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Tirnanog's Review of Rebecca Neason's Shadow of Obsession

Shadow of Obsession 
book cover I have mixed feelings about Shadow of Obsession, the first of the Highlander novels which features my favorite character, Darius. On the one hand, I was pleased to find that a lot of it is devoted to the early history of Darius and to his friendship with Duncan which began at Waterloo and continued for almost 200 years. This is what I had always wished for in the television series but could never have, because the tragic death of Werner Stocker at the end of the first season ended any possibility of Darius flashbacks. I thought Rebecca's portrayal of Darius in the book was believable and true to the Darius we know in the series, and also gave us new insights into the character. Rebecca obviously did quite a lot of research for the book, as the story jumps from modern-day Sudan to Belgium during the Napoleonic Wars, to 5th century Italy and Gaul during the Visigothic invasion of the Western Roman Empire, and back again. The addition of historic details adds interest to the story, although she does make some significant errors in regard to the history of the Visigoths, which I will mention later.

But I was quite disappointed in the way she chose to link the flashbacks to the present and tie all the threads of the story together. I can understand why she wanted the book to relate to Band of Brothers, the episode which first introduced Darius, set forth his legend, and defined his relationship with Duncan. (For more information about the episode, read my review). But it seems to me somewhat redundant to have the plot revolve around a character who is essentially a female version of Grayson, the villain in Band of Brothers, with overtones of Kristin and Cassandra, two obsessive, vengeful female characters from the television series. When I first saw the announcement for the book, I actually thought it was about Grayson's obsession with destroying Darius, but found instead the title refers to Callestina, a pre-Immortal Goth woman who initiates a sexual relationship with Darius and then spends the rest of her Immortal life trying to take revenge on him after he loses interest and dumps her. I found it very difficult to feel any sympathy for the self-centered little twit. No one coerced, seduced, deliberately deceived, abused, or raped her—the affair with Darius was a consensual arrangement of her own making, and I believe she had no one but herself to blame when it did not end as she wished. One might expect she could have managed to grow up a little in 1500 years, but even Darius' death at the hands of mortals does not put an end to her desire for revenge. Like Grayson (who was also her lover) she targets Darius' students Victor Paulus and Duncan MacLeod. Alas, she cannot even be original in her choice of victims. In my opinion, the "revenge for past wrongs" theme is overused in the television series as it is. And the ending of the book is completely predictable—it takes no genius to figure out whose head will roll and what innocent mortal will turn up murdered.

Also, there are some historical inaccuracies, some of which are in the author's notes. Rebecca takes great care to explain the little discrepancy concerning the weather at Waterloo, and the political situation in the Sudan, but she makes several misstatements regarding the history of the Visigoths. I quote her directly here: "Peace with the Visigoths came at the price of total capitulation to their demands, which included Alaric's marriage into the Imperial family in the person of the Emperor's sister." Actually, Alaric got nothing from the sack of Rome except the captives and loot he was able to carry off. One of those captives was Galla Placidia, the half-sister of Emperor Honorius, but Alaric never wed her. He died a few months after his victory, without ever getting the generalship, the money, or the land he demanded. His brother-in-law Athaulf, who became King of the Visigoths after Alaric's death, eventually persuaded Galla Placidia to marry him four years later in 414, probably with the intention of begetting the next emperor and ruling from "behind the throne". But their only child died in infancy, and Athaulf was murdered in 415. Neither Alaric or Athaulf ever got what they wanted from the Romans. Their successors finally reached an agreement with the Imperial government in 418 officially granting them lands in Gaul in exchange for military service, a far cry from "total capitulation to their demands". The two sources Rebecca cites, J. B. Bury's Invasion of Europe by the Barbarians and Will Durant's Age of Faith both contradict what Rebecca tells us about this in her author's notes.

I also disagree with her statement: "Had the Emperor Honorius been better advised in the years before 410, especially by his general Stilcho (sp?), who hated the Visigoths, the ensuing tale might have been far different." I think it is wrong to lay the entire blame for the sack of Rome on Stilicho's shoulders. It was the result of a number of factors, many of which were completely out of Stilicho's control. The truth is, Honorius and his brother Arcadius, the Eastern Emperor were weak rulers and neither of them were very bright. Honorius has even been described as feeble-minded, and all the good advice in the world was probably wasted on him. Stilicho, part German by birth, was in charge of the armies of Rome, and had for many years acted as regent for Honorius, because he came to his throne as a child. Stilicho was a great general, and on a couple of occasions he came very close to crushing Alaric's Visigoths, and had he been allowed to do so, he might have averted the disaster at Rome early on, but he was called away from the field of battle by the Eastern Emperor Arcadius and lost his chances. He also had numerous other groups of barbarians to fight besides the Visigoths, and his resources were stretched pretty thin. And he had to contend with anti-barbarian factions within the Roman government who were determined to bring him down because he was of German descent. In 408, these factions got to Honorius, and persuaded him Stilicho was plotting to overthrow him. Honorius had Stilicho murdered, and the anti-barbarian factions ran wild in the Empire, murdering the wives and children of barbarian soldiers who were serving in the Roman armies. Not only did Honorius cause the death of the one man who could have kept Alaric at bay, but the massacre of the barbarian soldiers' families caused many of the soldiers to join Alaric in his attack on Rome. If anyone can be blamed for the sack of Rome, the two Emperors are the more likely culprits.

There is also a mistake in the story which has to do with Alaric's religious beliefs. Rebecca writes of Darius, "…it amused him to lie with Alaric's sister in the mortal leader's own camp and to have him unaware. Alaric, who was a follower of the Aryan branch of the Christan faith, demanded a certain morality among his people Darius found contradictory in a man so skilled at killing." Arian Christianity was a 4th century doctrine taught by Arius of Alexandria, and the Visigoths converted to Arianism when they were living in the Balkans. It is not related in any way to aryan, which is a term for the early Indo-Europeans from whom many diverse groups including the Germanic peoples, the Iranians, and many of the steppe nomads descended. The Goths might have been an Aryan people by birth, but they were Arians by conversion. Furthermore, the rather strict moral code of the Germanic peoples predates their conversion to any form of Christianity. In the Germania, written in 98 CE, Roman historian Tacitus says of the Germanic tribes' morality: "The loss of chastity meets with no indulgence; neither beauty, youth, nor wealth will procure the culprit a husband. No one in Germany laughs at vice, nor do they call it the fashion to corrupt and to be corrupted." His Arian Christianity might have been the reason Alaric spared the churches in Rome, but his code of sexual conduct could easily have come from his pagan German roots.

Rebecca also describes in her novel the bloody sack of Ravenna by the Visigoths prior to the taking of Rome, but this event never actually happened. The Visigoths did besiege Ravenna once in 409, but never succeeded in taking it, because the city was difficult to attack by land due to the surrounding marshes, and the defenders could easily get supplies and reinforcements by sea. (That is why the Emperor Honorius moved his court there in 402, making it his capital instead of Rome.) What did actually occur was that Sarus, a Goth chieftain who hated Alaric, attacked the Visigoth camp with a small warband of a few hundred men while Alaric was conducting negotiations with Honorius elsewhere. Afterwards, Honorius received Sarus in Ravenna with honor. Naturally Alaric assumed the two were in cahoots, got mad, broke off negotiations, and marched on Rome. (A description of these events can be found in Bury's Invasion of Europe by the Barbarians). Furthermore Honorius was still in Ravenna when Rome was sacked, so the entire scene where he surrenders his sister to Alaric never happened.

Finally, I was astonished that Rebecca thanked David Abramowitz for creating the character of Darius, but fails to mention Werner Stocker, the actor who played him in the television series. I do not dispute in any way David's great contribution to the series as a whole, and to the creation of the character of Darius in particular, but Werner deserves credit, too. Darius was David's idea, and David wrote the script, but Werner brought him to life onscreen.

In conclusion, I cannot say I liked the book as a whole, but I would still recommend it to fans who loved Darius because of the flashbacks and the additional details and insights they provide about his history and character.

Shadow of Obsession by Rebecca Neason can be found in bookstores, and can be ordered online at Amazon.com. New York: Warner Books, 1998. ISBN#: 0-446-60547-6 Price: $5.99 U.S.


This review is Copyright ©1998 by tirnanog and may not be reproduced without permission.

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(This page last updated 01/13/2006)


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