Top positive review
Still good, but with problems - 3.5 stars
on 26 October 2012
This is the third volume of "Ballista", or Dernhelm, the Romanized general and son of a warlord of the Angles. The action takes place during the "Third Century Crisis" and, in this tome specifically, between Spring 260 and the defeat and capture of Emperor Valens, one of the greatest Roman military disasters during the Empire, and Autumn 261 when the Sassanid invaders had finally been repealed and the rebellion of the usurpers Macrinus and his two sons had been crushed.
The author definitely knows his subject and displays his erudition, as usual, at the risk of annoying some of his readers who might feel lectured, although others seem to enjoy it, at least if some reviews are to be believed. Once again, the originality of the period and hero distinguishes this series from the numerous others that take place during the Roman Empire. Once again, the book is a mix of politico-military intrigues and battles, as Ballista, prisoner of the Sassanids, if freed by them so that he can move on to other things and accomplish what he is historically known for: defeating the Sassanids three times in battle.
While still good, I found this volume not quite as good as the previous one, and even less than "Fire in the East", the first one which, in my view, was the very best. For a long time, I was quite incapable of explaining why I came to such a conclusion, especially since all of the ingredients that make me enjoy the two previous volumes so much still seemed to be on display in this third episode. It is this very word - episode - that made me realize what the main problem was: I was not engaged as much as I had been before. Ballista in particular, and some of the other characters to a lesser extent no longer "felt and sounded" real and I had the (very subjective) impression that they were sometimes bordering stereotypes, with actions and behaviours which did not appear to be realistic.
The first component of this lack of realism was related to Ballista being sent around by the Macrinii as the number one "problem solver", despite the fact that there no love lost between them. You would think that the usurping Macrinii might select some other officer whose loyalty they could take for granted, although taking loyalty for granted was probably not a the best way to reach old age for Emperors, especially at the time. But no, you get the impression that Ballista is the only name that comes to their mind and that they really believed that holding his family hostage would guarantee his good behaviour and help to motivate them.
Then there is Ballista's reaction when he learns that his family has died. Huge grief is to be expected, together with a craving for vengeance, but moving against the Sassanids in Cilicia when his family had died in Antioch because of the Macrinii may not have been the most obvious reaction. What makes this even worse is the picture of Ballista - the tall blond Germanic warrior - going berserk in the middle of the battle (quite possible), cutting down all of his opponents and appearing unstoppable (just about plausible) and yelling in...Persian that he is some God of Death. This felt like a cheap and very implausible piece of melodrama, and it grated. There are a few other episodes which felt just as implausible, such as the expedition to Judea, among others.
We then have the final scenes when the last of the Macrinii sons and his ally are disposed of and Ballista, who has been acclaimed Emperor by the handful of Roman troops that are left, relinquishes the purple and walks away with his life. This is possibly the most implausible piece of all, as Odenathus lets him get away with it at a time when any claimant to the throne, and there were many, was put to death as a matter of course and as an elementary precaution, regardless of whether he had been willing to usurp the purple of simply forced into it. This unrealistic ploy and twist is, of course, the author changing his mind (the series was, it seems, originally conceived as a trilogy) and deciding to keep his hero alive for further adventures. The very last scene, with Zenobia meaningful looks and whispers, is supposed to let us know that more is to come, sometime in the future since we know that Zenobia finally revolted against Rome. Even this felt a bit artificial.
So my main impression after having read, and now re-read this book for the second time was that Harry Sidebottom may have become a bit complacent in this volume. His characters and their actions appear less well cast, as if he had become a bit careless after the huge success of his two previous volumes. This does not mean that volume III is not good. Although I was a bit sdisappointed, it is still above average and a great read, but it is not as good as the previous ones and the series seemed, to me, to be going downhill in slow motion. Three stars and a half (converted to four, since the rating system does not allow for half stars).