Salt and Sacrifice
John Carlyle O’Neill
Wise Ink Creative Publishing £10.34
SALT and Sacrifice is a strange little novel. It is set in the Roman Empire, in the time of the Emperor Septimius Severus or thereabouts, which would be some time in the third century. The action mainly takes place in “Germania”, at a place called Saltz Mountain, which is the location of a vast salt mine, where thousands of slaves labour night and day in appalling conditions. In Germania people speak a language called “Germanian”.
Many of the supposedly Latin names in the book are completely wrong. But this is just one indication that the setting really has nothing to do with ancient Rome at all. We could be in a futuristic human colony on Mars, or in some fantasy world such as that of Game of Thrones. Whichever, we are certainly in a very distinctive world, and the atmosphere is telling, which is to the book’s credit.
The plot defies easy summary. It is part quest, part struggle, and has lots of violence. There is a great deal about engineering, none of which makes complete sense. It is both puzzling and somehow compulsive, centring around a master builder called Pallas, who is tracking down a slave called Citius, who is fighting for his life in the salt mine. The ending rather leaves things hanging.
There is a religious theme: some of the salt miners are Christians who are being persecuted by pagans. At one point a character discovers God. But this is all rather tangential, and may help to build up atmosphere, while having little to do with plot.
This curious novel is a reminder to us that a writer’s mind acts like a magpie, assembling jarring details that nevertheless go to make up an ensemble that is rich and strange.
Fr Alexander Lucie-Smith is a Roman Catholic priest, doctor of moral theology and consulting editor of The Catholic Herald