Guest Review – Threshold of Fire

Threshold of Fire book coverThreshold of Fire by Hella Haasse
Reviewed by Justin Fassino

There’s a certain inevitability to historical fiction, a conflict between the foreknowledge of how the story must end and the dared-for hope that perhaps things will turn out differently than reality, less sad, less hopeless. It is this spirit that Dutch East Indies-born author Hella Haasse channels her 1964 novella Threshold of Fire, a meditation on the end of Rome and the lasting influence it maintains on the world of today.

The 5th Century A.D. is such a compelling setting; we see some of our own institutions in the mirror as we read about the world’s most powerful empire, glory crumbling, undergoing a long, decaying spiral. Large personalities lost to history but found again in our own time with different faces give us a familiarity with what life could have been like feckless rulers cast from the social elite, great military leaders of the world (seen here through Roman magister militum, Stilicho – who himself was not a Latin Roman), and an entire civilization standing on the precipice of massive cultural change.

More of a three act play than a conventional tale, Threshold of Fire picks the choicest bits of the personalities of the era and supplements a few fictional faces to explore the identity of the time. From Haasse’s mind springs Hadrian, the tragic Christian Roman prefect and magistrate, a man conflicted by the ideals and virtues of what it means to be “Roman” and his own troubled past. Opposite him is Marcus Anicius Rufus, himself a Roman noble of considerable wealth and influence, but a pagan and thus shunned by society. Between the spiritual and ideological battle of these two is the introspection of the famous Roman poet Claudian, who historically disappears from the records in 404 A.D., but is thoughtfully realized by Haasse as both villain and hero, the pivotal point of view character around which the story comes together.

The translation of the work is quite good, though there is no envy at Anita Miller and Nini Blinstrub’s challenge; the chronological order of each chapter and the setting of the novel swirls and jumps backwards and forwards throughout, with entire sections of long internal monologues jumping between past and present at the flick of a switch. Ultimately, this is a moderately involved (yet compelling) read, with a unique, soulful cadence to the language and pacing that is a welcome novelty.

There’s an unmistakable kinship between Threshold of Fire and Wallace Breem’s Eagle in the Snow: both are set within a decade of one another in Rome, and both chronicle the impact of the impending fall of the SPQR banners through the eyes of fatal, relatable characters. The important rulers of the time (like the aforementioned Stilicho, and the Emperor Honorius) hover over all, providing the rigid, implacable, recognizable face of The Empire, while both stories’ protagonists become the spirit of The Roman Ideal.

Threshold of Fire is a deeply introspective book; most chapters consist of long monologues and memory sequences that meander through time in non-linear order. The characters face their unavoidable fates with both courage and uncertainty. Like the most resonant historical fiction, Threshold of Fire is a window into our own modern world, our place in it, and the mistakes we can avoid if we so heed the lessons that have come before. Framed within the romantic, melancholic edifices of the city of Rome and her omnipresent force of being, this is an enjoyable, deeply meditative read on the intersection between duty, friendship, and devoutness. “People of Rome, cry with one voice,” writes Claudian early on; Threshold of Fire captures a narrow, poignant facet of Rome’s lasting echo across 2,000 years.

My Favorite Books A to Z

I recently saw a blog post with a list of favorite things A to Z and I thought I should do that with books! Some of the decisions were really hard and some letters only had one book!

 

A

The Amber Spyglass book cover  The Amber Spyglass by Philip Pullman
I love this whole series and The Subtle Knife might be my favorite of the trilogy but I generally like endings. Plus this one starts with A.

B

Bridge to Terabithia book cover  Bridge to Terabithia by Katherine Paterson
This is my favorite book from my childhood. I’ve read it many, many times and I still get emotional at the end.

C

Crooked Kingdom book cover Crooked Kingdom by Leigh Bardugo
I had a tough time picking a C book. There were several options that were equally good but not great. Not that Crooked Kingdom isn’t good, it is a great read.

D

The Da Vinci Code book cover  The Da Vinci Code by Dan Brown
Yep, I read this at the height of the hype but I still thought it was original and intriguing. Still the best Robert Langdon book.

E

The Eyre Affair book cover  The Eyre Affair by Jasper Fforde
Interestingly enough, even though this is the first book in the Thursday Next series, I didn’t read it first. But, Jasper Fforde is one of my favorite authors due to his obvious love of literature and the absurdity of his worlds.

F

Fangirl book cover Fangirl by Rainbow Rowell
Super cute, nerdy novel

G

The Giver book cover The Giver by Lois Lowry
Another book from when I was younger. I think this was my first dystopian novel.

H

Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban book cover Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban by J.K. Rowling
This is my favorite of the Harry Potter books so it was an easy choice. I will always ♥ Sirius Black.

I

Isla and the Happily Ever After Isla and the Happily Ever After by Stephanie Perkins
Another finale in a trilogy. I really enjoy all three of the books in this series. They make me happy.

J

The Joy Luck Club book cover The Joy Luck Club by Amy Tan
Amy Tan has a beauty to her writing in general but I feel that this is her masterpiece. The different mother/daughter stories are woven together effortlessly.

K

Kissed a Sad Goodbye book cover Kissed a Sad Goodbye by Deborah Crombie
I enjoy a good mystery and Deborah Crombie writes just that. If you read this blog, you are probably sick of my extolling her character development.

L

The Last Olympian book cover The Last Olympian (Percy Jackson and the Olympians, Book Five) by Rick Riordan
I love the Percy Jackson series and this was the one that just happens to show up in this list. Truthfully, I could have selected any of them.

M

Murder on the Orient Express book cover Murder on the Orient Express by Agatha Christie
This one was also a bit of a no-brainer. It’s a classic and set me off on an epic two summer journey to read every single Hercule Poirot novel.

N

The Night Circus book cover The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern
I’m not usually a huge fan of magical realism because it tends to confuse me, but I truly enjoyed this one, even when I didn’t know what was going on.

O

Old Friends and New Fancies book cover Old Friends and New Fancies by Sybil G. Brinton
This is the first “sequel” to Jane Austen’s novels that was published. It’s basically a fanfiction where Austen’s main characters meet each other. Kryptonite for an Austenite like me.

P

Persuasion book cover Persuasion by Jane Austen
Some might be surprised that this beats out Pride and Prejudice but it’s my favorite Austen.

Q

Quiet book cover Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Talking by Susan Cain
This book kinda changed my life. I finally felt like I had permission to be an introvert and that it was a strength rather than a flaw that I had to work on.

R

The Restaurant at the End of the Universe book cover The Restaurant at the End of the Universe by Douglas Adams
“A large dairy animal approached Zaphod Beelbebrox’s table, a large fat meaty quadruped of the bovine type with large watery eyes… ‘I am the main Dish of the Day. May I interest you in parts of my body?'” Need I say more?

S

Stardust book cover Stardust by Neil Gaiman
Rousing fantasy adventure by a truly excellent writer.

T

To Kill a Mockingbird book cover To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee
Classic. So much so that I refuse to read Go Set a Watchman just in case it ruins this book for me.

U

The Unexpected Everything book cover The Unexpected Everything by Morgan Matson
Not many U books to choose from but I like Morgan Matson very much.

V

The View from Saturday book cover The View from Saturday by E.L. Konigsburg
V turned out to be a really difficult decision. It was a three-way tie between this, The Voyage of the Dawn Treader and The Voyages of Doctor Dolittle. But The View from Saturday won out in the end because I always related to the characters and appreciated that intelligence and being different were celebrated.

W

Where the Sidewalk Ends book cover Where the Sidewalk Ends by Shel Silverstein
This was really my first exposure to poetry and will always have a nostalgic place in my heart.

X

X-Wing Rogue Squadron book cover X-Wing Rogue Squadron by Michael A. Stackpole
This was the only X book but still a great choice. I love Star Wars and I wish Rogue Squadron was still canon.

Y

You're Never Weird on the Internet (Almost) You’re Never Weird on the Internet (Almost) by Felicia Day
Felicia Day is really awesome and I appreciate the reminder that it’s okay to be weird.

Z

Zia book cover Zia by Scott O’Dell
Again, the only Z book that I’ve read. This is the sequel to Island of the Blue Dolphins (which I would choose over this book, but it doesn’t start with Z!)