A while ago I was contacted by Hamilton’s agent (Lauren Beukes’ agent, too), and he asked me if I would review House of War. Now, I knew it wasn’t SFF, but when I checked out Hamilton’s website and saw the write-ups he had received (from Bryce Courtenay and one from Steven Pressfield), I knew I had to read the book, if only to see whether such praise was earned, and it is: believe Bryce and Steven (and now, me) – this is an extraordinary novel.
House of War is, at heart, the story of finding your humanity amidst the brutality of life. The story unfolds, primarily, from the view point of the main character, an archaeologist named Sebastian. Sebastian is trying to find the lost Royal Diaries of Alexander the Great, and believes that they may be found at the ruins of a temple deep in Afghanistan. To get there, Sebastian enlists the help of a news crew, including Claire, a conflicted journalist with ties to the US Intelligence community, and Abdulov, who had once served the cause of communism in the Cold War.
I really enjoyed this novel, even though its not the kind of book I usually read – House of War managed to keep its hold on me, even though I’m still busy with Stephen King’s Under the Dome, and that’s saying something!
But why did I enjoy it so much? Well, for one thing, Hamilton creates vivid and wonderful characters. In Sebastian, we meet that guy who is usually quiet and reserved, who doesn’t reveal too much of himself, but who becomes animated when talking about what he loves. We all know someone like Sebastian, someone who seems alone, who holds himself apart from others, and it is discovering the real Sebastian that makes the journey worth-while. Hamilton leads your thoughts of Sebastian down one path, only to surprise you at the end with the real Sebastian.
Claire, the journalist, was another great character, although, in my opinion, she fell off to to the wayside a bit when put up against Abdulov; he turned out to be as well-rounded a character as Sebastian is, and it seemed to me as if Claire could have used a bit more meat. I’m not saying Claire was a weak character, far from it – as she is, she was just the right kind of person for Sebastian to feel some kind of connection to.
Another aspect of the tale that I really enjoyed was how the tale unfolds – the flashbacks focusing on Alexander give us a glimpse into a man we will never really know, no matter how much evidence of his existence is found. Hamilton uses the facts we do know and reflects on what may have driven the man to become the greatest conqueror the world has ever known, and shows us that, when all is said and done, that we must not forget that Alexander was just a man; granted, there are men and then there are men, but Alexander wasn’t portrayed as some god-like or god-birthed being, which serves to ground his tale in our world. I also (I have to admit this) got flashes of Oliver Stone’s movie about Alexander while reading specific passages, but Hamilton wrote these passages so well that I have no doubt he got most of the facts right, more so than Oliver Stone did, and his writing helped me to p
ut in the correct order those events he touches upon.
Now I come to the aspect of the novel that really took me by surprise – the settings. The tale takes us to Rhodesia, setting the scene for the Zimbabwe that we all now know, to certain locations in the USA, and shows us the heart of Afghanistan, and it is these settings that really speak to the power of Hamilton’s vision. Sure, authors worth their salt must be able to convincingly describe a location so that we know where we are and don’t doubt, but Hamilton gives us glimpses into the spirit of these places, those under-currents that make each place unique. I’ve never been to the Middle East, but I know now not to expect the place we see on TV. The same counts for Zimbabwe – after reading House of War, your ideas of these places will mature, and you’ll realize just how sad the respective situations are.
These are among the strengths of a good story-teller – the ability to create vivid, memorable characters that remind you of yourself, so that we can, for the length of the reading, live through them in the locations in the story; and the vision to create locations that will ground those characters, and test them, show them who they really are. After all, a place has its own spirit, its own sense of self, and this is what makes the cultures that call that place home.
Hamilton does all this and more, so you can be assured that you’ll be in for not just a memorable tale, but a deeply personal journey to lands alien to most of us.
I don’t hesitate in giving this book a 9 / 10, and I’m sure you’ll agree. Hamilton has proved that he’s a talent to be admired and enjoyed, with lyrical and emotional prose and a deeply personal involvement in the characters and places he uses to tell his tales.
Here is also an interview with Hamilton.
House of War is published by Penguin Books SA.