Book Review: Sword and Scimitar by Simon Scarrow

Sword and Scimitar Simon ScarrowBook Review by Ian Shone

  • Hardcover: 448 pages
  • Publisher: Headline (25 Oct 2012)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0755358368
  • ISBN-13: 978-0755358366

More details on the book and where to buy it available at the publisher’s website.

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Simon Scarrow has become something of a modern heavyweight in the world of historical fiction, a familiar name to anyone who spends any great amount of time browsing in high street bookshops. For a writer of his considerable commercial stature, to tackle the 1565 Siege of Malta is perhaps quite a brave move, and also a smart one. Voltaire once wrote that ‘nothing is more famous’ than this pivotal event in history, yet it is strangely absent from the popular consciousness these days. For a fan of historical fiction, Sword and Scimitar thus simmers with promise.

Unfortunately it walks into the all-too-familiar trap that lies in wait for a great deal of historical fiction. The balance weighs far too heavily in favour of setting, at the expense of story and character, and thus the entire enterprise falls between two stools. Here we have a particularly severe example, since the plot is concerned by and large with a real military campaign. The historical background itself is fascinating—indeed, the author’s note at the end of the book is an enticing condensation of a subject unaccountably neglected by historical novelists. The level of period detail brought into the prose would be laudable in a film, but in a novel, it’s exhausting and often irritatingly didactic. It might be different if the narrative did not keep pausing every couple of paragraphs to explain some historical detail or other. But it does, and it keeps doing it for nearly five hundred pages.

It’s a real shame, since there is a great deal of unrealised potential here. The basic idea behind the story itself is a pretty good one, and Scarrow has shrewdly hit upon a lode that has not been mined to death by a thousand writers before him. But the same tired tropes keep cropping up, regardless, and the characters never really come to life. The tone is unwaveringly serious, the dialogue extraordinarily stilted. Coupled with the halting prose that steadfastly refuses to heed the old rule of ‘show, don’t tell’, the kaleidoscopic descriptiveness produces an effect which is, paradoxically, really rather dull. However, readers who perfer the balance tipped to be heavily towards the historical may well find this to be right up their alley.

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