An Oblique Approach by David Drake and Eric Flint
Published by Baen Books
Reviewed by Leigh Kimmel
One of the great strengths of Baen Books is its dedication to building the careers of its authors. Rather than just buy a bunch of first novels and put them out to live or die by their own devices, Baen buys works that show the promise of a long-term career, and then commit to their creators. One of the forms that long-term commitment takes is pairing new authors with established authors to write collaborations that will help bring the new author's name to the attention of a wider range of readers.
When Eric Flint published Mother of Demons, Jim Baen had a proposition for him: write a trilogy about the Byzantine general Belisarius in collaboration with David Drake, who had earlier helped boost the career of S. M. Stirling with the Raj Whitehall books, which were fundamentally the career of Belisarius retold In Space (not a new concept -- way back in the Foundation trilogy, Isaac Asimov had Bel Riose, a general who experienced pretty much the same pattern of success and betrayal by his own emperor which Belisarius had). This trilogy would be similar to the Raj Whitehall books in that Belisarius would have the assistance of an artificial mind, but unlike the lost battle computer Center, this one would not be helping him reconquer the fallen Western Roman Empire. That would be far too simple and obvious.
Instead, Belisarius would be fighting a menace out of the future: a computer sent back in time by future tyrants who were transforming the Indian subcontinent into a vast and powerful war machine that would conquer the entire world. In Drake's original draft, they were supposed to have been a cult worshipping the Indian equivalent to Mars, but Eric Flint was sufficiently familiar with actual Hindu traditions to be able to point out that, while there are strong parallels between the Vedic pantheon and those of Greece and Rome, the closest equivalent to Mars was never a major figure in the religion. Thus the background underwent a shift, and thus the Malwa Empire's Mahaveda priests began to take the form in which they would appear in the finished novel, a form the reader first sees in a terrible vision.
The story begins with the crystal lying in a cave, knowing only purpose. And then it was found by Michael the Hermit, a stylite searching for holiness in the isolation of the Syrian desert. In that moment of contact, he was thrown into a vision and during that moment purpose developed into a far greater and more complex being. And the monk resolves to take this mysterious entity to his bishop, for that holy man can certainly determine whether it be the work of God or of the Devil.
In the next scene we meet Belisarius himself, along with his wife Antonina, and learn a bit of their history, and particularly their relationship to the Emperor Justinian and his wife Theodosia. Belisarius is in Aleppo, a town which is even more familiar to contemporary readers than those of the time when this book was first published, at the close of the twentieth century. At the time in which the novel takes place, Aleppo was still part of the Eastern Roman Empire, a Christian city and the seat of the bishop Anthony Cassian. It is this man who has come along with the monk Michael of Macedonia to present Belisarius with an extraordinary message, in the form of a crystal.
As Belisarius accepts the mysterious little gem, he is flung into a vision of horror: the fall of Constantinople to the Malwa, an empire out of India that has conquered most of what we would call the Middle East by means of strangely advanced weapons of craftsmanship so alien it seems like occult lore to Belisarius as he tries to marshal a last-ditch defense of his city. But it is futile, and the most he can do is ensure that the Malwa will not gain the treasury of the Roman Empire, nor will they be able to humiliate and torture its fallen Emperor.
When Belisarius comes out of that vision, he is in shock. But only for a moment before it gives way to anger, directed at his wife. It is only by the intercession of both men of the cloth that he is persuaded to set aside the matter of his hidden stepson and his wife's mistrust for a later time and address the matter of the vision the jewel has brought, and the nature of the jewel. They come to the conclusion that it was no work of Satan, although it does not appear to be sent directly by God. But they feel sufficiently confident that it was sent by godly men to direct Belisarius and Antonina to settle the matter that lies between them.
And thus Belisarius sends some of his cataphracts to retrieve his stepson Photius and the young woman who had been caring for him. And while they are at it, they make short work of a rather nasty pimp who had scarred her up, and who had delivered Antonina a wound that made it impossible for her and Belisarius to have children together. They don't kill this particular lowlife, but perhaps it would've been kinder had they done so.
Meanwhile, there's the matter of the crystal and its visions of the future. All three men who have experienced this visions agree that they were seeing a future, but not one that is predestined. Rather, there is still a possibility that its horrors could be averted, that a new future could be made in which the Malwa and their monstrous hordes are defeated. But to do so, they must develop weapons to equal the terrible Malwa weapons Belisarius saw in his vision, and that means putting together a team of researchers that will proceed in a systematic way rather than aimless tinkering.
Not to mention the problem of having to keep the situation secret from the Emperor Justinian without violating his soldier's oath. The emperor is a capable man, perhaps one of the greatest to ever rule in Constantinople, but he is also meddlesome, suspicious to the point of paranoia, and a bit of a glory-hound. To let him in on the secret is to ensure that he will do nothing but cause trouble at every turn, and quite possibly pluck defeat from the jaws of victory. So it is necessary to use misdirection to make him see nothing.
That done, Belisarius has to stabilize the situation with the Persian Empire. He simply cannot afford to have his resources drained by the usual sparring on the border when a far greater evil is rising in the Indian subcontinent. To do that, he must first bring order to an army that has been allowed to fall into indiscipline, thanks to the corruption of the most senior officers. It's an ugly business that takes harsh measures, almost as hard as he is on the Persians, but he cannot afford weakness right now, not when the alternative is a horror of utter conquest.
That done, he gets some alarming news from his old friend Sittas, or rather his spymaster, the young and lovely Irene, who is operating under the cover of being his latest paramour. She confirms much of the information about India that Belisarius learned from the vision of the jewel, and then delivers even worse news. There is a trade delegation from the Malwa Empire in Constanople, and it is led by none less than Venandakatra, a man whom Belisarius learned to loathe and despise from his vision.
Irene's first instinct is to have the man assassinated. The nature of his cover restricts the retinue he can bring with him, so he is vulnerable -- but no, Belisarius will not hear of it. He's playing a far longer game: he needs a man as an ally, and the only way to gain the loyalty of Raghunath Rao must necessarily involve leaving the man known as The Vile alive for a time, long enough to make the connection.
But Constantinople is a dangerous place for Belisarius so long as Justinian is consumed with Nixonesque suspicion about everyone who might possibly pose a threat to him. So some other cover must be found for his return, and the presence of an Axumite embassy under the leadership of the king's second son Eon provides the perfect pretext -- particularly when they are going to be leaving quite soon, providing an excuse for Belisarius to accompany them home and sound them out as possible allies.
The Axumites are from a kingdom in Ethiopia, and have a very military-centric view of leadership. Their primary identification is the regiment or sarwe to which they belong. While other countries' sovereigns may have grandiose titles reflecting lands long lost to their rule or that they only wish they rule, the king of Axum is styled only in terms of the territories he actually rules over. And their envoy has been persistently snubbed by the perfumed courtiers of Constantinople, almost from the time they arrived.
However, Belisarius puts short work to some of Theodora's illusions about Proud Warrior Peoples. A career military man himself, he knows that the pride of such people is moderated by a strong element of practicality. And having a well-known Roman military leader head up the mission to their king will go a long way to reaching a common ground with them, not just because of the pride issue, but for the simple practical reason that he understands where they're coming from. And thus they meet the Axumites and learn some of their peculiar customs, including that of the dawazz, the slave who teaches a prince wisdom.
At this point we have a brief interlude, but not a pleasant one, in India. Specifically in Amavarati, which has fallen to the Malwa and now endures the horrors of a sack, which we see through the eyes of the lovely young Shakuntala. A name the alert reader will remember from the vision Belisarius received from the mysterious sapient jewel from the future.
When we return once again to Belisarius, he is making his final preparations for the journey. Certain plans must be finalized, and without giving too much away, particularly when they are going to be making the voyage on a Malwa ship.
It's a choice that gives them their first opportunity to see the mysterious Malwa weapons in action. Weapons that we the readers recognize as quite primitive in comparison to the firearms and missiles with which we are familiar, but which are so far ahead of anything their world knows as to be overwhelming in their power. Against a few Arab pirates in their dhows, it's almost like using a sledgehammer to swat a fly. But Belisarius can see the potential in what he is watching, and not just the danger it poses -- here is also opportunity to create comparable weapons of their own, to defend and ultimately to confront and destroy the enemy.
Having thus won the respect of the Malwa, Belisarius is able to secure private quarters for his entourage. Quarters in which he can reveal to them certain secrets without having to fear being overheard. Secrets they must know in order to carry out his plans, because he will be creating an appearance that would otherwise be quite alarming to them.
When they land at last in India, in one of the great port cities of the Malwa Empire, they see both the power and the cruelty of this new regime first-hand. But by this time Venandakatra has quite completely fallen for the ruse Belisarius has played, and thus unwittingly sabotages his own security arrangements on the beautiful Shakuntala, whom he is holding in his palace until he can ravish her. And thus is undone one of the first disastrous turning points of the future that Belisarius saw in his vision, and the possibility of a better future is opened.
Since this volume is the first in a six-volume series, it closes with an epilog made up of a number of brief scenes dealing with the major characters of the novel. In each of these scenes, we get both a status update on that character's current situation and insights into that character's inner life.
Review posted January 17, 2015.
Buy An Oblique Approach (Belisarius) from Amazon.com
An Oblique Approachhas been reprinted along with In the Heart of Darkness in the omnibus volume Belisarius I: Thunder at Dawn