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I almost titled this review “the prototype”, because it is also about Scythians at the time of Alexander. This time, however, the hero is a Macedonian Companion cavalry officer, wounded and left behind to recover by his King as he moved on to India, as opposed to Christian Cameron’s Kineas, the Athenian mercenary commander that is the main character of the two first volumes of his “Tyrant” series.
This book, the first of Max Overton’s trilogy, was first published in 2001, years before those of Cameron’s, so the originality of the subject should go to the former, rather than later. Having mentioned this, the two stories are somewhat different. This one takes place essentially in Sogdia and on the steppes north of it. The main Scythian tribes that we come across are the Dahae and the Massagetae (and a few others). In other words, the action, at least in this first volume, takes place North and East of the Caspian Sea, in what is nowadays Central Asia. It does not take place on the steppes to the north of the Black Sea and does not involve the other Scythian tribes that lived there.
There is another reason for possibly calling this book “the prototype”. The story is less elaborate than the two Tyrant volumes I was referring to. The characters sometimes seem a bit shallow. The story tends to focus too much (or perhaps too much for my personal tastes?) on the romance between the young dashing Macedonian cavalry officer, who, of course, is of illustrious heritage, and the Scythian princess/priestess. There are no maps and no historical notice from the author explaining his choices. Also, the story is somewhat predictable.
Finally, there are a number of inaccuracies. For instance, neither Greco-Macedonian cavalry nor the Scythians had any shields at the time, contrary to what is shown several times in the book. The Scythians are presented as undisciplined, which may have been true, and incapable of fighting as units and in formation, which is much more doubtful, especially for a formation such as a cavalry wedge. Another point is that a Macedonian Companion’s main weapon was his lance, and not his sword which was very much of a secondary weapon. For Greek cavalry, which made up most of the troops left to garrison Bactria and Sogdia when Alexander marched off to India, the main weapons were a pair of javelins. Again, the sword was a secondary weapon on horseback, and not the main one, as it is made to be here.
All these “glitches” can however be largely seen as “technicalities” and may be somewhat overlooked, given the other qualities of this first volume. The story is fast-paced. The book reads easily and it is quite exciting, despite being rather predictable. The book’s opening, where the hero is captured by a Scythian war band after putting up a rather desperate fight, is griping and a superb lead-in to the rest of the book. Some features may oblige the reader to somewhat suspend belief, with the hero and one of his surviving men seeming to be able to gallop away happily across the steppes mere days after sustaining what had seemed to be grievous wounds. Other, however, are quite remarkable, such as the burial of a Scythian chieftain on the steppes which makes direct use of archaeological findings.
A rather good sign was that I was left wanting for more, despite all my grumbling about the story ending rather abruptly. While not a five star book, and after hesitating quite a bit, I believe this one may be worth a somewhat generous four stars. Although three and a half stars may have been more accurate, three stars would however be too harsh for what is essentially a good uncomplicated read.