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1. The Book's Commercial Fate

It is a rare book that pleases both young adults and adults for 3 generations and across many borders. This book has done that! It has been continuously in print in several East European languages (Polish, Czech, Slovak) since 1946. But, because of the Iron Curtain, it has never been published in the rotten capitalist west. Sad.

Until now. :)

2. Similar books

Because of its terse, laconic style; its fast plot; its fun characters; its sense of humor; and, above all, its historical accuracy, this book has never gone out of print for 80 years and is on the high school required reading in several countries in Eastern Europe.

I hate books like those of Wilbur Smith, in which Ramses II rides a camel (there were no camels in Africa in the times of Ramses II) and has a sister named Cleopatra (Cleopatra is a Greek name). None of that here. Like J. R. Tolkien, the author was a scholar who read Latin and Greek and really understood the milieu. He knew what he was doing. This book deserves to stand side by side with The Treasure Island and The Three Musketeers: it tells you how things were. And, btw, if you liked those books, you will like this.

3. Plot

Carthage, 570 BC. Nehurabhed, an elderly Zoroastrian priest (a worshiper of the One and Only Just God) is in the diplomatic service of the king of Media.

He serves as a secret emissary of his king and is detained in Carthage under house arrest. He manages to escape and continue his mission: to Sicily, then Greece, then Egypt. All along the way, he is hunted by the Carthaginian navy, her secret agents and assassins, and, eventually, by the whole state apparatus of Eternal Egypt. He is chased at sea, attacked by in Syracuse, kidnapped on a ship in Taranto, chased by wolves in Epirus, and hunted by the Egyptian government on the Nile. He survives all these close scrapes by his wits, the occasional assistance of several Greek allies, and by the courage and energy of his young apprentice, a Greek teenage sailor, Melicles.

His diplomatic mission... fails. Civil unrest breaks out in Egypt, and following it, a war between Egypt and the Greek colony of Cyrene, as described by Herodotus (which Cyrene wins, leading eventually to a regime change in Egypt).

4. Twists and turns 

In the course of the novel, several twists happen.

1) A hunchback potter narrates the story of how he was to be destroyed in his native Sparta (Sparta practiced eugenics), but his mother escaped with him in her arms the night before and carried him to safety.

2) The hero ("Nehurabhed") escapes from a ship on which he is imprisoned by eating crayfish, which give him an allergic reaction, and which he pretends is smallpox, thereby forcing the crew to maroon him.

3) In Heraklion, on the island of Crete, his apprentice helps the galley slaves on a slave ship to take over the ship and escape to sea while its captain and most sailors are kept distracted onshore

4) In Egypt, he saves a Greek friend who is sentenced to death for blasphemy. The Greek is to be executed by devouring (by the sacred crocodile of the Egyptian god Sobek). Nehurabhed offers the "god" a poisoned goose the night before.

5. The reading experience

The style is fast and terse, but here are some phrases other reviewers found touching:

“Only one thing was shameful in a storyteller, and that was when he was boring, unable to frighten or delight his audience."

"The immeasurable depth of the sea beneath your feet; the immeasurable depth of heavens above your head. A gust of wind hardly moved the sail. The dark masses of water shifted like a great slithering beast under the boat, rocking it softly, gently."

"Can any mountains be higher than this?"
“Oh, yes, Melicles – clouds cannot even reach their peaks because they become entangled in the black forests at their feet. And above that point, there are only naked rocks, inaccessible to humans – only eagles dare penetrate that stone desert world. Great freezing winds blow at those heights, and on a clear day, you can see snow blowing off their peaks in great gales. (...) Then, after some time, he added quietly: My home is there."

"Memphis: the immemorial capital of Egypt. The holy city of gods – and of its kings, gods’ equals. A city as ancient as the Nile and as the desert sand, and as ancient as the never-ending struggle between the life-giving river and the death-dealing wasteland."


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