Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Jack Hight - Siege

Jack Hight's debut novel centers on the fall of Constantinople to the Turks in 1453, and it's hard to imagine a more dramatic backdrop for a story. Unfortunately, Hight may not be the greatest of writers to bring such a drama to light. The writing is cliché, shallow, and, save for the inherit awesomeness of the events it recounts, not even particularly exciting.

Evidently not one to dodge the thick of things, Hight eschews adding some imagined character and instead centers things on Giovanni Giustiniani Longo, one of the siege's most important figures. Longo, as he's referred to in the book, was an Italian nobleman who came to Constantinople with seven hundred of his own men to add what he could to the city's defense. Upon his arrival, he was placed in charge of the land defenses. In the novel, his role's rather more feisty still. Here he's an escaped Janissary who lives to get vengeance for his family, slain by the Turks. Towards this end he's created a ragtag band of fighters, including the bawdy "huge bear of a man" (p. 17) Tristo and the young former slave of the Turks, rescued in the novel's opening chapters by Longo himself, William, whose role in the group can be pretty safely summed up by mentioning that Tristo calls him "young pup" (p. 286).

As for the decision making abilities of this historically brilliant leader, well, those can probably be shown by his actions in the prologue. After joining a crusade to kill a single, specific Turk on the other side, Longo notices that his side starts losing. Instead of helping out, he decides that the logical thing to do is to "play dead" (p. 2) and, once the fight's over, take on the entire Turkish camp by himself. He tries this, but after killing multiple men in close combat, barely escapes with his life. Just to make things more amusing, we hear that the leader who just faked a heart attack so he could enact his personal revenge in the most illogical way possible "blamed himself" (p. 17) for the men of his who died in the battle. Yep, Longo, that sounds pretty damn warranted.

The arc at the novel's center is Longo's, for, much as Siege is the tale of Constantinople's fall, it's also the story of Longo learning to live again. The reason? Love, of course. In the course of defending the city, Longo falls for the Princess Sofia, and their romance is tenderly foreshadowed by him repeatedly noticing "the soft curves of her cleavage" (p. 238). Come the novel's end, he's realized that "There were things more important than revenge" (p. 326).

Sofia is also one of the novel's viewpoint characters, described by the jacket as a "stubborn princess," a reader of philosophy, a swordfighter to rival many of the men around her, and fond of utterances like: "Princess is a pretty title, but I would gladly trade it for a chance to choose my own destiny, to do as I wished, love who I…" she cut herself short. (p. 242) As you've no doubt surmised, Sofia's not going to win any contests in originality; she's a tad too filled with Disney Princess spunk for that, a bit too reminiscent of Arya Stark before Martin pushed the cliché to fascinating and terrifying conclusions. Still, Sofia's not dislikable. I know that sounds like damning with the faintest praise, and maybe it is, but she has her endearing moments.

Of course, she and Longo's beautiful love is taking place in a city upon the brink of destruction, and it's time for us to turn to those destroyers and besiegers, the Ottoman Turks and their Sultan Mehmed II, the third of our central characters (the three people that the jacket informs us will "decide the fate of an empire"). It is, alas, with the Turks that many of the novel's problems arise. Mehmed's a young Sultan desperate to prove himself after gaining the throne, then having his pop take it back, and now being given one last chance. So far, so good. Unfortunately, Hight pushes the (quite interesting) relationship between Mehmed II and his father, Murad II, into realms of needless inaccuracies. The opening chapters give Mehmed credit for a whole slew of victories that were, in actuality, his dad's. Then there's the quite amusing moment when, after hearing that Mehmed's acclaimed conqueror by the people, Murad asks him, "What have you conquered?" (p. 41) Seeing as Mehmed didn't get that title until after he'd taken Constantinople (and so, you know, conquered something) the question's really quite a good one.

The problems with the Turks go beyond historicity, though. We stay at a respectable distance from the Byzantine Emperor Constantine, and the lovemaking of Longo and Sofia's quite a beautiful thing, but the narrative never stops dwelling on Mehmed's depravity. It's rather telling, I think, that the two main words we get in their original tongue are sword (yatağan (p. 4)) and penis (sik (p. 46)), even if we thankfully don't get the same word for both. Speaking of cocks, or rather the lack thereof, we've the harem politics to deal with, where two unlikable women scheme against one another without, with one exception, ever accomplishing much. The main problem of all that is that, as it just about never reaches back and actually effects the main story, it's just a detour, and one the reader will probably rather speed through to get back to you the whole Constantinople thing we're in this for.

The harem politics, though, does rather lead to the treachery at the novel's center. Though center doesn't really cover it. There is treachery everywhere within this novel, one huge scheme that seems to have little idea of its goal and a thousand players, each of which often acts in totally incomprehensible ways, assassinating the people they themselves have put in place and so forth. The highlight of all that is when one official goes to speak to the Sultan in order to tell him about a secret way into the city. It's a trap, though, and he tries to kill the Sultan. But his secret way in was perfectly good, for some unimaginably nonsensical reason, so, once his assassination attempt fails, the city's doomed. Nice going. Key to the general theme of treachery, though, is Isa the poisoner. We're told that "poison dealers like Isa […] existed" (p. 406) in the historical note that ends the novel, and that's all well and good, but I can't help but think that those poisoners probably weren't much like this. Isa is a fifteenth century secret agent, well able to slaughter his way into the heart of the sultan's court and to defeat anyone at all who stands against him.

The rest of the cast, unaware of the treachery deciding just about everything behind their backs, takes a brief break from their love interests to defend the walls on the final day. The battle scenes here and elsewhere in the book are competently done, if not excellent. Hight gives us some sense of the strategic overview, but most of our time is spent in the close up, behind our heroes as they hold the line. Really, the worst part about the combat is the amount of it; random battles against poorly tied in Spanish assassins serve to dull the fights that count. Then again, battle really is what holds this book together, fight scenes the moderately adrenaline-pumping glue that propels the not particularly deep or original characters into the reader's mind.

Every part of Siege that tries to rise above the simple existence and grandeur of the city and then its destruction is forgettable, shallow, or has been seen innumerable times before. The action is adequate but not exemplary, a phrase that could describe most of the book and would suffice if it did have one excellent element to make it worthwhile. It doesn't.  Nothing about Siege is incredible but the history it's immersed in, and, much as Constantinople's a great story, Hight has nothing much to add to it. 

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