Monday, November 11, 2013

W45: Darkness and Dawn

This week’s Biblio-Mat book came out with the heavy thunk that was usually accompanied by the sight of a textbook but instead out dropped a work of drama… that was loosely based off of textbooks.

Finally, a good piece of fict- Oh.
Dawn and Darkness was a small book but a lot thicker than it appeared to be. At 594 thin pages, it fell on the longer side of Bibio-Mat books but at least it looked impressive. With a navy clothbound cover, gold foil embossing, and gilding on the top edge, it had a regal vibe to it that, if nothing else, will at least make my bookshelf look more sophisticated. The interior pages were so thin they showed a bit of the text from the other side and the first quarter of the pages had heavy foxing, though, which was unfortunate but not surprising for a book of this age. Written by F. W. Farrar and printed in 1892, this particular edition had a book plate from the Manchester Diocesan Board of Education stating that it was part of an annual prize awarded for teachers of religious knowledge in 1891.

Curious to know what the other parts of this prize was.
Despite the length, Darkness and Dawn was a fast read. It was a re-imagining of various scenes of the life of Nero from ascension to pitiful death and all the misery in between, which made for an entertaining book for people who are amused by chaos and despair. Needless to say, I loved it. The preface stated that the author researched the life of Nero intensively and used surviving knowledge of the emperor as the framework to his story to make it as accurate as possible, but it actually read more like a fantasy novel than history book. What was missing, though, were illustrations and etchings that seemed to go hand in hand with books of this nature from the 1800’s.

The foxing, though, did fill every other page with abstract art.
The most interesting aspect, though, came at the beginning of each chapter where Farrar opened with a quote or reference from other works that related to the chapter. These snippets were presented in their original languages and usually followed with a translation below, which set the tone well for the chapter.

The tone was pretty much hatred in every chapter.
For those not familiar with Roman history, Nero was the emperor probably most known for fiddling while Rome burned. This, of course, was an exaggeration as he simply lounged around fawning over the flames and singing odes to the fire but never actually picked up any instruments. Regarded as a cruel and tyrannical emperor that offed anyone that looked at him funny, he is often overshadowed by his uncle Caligula, mainly because Tinto Brass never made a film about him.

Cruel? Maybe. Fabulous? Definitely.
The book begins with Nero coming to power through the death of his great-uncle Claudius, who was also his stepfather (it was a different time). From the first few pages he was already painted as a spoiled brat that looked down on everyone, including said uncle, and spent his time scheming and tormenting others.  However, it played out in this version that his mother was the one who poisoned Claudius so that Nero could replace him on the throne. The plotting and execution was quite well written and read better than most thrillers today, especially since there were a lot of throwbacks to the beginning at the end that made the small details much more significant.

The following chapters depicted various scenes of Nero’s reign. While a good chunk of it centered around his half-brother Britannicus and his half-sister Octavia, who was also his wife (it was a very different time), much of the book followed the struggle of power between the Tolkien-level ensemble of characters and showcased the sheer amount of deceit and backstabbing in Roman politics.

Cause modern politics is so clean.
Funny enough, for the infamous great fire scene, Nero was presented almost as a sympathetic figure. Sure, he enjoyed seeing the city in flames and was fascinated by the inferno, but the citizen’s accusation of him being the one who set the fire felt like a witch-hunt that targeted a naïve boy who just happened to have a borderline sexual fixation on bright red and yellow colours.

Weaving countless storylines together, the book drew on a lot of imagined interactions that paid off in real events. As this was based on real life, there were a lot of deaths as none of the characters could be rescued from the history books. What resulted was an intricate tale of plotting, power struggles, incest, murders, royal schemes, and vengeance. I half expected a crazy blonde girl to show up at the end with three dragons since this might as well have been Game of Thrones without the Starks. Seriously, Nero was pretty much this kid:

Admit it, you can't wait to see him die.

Book rating: 8.5/10 (If all history books were written like this there would be a lot less sleeping at school)

Random quote: “They began to dig the grave, and he whined out, ‘Oh. What an artist to perish! What and artist to perish!’” (I’m determined to use this at least once in my lifetime)

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