I can’t believe I’m leaving the first review here, as The New Achilles is arguably Cameron’s best work of historical fiction to date. In 2009, it seemed like Cameron was aiming to surpass Bernard Cornwell as the best writer of popular, military themed historical fiction. But he blew past that milestone years ago and broadened his horizons, to the point where I feel no discomfort mentioning The New Achilles in the same breath as Mary Renault, Dorothy Dunnett and Sharon Kay Penman.
What do you need to know? For those unfamiliar with Christian Cameron’s oeuvre (apologies, but how often do you get a chance to use oeuvre in a sentence?), he has a signature style: a mix of captivating fight sequences—from wrestling practice to vast, chaotic battles—with high stakes intrigue, politicking, and social maneuvering. Oh, and plenty of low stakes social interaction, too; I can’t think of anyone in the genre who depicts friendship as well as Cameron does. Let me put it like this: Christian Cameron is an author who writes better fight scenes than Bernard Cornwell, and with each new release his banquets come closer and closer to Dorothy Dunnett quality, but he is nevertheless at his best when he’s writing about his characters just hanging out and shooting the breeze.
All of this takes place against the backdrop of a brilliantly rendered setting that manages to be full of little historical details without ever becoming tedious. Unlike many authors who fall into the trap of frontloading their worldbuilding, Cameron introduces this stuff organically—you get a real sense for the period (in this case the late third century BC), but you never feel like you’re sitting through a college lecture.
I didn’t set out to write a panegyric here, but one last point before I get to, you know, the actual book in question. I love the way Cameron conveys the sense of inspiration, how there are moments when his characters just know exactly how to say or do the perfect thing—whether it’s the perfect spear thrust or the perfect barbed comment or the perfect surgical procedure. He really captures that almost out of body sensation. And then two pages later those same characters will push themselves too hard and start making boneheaded mistakes. Makes them feel real.
With that out of the way, how is The New Achilles? Well, for starters, it’s somewhat of a departure for Cameron. The New Achilles takes place over more than a decade, during a period in the late 3rd century BC that’s roughly contemporaneous with the second Punic war. But Cameron takes the road less traveled here. In The New Achilles, we meet only a single Roman, a former soldier sold off as a slave by Hannibal. This book takes place in Greece, mostly the backwater regions of Arkadia and Crete, with a few pit stops at Athens and Pella. This is a world in turmoil, as the kingdoms of Alexander the Great’s successors continue to fight among themselves for dominance, while confederations of Greek city states desperately try to play them off against each other in order to maintain their independence. For the Greeks, though, there is a palpable sense that they live in the ruins of a civilization built by better men, that their best years are behind them, that the age of democracy long ago gave way to the age of autocrats and oligarchs. In short, the Aegean of The New Achilles is very different from the Aegean of Cameron’s earlier series, set during the Persian wars and the wars of the Diadochi.
Alexanor, the protagonist, is also not strictly speaking a warrior by trade, like the heroes of Cameron’s other novels. Instead, he’s a veteran of the Rhodian marines suffering from PTSD who joins the priesthood of Asklepios—making him both a priest and a doctor. While serving as an initiate, he saves the life of Philopoemen of Megalopolis, the New Achilles of the title. A magnificent warrior, talented commander and aspiring crusader for radical democracy, Philopoemen is very much the hero of the story. Alexanor falls in with Philopoemen and his fellow Megapolitan exiles at the beginning of the Aetolian War (The Aetolian League in north-central Greece allied with Sparta in the Peloponnese versus Macedon and The Achaean League in Arkadia).
Philopoemen’s stunning success in battle alienates the leaders of the Achaean league. As a citizen of Megalopolis, he refuses to serve the king of Macedon. Eventually, he’s given a chance to lead an expedition to Crete, at the same time that Alexanor gets himself appointed high priest of the temple at Lissos, also on Crete (you may want to google it—the ruins still have some cool mosaics).
There they become involved in a local proxy war between Macedon and the Aetolian League. Though Alexanor is a doctor and a priest, he still ends up doing his fair share of fighting. That said, while Alexanor is a compelling character who has his own story, full of romance, family drama, and religious politics, he’s mostly exposed to the major events of the period through his friendship with Philopoemen, who ultimately ends up restoring (radical) democracy in the city of Gortyna and leading it in the war against neighboring Knossos (and the Aetolians along with their Spartan and Rhodian allies).
Philopoemen is very much a larger than life figure. Raised by a pair of philosopher-tyrannicides (according to Plutarch they killed or otherwise removed tyrants from Megalopolis, Sicyon, and Cyrene), Philopoemen was a great warrior, a great general (he finally destroyed a resurgent Sparta, although presumably this happens in the next book, or, hopefully, in further additions to the series), and a great champion of democracy at a time when most of the Mediterranean world was dominated by oligarchs and powerful kings. Philopoemen’s struggle has some contemporary relevance if you believe that unchecked wealth can have a corrosive influence on political freedom, although Cameron doesn’t beat you over the head with it.
This is a relatively obscure period if you don’t have an aggressive interest in the classics, and I think that makes for a much better story. When Cameron writes about Marathon or Plataea or Potiers, I have some sense of where the story is going. But the wars of the Achaean League? This stuff is relatively new to me and it adds a lot more suspense.
It’s getting late and I’m starting to run out of steam. So the quick TL;DR: if you like historical fiction, especially in Ancient Greece or Rome, you should buy The New Achilles. If you like Mary Renault, Dorothy Dunnett or Bernard Cornwell (admittedly one of these things is not quite like the others), buy The New Achilles. And if you like Christian Cameron’s novels, what are you even doing—why haven’t you bought The New Achilles already?
- Hardcover: 400 pages
- Publisher: Orion; 1 edition (18 April 2019)
- Language: English
- ISBN-10: 1409176568
- ISBN-13: 978-1409176565
- Product Dimensions: 16.2 x 3.8 x 24.1 cm
- Boxed-product Weight: 540 g
- Customer Reviews: Be the first to review this item
- Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 116,882 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)