and advocates a sort of paramilitary militia movement that will defy corruptly controlling governments and protect its people against foreigners and brigands when the government collapses.

Fortunately, the simplistic and unrealistic (in the sense of being anachronistic in the mouth of a Roman) politics is kept to a minimum here, too light to sink the book – and if the characters happen to have a certain admiration for military strength and discipline and distaste for civilian impurity, well, the word ‘fascist’ was inspired by Rome, after all. Frankly, I’d rather see more offputting politics from the characters, as it would give them some more colour and ambiguity. As it is, there is no ambiguity or complexity at all, which means that most of the attention lavished on the characters is wasted – there’s nothing more to see than can be seen at first sight, so the second, third and fourth sights are superfluous.

And there IS a lot of sighting. The novel is nearly 700 pages long, and with the heavy prose style is feels longer. In the final analysis, that’s far, far too long for a novel with little character development and no real dramatic plot.

That said, I do hope that things may pick up a little before the end of the book, and I’ll leave off giving any scores until I’ve finished it.


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