Book Review: Four Nails

Four Nails by G.J. Berger

Four Nails is a recipient of the San Diego Book Award for Best Published Historical Fiction (2016-2017) and an indieBRAG Medallion Honoree.

From its striking cover to opening passages beckoning readers into the camp of an elephant trainer in ancient India and the paths that lead him to the battles of the Second Punic War, Four Nails entices readers to an age commonly identified by one name – Hannibal Barca–though nearly as often shrouded in mystery. Author G.J. Berger lifts the veil a bit, bringing us closer to events of the era and the “[e]veryday ordinary people made to survive, to endure, to nurture their children, and love those close to them in times of great hardship[.]” Relating the tale of one man’s odyssey, the storyteller opens to readers a world many of us have had precious little opportunity to explore.

As this prequel to Berger’s first novel, South of Burnt Rocks West of the Moon, opens in 227 B.C., we meet Ashoka and his family’s elephant camp from which he is sold into slavery by his desperate father. After long and weary travel, he is tasked with training elephants for war, then sold into Hannibal’s service, where he once again meets up with Four Nails, the elephant he’d previously forged a special bond with.

As Hannibal leads his army through the Alps in his aim to reach and defeat Rome, Ashoka pours his entire existence into the care and consideration of his team, as his memories and other experiences also provide us with glimpses into his love for another and determination to speak truth, even to a power that could easily crush him. We come to understand his view of the differences and similarities between the two armies he has experienced as Ashoka endeavors to survive this war he never asked to serve in and make his way back to India. Simultaneously a love story unwinds, serving to contrast the ravaging of the Italian peninsula and showcasing acts of bravery that won’t make it to the history books.

Having previously experienced this author’s narrative style in the course of another telling of war and defense of one’s personal interests, I was looking forward to Four Nails, especially given the amazing exploits of a military commander bringing an army and trained elephants across a mountain range stretching through the territories of hostile weather, tribes, natural conditions and even one’s own turmoil and conflicts with confederates. Result: lush, descriptive passages and protagonist’s voice not only does not disappoint; it gripped me from start to finish.

A marble bust, reputedly of Hannibal, originally found at the ancient city-state of Capua in Italy, by © 1932 by Phaidon Verlag (Wien-Leipzig) (“Römische Geschichte”, gekürzte Ausgabe (1932)), via Wikimedia Commons

Before reading any of Berger’s works, I was aware of only very basic information about Hannibal, Carthage or the era, and was impressed to find that historical information I researched matched the true events played out in Four Nails. Once engrossed in the tale, it was easy to be drawn in and mesmerized by the author’s ability to wind together several layers and even stories, threads from one Indian boy’s life that meet with those of others, how they inform and affect one another and the places—geographical as well as emotional—to where they lead.

It would seem that in a story of this scope, the narrative details can’t be rushed, and Berger understands this well. Ashoka’s experiences unwind at a pace natural to events and its flow allows Ashoka, and not the war, to be the center. In this manner the novelist doesn’t allow his story to fall into the trap of mere rehashing or history lesson. He does a magnificent job of portraying ancient Indian and Carthaginian cultures: their habits, elements, sensibilities, ethics, worship and more. Immersed in the story as readers become, the characters do not seem so distant as the dates might insinuate. Living, breathing people with affections and fears populate this time and this tale, and the author lets them expand. We truly do get to see them in their moments of great hardship and what they do to endure and to love.

It is some time before we are given to recognize the significance of the beloved elephant’s name; once we reach this point, Berger gifts us with an even larger understanding of Ashoka’s character, which renews the continued reality of the world he holds dear, no matter where fate places him. We urge him on, even as the boy seems to resist our persuasions to make an escape in a way that makes sense to us; he will do it on his own terms. The author’s ability to portray an authentic voice for each of the larger characters is brilliant, and we can feel the angry power, modest timidity, quiet determination, for example, as distinct personalities hold their own.

Hannibal´s route of invasion given by the Department of History, United States Military Academy. There is a mistake in the scale. By Frank Martini, Cartographer, Department of History, United States Military Academy, via Wikimedia Commons

Four Nails speaks to friendship, loyalty, truth and heroism in a time of destruction, cruel conquest and shifting of powers, when all has been lost and the impending new order wants to extract yet more. Insightfully probing into the recesses of history, the author captures the voices of those seemingly lost to their time and those that follow. This is historical fiction that causes us to us reconsider all our previous notions about Carthaginian civilization—and ours.

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Thank you so much to G.J. Berger, who so kindly gifted me a copy of Four Nails with no expectation of a review. I am honored as well as humbled to promote this poignant and fascinating tale, a study and a story that I highly recommend. You can purchase Four Nails at Amazon or Amazon UK. It is the prequel to award-winning South of Burnt Rocks West of the Moon (reviewed here), which can also be purchased at Amazon or Amazon UK

Learn more about G.J. Berger at his website, and
check out my interview with this fantastic writer.

South of Burnt Rocks West of the Moon is also a two-time award winner: This marvelous read has taken home prizes from indieBRAG as well as the San Diego Book Awards.
G.J. Berger has been featured in the San Diego Reader‘s Writers to Watch series and The Huffington Post has called Four Nails a Pack Your Suitcase Read. Definitely an author to keep your eye out for, as we’re sure there will be much more to come!

Friday Five: The First Set

I simply couldn’t wait to start gathering my piles together. I’ve been thinking so much lately about so many of the wonderful books I’ve been dreaming of reading in the new year—and very possibly sooner. Not unlike my son, who has been organizing piles since his fine motor skills were first developed enough to curl his little fingers around the items of his choice, I’ve been stacking in anticipation of the day after I post the last review in my current bracket.

What of it? Well, I had planned to re-open for a few more submissions, as I did last time, but in the end decided against that. I may do it again; possibly requests will make their way to me, and certainly I’ll do reviews of some books I read on my own, and blog about things I’ve been wanting to but haven’t had the opportunity. For right now, though, the goal is to finish up the year and open 2018 with a clear, settled, relaxing slate.

So my thinking was that on the occasional Friday I’ll share a bracket of five books I have on my TBR, works I’ve been especially chomping at the bit to get to. I may or may not read them in bracket order, as often my reading choice is subject to mood, and it’s not likely to be easy to choose—you should have seen me just now sorting through books with such indecision—but I console myself with the possession of new time and the understanding there will be other Fridays.

Enjoy!

Four Nails (by G.J. Berger) This author’s debut novel, South of Burnt Rocks West of the Moon, has been instrumental in widening my parameters to include more reading of Roman and early Celtic historical fiction. This really is a fascinating time, and other great reads related to the era or its people have made their way to me, further adding to my enjoyment of the amazing stories people have to tell. In the case of Four Nails, Ashoka, taken into a slave caravan from India, navigates his way through the Second Punic War as he discovers the power of friendship and strength “known only to those with nothing left to lose.”

The Pirate Coast: Thomas Jefferson, the First Marines, and the Secret Mission of 1805 (by Richard Zacks) I’ve tried to read this book before and been overwhelmed by commitments I’d made to the reading and reviewing of others before it (not to mention real life). Possibly my inhalation of Thomas Jefferson and the Tripoli Pirates answered my appetite for that time being, but I wanted more about the Barbary Wars and it’s been dancing around my mind, demanding answers. Having started the book once, I believe it provides more extensive details about some historical figures discussed in Brian Kilmeade’s aforementioned title, such as William Eaton, who knew well the old Barbary maxim that “whoever acts like a sheep, the wolf will eat,” an understanding seemingly forgotten in today’s world. I’m looking forward to learning more about these wars and where that might lead me.

The Lost Kingdom—1066: I am the Chosen King (by Helen Hollick) It’s been awhile now I have heard not a small amount of praise about this author, and though I purchased this volume some months ago, have not yet read it, a situation I intend to remedy as soon as possible. I can thank Paula Lofting for pushing me, if not exactly kicking and screaming, somewhat reluctantly into the Anglo-Saxon era, which I completely and utterly fell for. Here Hollick picks up in 1044, when events unfold that have a role in how the battles of 1066 will play out. In this year England stands at a crossroads and everything hangs in the balance as Harold Godwinson sacrifices all for his country. From childhood history lessons we know how this will play out, but here we are promised a revelation of what makes up the real Harold, “shattered by the unforgiving needs of a Kingdom” and given “all the honor and dignity that history remembers of its fallen heroes.”

The Path of the Hawk (by Ian Graham) This is another novel, first in a series of the same title about “an elite unit of soldiers and spies,” that I purchased and reluctantly put aside in this year of overflowing plate. It came to my attention via a review written by author Steven A. McKay (remember this name—you’ll see it again), who describes exactly what I’m looking for in a fantasy novel (when I do read one): “The writing style is engaging and entertaining, the action fast paced and imaginative, and the characters interesting and well-drawn. The world they inhabit is detailed enough to feel real but not in the boring, overdone way some fantasy writers do.” Real is a key word for me here, not dismissive of magical elements, just that they don’t appear each time like some deus ex machina, with little or no relationship to the characters or their history. I also like McKay’s mention of fast-paced, and knowing they are spies and soldiers—characters I’ve been enamored of since childhood—I’m very much looking forward to a thrilling read.

Sextant: A Young Man’s Daring Sea Voyage and the Men Who Mapped the World’s Oceans (by David Barrie) I almost feel guilty mentioning this account, given I’ve done so at least twice before. I love the sea and reading a history of mapping it, I imagine, will provide a glimpse into a world so many of us only dream about knowing, even having learned of all those important historic expeditions in school. Of course that’s not enough! “[A] love letter to the sea and sky,” this book’s blurb gives me the impression it will tap directly into more of my childhood fascinations as the two definitively linked earthly elements recount memories of my own attempts at creating a sextant—wholly unsuccessful, but the keeper of a fleet of wondrous memories.

Thanks for joining us and look for more in weeks to come!