Thursday, May 8, 2014

Book Review: I Am A Barbarian

It's been a while since there was an Edgar Rice Burroughs book review so...

I Am A Barbarian tells the first person tale of Britannicus, a captured Briton who from the age of 10 served as the personal servant-or slave-to "Little Boots," a spoiled child and member of the Roman Caesars. Throughout his narrative Britannicus relates the power struggles, conspiracies, violence and death that results in his master becoming Caius Caesar Caligula, the Mad Emperor of Rome.

If you're a die hard Burroughs fan you can skip this part but for the newcomer, I Am A Barbarian was first written in 1941 but it would not see print until 1967 in a limited edition. Afterwards it would come out in paperback form but still is probably Burroughs' least read book. Which is a shame as it is one of the best of his career. Taking a break from John Carter of Mars and Tarzan of the Apes, Burroughs shows his growth as a writer that he got to show little of as I Am A Barbarian has little of the standard Burroughs tropes but instead a gripping tale of palace intrigue, madness and the descent into hell that Rome would suffer.

How much of this is historical fact can probably be debated as most of what I have read seems to indicate Burroughs pulled much from Robert Graves’s I, Claudius in his descriptions of the violence, orgies and yes, appointing horses to Senate scenes that has become famous from the story of Caligula and his reign. What works is the earlier sections of the book, showing Britannicus and Caligula's time as children, their growing up in Rome and their relationships with gladiator Tiber and Britannicus' romantic triangle with the slave Attica and chariot racer Numerious.

In fact I would say that the romance is probably the least effective parts of the book as Burroughs doesn't build up much tension, nor is there any antagonism towards Numerious, who emerges as one of Britannicus' best friends. That said Burroughs does deliver a powerful ending that shows a more somber tone not present before in Burroughs' work.

So if you're looking for a different Burroughs experience I urge you to seek out this one. Rating: **** out of 4.

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