fantasy, ancient world, historical fictionA mock introduction tells of a manuscript found during excavations when building the Aswan Dam. This book is supposedly a translation of that manuscript, the earlier two books, Soldier of the Mist and Soldier of Arete, being transations of manuscripts from the British Museum.
This manuscript, like the other two, is written by Latro, who is a veteran Roman mercenary. Latro though has been cursed by a god: as a result he loses his memory each night. Thus the manuscript/book is not just a diary but an aide-memoire, which Latro has to be reminded to read each morning. As a consolation for the curse, Latro can see and talk with the gods and their servants.
In this book Latro journeys down the the Nile, searching for a cure for his curse. Being a veteran, he is given command of a sqaud guarding a boat captained by his friend Muslak, on a mission to investigate rumours of gold mines far to the south. Also on the boat are the expedition commander, two priests and two 'river wives' for Latro and Muslak, hired for the voyage from a temple.
Things soon start to get strange. One of the priests seems to temporarily lift Latro's memory loss. A large cat and a strange woman are seen on the boat at night sometimes. An experience at a temple gives Latro a servant who has powers over snakes. Later, Latro makes friends with a monkey no one else can see and wrestles and defeats an evil spirit inhabiting a child, again which others cannot see.
The device of the manuscript works extremely well. It shows Latro to be honest and a good judge of character. It serves to make the supernatural ordinary, since Latro records the fantastic in his usual manner. It also makes certain story elements more shocking, as the record suddenly becomes terse and the narrative jumps. The book itself finishes as Latro runs out of space on the manuscript. The hook into the next book is a quest for Latro to recover something treasured he has lost.
This book/series stands out as a unique example of a realistic fantasy, where gods and mortals fit together naturally. The ancient world is brought to life, rather than some fake fantasy realm. The attention is to realism: for example, language. Latro writes his manuscript, in Latin which some other characters cannot read. On their journey all have problems communicating wiith locals as languages change. Latro understands enough Greek to talk to a Greek merchant they meet.
This series is highly recommended and well on its way to becoming a classic. If you have not read any of the previous books, the final advantage of the manuscript-as-memory device is that there is no back story to assimilate.