House Of War By Hamilton Wende
A Literary Review

South Africaby Paul Pregnolato
Posted: 16 October 2009
In: Books > Reviews Comments View Comments

Intelligent, well-crafted and multi-layered, Hamilton Wende's latest work manages to straddle both the spy-thriller and psychological genres with a healthy dollop of history, drama, and romance thrown in for good measure.

House Of War by Hamilton WendeSet in contemporary Central Asia, House Of War narrates the quest by Sebastian Burke – a gifted academic haunted by a childhood tragedy in Rhodesia (pre-independence Zimbabwe) – and Claire Finch – an experienced "bang-bang" journalist who has left part of her soul behind on the killing fields of Angola, Congo, Sierra Leone, and Iraq – to find the lost-lost "Royal Diaries" of Alexander the Great in the ancient city of Ay Khanoum (also known as Ai-Khanoum).

Although they are the novel's main protagonists, Wende cleverly intertwines their trials and tribulations with those of Alexander the Great during his various campaigns across Asia Minor 23 centuries previously, and often dramatically so: just as Plutarch recounted how the Temple of Artemis in Ephesus (and one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World) burned down on the day Alexander the Great was born, Burke and Finch's tale starts just as violently with the very public and very bloody assassination of two US Embassy officials by al-Qaeda in a Tashkent restaurant. From there, the story moves to Tajikistan and (ultimately) southwards to Afghanistan, while simultaneously retracing the steps of Alexander's campaign of 328BC that culminated in the establishment of Ay Khanoum.

Wende's writing style is crisp and economical and his descriptions are often simultaneously nuanced and infused with considerable detail. He also manages to use the individual personae of the characters effectively to create a pastiche of differing world views: while Burke is the brilliant academic whose obsession with Ay Khanoum resulted in him leading a somewhat cloistered existence, Finch's experiences as a highly regarded documentary producer (as well as an occasional source of intelligence to the CIA) have caused her to cultivate a distinctly jaundiced and world-weary outlook as to what exactly constitutes "the truth". Their Uzbek "fixer", Professor Rustam Abdulov, a one-time academic and KGB operator who subsequently fell on hard times with the end of the Cold War, also provides a handy foil to both of them and (in one instance) wryly alludes to how - in the context of realpolitik and the "Global War on Terror" - the great powers want the status quo to remain in Uzbekistan, despite it being profoundly undemocratic and repressive.

Wende also draws upon his background as a journalist and freelance writer to convey some unpalatable truths via the novel's characters, going so far as to make an oblique reference to former British Ambassador to Uzbekistan Craig Murray, who was fired in 2004 for saying too much too often about Uzbekistan's appalling human rights' record as well as criticising the faulty intelligence used to justify the March 2003 invasion of Iraq, most notably the possession of weapons of mass destruction by Saddam Hussein and the (subsequently debunked) efforts by Iraq to procure uranium in Niger in 2002. In the context of Burke and Finch's quest, Wende also alludes to the flawed "alliances of convenience" struck with Northern Alliance warlords to thwart the Taliban in 2001; while the warlord in whose territory Ay Khanoum is situated - "General" Hakim - fought with the US Special Forces against the Taliban at Mazar-e-Sharif and allied himself with the West, he is (in reality) little more than an uncultured opium-dealing thug who wants nothing more than to reap the profits that an archeological find of the magnitude of the Royal Diaries could generate.

Be this as it may, Hakim's avarice pales in comparison to the unbridled fanaticism of the Taliban, which - far from being a group of passive bystanders - have been relentlessly stalking Burke and Finch throughout; as Abdulov comments at one point, the existence of the Royal Diaries threatens the Taliban dream of recreating a pure unsullied Islamic Caliphate and there is little doubt in the reader's mind that the Diaries, once discovered, will suffer the same fate as the Buddhas of Bamyan. As it is, the title of the book is itself an allusion to the extremist Islamic tenet that any lands that have not yet submitted to Islam (Dar al-Islam or "House of Islam") are to be regarded as ripe for conquest and invasion and to be maintained in a constant state of conflict (Dar al-Harb or "House of War"). It is perhaps no small irony that while the novel's dénouement is both sudden and brutal, it is (ironically) a member of the Taliban who enables Burke to confront his own humanity and thereby become his instrument of personal salvation.

While the parallel storyline is unusual given the vast time difference involved, its primary purpose is to convey Alexander's mercurial personality, as well as the personal demons that Burke and Finch ultimately have to confront, simultaneously; the guilt that Burke feels when one of his party is killed in an ambush mirrors the sense of loss that Alexander the Great felt when Darius of Persia died a lonely death at the hands of his own subjects, while Burke's burgeoning relationship with Finch parallels that between Alexander the Great and the captive Roxana of Bactria. Unfortunately, there are instances where it convolutes the plot unnecessarily. In one instance, the story suddenly digressed to describe how Alexander summarily razed a whole city during a night of drunken debauchery; it was (if anything) a jarring interlude and I was baffled as to how exactly it was supposed to fit in with the whole Burke-Finch-Arbatov storyline. While these unexpected deviations from the narrative are far and few between, I was left with the lingering suspicion that Wende threw in a few tidbits of information about Alexander the Great merely to pad out the narrative. However, to give credit where credit is due, these tidbits do help the reader get a good overall idea about who exactly Alexander the Great was; apart from ruling the biggest empire in history, he was incredibly ruthless and incredibly passionate in equal measure and the Alexandrine court was (furthermore) notorious for excesses that made some of the more (in)famous Roman Emperors of half a millennium hence look like rank amateurs by comparison. Ironically, while the readers get a good insight into Alexander, the same cannot be readily said of the book's modern-day protagonists - while you get a potted bio of who and what Burke, Finch, and Arbatov are as the book progresses, the characters are only cursorily examined and you never really get under their skin and feel as though you experienced the same emotional highs and lows that they do.

Another minor gripe I had was that the book was fairly short; when one considers the prices of books nowadays, paying upwards of R150 [?] for a book that can be read easily in an evening will definitely give a few potential buyers pause for thought. On the plus side it is very easy reading and all but the most casual reader will have no problem whatsoever; the narrative never really lags and while Wende's style of writing will strike an especially responsive chord with fans of John le Carre and Ken Follett, it will also appeal to history buffs and fans of contemporary political thrillers alike.

The review copy of House Of War, by Hamilton Wende, was provided by Penguin Books (South Africa). It is available locally in South Africa in good bookstores nationwide, or you can order it online through, which ships internationally. OpinionShare/Bookmark
Rating: 7/10

Key Facts (Review Copy)
Title: House Of War
Author: Hamilton Wende
ISBN/EAN: 9780143026099
Edition: First
Year: 2009 (1 October 2009)
Format: Trade paperback
Pages: 266
Dimensions: 153x234x20mm (WxHxD)
Genre/Keywords: Afghanistan, Alexander the Great, fiction, drama, thriller

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