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Not quite what it could be...
on 28 July 2011
After reading the first one I stated that I thought the series would get better and better.
Unfortunately not., but it's no worse than the first.
Any complaints about historical mangling in the first novel will only be increased on reading this one and I suspect it'll either get great reviews or bad reviews depending on your need for historical accuracy.
Iggulden's second novel `Emperor: The Death of Kings' opens with the young tessarius Gaius Julius Caesar part of a naval party storming the fortress town of Mytilene to rescue governor Paulus. The chapter serves, as does much of the previous novel and this one, to demonstrate the episodic nature of Caesar's rise through the ranks as he overcomes physical obstacles and personally rescues the governor.
As with the preceding novel anyone with any knowledge of the period and the characters will swiftly realise the gaping historical inaccuracies, fundamental character reversals and disappearances of other key people (Marcus Tullius Cicero the most blatant) continue in this volume. This is neatly demonstrated by Sulla's death at the hands of Tubruk's ice sorbet.
Still....we move swiftly on to the episode with the pirates, a clout to the head being the given cause of Caesar's future epilepsy and follow Marcus Brutus as he returns a centurion and promptly cuts a swathe through the female nobility of Rome with more alacrity after meeting with his mother Servilia who is a high class courtesan. From there we focus on Julius' destruction of Mithridates, his retention of his home in the law courts, his continuing enmity with Suetonius and now the portly Cato and the hiccup with Brutus over the recreation and command of Marius' Primigenia legion (which never existed). Once all this has settled down Julius lopes off with his wolves to take on Spartacus which he does by holding the left flank after Lepidus dies mid-battle. Eventually, both Pompey and Caesar get to avenge themselves on Cato after members of their families are murdered by Cato's command.
By the end this is a good historical fantasy (in fact it's almost an alternative history) best evidenced by the running title of the quartet as Caesar was never an Emperor (in fact it was his suggested kingly ambition that got him assassinated) but historical accuracy is not fundamental to Iggulden's story. An excellent example of this is when by page 190 or so of the hardback version we find the future true first emperor of Rome, Augustus, (who's not Caesar's great nephew but cousin in this interpretation) as a thieving street urchin with his impoverished mother, stealing butcher chops and getting involved in fights before being carted off to Uncle Julius for some horseriding training. Reality is entirely suspended.
So, for its merits as a historical fantasy Iggulden provides a sequel that is faced-paced, easily readable and exciting, providing action, love, politics, war and peace against a tumultuous backdrop of change.
The key to dissatisfaction, however, is that the lack of historicity leaves a slightly sour taste and the characters are two-dimensional which leaves this reader feeling no justice is being done to these historical greats.
I confess the historical purist in me makes me undecided as to whether I will read the third installment but there is no denying it is an exciting, easy read. If writing a flowing historical fantasy plucking some names from Roman history was Iggulden's aim, then he gets 4 stars. If it is intended as historical fiction based on reality it would get one star.
Whatever your thoughts on it, one thing is clear - this needs considerable improvement if it aspires to the dizzy heights of McCullough or Saylor or Davis...