Top critical review
Great, But Should Really Include a Plot Next Time
on 10 July 2012
The end of the last book left me a bit surprised. Historically speaking Ballista is supposed to end up dead, probably at Odenathius' hands. The story of him becoming emperor only shows up in the Historia Augusta and even there he dies soon after. Having a barbarian Angle become emperor of the Romans, even if only for a few hours, is ridiculous. If Sidebottom had kept him a pure Roman or dropped the raising to the purple it would be fine. But even at the end the Romans weren't raising barbarians to the throne (only one I can think of is Silvanus in mid-4th Century and he died right quick). I wouldn't really get annoyed at this, but Sidebottom puts such effort into maintaining accuracy throughout that it seems surprising that he'd change so much. I really hope this wasn't done just so he could make a sequel. It wasn't worth it.
While I don't think this book is as bad as many others say, it is certainly a far cry from his previous books. The biggest problem is in structure and content. The first half of the book is irrelevant. You could skip it entirely and not miss anything. Ballista is waiting for Gallienus' response to his actions, and then he takes it upon himself to defend western Asia Minor from the Goths. This means that he starts in Ephesus, goes to Miletus, and then on to Didyma. At each location he fights a battle with the Goths, then leaves. This is repetitive and has no bearing on the main plot. Even more redundant are the chapters following Gallienus. They are irrelevant to the main plot since all that matters is what he's going to do with Ballista. Nonetheless this is dragged out for a whole half the book before it is resolved. It's not even as if Gallienus is debating it the whole time either. He's doing other stuff, with Ballista only mentioned rarely. And then in the end when he does decide it happens offscreen anyway and you only hear about it afterwards. It's terrible storytelling and literally every other chapter is like this.
So when the 'plot' actually gets going Ballista gets sent off to the Caucuses to the Caspian Gates. Hence the name. As I said before, this doesn't start until halfway through the book and then most of the rest of it is spent with traveling. When he finally gets there many things happen in a very short period of time. None of it feels like it justified its own book.
As for the characters, they're mostly there. Demetrius has gone unfortunately, being replaced by Hippothous who is infinitely more useful and worldly and thus less interesting. He may not be a carbon copy of Demetrius, but he shares enough with him to make it clear that he fills Demetrius' hole. He is philosophical, somewhat stuck up, and instead of an obsession with auguries he has one with phrenology. That's the determination of someone's character based on their facial appearance in case you don't know. As you would expect Sidebottom uses this to wax a great deal on the subject, which really could have been left out without any problem. He seems to use the character in this position to poke fun at the crazy stuff that the Romans believed, but he gets too involved in it to make it funny or poignant. Hippothous is also gay, further emphasizing the Demetrius connection.
Actually, losing Demetrius makes me kinda annoyed since he pulled the same thing with Turpio and a similar thing with Mamurra in the first book. He sets them up as having a big secret to tell and then he kills them off or sends them to the other side of the globe without revealing it. He also has Ballista and his wife keeping a big secret from each other, and while this may be resolved in future books it seems quite possible that it will remain unspoken forever. Much to everyone's annoyance. I'm not sure if this is thrown in there for realism or not since not everyone with a secret will reveal it, but these are all point of view characters at one point or another. The only reason we know they have a secret is because they told us they did. It's pretty cheap to do that if you never intend to resolve it.