The King and The Slave is the follow up to Tim Leach’s The Last King of Lydia, one of my favourite books of recent years. LKoL is very readable historical fiction based around the writings of Herodotus, and is a book with great depth and meaning. I’m always wary when reading follow ups to beloved novels. Often the sequels can only disappoint. So how does The King and The Slave compare?
I must confess, I didn’t quite enjoy it as much as LKoL, though I think to do so was almost impossible. I’d come to the first book without expectation and was taken completely by surprise by its brilliance. Once again, the events in this book were recorded by Herodotus. As historical fiction, the King and the Slave is highly readable, but I found it didn’t quite have the depth of the its predecessor.
I suspect this is due to the source material. At the centre of LKoL was Croseus’s discussion with Solon about the nature of happiness. Throughout the book there are questions of power, happiness and whether one can lead to the other. Leach was further aided by depicting Cyrus the Great, a compassionate and thinking leader, whose philosophical conversations with Croseus added much to the book.
This book opens with the death of Cyrus and the ascension to the throne of his son Cambyses. Immediately Croseus is pushed to the periphery of the court, so he is less influential in the story, but worse, from the point of view of subtlety and nuance, Cambyses is as mad as a hat box full of frogs.
In place of subtle discourse, we have atrocities perpetrated by an insecure monarch out of control. Cambyses decisions are driven by a desire to step out of his father’s shadow. In an attempt to show his strength he becomes a brutal dictator. As he works to expand his empire Cambyses is uncaring of friend and foe alike.
There are some truly horrific passages in The King and the Slave. It makes for brutal reading. Cambyses’s indifference to loss of life made me feel queasy. Croseus tires to mitigate his new master’s actions but with little effect. Leach portrays Cambyses as an ancient equivalent of Stalin, with meaningless purges and subordinates terrified to offer advice. It’s an interesting take on ancient leaders; I’m much more used to seeing twentieth century leaders depicted in this way. It ties in with one of the themes of LKoL. The idea that humanity has changed very little in the 2500 years.
Introspection can be found in the novel, not in the discourse between king and slave, but in the friendship of a triumvirate of slaves, Croseus, Isocrates and his wife Maia. Their relationship is subtle, complex, almost unfathomable, but forms the core that holds up both books, particularly tKatS. Through these three Leach explores the nature of love and sacrifice.
The final chapters of this book elevate it towards the same heights as its predecessor. Delicate and emotive they even open up the title of the novel to interpretation. Who is slave and who is king? Leach offers several alternative candidates for both. The Croseus novels examine the power of myth and the myth of power. They analyse the mutability of history and the seductive nature of a good story. History might be written by the victors, but it’s not always easy to tell who has won. With The King and the Slave, Tim Leach has once again delivered top notch historical fiction.
Many Thanks to Alison at Atlantic for sending me a copy of this book.