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Spadina Literary Review  —  edition 4 page 19


When we finally do reach the Arab part, around page 300, Holland gives the Arabs the rush treatment — like, what’s your hurry, here’s your keffiyeh. Characters and events become sketchier. It is impossible to keep the names and factions straight as they chase across the desert, scimitars flashing. The conquests of Syria, Palestine, Egypt, Iraq, Iran, happen in a blur. There is scarcely a word about North Africa and Spain where the fearsome Visigoths turned out to be easy pickings.

I was surprised that Holland short-changed me like that on the conquests, since generally he is obligingly entertaining if you're the sort of person who likes anecdotes about sadistic methods of killing people.

My unforgettable favourite is when the Persian emperor Khusrow arrests the prophet Mazdak who was promoting a type of communistic movement. Khusrow has Mazdak's followers buried head-first in the royal gardens, so that only their legs stick out, then he invites Mazdak to stroll thru the flower beds.

Or maybe the most gruesome tale is when an Abbasid caliph kills the last survivors of the ousted Umayyad Dynasty, then throws a carpet over their bodies and uses them for a banquet table, the death-rattle still sounding in their throats as the feast goes on.

Okay. Enough of that. Holland sometimes indicates these anecdotes may be no more than ancient tall tales, but he retails them to us just the same because, I guess, deep down that’s what he’s really all about. Before he wrote history, Tom Holland wrote horror novels; only in the last fifteen years has he transitioned from vampires to empires.

One thing that rubs me the wrong way is Holland's archness of tone. I'd bet he picked it up from Edward Gibbon, 18th-century author of The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, grand-daddy of all decline-and-fall narratives, whose general outlook is that history is a record of human cupidity, venality, and folly.

At the same time Holland's particular inflection of that tone contains a very modern irony for it counts on you the reader feeling that, for example, people long ago who experienced visions were actually crazy by modern standards, and simultaneously feeling obliged to suspend your critical opinions for reasons of politically-correct open-mindedness because — who knows? — can anyone really prove that there isn’t an angel Gabriel?