Starving Review: Alexander’s Lighthouse by Don Westenhaver

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Alexander’s Lighthouse by Don Westenhaver (Amazon, Goodreads)

Historical fiction has always been a cuisine of some consternation for yours truly.  You see, I am something of a history buff (I had early dreams of being a history teacher, even) and, obviously, I’m also a big fiction fan.  Yet, while I love both foods separately, I often find the mixing of the two to fall short of the sum of the parts.  The war between historical fact and fiction interpretation often leads to a clash of flavors, leaving one side of the taste equation unbalanced, spoiling the mix.  Still, that doesn’t mean it can’t be done well.  The question, then, is whether today’s chef pulls out a winning recipe from that struggle or it simply sours.

Before we figure that out, let’s recite the Starving Review Creed:

  1. I attempt to rate every book from the perspective of a fan of the genre
  2. I attempt to make every review as spoiler-free as possible

As I brought up the question of historical vs. fictional balance first, I am obligated to deal with it first.  Lighthouse does, despite the precarious nature of the spices involved, strike a fine balance between the history of the early A.D. years in Roman Egypt and the need to tell an exciting and entertaining piece of fiction.  The chef did his homework, studying the flavors and tastes of his era of choice, but add plenty of his own to the pot.  A particularly nice touch is an author’s section after the tale speaking of both the historical influences and the deviations, giving a splash of education to the stew as well.  It holds together quite well, avoiding the textbook-like consistency of an overly historical piece, while not running off the rails as more purely fictional accounts can.

Do the rest of the classical story elements also hold up?  The cast of characters arrayed, historical and fictional,  weave an excellent tapestry of the diverse nature of Alexandria, the place setting for the meal, and our main characters are explored in depth.  Some of the secondary characters are a bit sketchier, but it detracts little from the overall presentation.

Likewise, the core plot is well-arrayed.  As it is arranged to be a more straight-forward tale, it does leave out a possible introduction of mystery flavors (something the plot could have turned into), yet it still retains the proper notes to keep a ratcheting of dramatic tension.  As our primary antagonist is a major character, we rarely are lost as to his intentions or plans, but the balance of tension is maintained in that the interactions of protagonist, antagonist, and side characters are not so cut, dry, and obvious as they may seem.  The spice is in the wait to see just how these characters and the forces arrayed against each other play out, not in divining said plans, and it works out quite well.

Dialogue and wordsmithing are both handled with dutiful skill, not exemplary but solid and functional.  This chef seems at his best in physical description, while the dialogue itself is more straightforward.  One thing I do have to point out that I liked in the dialogue was the understanding that, when writing in a foreign tongue, you don’t need to have characters word-drop that tongue.  It creates the right feeling that these characters ARE speaking Latin or Greek or Egyptian, as opposed to English dribbled with random foreign words.

So, what do we have in the end?  Alexander’s Lighthouse is a strong, balanced mix of history and fiction, built on the junction of character and plot!  Where it isn’t done perfectly, it is still crafted with diligence, and I wholeheartedly recommend it to anyone who likes historical fiction, has interest in that period of history, or has a general love of intrigue and thrillers.  Even if you’re not a fan of this specific genre, it’s well worth a read.  The only people who I would put this away from are those looking for pure mystery or are super sticklers for pure history (the chef freely notes where he deviates in his closing notes, but some may want more exacting diligence).

FINAL VERDICT: ***** (A strong, balanced mix of history and fiction, built on the junction of character and plot!)

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