In this sweeping historical novel, set during the collapse of the Bronze Age, a naïve young scribe travels the Mediterranean with his uncle. Although merchants, they are drawn into battle when the world order breaks down and civilization, as they know it, is on the brink of destruction.
Iakos seeks adventure. At 18, he’s allowed to join his uncle Aithon’s trading ventures aboard the Planetae. He has much to learn, but gradually gains the respect of the sailors and his enigmatic uncle, whose past holds many secrets.
The era’s politics are complex, and the group makes both friends and enemies as they travel. After setting out from Pylos in Greece, they reach the Syrian coast and travel by land north to Hattusi (in modern day Turkey). From there, they find a friendly reception in Troy, but eventually, the men are forced to fight to protect their homeland in a dramatic series of battles.
The novel immerses readers in the sights and smells of Bronze Age warfare, both on land and at sea, creating visceral drama with detailed descriptions of terrifying life-or-death moments. Scenic description is another great strength, as are vivid similes and metaphors, and humor that demonstrates the camaraderie between Aithon’s band of men.
Some issues, however, distract from the novel’s overall success. Initially, the story is slowed by artificial dialogue overstuffed with historical detail (but as war ignites, the pace improves dramatically). While Partridge admirably aims to reflect the period’s various peoples and dialects, lengthy passages where ancient languages are spoken and translated bog the story down. Additionally, readers may struggle to keep track of numerous characters, places and people with unfamiliar names and several needlessly graphic descriptions of physical and sexual violence.
Despite these drawbacks, When Cities Sink Howling in Ruin is ultimately a rewarding read that should appeal to those interested in the ancient world.