by Alex Burcher
If they found and destroyed the Scroll they would bring down all civilisation. Would the sacrifice of one man’s life save humanity?
Five years after the Great Fire of Lundun, ex-dragoon Laqua is lured by ex-comrade-in-arms Unher into helping the Keepers of the Light, a covert band fighting the equally clandestine Cult of the Death of Hope. The Cult intend to bring down the empire of the Moors and, indeed, all civilisation. An empire that has conquered most of Europe, where the language is Arabic and the flag of the falcate moon flies. Where alcohol is banned and hashish legal, prison is unknown and punishment is by whip, knife or hook. A world in which the Industrial Revolution is already well advanced and steam engines chug. Where the Norse have settled the New World first. In Lundun, capital of the Tin Isles, the largest mosque looms over St Paul’s Cathedral. And Samuel Peppin has given up his diaries to write bawdy poems.
Vital to defeating the Cult is an ancient secret Scroll, the final chapter of the sacred Script, its authenticity assured by its Seal. While the Cult would destroy it, the Keepers intend its dissemination to all. Until they have the means to do so, Laqua is entrusted with its safekeeping. He falls in with a dour eunuch, a functionary of the Court of the Amir in Qurtuba, and a perfidious, possibly drug-addled, heretic. And what part might a libidinous Norsewoman play? Ahead of him lie spying, fighting, loving, torture and tragedy … and the discovery of a hideous truth.
As Ants to the Gods is an alternate history adventure that challenges some of the orthodoxies and assumptions of Western culture. For adults only, certainly not for the faint-hearted or easily shocked, it is a ribald and irreverent exploration of a world that could have been.
In 711 C.E. General Tariq ibn-Ziyad led an army across the Straits from what is now Morocco and landed at what is now called, in English, Gibraltar (Jebel al-Tariq – Rock of Tariq). In a year the Moors had defeated the Visigoth leader Roderic and taken the capital, Toledo. Within years the Moors – Berbers and Arabs – had taken all but the north of the Iberian Peninsula and part of what is now southern France. The Amirate of Cordoba was established. As most often happens when a country is conquered, there was little displacement of the current inhabitants but the culture of the invaders came to dominate the region. Christians and Jews were tolerated, though as second-class citizens. Learning was encouraged and several scientific, technological, artistic, architectural and agricultural advances made, achievements rivalled only by Baghdad, and al-Andalus became a magnet for scholars of all sorts.
Meanwhile the rest of Europe was wallowing in the one thousand years of cultural torpor and backwardness that followed the end of the Roman Empire and which would not end until the Renaissance – a rebirth of learning and enquiry that was fuelled by the translations from Greek, Persian and Indian that the Arabs had made.
In 733 CE at Tours, near Poitier in the middle of modern-day France, the advancing Moors were confronted by the outnumbered Franks. Their Christian leader, Charles, later known as Charles Martel, the Hammer, was nearly killed. Fortunately for him, he had sent out scouts who, while the battle raged, freed prisoners held in the camp of the Moors. Hearing of this and thinking that their loot would be taken, Moorish soldiers turned back from the fray. The Governor-general of al-Andalus, Abdul Rahman al-Ghafiqui, was killed while trying to stop the desertion and the tide of battle turned, and the Franks won, a thousand Franks dead and ten thousand Moors.
This is (arguably) the point of divergence for this alternate history. Historians debate whether the battle was a crucial juncture in the history of Europe. Gibbon thought it probably was, others think it only a skirmish and that even had the Moors won, their progress into Europe would have ultimately been arrested. It doesn’t matter; like all fiction, this story is a plausible untruth.
It is telling that those who think the battle at Tours a turning point in history often say that Charles ‘saved’ Europe from the Moors. No doubt, had Charles lost, they would have been saying the reverse, that the victory of the Moors had kept Europe from the dreadful fate to which it was otherwise doomed (i.e. the world in which we now live).
As Ants to the Gods starts in Lundun, provincial capital of the Tin Isles. But then the action moves further abroad within the Suzerainty of Al-Andalus and beyond.
As Ants to the Gods, was published in a digital edition on 5th June 2020 and in paperback on 10th August 2020.
ISBN: 978-1-911409-72-4 eBook Typical price £2.99 / €3.49 / $3.99
ISBN: 978-1-911409-62-5 paperback 520pp List price £12 / €16 / US$25
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