I nearly passed this book up. I’m not a huge reader of historical fiction, and it didn’t quite seem my cup of tea. Then I saw this review from Kate at For Winter Nights, which immediately changed my mind. Kate is a veritable hist-fic hoover, who certainly knows her Assyrians from her elbow. She cites the Last King of Lydia as her best read of the year so far. It’s easy to see why.
Tim Leach has created a deceptively deep read. On the surface it’s a simple, readable work of historical fiction. Beneath that it’s a mediation on power, greed and happiness. Not to mention the futility of war.
‘A man who hates because he is told he should hate is a fool‘.
Leach puts these words in the mouth of a 5th Century BC ruler, yet I’m not sure I’ve read a more apposite phrase to sum up what’s wrong with modern society.
The novel opens with a man going to his death. Croesus, the eponymous Last King of Lydia. Defeated by Cyrus the King of Persia and sentenced to death on the pyre. As the smoke fills his lungs and the soles of his feet begin to burn, Croesus recalls a meeting with the philosopher Solon.
The first excellent thing about this book is that even if, like me, you’re an ancient history dunderhead, Leach eases you through it effortlessly. His story prompted many lines of inquiry that demanded further exploration outside of my reading time; it incites you to learn more. For example, I had no idea that the conversation with Solon was reputed to have happened, having been recorded by Herodutus, or that the Lydians are credited with the invention of coinage. I’ve learned a huge amount reading TLKoL.
The subject of the conversation with Solon is happiness. As the wealthiest man in the world, and ruler of the largest kingdom on Earth, Croesus is fairly convinced it’s him. Solon disagrees, stating that it can only be truly known that a man is happy by how he meet his death. This statement holds particular poignancy as we know Croseus is recalling this as he rests on his pyre.
The nature of happiness forms the backbone of the novel. Lots of interesting things happen; wars are fought, lives are saved, great wealth accumulated, and almost all of it is done because it makes a powerful man happy. Counterpoint to this is the attitude of Croesus’ slave, Isocrates, for whom happiness is ‘when nothing changes’.
The book is in essence about the selfish futility of power. Power is transient, fleeting when compared with the vast sea of history, yet rulers are prepared to condemn thousands to misery in the hope of gaining more and more of it. Croesus notes bitterly that the coinage bearing his family crest will last far longer than their kingdom. Power and accumulation for the sake of it rarely lead to happiness, only increased dissatisfaction.
The Last King of Lydia is a wonderful book. The story is a gripping tale of ancient kingdoms, yet its central theme should give warning to any contemporary world leader, or greedy corporate fat cat. As the novel progresses, Croseus comes to understand true happiness lies in the smaller things in life. His gradual epiphany gives the book an optimistic feel despite some of the story’s brutal realities.
Wholly satisfying from start to finish, Tim Leach has written a terrific novel that should appeal to all readers, regardless of whether they like historical fiction. 2013 has been a terrific year for books, and The Last King of Lydia deserves to sit right at the top of the pile.
Many Thanks to the team at Atlantic for sending me a copy of this book, and to Kate for tipping me off. If you are looking for some reading inspiration her blog is well worth following.