There is a certain trepidation in opening a book by an author who has established a fine reputation with an outstanding line of titles following the fictional exploits of two characters, set in a particular period of history and in a particular environment, when this new book is with another publisher and based in a very different part of history. It is then a pleasure to find another gripping story unfolding, showing the familiar style of the author and demonstrating careful research that produces an entirely believable historical novel. This new book from Stockwin is just such a book. The author has suggested that this is a one-off, but then hinted that he may again take a diversion from his famous Kydd and Renzi tales in the future.
Stockwin has ingeniously combined two versions of the story of the transfer of the secret of silk to Constantinople to produce a single tale of great power and entertainment. This not just a great tale, told well, but should keep the process of adding to the stories of Kydd and Renzi on schedule.
NAME: The Silk Tree
CATEGORY: Book Reviews
AUTHOR: Julian Stockwin
PUBLISHER: Allison & Busby
BINDING: soft back, also hard back and eBook
SUBJECT: The Silk Road, caravans, Eastern Empire, Constantinople, Justinian, silk worms, trading, China, Persia, Syria, Kagon,
DESCRIPTION: There is a certain trepidation in opening a book by an author who has established a fine reputation with an outstanding line of titles following the fictional exploits of two characters, set in a particular period of history and in a particular environment, when this new book is with another publisher and based in a very different part of history. It is then a pleasure to find another gripping story unfolding, showing the familiar style of the author and demonstrating careful research that produces an entirely believable historical novel. This new book from Stockwin is just such a book. The author has suggested that this is a one-off, but then hinted that he may again take a diversion from his famous Kydd and Renzi tales in the future.
In researching for his recently published Kydd & Renzi story, “Pasha”, Stockwin travelled to Istanbul to develop a feel for the place and to collect the notes that would ensure another very successful episode in the fictional lives of Kydd and Renzi. As he soaked up the atmosphere, and delved into the period of Turkish history where Pasha would be based, Stockwin met new friends and stumbled across a story that is unknown today, almost, but not quite, lost to history, but one that changed the world. It is also well-timed with the latest incursion of China onto the world stage. Through Chinese history, this large country has looked mostly inwards into itself and its teeming population, but it has always occupied one of the top four places amongst world economic powers, in terms of its innovation and financial output. Through history, China has emerged from its self-imposed isolation, but only briefly, before turning back on itself.
At the time of the fall of Rome, and the emergence of a Roman cultural and political lifeboat in its Eastern Empire, China was a great mystery. It controlled an immensely rich trade in silk and porcelain. There have been several claims about the value of this trade, because the products had to be transported by caravans across some very inhospitable terrain and through some inhospitable countries. This added greatly to the price of the products and a general estimate is that the starting price in China was less than 20% of the delivery price in Constantinople. Those running the caravans maintained the mystery because a caravan only followed one stage of the route, so that none of the people running caravans knew the full route, or the total process of trade.
Due to the Chinese desire to maintain monopolies and protect itself from ‘foreign devils’, few, apart from close neighbours, have any real understanding of China and this continues to modern times. One of the hidden facts of history is that China has always traded far beyond its borders and its people have been responsible for some of the great discoveries of technology, but that trade has rarely been anything but indirect through agents.
Stockwin has lifted the curtain on a part of this mystery, and history, with two pairs of heroes. The story is also a love story and one of triumph in the face of significant threats. One question is – why was silk so important and sought after?
The story answers the facets of this question in a very able and entertaining manner. There are no maps or other images in the book, but there is a cast list of the important characters in the story and an indication of which ones were real figures in history. It would be wrong to spoil the excitement of the story by disclosing specifics, but it smoothly flows through a series of twists and turns, achievements, setbacks and tensions, holding the attention of the reader from the first to the last page. In the process, it sets out the history against which the characters have been cast. It follows two geographical paths, one for the journey from the chaos of failing Rome to China, and then a very different journey back to Constantinople. It also shows how Constantinople became a lifeboat, both for the culture and politics of Rome and for the knowledge of the western world that had been put at risk by the destruction of the Great Library in Alexandra.
Silk was an amazing product in the ancient world. It produced very comfortable and robust clothing in vivid colours and impressive styles, but its strength also made it a protective material. Warriors valued the ability of silk to protect against the deathly and secondary consequences of an arrow. When an arrow pierced whatever armour or outer clothing was being worn, a silk shirt below was not pierced, but carried intact into the wound as a sheath around the barbed arrow head. The arrow entered the body, but the silk could be twisted to allow the arrow to be withdrawn complete, avoiding the common and fatal infection that was responsible for the death of many struck by arrows. Silk also acted as a lubricant and this was employed as recently as WWI and WWII, when aviators used a silk scarf around the neck to allow the head to turn smoothly and quickly to search for dangers. Those characteristics have not yet been completely duplicated by even the finest man-made fabrics and silk continues to hold a premium.
When the secrets of producing silk arrived in the west, it was a very important point that changed history. It not only reduced the cost of the product, by removing the need for a lengthy journey to the market place, but it immediately and seriously weakened all those who had previously benefited from the Chinese monopoly and the Silk Road caravans. It was on a par with that other Chinese product, gunpowder. Where gunpowder opened a new and terrifying form of warfare, the discovery of how to produce silk conveniently reduced contact with China and the kingdoms between it and Europe. That then allowed a self-contained Europe to develop into a series of new power groups that competed for dominance into the Medieval period that was to end with the rediscovery of knowledge lost with the fall of Constantinople and its emergence as Istanbul. From there, Europe began to look to the west rather than to the east, although ironically, the explorers and adventurers who sailed west across the Atlantic where looking to open a new route to China and India. That placed Europe at the cross roads of trade and provided the environment in which the small island group of Britain was to establish a mighty empire of trade that girdled the Earth and established English as the language of global trade – not bad for some small grey worms and the amazing product they gave to the world.
When a series of stories reaches 15, there is always a danger that the author will become bored with his fictional characters, and some successful writers get bored long before completing fifteen stories in a series. Having a change of environment for a stand alone story set in another age can prove a great tonic and being able to combine two research stages is very economic.