Thomas B(ertram) Costain

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Geoffrey Bruun

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As a novelist Mr. Costain has always been at his best when he gave his rollicking fancy a free rein. His favorite formula is to fling a handful of worthy and attractive people into the maelstrom of disastrous historical events and then bring them safely to harbor in the final pages. He surrounds these core characters with a picaresque train of supernumeraries and keeps the drama of their adventures moving at an exhilarating gallop….

[In "The Darkness and the Dawn"] the historical setting is Europe in the middle of the chaotic fifth century when Attila the Hun assailed the dissolving Roman Empire….

Nicolan and Ildico [are] the hero and heroine of "The Darkness and the Dawn."… They and a few loyal friends symbolize the decent people of this world, struggling with courage and dignity against the rising tide of barbarism. One gathers that the spread of their humane ideals will be the dawn that follows the darkness of Rome's eclipse….

It is excusable to reveal the outcome of a Costain novel because that outcome may be anticipated from the first. The magic of this tale does not depend on the plot but on the crisp colloquial dialogue, the tense succession of episodes, the kaleidoscopic changes of scene. Each new setting is flashed to life on the mind in a few compelling phrases. Each character springs to life in a purposeful attitude, his role announced by unequivocal speech or gesture. The economy with which the author achieves this impression of vibrant life, of constant movement and animation, largely explains his popular appeal. He is a born teller of tales, a master of the electrifying narrative.

Yet there are limitations to his method, less apparent but not less real. His fictional characters are seldom complex and never profound. They belong to our time or to no time as much as to their own. Like their historic background they are over-simplified. They do little to enlarge or enrich the reader's historical sense and understanding of an alien age. Mr. Costain has demonstrated in his "Pageant of England" series that he can reconstruct the historic past in patient detail when he chooses but he has not done so here. The mood, the image of the fifth century which he projects in "The Darkness and the Dawn" is a simulation, not an authentic recreation of that confused and tragic time.

Geoffrey Bruun, "The Days of Attila the Hun," in New York Herald Tribune Book Review, October 11, 1959, p. 7.

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