What Book Would You Visit?

“What Book Would You Visit?” asks Charles French on his WordPress blog –


A great question, and I suppose any novelist answering it will have created at least one story, one world, of his own that he already lives in in a very real sense and would give his left arm to visit in reality. For me, of course, that would be Mariana’s world.

But there are many other books, many universes created by other writers, I would love to visit.

Given that visiting is quite different from moving to, living in, then of them all I think I would choose Ian Watson’s Whores of Babylon. For those of you who don’t know the book, here is an excellent review of it. I am going to quote the whole thing (with Kanti’s permission), but you can click to the original here if you prefer: 



WHORES OF BABYLON by Ian Watson (reviewed by Kanti Burns)

The situation, the setting, seems simple enough at first. Out in the Arizona desert, the city of Babylon (ancient Babylon, with the Tower of Babel and The Hanging Gardens) has been rebuilt. The date set is quite late – not the heyday of Babylon, but 323 BC, when Alexander the Great lay there dying.

A theme park? No, it is serious sociology, organised by the University of the Future at Heuristics (yes, really). American (and other) volunteers are trained and taught ancient Greek and arrive in Babylon as Greek tourists. But they are there to stay. There is no way out unless you leave – as a tourist – within a month. Otherwise, you learn Babylonian and you stay.

Was the autumn of a culture marked by vast, capricious building projects? By exercises in archtectural metaphysics, designed to stem the tide of time? […] Was Babylon the psychic salvation of the American Dream, or the very symbol of its decay?

Very reminiscent of J.G. Ballard!

Yet when Alex Winter, our hero, descends from the hovercraft outside the Ishtar gate, though the experiment has only been under way for about five years, everything is old, everything is ”normal”, and, weirdly, the people seem to have been there for ever: they are people of the ancient, not the modern world.

Alex arrives in the same batch of newbies as the beautiful Deborah, falls in love with her, and wants to ‘enjoy’ Babylon with her. However, she adapts fast to the utterly different way of life while he is still being the all-American boy-tourist, and after a couple of days she drops him as an embarrassment to be with.

Searching for her, he meets and makes love to the rich and aristocratic Thessany at the Temple of Ishtar, goddess of love and fertility; and when he gets into debt it is Thessany who pays his debts for him, and thus, as it turns out, purchases him. He becomes her slave. Unable to adapt, to believe what is happening, he is forced to submit by two arrogant but very adaptable women, Deborah, who treats him with complete disinterest, and Thessany, who, while seeming to be his friend, buys him, and has him whipped and branded – and goes on sleeping with him. They are the whores of Babylon. But he, the cynic, has become by the end of the book a true Babylonian, too; and he adores them both.

Actually, Alex is all along very effeminate. A real man would adapt to what was, after all, very much a man’s world. The opening lines of the book are: When Alex was thirteen, he and the other kids in his age group used to fight with knives. Every Saturday morning for months on end they practised single combat, and pairs, and two-against-one. Alex hated it. The blades were made of stiff rubber but the bruises were real. This sounds like the opening of a TG sissy-boy story, and I’m surprised that in Babylon he doesn’t get castrated, a perfectly normal procedure in this world. Still, at the end of the book he is still hardly more than a boy and after being whipped and branded, what else can happen to him? But that will come in the still unwritten sequel.

Yet what is happening? It is too real to be artificial, but it is not quite real: there are anachronisms. For instance, Alex finds a cassette – which everyone but him refers to as a strange “scroll”. And when Alexander (yes, Alex meets his namesake, Alexander the Great) quotes the Greek philospher Eratosthenes, General Perdiccas mutters “Not born yet.” “Never mind,” responds the King.

On the other hand, Alex gets to watch Euripides’ Andromeda, a lost play of which only a fragment is extant. Impossible if this is artificial.

I think we can safely say it is time travel. Nothing else fits. Most of the population are native ancient Babylonians. Then there is a small group of time-travellers, some aware, some unaware. Of the characters in the book, Alex and Deborah are unaware on arrival, though she becomes aware later, I think. The substitute Alexander the Great and a few of his closest associates are aware. Thessany is probably a native. Unusually for me, I cannot decide whether I identify with Thessany or with Deborah, the American girl who becomes a priestess in the Temple of Marduk.

Alex, on the other hand, is, while not gay – quite the contrary – a complete wanker with an obsessive urge to interfere, and deserves all he gets. But even he quickly comes to understand that not all is as it seems, or rather seemed when they first arrived – this is from near the beginning of the book:

All of a sudden Alex really saw these people in the street, not just witnessing them but experiencing them.

Slaves. […]

What if the slaves ran away? Would soldiers hunt them down in the desert, using dogs to track and spears to chivvy? Could one escape across a state line from Babylonia into America and be free again?

America didn’t yet exist. America was unknown. Any state line was a fault line in time, behind which Babylonia had slumped into the past, had submerged itself like a whale sounding deep into the abyss of history …

Great writing and a great book.


So why would I want to go there? Probably because it is neither the one nor the other, or rather because it is both, the present very much alive and kicking but implanted in the remote past. I suspect that at first I would react and behave as Alex does, but (having read the book!) would settle in quicker. I would want to explore the ancient city, getting to know  people and trying to sort out the time-travellers (like Deborah and Alex) and the natives of that world (like Thessany) – yes, I would certainly want to meet and get to know all three of them. Then, after a year or two, I would want to travel to other cities, other countries. If “America didn’t yet exist”, then Alexander the Great’s world did, and from Babylon I could travel on east and visit Persia (on the Silk Road!) and India (Harappa and Mohenjo-Daro!), then turn back and head west and explore ancient Israel (Jerusalem!) and Greece (Athens!) and Britain (the Druids!) in the late 4th century BC.

 Then come home and write some wonderful novels.

 This was to be just a visit, wasn’t it???


Kanti Burns’ Review of “Of Witches, Whores and Alchemists”


You can find the original review at BookLikes or at Kanti Burns Book Reviews.

* * * * *

JH1Of Witches, Whores & Alchemists is Book 1 of the Mariana de la Mar series of novels set in the 1370s in Spain and France. It is preceded by a prequel, The Rose of Sharon, but that is not a real Medieval Mystery, and Of Witches, Whores & Alchemists is in my view the best one to start with.

When the story opens she is in Paris and has fulfilled her dream of becoming a student at the university there. However, her life is still beset with difficulties.

For a start, the university admits only boys and men to lectures, so she has to dress as and pass as a boy. On top of that, her self-appointed guardian, Ferchard (Sir Farquhar de Dyngvale), an old friend of her father’s (who was a Scot living in exile in Spain) insists that she must now grow up and be the lady (Lady Marian MacElpin) she was born to be, and turn her back on the years spent as a prostitute in Spain and Avignon. But this, she finds, is not so easily done.

However, her experience of life and knowledge of the world is much greater than that of her peer-group of students and hangers-on, so it is to her they turn when one of their number is accused of murdering his uncle, a miserly alchemist who is reputed to have a horde of gold nuggets tucked away.

And no sooner has she agreed to do what she can to help discover who was really responsible for the death of the old man than she learns that another murder was committed that same night (Christmas night!), a murder closely connected with the first one.

As the title implies, the book is full of medieval witches and prostitutes – Mariana is more than a little of both herself –  but others Mariana meets and gets to know during the course of her investigations include the Holy Roman Emperor, an alchemist himself and in Paris for Christmas, his daughter Anna, soon to be the wife of Richard II and Queen of England, the one-armed Albanian King of the Paris underworld, the celebrated proto-feminist Christine de Pisan, then a girl of thirteen, and the legendary alchemist Nicolas Flamel.

There are many so-called medieval mysteries about and feeling at home in the medieval period I have read most of them, but I want to say simply that there is more medieval magic and mystery in this one book than in any ten of the others. And more horror. Some scenes are more than gripping, they are mesmerising. Medieval Paris is unforgettably depicted and quite apart from that it is astonishing how this very male writer gets into the heart and soul of the all-female Mariana. (But then why not, when you think that Cadfael and Falco are both written by women?)

PETER ABELARD – Helen Waddell

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Peter Abelard coverThis is a love story – one of the greatest (“Abelard and Heloise” rings all the bells, like Tristan and Isolde, Dante and Beatrice, Antony and Cleopatra)  and Peter Abelard, Helen Waddell’s wonderful novel, is probably the best retelling of it. 

But her novel is more than that, for it is also the story of Peter Abelard himself, the leading philosopher and theologian of his age and one of the great tragic figures of all the ages.

“It is the strong who have enemies: it is on the mountain peaks that the thunderbolts fall,” says Gilles de Vannes, Canon of Notre Dame, quoting St Jerome. Fat old Gilles, with his razor-sharp mind, is the confidant of both Abelard and Heloise and provides the anchor that holds the story down. He knew them both in the beginning, before they met –

‘He [Heloise’s uncle, Fulbert] is ambitious…

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MAGNUS – George MacKay Brown


Magnus coverThis is the story of Magnus Erlendson, Earl of Orkney in the Twelfth Century; or rather (as it says in the book) “half-earl”, for there were two heirs, Magnus and his cousin Hakon Paulson; the story of Magnus, the mystic, who cares for the seal injured by hunters, who sits in the prow of a ship reading a book during a great sea battle, and was born to be a saint.

But he was also born to be Earl of Orkney, and half the islands support him. There is civil war, during which the islanders are reduced to poverty and despair. In the end, after three years of fighting, Magnus is killed by treachery when he agrees to meet his cousin for peace talks.

George Mackay Brown, who died in 1996, was primarily a poet, and this is his most poetic novel, a long prose poem. He was also a…

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