'The Silk Tree', Julian Stockwin
Julian Stockwin is best known for his 'Kydd' series of nineteenth century nautical adventures, but with the publication of 'The Silk Tree' he changes tack, delivering instead a tale of Byzantine exploration, complete with historic detail, raucous action, and wry humour.
Escaping the sack of Rome in 549 AD, a Greek trader, Nicander, stumbles, almost literally, across the path of a former legionary, and hardened man-of-the-world, Marius. The two make for unlikely friends, but between them plot to re-establish themselves as men of substance by convincing the Emperor Justinian to fund an exploratory mission to the mystical east, where they propose to steal the secret of silk from the Chinese, and thus allow the Emperor to circumvent the long and costly Silk Road trade in that most exotic of materials. What neither Nicander nor Marius count upon,however, is the distance they must travel to reach their goal, and the number of potential enemies who will attempt to thwart them.
As noted, this is a substantial departure for Stockwin, who had hitherto limited himself to naval fiction, set in much more recent periods. What emerges is still a man's tale, aimed primarly at a male readership - just as his 'Kydd' novels have been - Stockwin was educated from an early age in one of Britain's toughest sea-training schools, 'Indefatigable', and while you can lift the boy out of the sea (and a story which takes its protagonists across deserts and over some of the world's highest mountain peaks certainly does that), you can't hope to take the sea out of the boy. Nor would you want to - it is Stockwin's understanding of the oceans, of world trade, and of the history of seafaring, that combine so readily with his knowledge of the sorts of men who would undertake these challenges, and help to produce a fast-paced, yet well-researched action-adventure. Whether 'The Silk Tree' remains a one-off, or will prove to be merely the first in a series of successful stand-alone novels from Stockwin remains to be seen. What it certainly does though is prove to the publishing world that he has more than one mast to his ship, and plenty of canvas to employ across the full spread of them.
'The Silk Tree' will be published in hardback by Allison & Busby on 6th November 2014.