||Mar 18, 2011
The Roman Empire is crumbling, and a shadow looms in the east…
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The Roman Empire is crumbling, and a shadow looms in the east…
376 AD: the Eastern Roman Empire is alone against the tide of barbarians swelling on her borders. Emperor Valens juggles the paltry border defences to stave off invasion from the Goths north of the Danube. Meanwhile, in Constantinople, a pact between faith and politics spawns a lethal plot that will bring the dark and massive hordes from the east crashing down on these struggling borders.
The fates conspire to see Numerius Vitellius Pavo, enslaved as a boy after the death of his legionary father, thrust into the limitanei
, the border legions, just before they are sent to recapture the long-lost eastern Kingdom of Bosporus. He is cast into the jaws of this plot, so twisted that the survival of the entire Roman world hangs in the balance…
His words tailed off and he touched a hand to the earth. He felt a tremor, growing in intensity. His eyes widened as he saw the foliage ripple up ahead: something was coming for them. Coming for them fast.
‘Cavalry charge – right on top of us. Form a line three deep…’ then he hissed, so only Felix could hear, ‘…or we’re dead meat!’
Ignoring the cramp in their tired limbs, his men sprang from the crouched testudo shell, and pulled round to face south, spears dug into the mud like a threadbare porcupine. The freezing rain clawed at their faces as they beheld the dark mass hurtling towards them.
Gallus’ eyes shrivelled as he tried to take in the charge: a hundred or more stocky riders with long dark wispy jet-black locks billowing behind rounded caps and clad in skins; what looked like composite bows and javelins looped on their backs, with long cutting swords and daggers hanging from their belts. As they thundered ever closer, Gallus’ features wrinkled at their faces: flattened, broad, and yellow, their cheeks appeared to be symmetrically ripped with a triple line of angry scar tissue and their eyes were almond-like and unblinking. The riders on the wing of the charge had lengths of rope looped into lassos on their belts.
‘Hold steady!’ Gallus roared over the rumble of hooves.
As Gallus filled his lungs at the last, his mind flitted with visions of Olivia on their wedding night; Olivia carrying their child. Then the shadowy form of mother and child on the pyre. I’m coming to be with you. He leaned forward, feeling his men bracing along with him, when suddenly, like a storm dropping, the onrushing cavalry broke into two halves. They washed past the stunned legionary group, and on at the same breakneck pace to the north.
Gallus expelled the breath in his lungs, his mind reeled. ‘What the…’ he glanced at Felix. ‘They’re after the archers!’
His line slumped in utter relief. Some men belly-laughed in shock, others vomited in the mud. Felix looked down the track as the rain became sheet-like.
‘Who…what are we dealing with here, sir?’
Gallus gazed down the track with Felix in bewilderment as a crash of lighting illuminated their faces.
‘The lion’s jaws, Felix. The lion’s jaws!’
By J.A. Beard at GoodBookAlert.Blogspot.com
The problem with long-lasting empires is what defines them changes from century to century and even decade to decade. Popular images of Rome are often associated with the early empire and tend to be dominated by events swirling around the Julio-Claudians. Thus, I think it was a wise idea to open the book by effectively front-loading what would normally be an appendix. In a very accessible short section, the author gives a little bit of background on Rome at the time his story is set and clarifies a few points of culture that are important but otherwise would be difficult to explore given his general action-oriented style (e.g., doctrinal differences in the early Christian Church). He also takes the opportunity to define various Latin words he'll be using throughout the text.
With the brief history lesson over, the author thrusts the reader into an intense tale of honor, intrigue, and most of all, action. Fortunately, the author is a skilled weaver of battle scenes. Anyone seeking out some good ancient warfare will likely be pleased.
Character development, though not quite on the same level as the action scenes, is fairly good, particularly in the main lead, a former slave just trying to survive. Few are likely to claim that the men populating the book are overly complex individuals, but given that they are border legionaries that makes sense. Despite people like Marcus Aurelius, the typical Roman fighting against barbarians concentrated on survival and stress release and not a lot of deep thinking. I will note that most of the lead characters are fairly sympathetic without being anachronistic and a couple of antagonists have more depth than they initially display.
The plot unfolded at a brisk and engaging pace, though certain conspiracy elements felt a bit forced. There also was a very underexplored subplot involving a secondary character that was rather rushed at the end. While it obviously was meant to serve as a hook for a sequel, it felt tacked on.
One aspect I particularly enjoyed about the book was that it helped get across something that isn't always emphasized in Roman-era fiction: the dangerous existential threat posed by the huge tribal groups surrounding the empire and the complex interactions between them.
I found the author's stylistic choices concerning language a bit distracting at times. Now, I certainly don't believe that ancient historical fiction dialog should be rendered or translated as stilted, overly formal, or anything like that, particularly when you're dealing with characters from the lower classes. That being said, the author's dialog ended up a bit too far on the modern vernacular dialect side for my tastes. This was highlighted by the high frequency use of Latin terms. If the general dialog pattern was slightly more neutral, it wouldn't be as distracting and would, I think, only have increased immersion in the setting, but when combined with the more modern sounding dialog, I found it jarring on occasion.To be fair, many historical fiction authors employ similar dialog styles and are well-received. It just happens to be a stylistic choice I personally dislike.
Excluding my dialog issues, the general writing was effective. Descriptions were evocative without being overwhelming, and the syntactic pacing was effective for this style of book.
My other stylistic quibbles aside, anyone seeking an action-packed grunt-eye view of life in a border legion would be well served by picking up Legionary.
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