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Not what it promises on the cover
on 14 December 2006
The idea of a novel exploring an encounter between Rome and China - the two great Empire of the classical world - is a fasncinating one. As the author says, there is evidence of a certain small amount of contact between them and there is almost certainly a place and a market for a 'what if' novel along the lines of Kim Stanley Robinson's "Years of Rice and Salt". However: you should be aware that this is not it.
It starts excellently; the author knows his Roman history and there is a clear sense of time and place in the adventures of a group of Legionnaires captured by the Persians with Emperor Valerian at Edessa in 260AD. This, however, takes more than the first half of the book, as the soldiers are condemned to slavery, escape and end up hooking up with a lost Prince of China. Whereas the first half of the book is a well-studied and interesting piece of writing, when we finally arrive in China we're suddenly in a high-kicking chop-socky spectacular.
The clash of styles is jarring.
The most awful thing is that much of the second half of the book appears to be written with half an eye to the movie rights. As you read, you can hear Hollywood script agents saying "It's high-concept! It's Roman Legions versus Wire-fu Ninjas! It's Gladiator meets Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon!" As an action film, I can see the value - the cash tills will be ringing. As a novel, it jars and doesn't convince. Used as we are to the uncompromising professionalism and stolidity of the Romans, the sudden arrival of (literally) superpowered ninja in a quasi-historical novel breaks suspension of disbelief. It's rare I put a book down without finishing it, but 60 pages from the end I had to make a conscious effort to read the painful deus-ex-machina conclusion.
I'm giving the book three stars because the first half is a good read. The second half is an unconvincing pitch to Hollywood with lead characters plainly modelled in the hope that Jet Li and Zhang Ziyi will be playing them. I like both historical epics and ludicrous kung-fu action adventures - I'm just not sure that they belong in the same book.