THE SHADOW OF ARARAT
Reviewed by Steven H Silver
Thomas Harlan's first novel, The Shadow of Ararat serves as the introduction to a four volume series he calls "The Oath of Empire." The Empire, in this case, is a Roman Empire which has managed to endure, in both east and west, until the seventh century. There are other differences between our world and the world which Harlan has managed to colorfully populate. Christianity has never arisen in his world and any sort of technological advance stagnated around the time the Roman Republic gave way to the Empire. Instead, magic has become a real presence in this world (much like J. Gregory Keyes's recent "Age of Unreason" series or Randall Garrett's "Lord Darcy" stories).
Harlan follows several characters through their adventures as a war begins between the Roman Empire and the Persian Empire. The Emperors of the East and West, Heraclius and Galen, have elected to join forces and annex Persia once and for all. These events are seen through the eyes and actions of Dwyrin, an apprentice sorcerer plucked from training in Egypt before he was ready, Thyatis, a female spy who has been set in charge of warrior, and Maxian, the youngest brother of the western emperor and a sorcerer in his own right.
Harlan manages to weave their highly different stories together, occasionally introducing his characters to each other and just as quickly pulling them apart, as he weaves the rich tapestry of a civilization throughout the novel. Even when he only follows a character for a couple of pages, he manages to bring the character to life and make them memorable, which allows him to get away with rapid transitions from character to character.
Harlan is on records as having said that magnificent film epics are part of the inspiration for his work. It shows in a way that is not necessarily to the strength of the novels. Frequently, the characters in Harlan's work speak lines of dialogue which seem needlessly grandiose. If Harlan (or the reader) attempts to read these lines out loud, it quickly becomes clear that they are not words which would ever be said in a normal conversation. Nevertheless, they help build the epic feel Harlan was after in writing The Shadow of Ararat.
Although the world of The Shadow of Ararat is generally a complex place, one of the places where it seems to be oversimplified is the idea that the Roman Empire is a generally good kingdom and the Persian Empire is evil. Ahmet, one of the priests of the Roman Hermes Trismegistus notes that the "mobehedan of the Sassanid Empire consorted with demons and devils; they indulged in the necromantic defilement of the dead, they sought power at the expense of other souls." Given the depth which otherwise fills this novel, this sort of dichomtomy seems out of place.
While much is different about this alternate world, there are a few striking similarities, notably in specific historical figures. Part of the fun is recognizing when Harlan elects to include an historical figure, so it wouldn't be fair to note which characters actually existed. It would be safe to point out, however, that Heraclius I did rule Byzantium from 610-641, but he is far from the only historical figure who has made his way into this world.
The Shadow of Ararat serves notice that a new name will be appearing on the SF shelves. In this book, Thomas Harlan indicates that he is capable of presenting a well-thought out fantasy novel which uses many of the principles of historical writing and science fictional writing to present its logical world. Perhaps even more welcome is his ability to portray realistic characters (despite their dialogue) moving through that world in an attempt to achieve their goals when they do not always realize what, precisely, those goals are.
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