An Oblique Approach
David Drake and Eric Flint
Baen Books, 1998, $4.00 or free via the Baen Free Library
For years my science fiction reading has been dwindling, under siege from several fronts. Ebooks have restored my ethusiasm. I’ve been dreaming of them ever since the tablet computers of Ender’s Game. (Perhaps I should re-read that next!)
Oblique is the first book I’ve read on an iPad (in iBooks), and it was a great experience. I particularly loved being able to look words up instantly and automatic bookmarking. I often read a couple pages on the iPhone, and the effortlessly continued where I left off on the iPad. Just fantastic!
I selected Oblique pretty much at random from the Baen free library, despite it’s hopelessly cheesy cover artwork and appallingly bad title font, slanted backwards (“oblique,” very clever). I have read some Drake before and enjoyed it, so that probably influenced me.
The book is 98% historical fantasy and 2% science fiction, but that wasn’t a disappointment to me: I like historical fantasy, and Oblique delivers an entertaining general’s eye view of 5th century Byzantium, as the Holy Roman Empire was starting to evolve into something quite different than the Rome we usually think of — a fascinating period. Belisarius is featured as the protagonist, making a real, complex and admirable character from the raw material of a famous historical figure. You know that history is being well-illuminated when you are reminded that people who lived long ago were intelligent and resourceful, and not generally “primitive,” except for the lack of iPhones.
The “oblique approach” refers to Belisarius’ knack for indirect, art-of-war style tactics and strategems, which are initially showcased in one of the best battle descriptions I have ever read, complex enough to be truly interesting, and yet still understandable and vividly visualized. Not to be missed if you like tales of infantry and cavalry and such.
The remainder of the story is devoted to a long journey to India to get a first hand look at a rising empire that threatens Byzantium, and many more of Beliasrius’ oblique strategies for defeating this new enemy before it can even think of marching on Rome. Again, complexity is achieved without sacrificing comprehensibility, and it’s generally an entertaining ride, with a lot more laughs than I would have expected going in (there are a couple of comic relief characters that reminded me of Pullo and Vorenus in HBO’s Rome series).
However, in the home stretch the book starts to romanticize the art of war stuff a little excessively, fluffing some characters up into super-heroic philosopher-warriors and striking a tone of myth and legend that I could have done without. Although mostly just good fun, there is one hyperbolic chapter where an assassin is compared to “the wind” and the metaphor is extended, irritatingly, for many pages: the wind did this, the wind did that, the wind slashed all their jugular veins while composing a poem, and so on and on.
The hyperbole got thick enough in the last few chapters that I started to lose interest. I finished happily enough, and I recommend the book to anyone who likes this sort of thing, but I would not choose to re-read (and I’m a re-reader).