A Stellar Review of Throne of Darius for Antiqvvs Magazine!
“A Captain of Thebes,” by M. McLaughlin, or, What I’ve Been Reading In The Plague Times
Published on June 10, 2020
Throne of Darius, The Fight Against Alexander the Great: Book I A Captain of Thebes
(Amazon: Mark G. McLaughlin, 2019). ISBN: 978-1704532530 (https://www.amazon.com/Throne-Darius-Mark-G-McLaughlin-ebook/dp/B07ZPFS9KW/ref=sr_1_1?dchild=1&keywords=Throne+of+Darius&qid=1591825716&sr=8-1)
A Captain of Thebes is the first novel in Mark McLaughlin’s Throne of Darius series, currently projected to include two or three more books, spinning an adventurous tale which promises to cover the campaigns of Alexander against the Persian Empire. One might think that the period has been both thoroughly studied in history and well-explored in fictional literature, however McLaughlin has produced a wonderfully innovative perspective by placing his literary characters and their stories among the Greek opponents to the Macedonians, in both Thebes and in Asia Minor. The Persian Empire is not usually portrayed as an object for sympathy, but rather more usually as a speed-bump to be run over so that we can finish studying the Classical Greeks and get to the Romans, who are better attested, and probably more fun to be around, anyway. In McLaughlin’s narrative scheme, however, the Persians and their Greek subjects and allies are the forces defending civilization against the much simpler, uncouth Macedonians, cast as barbarian wreckers.
As the story opens, Dimitrios, the eponymous captain from Thebes, takes part with an ill-advised rebellion based upon an unconfirmed, but plausible rumor of Alexander’s death. Unfortunately for the Thebans, like Twain, reports of Alexander’s demise were greatly exaggerated, with predictable results. McLaughlin manages to create a compelling scene of the treatments by which Alexander survived his ordeal and there are dark hints, then and thereafter, that in effecting a cure, his mother has managed to create something neither wholesome nor natural.
As is usually the case with such matters historically, and always the case when the narrative of historical fiction demands it, the Theban rebellion fails spectacularly, and from the wreckage, Dimitrios and his friends Klemes, and Aristophanes resolve to escape and set out to continue the struggle against Macedonian hegemony in exile. The logical place to do so was in the Greek cities of Asia Minor, now subject to the rule of the Persian kings.
The Persians, as we know, were never quite able to find the military tactics which would enable them to defeat the Macedonians in pitched battle. McLaughlin, in his fictional account, offers a very human and very plausible explanation for this otherwise simple historical fact. The Persians, so secure in their own sense of superiority completely discounted the experience and capabilities of their Greek allies, and, of course, the more immediately relevant experience of our three Theban heroes, and so are doomed to face, in this volume at least, a continual series of defeats at the hands of the Macedonians.
This would not be the first example in history of overweening pride going before a fall, nor would it be the last, but note that the Greek word, hubris, has passed into our language to describe it, and not the ancient Persian. Victors not only write history, but they also supply the vocabulary which enables us to conceive of and discuss history.
In telling this part of his story, McLaughlin covers the events of 334 BC, including the Battle on the Granicos River, and the sieges of Miletos and Halicarnassos, with indications that off-stage, the Great King of the Persians realizes the peril he faces, and prefers certain helpers for the task, but is limited by culture and custom and distance in his selection. Meanwhile, he goes, unseen, mustering the resources of his lands for the supreme effort on the part of his kingdom.
The perplexing issue for any author of historical fiction is, of course, how to make the immediate matter of his story compelling, when we all know the outcome of the epic events taking place in full view. The historical fiction writer, then, depends on compelling characters above all. Plot is of little aid to him. Tolstoi could not say, for example, “Oh by the way, this time Napoleon wins.” To begin with one would lose the purpose of that discursive chapter of the sheep being fattened up by a farmer for motives not entirely clear to the rest of the flock, which actually explains why the readers have been struggling along with the story to that point. Even if that weren’t the case, readers might well lose patience and wish to throw things.
Historical novels, then, need vivid characters who stand forth clearly. McLaughlin does an excellent job of creating interesting and memorable, sometimes quirky, individuals with dilemmas to wrestle with. It would be possible at any point, one sees fairly clearly, for these heroes to move and keep moving, hide away, and so survive in quiet obscurity. After four major (and some minor) defeats in rapid succession, this seems like a tempting alternative. Nevertheless, a sense of duty impels Dimitrios and his companions towards their destiny.
Such characters are made interesting in part because they would be recognizable across a wide-variety of genres. Dimitrios would not be out of place as the hero of a Western novel, where as a matter of course, duty and honor, and the righting of extraordinary wrongs require extraordinary courage and sacrifice. Observant readers might find the other stylistic elements, not only of that particular genre, but of other popular cultural elements of our time. By the time McLaughlin is done, the reader is entertained and diverted, and ready to hear more about how the ‘small story’ comes out, given that we already know how the ‘big story’ ends (Spoiler alert: Persians lose.)
McLaughlin writes bringing a wide range of experience, both historical and literary upon hissubject. In an author’s note, he states, “I have been fascinated by all things ancient for as long as I can remember.” This fascination led in turns to sword and sandal stories and toy soldiers as a child, and deeper studies in histories and classics as a student in secondary schools and college, and subsequent work in both writing and game design.
He comes somewhat late, however, to writing about ancient subjects, having instead published two historical works, Battles of the American Civil War, and The Wild Geese, about Irish regiments in French and Spanish service, and one work of science fiction, Princess Ryan’s Star Marines. His projected works remain eclectic and include completion of the Throne of Darius series, and a novel about Confederate blockade runners
The early fascination and background coupled with the experience of human nature gained from nearly fifty years of free-lance journalism stand McLaughlin in good stead in imagining Dimitrios, and in telling us of his doings. He is able to write with style and to create a fascinating narrative that will keep the reader intrigued. I for one look forward to finding out how the story comes out, and can commend A Captain of Thebes to readers looking for a new take on a familiar subject.
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