A. D. 500, by Simon Young – a review

As my regular readers may have noticed, I have been making a lot of changes to this blog recently. This is partly an attempt to make more frequent updates – it is difficult to read a pre-1960s novel every week! Classics-lovers, do not fear: I will still be writing every fourth post about something suitably old.

Somehow, I have managed to accumulate a lot of non-fiction! I have no idea how this happened. I don’t normally read it for pleasure, but I feel that now I really must, in order to clear my shelves without massive feelings of guilt. My room is currently covered in books, and my bookshelves are overflowing.

A. D. 500 is not strictly speaking non-fiction, but it is as near to it as makes no odds, especially since it is set in an era of such confusion. It pretends to be a travel guide to the ‘Dark Isles’ of Britain and Ireland, based on a log kept by a fictional Byzantine embassy sent to visit all the kings of the islands. The reasoning behind this format, the author argues in his preface, is to allow readers to see the era from the perspective of other outsiders, since we must already view it as strangers due to the removal of time.

In my opinion, this technique works really well. It allows the reader to glimpse what the island could have been like (the copious notes at the back highlight the arguments that surround various details our fictitious embassy describe as ‘fact’). Making the embassy a Byzantine one also has the benefit of showing how differently various parts of the Roman Empire were affected by its Fall. For Byzantium, which considered itself the new seat of the Empire, relatively little changed. In contrast, the British Isles were invaded by the Saxons on the Roman’s retreat and the society the Romans had created quickly vanished completely.

Set a hundred years after the Romans left Britain, A. D. 500 shows a country that has fallen into barbarity and poverty (although, of course, this may not exactly have been the case).

It is a fine and interesting read, especially if you like learning about different cultures in history, which I certainly do. I feel, however, that it is a book to be savoured a little at a time, and not read in a week as I did.

Next week I shall be reviewing Dodger, by Terry Pratchett. Stay tuned!


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