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A potentially good story spoiled by insufficient research

The Serpent and the Staff - Barbara Wood

I really wanted to like The Serpent and the Staff, by Barbara Wood. Here was a historical fiction book claiming to address a place and time close to my own heart – the city of Ugarit(on the coast of modern Syria), in the time of the early New Kingdom Egyptian pharaohsHatshepsut and Thutmose III. Sadly, however, I struggled to finish it, and cannot give more than three stars to it. 


First, the good stuff. As already mentioned, full marks for Barbara’s choice of place and time. The characters were (for the most part) interesting and well-crafted. The recurrent theme of herbal medicine and healing was a convincing thread around which to hang the story. The technical production of the Kindle copy was good, with a mere handful of very minor slips in a long book.


Where I struggled, however, was with the intended historical rooting of the people and plot. Barbara has apparently done far too little background research into the period to be able to write persuasively about it. And I am not talking about research taking several years and a PhD, but a very ordinary level of background reading from reliable sources readily available on the Internet.


I abandoned the whole book for several weeks at the point where a long passage digresses to celebrate one of the protagonists inventing the alphabet. If you want to enjoy a fictional presentation of this, you would go a long way to beat The TwentyTwo Letters by Clive King. But there is plenty of readily accessed technical material about the relative roles of the different competing scripts of this age, and the sheer uphill struggle alphabetic scripts had in gaining acceptance. The naivety of the description here, on top of the difficulties I was already finding in the book with iron weapons factories being set up (way way way too early), fictitious kinglists (when we have real ones), Egyptian chariots with four horses (like everyone else’s they had two), and a rather cavalier approach to geography, led me to close the book and give up on it.


However, I returned after a couple of months, partly out of a sense of duty and partly through stubbornness. I decided that the best way to read the book was as a kind of fantasy story without any actual real-world context. Taken on that level, and pretending to myself that the storyline had nothing to do with the start of the Late Bronze Age in the Levant, it was quite a fun romp. The outcome was never really a surprise – my main uncertainty was when and how a particularly brutal individual was going to reappear and unintentionally advance the fortunes of the protagonists.


In summary then – as fantasy I might well consider giving it four stars, though it could easily have been somewhat shorter without losing anything much. But as an intended work of historical fiction, and with all of the historical flaws and anachronisms, I cannot give it more than three. I do hope that Barbara will consider returning to this period – which has a great deal of intrinsic interest – but for my part it would need considerably more investment in background research.