When I'm not enjoying the delicious morsels of creativity that I find in fantasy novels, I happily settle for a good read in historical fiction. After all, writing historical fiction requires almost as much creativity, especially if one is writing about the time period of the setting in The House of Death by Paul Doherty. Figuring out how things went about in the Greek world in 334 BC is quite a task indeed, but Mr. Doherty plunges in and handles himself admirably. Let me tell you how, and why I enjoyed this book.
The House of Death is story of mystery that takes place in the camp of Alexander The Great as he prepares his campaign against King Darius III and his mighty Persian Empire. Weeks before Alexander marches his troops from the Hellespont, strange murders take place during a time when order and soldier morale are crucial. Alexander, always nervous about an assassination attempt on his life, calls upon his old childhood friend Telamon. The young king knows that Telamon, a physician, has the wit and integrity to possibly solve the mystery of these murders and ease his superstitious warriors.
So the story begins, a tale that brilliantly intertwines the multi-faceted tactics of war with the slow yet steady unraveling of an exciting whodunit. I appreciated Mr. Doherty's credible interpretation of ancient strategy, as he correctly describes how war is not only about the clash of sword and shield, but also a matter of well-spoken words and letters, gathering of information, and games of spy v.s spy. It's clear that the author did his homework on Alexander's genius tactics, as he takes the time to describe the king's infamous use of sarissas, foot Companions, and horsemen.
However, I never felt bogged down with too much detail, because this book is much more a mystery novel than a war story. Like the professional mystery writer that he is, Mr. Doherty successfully puts together a puzzling plot that is impossible to guess away. Telamon must solve more than a minor skirmish between individuals that lack real importance; his results in this dilemma directly decide whether or not Alexander can continue to change history or not. Hence, all of Telamon's actions come with a mood of urgency, which I myself felt as I swiftly flipped through the pages.
I admired how the author somehow manages to represent Telamon as a character unto himself, even beside the classical monster that is Alexander the Great. After all, many people who love history(like myself) would want to see how Mr. Doherty re-interprets a figure that is truly one of the most admired enigmas of all time. Therefore, I liked being able to see and hear much from the the Macedonian, though the world is never seen through his eyes. That honor is mainly reserved for Telamon himself, an introverted yet likeable individual who is able to see both Alexander's strengths and weaknesses. The author makes a Telamon that is not unrealistically pessimistic of Alexander's greatness, nor is he a fawning worshipper. This allowed me to look at Alexander, and other historical characters around him, in a way that is very fair and quite likely accurate to the original model.
Mr. Doherty makes his 4th century BC world seem more believable by the detailed descriptions of the sights, sounds, and smells of the times. He let me imagine foods such as "barley broth, pilchards, black pudding and roasted hare with fairly hard bread and unripe fruit looted from the local orchards." He tells of how uncomfortable it was under the Greek sun, where "a stiff sea breeze helped, though it also brought a sickly, sweet smell and wisps of black smoke from the funeral pyres blazing along the headlands."
When I read a book of Paul Doherty, I know that I'll learn more about history. At the same time, I don't have to worry about becoming bored. His books, like The House of Death, promise an intriguing story, accurate detail, and an entertaining plot line that rewards me in the end. I recommends this book to any historian or mystery lover, because this book will certainly please both sides.