A lot has been said regarding David Constantine's The Pillars of Hercules since the day the book was published, and a lot of it has not always been positive. In light of all this, I'm kind of glad that my full reading schedule and prior commitments prevented me from giving the novel an early read and review when the author first approached me. Indeed, going in with the knowledge of this work's supposed shortcomings allowed me to have a different mindset and probably permitted me to enjoy the novel more than I would have otherwise.
David Constantine is a new pseudonym for David J. Williams, science fiction author of the excellent The Mirrored Heavens, The Burning Skies, and The Machinery of Light. They felt that the change of genre and style warranted a change of pseudonym, which is understandable. You can visit David Constantine's official website here.
Here's the blurb:
Alexander, Prince of Macedon, is the terror of the world. Persia, Egypt, Athens . . . one after another, mighty nations are falling before the fearsome conqueror. Some say Alexander is actually the son of Zeus, king of the gods, and the living incarnation of Hercules himself. Worse yet, some say Alexander believes this . . . .
The ambitious prince is aided in his conquest by unstoppable war-machines based on the forbidden knowledge of his former tutor, the legendary scientist-mage known as Aristotle. Greek fire, mechanical golems, and gigantic siege--engines lay waste to Alexander's enemies as his armies march relentlessly west--toward the very edge of the world.
Beyond the Pillars of Hercules, past the gateway to the outer ocean, lies the rumored remnants of Atlantis: ancient artifacts of such tremendous power that they may be all that stands between Alexander and conquest of the entire world. Alexander desires that power for himself, but an unlikely band of fugitives--including a Gaulish barbarian, a cynical Greek archer, a cunning Persian princess, and a sorcerer's daughter--must find it first . . . before Alexander unleashes godlike forces that will shatter civilization.
The Pillars of Hercules is an epic adventure that captures the grandeur and mystery of the ancient world as it might have been, where science and magic are one and the same.
What virtually every reviewer has been complaining about has been David Constantine's narrative voice. And I agree that it is a problem. Not a deal breaker in and of itself, but it can be off-putting enough to kill what is essentially an entertaining tale for many a reader. David J. Williams is not the first genre writer to jump from science fiction to fantasy or vice versa. And chances are that he won't be the last. Trouble is, although he changed his name, the author did not adapt his style to the new genre he was writing in. Authors such as Stephen R. Donaldson, Orson Scott Card, L. E. Modesitt, jr., Tad Williams, and Richard Morgan have all jumped from one genre to the other during their career. And though their style remains their own, their narrative voice is inherently different depending on whether they are writing in the fantasy or the science fiction genres. Which is as it should be, of course. Problem is, Constantine wrote The Pillars of Hercules the way he wrote his three scifi yarns, thus ensuring that the novel doesn't read like a fantasy book.
As a result, the narrative is anachronistic and incongruous, and the same can be said of the dialogue. Since the action takes place in the Ancient World, the narrative and the dialogue must reflect that historical period of time, at least to a certain degree. Hence, expressions such as "going batshit" have no place in such a setting. To be honest, it's nothing major. But these little things add up, and I can see why a lot of readers and reviewers were not enamored with The Pillars of Hercules. Moreover, it's these little things that act as distractions, potentially annoying readers and getting in the way of a balls-to-the wall action story.
Labelled as A Saga of the Ancient World -- As it might have been, this combination of steampunk and Alexander the Great was quite intriguing. As far as I know, nothing like this had been done yet, making me curious to see how cool it was going to be. After conquering the Persian Empire and going all the way to Afghanistan, Alexander the Great returns to the West, his sights set on Athens. At the beginning, I have to admit that the addition of steampunk elements keeps you on your toes and makes The Pillars of Hercules a decidedly original read. Having said that, I'm afraid that David Constantine sort of fell too in love with such artifices and went over-the-top with their use, which at times almost became deus ex machina aspects of the various storylines. Hence, the more the story progresses, the more it becomes a concern.
The anachronistic and incongruous aspects of this work are never more evident than in the characterization, I'm afraid. Every single character sounds like a protagonist from The Wire or another bad-ass TV show, which has absolutely nothing to do with the historical period portrayed in the book. Eurydice, at times, sounds like she's in Jersey Shore. And that's what's likely the most off-putting facet of this novel. Every character's thoughts and words are straight out of the 21st century, or so it seems, when the action occurs against a specific historical backdrop where slang found in the urban dictionary should be unknown. This is especially true of all the sections featuring Lugorix and Matthias.
For all of that, the plotlines move at a breakneck pace for the better part of the novel. The short POV sequences make for a brisk rhythm and the story progresses rapidly. At times too fast for the reader to truly understand what is going on, actually. If you are familiar with David J. Williams' books, you are aware that he likes to keep the action coming, to keep readers on the edge of their seats. What worked extremely well for his science fiction novels didn't work as well in the fantasy genre, however. Too often are we left in the dark as to what exactly is supposed to be taking place, and only rarely are we treated to a bit of elaboration to help shine some light on the various storylines.
If you can overlook these flaws, Constantine's The Pillars of Hercules remains a fun and action-packed read. Probably the perfect book to bring along on vacation if you are looking for a light and entertaining read. It's akin to one of those big-budget Hollywood productions where lots of shit gets blown up. It will never win an Oscar or a Golden Globe award, but it's fun to watch.