The House of the Eagle, by Duncan Sprott

A dynasty soaked in drunkenness and blood

Some stories open like flowers. We always knew what was enfolded in the bud, but we need to see the petals open and smell the scent, first of flowering and then decay. The acquisition of Egypt by the Ptolemies, the subject of Duncan Sprott's new historical sequence, is one such story. In three volumes' time, its end in the self-murder of the second queen Cleopatra will grow out of earlier incests, massacres and assassinations, like a rose or a syllogism. Sprott's are going to be novels in which process is all.

That includes the process of narration. Sprott provides us with a narrator who is certainly third-person, if not exactly omniscient. The Egyptian scribe god, Thrice-Great Thoth, has no great affection for these Greek interlopers, with their lies, sodomy and false gods. This is a story about spin, and much of what we are told about the dreadfulness of the Macedonians is a dishonest appeal to our sympathy.

There is nothing in our world that this Thoth would approve. He and his astrologer-priests talk as if the Ptolemies are a brief fever, after which the leisurely pace of Egyptian civilisation will resume. We know that to be a million miles from the truth.

So it is not clear whether the multiplying ironies of The House of the Eagle include the fact that the divine knower of most things is an unreliable narrator, and horribly deceived. This is a clever novel, but there are times when that cleverness is almost self-defeating. Thoth is parochial, a racist and a snob. We are not sure how far the author endorses his perception of ancient Greece and cultures that descend from it as mired in madness, drunkenness and blood.

The trouble is that the inwardness of Sprott's human characters is described, rather than felt. Thoth's characterisation of them is over-determined; most readers like to feel we have become acquainted with fictional people rather than read their dossiers.

Accordingly, Ptolemy, the dynasty's founder - years of blood-spilling aside - is a decent enough chap, who conscientiously works at being both Pharaoh and an enlightened Greek despot. He sets up the Library of Alexander even if he would never dream of unrolling a book. His wives are sinister: bland Euridice is ousted by her sexy aunt Berenice, and takes to black magic and too many honeycakes. His first son is accursed: Keraunos seduces his sister Arsinoe, and both are effectively disinherited. Thoth seems unsure whether guilt, or the Furies, makes both go from bad to worse.

This is a book in which destiny makes character, rather than the other way around: a fictional chronicle, rather than a novel as we have known them. The only three-dimensional character is the bird-headed, or ape-headed, fusspot narrator. The others stand on friezes in rows looking straight ahead. If, at times, our glance slides off them, that is the result of choices that Sprott has intelligently made.

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