Two years have passed. Math and Hannah are gone. The Leopard, Sebastos Abdes Pantera, remains. Rome is a distant memory and the heat of Rome's Eastern Empire shimmers with deadly allurement over the fate of our spy, warrior, kingmaker.
It is A.D.66, a summer ripe with rebellion. The burning of Rome is done and Saulos Herodian recuperates amongst the Berber tribes in the desert plotting the destruction of Jerusalem for he believes that "if Rome burned under the eye of the dog star, then Jerusalem might be sundered and in its place...might grow something wonderful...Judea must fall for that to happen." He has a new ally, the deadly Iksahra sur Anmer who uses falcons and cheetah as readily as a sword and the start of his new great game is to murder King Agrippa.
A desert away Pantera and Mergus are hunted on their way to Caesarea where Governor Florus and Queen Berenice reside. Estaph gives us a summary of the political situation: of Menachem's War party, of Gideon's Peace party and of the undercurrents of rebellious discontent against the Roman overlords where the province of Judea has plenty of keen ears into which Saulos can whisper insidious words of war. Conflict is swiftly engaged, the ebb and flow of struggles is set against the treacherous shifting sands of Roman Judea as we follow the timeline of the historian Josephus.
Into this assemblage comes Hypatia, Chosen of Isis, reluctant mentor to the headstrong Kleopatra, daughter of Queen Berenice. Hypatia is forced to engage with Saulos in the deadly political arena of Agrippa's court as Yusaf ben Matthias offers eight talents of gold in return for lands in Jerusalem to build a Temple; Sebastos is forced to get involved with tracking down Kleitos and a riot in Caesarea before dealing with the more direct route of battle by seizing Masada and riding with a rebellion to Jerusalem that will lead to a fulfillment of his destiny with Saulos at Herod's palace.
Scott has delivered a strong narrative after the opening "The Emperor's Spy". I stated that in "Dreaming the Serpent Spear" that we know with terrible finality that Breaca will die because history commands it but we do not wish it to happen. Yet, in this series we find ourselves diverging rapidly from Paulinian accepted history to a conclusion that is startling. Of course, St Paul or Saul of Tarsis disappears from the historical record but there is a fairly strong conclusion that he was executed in Rome around A.D.67. The author chooses an entirely different interpretation of both events and Saulos' motivation to fictionalize in this novel. The 'Author's Note' references scholars such as Daniel T Unterbrink who question the accepted version of the life of St Paul. With the Boudica series we can read safely knowing what must come but the Rome series steers us away from the familiar comfort of childhood stories in a manner that encourages us to pause and rethink. This reviewer was prompted to have a look for précis of Unterbrink's analysis. In some ways, I would recommend a purchaser read the 'Author's Note' before embarking on the novel as the conclusions and vilification of Saulos may startle many readers.
Historical alternative theories aside, Scott has delivered another crisp novel. The focus on relationships, of subtle machination, of youthful exuberance and crestfallen learning are the fabric upon which the author's narration rests. The steely, purposeful strength of the female characters guides the plot to the action points of battle; the grim determination and inexorability of fate drives Pantera. We feel the inner turmoil and struggle for understanding of our main protagonists, accept the sense of honour that drives Pantera, the intellectual and spiritual determination of Berenice and Hypatia. Well-drawn with prose that becomes terse when action is needed, verbose when emotions are being understood. There is a need to read the book thoroughly and not skim through it - such would be a disservice to the complexity of the relationships that are explored in the text - though I did feel the conversion of Iksahra from Saulos' tool to Hypatia's ally was a touch too quick, a single conversation being all it took to sway her judgment.
Scott gives all characters a voice. None within are silent extras, each has a story to tell, albeit quick or long. This is driven home by the small aside in the heat of a coming battle where a single guard, Laelius, makes a decision to abandon a post that will lead to death and retire to an old and fruitful life as a village smith. It is this attention to people rather than action that gives the story an entirely human element. Other authors writing of the classical period focus on the "white-hot clash and noise of battle" but miss the point entirely when it comes to understanding that character motivation, suffering, guilt and indecision is integral to satisfying a reader. Scott achieves this in her novels through a mix of myth, history, personal and social morality. It is the mixture of emotions that drags us into not just empathizing with the characters but also sympathizing with them.
So, we await "The Eagle of the Twelfth". Just a shame it might have to be 2012 before we can see how Scott deals with Pantera as he immerses himself more fully in Josephus' history. A history that might find him an ever more reluctant hero because, as Pantera himself observes: "I got what I wanted most in life, and found that I didn't want it all".