Regardless of whether this book is cheap or expensive, the purpose of this review is to try to explain why I believe it is worth five stars. As far as I am concerned, it ticks all my boxes, with a couple of original touches added to the mix. These gave me the impression that the author may even have enjoyed writing his book. For a piece of historical fiction like this one, there are at least three and possibly even five such "boxes" to tick for me to "love it", to use Amazon terminology for a five-star rating.
First, there is the historical context. The story takes place in AD 264, within one of the less well-known periods of the Roman Empire sometimes called "the Third Century Crisis" and as the Empire is torn by multiple usurpations, civil wars and invasions from Germanic Barbarians by land and sea all along the Rhine and the Danube. A few years before, Britain, Gaul and Spain had seceded, with Posthumus, a Batavian general, having been proclaimed Emperor. Odenathus, Lord of Palmyra, controls the Eastern part after having defeated the Persians. At least officially and for the time being, he acts there as the viceroy of Emperor Gallienus who still controls the central part of the Empire. The latter has been facing one crisis after another (and, at times, several almost simultaneously) for most of his reign which starting in AD 253.
Unsurprisingly, since the author is also an accomplished historian, the historical context is very well presented, with summaries of previous events (both those that took place in previous volumes and events that have not been described in detail) being summarized through the reflections of some of the main characters. This include Gallienus and Posthumus, but also Ballista/Derhelm, the Angle prince hostage of the Romans, brought up with Gallienus and trained as a Roman general, but currently out of favour with the suspicious Emperor. The latter has been planning to attack Posthumus, reconquer the lost Western Provinces, and avenge the killing of his infant son by the usurper. To help this plan, and draw the Angles back into an alliance with him, he sends Ballista with an embassy back to them along the "Amber Road" through what are now Ukraine, Russia and Poland.
The depiction of the realm of the Angles in the far north, way beyond the frontiers of the Imperium, is where Harry Sidebottom starts mixing history with fiction. As he acknowledges in his (rather superb) historical note, we know next to nothing about most of the Germanic tribes and confederations of the Third century that were not in direct contact with the Roman frontier. In particular, we do not know much about who was controlling what area around what is now Northern Germany, Northern Poland, Scandinavia and the coasts of the Baltic Sea. So the author sets out into making the Angles into the powerful overlords of a vast confederation dominating the region, and very similar to the Danes. As a result, both those liking "swords and sandals" novels and those liking sombre "Viking and Saxon type" ones will find this book to be a treat. For the latter, there are even a couple of scenes that seem to have been inspired by the adventures of Ahmahd ibn Fahdalan (remember the 13th warrior by John McTierman, with Antonio Banderas in the role of the Arab ambassador?).
Moreover, and as the author alludes to in his note, while fictitious, the Angles domination in the North, and its contacts and involvement with the Roman Empire are not entirely implausible. By the time the action takes place, Germanic tribes had been coalescing into larger and more powerful confederation for over a century and a half. Moreover, archaeological findings over the last two to three decades have shown that the warrior-like Germanic tribes and confederations were far less "barbaric" than previously believed. Given the amounts of Roman weaponry and coins found, even those in what is now modern Denmark and Scandinavia were clearly in contact with the Empire, whether through trade, or, perhaps more likely through sea-borne raids and by taking service as soldiers within the Empire. The novel abundantly shows them in both roles. It also shows very well (and for the Goths just as much as for the Angles) why the Roman Army would both appreciate such recruits and how dangerous they could be, especially with their wedge assault formations combined with their warrior ethos.
Another nice touch is the book's prologue. Not only is it suitably griping - the reader get his first dose of "action" almost immediately as a large raiding party of Angles gets caught by the Romans before they manage to make back to their ships with their loot and captives - but it also makes the point that sea-raiding was already a significant threat all along the coasts of Northern Gaul and Britain in the third century. With the Angles and all the other tribes (Franks, Saxons, Jutes, Frisians etc..;) carrying out sea-borne raids in their "longships" and sailing back in the Baltic, the author makes the point that there is no real reason for the Germanic tribes to have been incapable of sailing before the seventh or eighth century AD. This had been the long-held view shared by many historians up to quite recently.
As usual, on this point, as on many others, the author provides his readers with numerous tips for those interested in further read on the various topics he covers. He also includes maps and glossaries for both the main terms and places and for the main characters in the story.
The characters seem to be one of the areas where the author had some fun when writing. Those familiar with the Emperors that reigned after Gallienus and Posthumus will see that just about all of them make some kind of appearance in the book, whether fleeting or as secondary characters. The most obvious one is one young Pannonian centurion called Diocles (the future Diocletian) who is part of Ballista's embassy to the far North. At one point, Ballista, his Hibernian bodyguard (Maximus) and Diocles discuss the future of the Empire, agree that, ideally, a Tetrarchy would be the best combination to cover and defend all frontiers, before the Hibernian concludes in his rather blunt, rude and flippant way that it would not last for long. Apart from that, another set of characters that the author seems to have found amusing were the pompous Greek courtier and the eunuch, both part of the embassy and both totally at a loss and quite ridiculous in the rough, tough Far North.
Then there is the plot, on which I will not write much to avoid any spoilers. It is not exactly original. The story is hardly unpredictable, although it is both well executed and well told. With regards to battles and fights, you get plenty of both, described in a very realistic way. The heroes (and everyone else for that matter) are human, and therefore afraid before every fight, however battle-hardened they may be. Ballista, and Maximus to a lesser extent, and as has been the case in the previous episode, get battered and bashed about, however successful they might end up by being. Ballista's family problems take a whole new dimension as you get to meet the old warlord and King of the Angles (whose title is "Theoden", meaning King in old English, but also a character of the Lord of the Ring).
I could, perhaps, come up with a couple of quibbles (Romans "shaking hands", in one instance), but only found a few (a couple of others). It would be rather petty to mention them, and quite unnecessary since they are so minor and do not distract this book from being a superb read. The whole construct is very enjoyable and, as you may have guessed, I read it within twenty four hours (and I was NOT on holiday), found it totally impossible to put down, and finished it at two in the morning. As a result, it was a bit tough getting to work this morning and I am not sure this had been my most productive day in the year! So be warned: it's that kind of book.
Given all this, it is easily worth five stars. Finally, and for those who seem to be concerned about price, and believe they may be taken for a ride, it is definitely a bargain, by the way!