This book offers the best type of history: one that tells a gripping story while shedding ample light on both power politics and human nature. The author starts by apologising for taking a personality-centric stance, but there’s no need to worry. You do form a presumably accurate picture of the doltish Henry VI, the rakish Edward IV, the frustrated turncoat Warwick, and the monster that was Margaret of Anjou; but the characters are part and parcel of a narrative that, after some stage-setting, keeps driving forward. The only negative is hardly Weir’s fault: the Lancastrian and Yorkist treachery and savagery were so unremitting that you may end up begging for peace to break out.
My only disappointment was that, this book having been written as a prequel to Weir’s earlier ‘The Princes in the Tower’, the story stops short of Richard III and Bosworth Field. Hence it feels like a Shakespeare tragedy minus the final act – so you really have to buy the other book too. She writes so fluently and clearly, however, that I was happy to forgive her. You just wish someone had told her that ‘prevaricate’ does not mean ‘procrastinate’ - a much repeated mistake.
Maggie Mash reads intelligently, and even knows (refreshingly) how to pronounce foreign names, albeit not the word ‘propaganda’. It was certainly brave (or foolhardy) to read all quotes in a modern version of the original accent. She only really goes wrong when apeing men, who all sound as though they have a sore throat; and one medieval bigwig comes across like a well-oiled Victorian judge.
Overall, another example of a book I’d never have bought in hardback, but that Audible turns into an excellent listening experience.
Don’t be fooled by the first word of the title into expecting an account of pre-Arabic middle-eastern astronomy. This is cosmology in the old sense: religious beliefs about the how we got here. But that’s no bad thing. I found Bashiri’s canter through Mazdaism/Zoroastrianism and later heresies enlightening, not least because they help explain why, even after so long under Islam, the Iranians have remained a bulwark against both Arabs and Turks, and literally a race apart.
I did find the mythology that fills one or two early chapters pretty turgid; like all others, Iranian myths seem to consist in badly constructed epics with sparse literary merit, cobbled together long ago to shore up the claims of long-forgotten despots and priests. You can understand the author’s motives in wanting to record them, however: as he explains at the start, Ayatollah Khamenei has banished study of anything that might have happened (if there was anything) before Islam.
Much the best part of the book is the history that fills most of it. After a lifetime of hearing the Persians, Parthians etc presented only as the bad guys up against the Greeks and Romans, it’s refreshing to hear history from their perspective – like watching ‘Dances with Wolves’ after countless John Wayne movies. You get to appreciate what a great bunch the early Achaemenids were (especially Cyrus and Darius) and why Alexander was so keen on his fiercest rivals. You also learn why, after millennia swatting away enemies on all sides, Persia succumbed so pathetically to the Arab invasion that brought Islam; above all, it was the licentiousness, corruption and internal divisions of the Sassanid ruling caste.
Narrator Mark Delgado does a great job, reading the text with pace and power as though he were a CIA agent briefing the US President on the background to some new middle-eastern crisis. His delivery made me reflect that, apart from the weaponry, not a lot has changed in that part of the world in three thousand years.
I came to this course straight from its companion piece, The Great Courses’ ‘History of Ancient Egypt’. The two couldn’t be more different. While the latter is populist and frothy, ‘Between the Rivers’ bears the mark of proper scholarship. This will make it a boon to students and a joy for serious amateurs of ancient Mesopotamia, but may be a turn-off for the less zealous reader. Only if you’re ready to listen to half an hour on ‘Assyrian trade routes’, for example, should you press the buy button.
Dr Alexis Castor plainly knows her stuff and speaks clearly and intelligently. The fly in the ointment is that the production of this one does not appear to have been plain sailing, possibly because her delivery can at times be surprisingly diffident and halting. Hence there are oddities like a first ‘lecture’ that is clearly being read from a script, with ‘spontaneous’ stumbles thrown in; and then, after a couple of perfectly good pseudo-lectures, you get the first of several chunks that have obviously been recorded with a dictating machine! It’s not only shoddy but also distracting, and does no favours to the engaging material. I must say that these two courses together have made me wonder whether The Great Courses isn’t scraping the barrel somewhat for academic talent.
My one other complaint was that Dr Castor takes every opportunity to drag in references to persons of her own sex, such that she sometimes threatens to sound like Monty Python’s ‘News for Parrots’. That, however, may not be all her fault – I suspect it's mandatory if one wants to impress in American academia nowadays.