Mike Aquilina

Driven a Ford Lately?

Friday January 02nd 2009, 11:38 am

You scoundrels! How could you?

Through all my whining about the need for good fiction set in the patristic era, not one of you raised a voice to tell me about the novels of Michael Curtis Ford.

Maybe I can be excused because I live in a cave. But can you? These works are out from a major press, and they bear jacket blurbs from the likes of Victor Davis Hanson, James Brady, and even Newt Gingrich.

Just yesterday I finished Gods and Legions: A Novel of the Roman Empire. It’s a fictional treatment of the rise and fall of Julian the Apostate. And — get this — it’s narrated by St. Caesarius of Nazianzus, the brother of St. Gregory (whose feast we celebrate today). Gregory plays a starring role himself, launching the book with a letter to Pope Siricius.

Maybe patristics nerds miss Michael Ford’s works because they’re marketed as military fiction — and this one at least is an excellent example of the genre. I’m sure you’ve often wondered what it was like for Roman cavalry, on horses, to face off against their Persian counterpart, on elephants. Wonder no more. Read Gods and Legions. You’ll feel the fear of riding a panicked mount as it faces a bull elephant in full rush, topped by a tower of archers. I’m relatively ignorant of military terms and tactics, but Ford’s descriptions carried me along without ever bogging down in explanation. That’s no easy feat when a fourth-century narrator is describing siege machines that were quite familiar to terrorized cities back then, but are largely unknown to you and me.

Gods and Legions is military fiction, but theologically well informed. No, that’s an understatement. The theology is so important to the drama of this book that it can hardly be called a subplot. It’s the plot (which I won’t spoil by telling you why), every bit as essential as the battles. The main characters verbally spar over Trinitarian theology and employ eucharistic analogies at least as often as I do, and they invoke all your faves, from Irenaeus through Athanasius.

This book is an excellent companion to Adrian Murdoch‘s biography The Last Pagan: Julian the Apostate and the Death of the Ancient World, which I reviewed here.

I’m ordering Ford’s The Sword of Attila: A Novel of the Last Years of Rome, looking forward to a glimpse of Leo the Great. I’ll report to you afterward. You order his other novels, and let me know what you think.