Arcanum – Simon Morden

About the Book

Rome was the center of the most powerful empire the world had ever seen, but that didn’t stop it falling to Alaric the Goth, his horde of barbarian tribesmen and their wild spell-casting shamans. Having split the walls with their sorcery and slaughtered the inhabitants with their axes, the victors carved up the empire into a series of bickering states which were never more than an insult away from war.

A thousand years later, and Europe has become an almost civilized place. The rulers of the old Roman palatinates confine their warfare to the short summer months, trade flourishes along the rivers and roads, and farming has become less back-breaking, all due to the magic, bestowed by gods, that infuses daily life.Even the barbarians’ gods have been tamed: where once human sacrifices poured their blood onto the ground, there are parties and picnics, drinking and singing, fit for decent people and their children.But it looks like the gods are going to have the last laugh before they slip quietly into ill-remembered obscurity.

784 pages (Paperback)
Published on January 28, 2014
Published by Orbit
Author’s webpage

This book was sent for me to review by the publisher.

I love alternative history, but alternative history books either thrive or fail for me. The one quality of an alternative history book that almost always makes it thrive is plausibility. The writer can’t just tell a good yarn, (s)he also needs to be able to fit this yarn in a world I recognize, and make me think, “hmm… I could picture that fitting into history.”

Another difficulty? The author needs to sell their history to the reader, and make the reader buy said history. That’s not an easy thing to do. When you are taking well-known, often romanticized period of time, and infusing it with magic, that task is even harder.

Thankfully, that’s not a problem that Morden has. I often face the issue of the Middle Ages being a bit too romanticized for believability. There is no discussion in many books about people with no teeth, dead teeth, dying teeth (sorry for my tooth obsession), body odor (seriously, can you imagine how bad people must have smelled back then?), horrible illnesses, and limbs being cut off from infection. These are details that many authors leave out. The brutal truth is, this period of time is dirty, dusty, infected and disgusting. People lived short lives. Kids became kings and kings were manipulated. A dirty cut got a finger cut off. Women had almost no rights. While Morden doesn’t make a spectacle of these things, they are present in Arcanum, in passing observations and background noise, mostly. However, it is these small details that make the time period so believable and alive. These details give the book an added level of plausibility, depth, and interest that really makes Arcanum thrive.

Mixed into these very real struggles are a host of characters mostly circling around one specific magic-infused city. The main plot point, what if the magic is lost, reminds me a lot of a plot circling around, ‘what if we suddenly all lost electricity?’ The struggles are much the same, though the time period and location makes it a bit more interesting. Mixed into this stew are ideas that are different, arcane, and a bit more historical (for lack of a better term) than ours. Morden does a great job at blending advanced ideas with the ideas that would be common in the Middle Ages. The interesting thing is, in this book, despite the historical setting and period, many of their ideas regarding magic are pretty advanced, but many of their social ideas are very, well, historical. That creates a fascinating mix of “back then” and “wow, that’s a pretty interesting idea” throughout the novel, and Morden mixes it all so very well.

Morden’s writing style makes it pretty easy to sink into this heady stew of ideas and history. The location comes alive and the characters are all real, and realistically flawed. The ideas and the situations are reasonably dealt with when put into context with the social norms of the time. Morden even touches on some harsher, more uncomfortable issues, like the treatment of Jews (which, historically, has always been pretty abysmal), the treatment of women, and the manipulation of the powerful. In fact, it is quite amazing to see how he uses his small cast of primary perspective characters to affect such an epic plot.

That being said, Arcanum is surprisingly long, and occasionally I felt like there was a bit too much fat that could have been trimmed in the editing process. Some scenes go on too long, which makes this book feel like it is longer than it really is. While it is all quite fascinating, a lot of the side plots, side stories, and character perspectives suffered a bit from bloat. And, like all books with multiple perspectives, some will be more interesting to others, and unfortunately, one of the less interesting ones gets quite a bit of stage time. While he does get more interesting as the book goes on, it takes time to get him to move that direction.

Arcanum is an interesting contrast of elements. It’s historical, but it is also, in many ways, cutting edge. It is epic, but the world the book deals with is actually surprisingly small and contained. There are forays into other places, discussions with, and about, other people. History is referenced and there are situations that arise that we all recognize, but by and large, the book focuses on one specific area, with a few specific characters. This novel is a slow burn, which is usually something that my interest level struggles with, but due to the unique bend of history, I found this slow burn to be interesting despite myself. Some of the characters are more interesting than others, but the situations, ideas, and world is interesting enough to make up for them. My biggest complaint, as I said above, is the fact that this book felt a bit too bloated for what it contains.

So what is my final verdict?

Arcanum is the kind of historical fantasy that makes me love historical fantasy. While I loved the book overall, the even blend of positives and negatives made it incredibly palatable. The small world contains an epic story that shows how a small group of people can make a huge impact. Morden deals with a lot of uncomfortable situations with poise and ease. He really brings this dark time period to life, and makes me wish that I could climb up a mountain and find a unicorn. No matter what a book suffers from, that’s the best compliment I could give it. Arcanum makes me want to live in that enchanted world. Arcanum made me hungry. I want more.


4/5 stars

8 Responses

  • I wonder how this compares to Jacqueline Carey’s novels, which use alternate history and alternate polities on the European continent.

    • Very, very different. Alternative history, but worlds away from each other in execution.

  • Intriguing, Orbit keeps popping up on my radar with good looking fantasy books, so now I’ve added another to the list! The only trouble being that they take twice as long to get through since they always seem to be hefty haha.

    • Orbit is one of my favorite publishers. I almost always love everything they publish.

  • Huh… I remember looking at it briefly and I assumed it was like what Paul Hoffman did with his Left Hand of God trilogy. Didn’t realize this was an alternate history. I’m going to have to look into it more thoroughly now.

    • Give it a try. I loved it, but not every shoe fits every foot…

      • Honestly, I loved the Left Hand of God series. But all the mixed names taken from real history and geography and used somewhat randomly for a fictional world got really annoying by the time I finished it. It wasn’t enough to ruin it for me completely, but it did spoil it somewhat. When I glanced through Arcanum initially I thought it was doing the same thing, and without knowing if I would love it I wasn’t willing to go through it again.

        But alternate history is a different matter entirely. I’m not sure where I’ll fit this book in, because come early March there is a slew of books I’m REALLY looking forward to coming out (1-3 per month) until the end of the year. I’ll try to read Arcanum in between when I’m reading all the others.

  • This was such a great review and really made me want to read the book. I haven’t delved too far into alternative histories, but since I am a big fan of historical fiction and fantasy, it seems like a pretty obvious next step. Thanks for posting about it!

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