Having read most of the author's books (although not all of them), I tend to disagree with the statements made by some other reviewers (on the US site, I think) about books being not as good since the author has changed publisher or about this one being not among the best. To a large extent, different reviewers have different personal opinions and preferences. I found that this one was one of Gillian Bradshaw's best, mainly because of its originality in several respects.
The period chosen - the middle of the third century BC (BC 246) during the time of the Hellenistic Kingdoms - is certainly an original one, and this remains so, even after Christian Cameron has started writing his novels on Alexander and his Successors. The particular context, the second Syrian War, opposing the Seleucid King to Ptolemy, the Egyptian one, is mostly unknown by the so-called "general readers" and its specifics remain the preserve of a handful of specialist scholars and lovers of the Hellenistic Age. The trigger of these Syrian Wars between the two rival kingdoms, which were renewed at each generation until Rome put an end to them, was control of so-called Coele Syria, where the caravans arriving from the East, but also from Yemen, would arrive. It was also a strategic buffer zone for each Kingdom. Whichever of them controlled them was that much closer to the other Kingdom's capital (Antioch and Alexandria) and that much more able to threaten it and march on it if (or rather when) the next round of warfare started.
This book is set as the second Syrian War is just about to start, with the tensions building up as two of the superpowers (The Lagides of Egypt and the Seleucids of Syria and Asia) are just about to clash. The third power and Kingdom, Macedonia, which also dominates Greece and Thrace, is watching closely and, as was usual in armed clashes between Hellenistic Kings, wondering about which side would it be more advantageous to back. Caught between the juggernauts about to go to war were all the smaller Greek city states, including the maritime democracy of Rhodes. Rhodes lived essentially thanks to its extensive maritime trade. For Rhodes, keeping shipping safe and ensuring that the seas were free from piracy was absolutely essential, and such a war could be disastrous to it, especially if it lasted and might be forced to take sides. This is something that is clearly shown in the book.
Then we have the hero. He is eminently sympathetic, partly because this author's heroes often are and partly because he comes from a relatively modest background. He is no superhero and displays no overconfidence, although, as a ship's helmsman in the Rhodian fleet, he is as skilful as it goes. Once again, the author's magic has come into play, with Isokrates appearing so human, with his qualities and limitations, as to appear and feel realistic and "real". I won't bother going through the whole cast of characters and will limit myself to stating that while some may be better than others, none are "cardboard characters.
Then we have the ships, the naval scenes, and the naval battles in particular. Here again, the book is rather superb and the author has clearly done her homework and well-researched the topic. In particular, the particular type of ship used by the Rhodian to "search and destroy" pirates (the triemiola) is perfectly well described, with its advantages over other ship types, including lighter ones used by pirates and heavier "ships of the line", used by the navies of the Hellenistic Kingdoms.
The only piece which was not exactly original was the romance. Even this was nice, however, with the book ending relatively well and without any need for overabundant sex, gore and violence that some authors feel absolutely oblioged to come up in regular and large doses.
I could go one, and on, at the risking of being an complete bore and spoiling the story. This would be perfectly unnecessary as it should be already quite clear that, for me, this is a five star book.
PS: Sorry, I forgot to add that, for those wanting to learn more about the historical context of this novel, you have essentially two types of choices, depending how deep your interest and your pockets happen to be:
- the first is to go for Grainger's Syrian Wars: 450 pages, massively priced and as scholarly as it gets (I happen to have a copy, but haven't posted a review on it yet)
- the second is to pick a general history of the Hellenistic period and read about the relevant chapters. There are quite a few such histories in English. I use and like Peter Green's from Alaxander to Actium (also massive at 1000 pages, but much more reasonably prices in paperback), even if it is not the more recent.