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Authentic detail but fails to grip
on 3 August 2010
There are plenty of good things to say about this, but ultimately I'd only really recommend it to readers who thirst for accurate historical detail about the Roman Empire in decline in the form of a novel. They have a treat here; for others, it doesn't in my opinion quite work.
The plot is promising enough. The hero Ballista, a former northern "barbarian", has risen through the ranks to become a senior Roman commander - senior enough to be enmeshed in hideous political rivalry between rival contenders for the Imperial thrones in East and Weest parts of the decaying empire. At the end of the last book, he was captured with the Emperor by the Persians: he's released to negotiate with Rome, but swears on the life of his children that he'll return.
However, his family is held effectively hostage by the new dual Emperors in Rome, and he's persuaded to break his oath - and is haunted for some time by the belief that he's doomed his family. He returns east to command forces under the citation of the mad eastern Emperor. I won't give the outcome away but there are plenty of twists and turns.
The characters are generally pure goodies or pure baddies but credibly filled out and different from each other. There is a liberal sprinkling of Latin terms to add flavour and an extensive appendix describing how the book fits with historical relaity.
So what's the problem? First, the book doesn't really have a narrative whole. Ballista has a series of political and military problems which he deals with, as a professional soldier having a number of difficult days at the office. The early chapters are all about the interaction with his Persian captors: you could skip all of them and the rest of the book wouldn't be much affected apart from Ballista worrying about the oath. Even the character in the title (The Lion of the Sun) only turns up in the latter part of the book in a powerful role but essentially a walk-on part. Second, Ballista is a pretty dour character - decent enough, but he ranges from being broodingly austere to less broodingly austere: he isn't all that interesting as a person. Third, the author's decision to make the book historically plausible constrains him from giving Ballista a decisive commanding role, and he makes up for it by having him put himself in the front line to an implausible extent - he personally leads a small scouting expedition while commanding a large army.
It's ultimately a book for history fans who want to relax with some fiction. If that's you, buy it. If not, there may be more enjoyable reads.