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History and legends come alive with truly spectacular tales; As Meat Loves Salt. By Maria McCann (Flamingo pounds 14,99). Murder in the Forum. By Rosemary Rowe (Headline, pounds 17.99). Achilles. By Elizabeth Cook (Methuen, pounds 12.99). Reviewed by.

Byline: Stephen Harrison

Already currently resurgent, the writing of historical fiction has a new star. To the likes of present day practitioners such as, say, Allan Massie, Ross Leckie and Birmingham's Lindsey Davis must now be added Maria McCann.

Her first book, As Meat Loves Salt, can only be assessed as truly remarkable.

It is set in the mid-17th century brutality that was the English Civil War, whose savagery, religious bigotry, fanatical hatred - and, yet, yearning idealism on the part of the poor and dispossessed - form a constant counterpoint to the novel's story.

The peculiarly schismatic nature of civil war (a kind of family conflict writ terribly large) is echoed in that story. As its protagonist, Jacob Cullen, at one point surmises: 'These broken men. . . are everywhere. Who will gather them up and mend them?'

He himself is not merely broken - more irredeemably fissured. His family laid low in the social scale by debt and dodgy business dealings at the hands of its so-called betters, he shatters what little security he and his brothers have left by the callous murder of a youth he suspects is about to inform on their reading of seditious libertarian pamphlets.

Jacob is uncommonly strong, driven by inner voices, sexually voracious and intensely jealous. His strength and inability to stop himself from using it in pursuit of what he sees as his own ends find a ready home in the New Model Army.

But they spell disaster for him in his personal relationships. Brothers, bride (raped on their wedding night in a fit of envy) and male lover are all betrayed by Jacob's uncontrollable appetites and desire for tyranny over others.

The tale is depressingly dark but enlightened by McCann's mastery of her scene and subject.

She points to the human potential for good as well as evil in Christopher Ferris, Jacob's lover, who not only dreams of, but strives to bring about, a new order of society unscarred by false religion and one man's domination over another.

Part of that vision, at least, is shared by Jacob as he strolls near the primitively communist settlement they help set up: 'How wonderful, I thought, if a man could walk here and say, 'All this is ours, for we work it,' instead of 'This land all belongs to My Lord So and So!'

'Then we might stroll or dig or sits us down to rest with a fishing rod, and no-one to drive us off.'

McCann also writes with a seemingly uncanny ear for the cadences and phraseology of 17th century speech and with a wonderful eye for physical detail in this outstanding debut novel. I cannot wait for her second. This historical whodunnit fad shows no signs of dying out.

A number of authors are currently mining the rich seam of crime fictions centred on the character of a more or less amateur sleuth, and Rosemary Rowe has now brought out Murder at the Forum, the third in her series of mysteries set in Roman Britain.

Her Shamus is Libertus, a freed Celtic slave and mosaicist plying his trade in the Gloucester, or Glevum, of the second century AD.

He stumbles his rather confused way through the complications surrounding the sudden death at a banquet of a favourite of the Emperor Commodus, newly arrived in Britain.

Cheltenham-based Rowe, an academic who also writes other fiction as Rosemary Aitken, treats the reader along the way to much information on the mores of Roman Britain.

But as a newcomer to Libertus, I found it difficult to warm to either the man or his mechanistic methods of investigation.

He suffers by comparison with, say, the amusing antics of Lindsey Davis's Falco, the laid-back style of David Wishart's aristocratic Marcus Corvinus or the sheer intelligence of Steven

Achilles, a slim volume by Elizabeth Cook, is a strange but lovely beast.

In just 107 pages Cook - poet, fiction writer and academic - offers a fresh version of the many legends surrounding the Greek hero Achilles, son of the sea-nymph Thetis and the mortal King Peleus, who grew to choose a brief life of glory as the greatest warrior on earth rather than a long life of happy obscurity. Most aspects of the familiar tale are here.

Eschewing strict chronology, Cook dances across the years to relate, for example, the hero's upbringing by the centaur Chiron, his youth in girl's disguise on the isle of Scyros and his crucial contribution to the war against Troy - the quarrel with mighty Agamemnon, grief at the death of his beloved Patroclus and implacable revenge killing of the Trojan champion, Hector.

Remarkably, given the book's brevity, Cook also offers interpretations of others touched by Achilles - Thetis herself, for example, or Helen, the fabled beauty at the heart of the Trojan conflict.

Finally (and bizarrely but effectively) she rounds off the whole concoction (as a former editor of the works of John Keats) with a brief meditation on the Romantic poet's inner life which posits that all of us benighted humans are linked one to the other, across time and space.

Cook achieves all of this by dint of a prose style which is both compressed and imaginative.

Don't run away with the impression, though, that all of this is heavy going.

Cook laces her narration with a humour that brings out the human side.

Fellow Greek hero Ajax, for example, is shown as the proud but sorrowing bearer of Achilles to the top of his funeral pyre - and is said, in a wicked aside, to be hoping to acquire his comrade's armour.

Meanwhile, wronged husband Menelaus is pictured at the sack of Troy as he orders his troops from the room containing Helen - so he can stand there thinking to himself: 'Mine. She's mine.'

Cook's version of these splendid legends demonstrates anew their enduring power - and will, I suspect, live and linger in the mind.
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Title Annotation:Books
Publication:The Birmingham Post (England)
Date:Mar 24, 2001
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