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Another Quest in the other direction, but a slow one...
on 14 April 2014
This is volume 2 of the adventures of Vallon, the Frankish mercenary captain from Aquitaine, Hero the doctor and Wayland, the Saxon huntsman. It starts in 1081, some 8-9 years after Hawk Quest, the first volume of the series. At the outset, it is fair to mention that this volume can be read separately from the first instalment although, and almost as usual with series, it might to preferable to read to read Hawk Quest first.
If you do this, however, you might be a bit disappointed, or at least I was since I preferred the first volume to this one. “Imperial Fire” is not a “bad” book, although it took me over a week to finish it which is never a very good sign for me. This is because I found the book to be somewhat uneven, and perhaps even a bit of a mixed bag.
The first part, which takes place in Byzantium during the first very troubled months of the reign of Emperor Alexis I Comnene, is one of the best ones. The first twenty pages or so, which see Vallon becoming a hero during the disastrous Byzantine defeat at Dyrrachium against the Normans, is certainly gripping, and a largely successful attempt from the author to drag and immerse the reader into the action.
Except that even there, there are some problems and some elements which are rather unrealistic. One of these is Vallon’s attendance at the Emperor’s war council where, of course, he comes up with wise advice which will not be followed. To have a mere mercenary squadron leader, and a Frank to boot (where the enemy are the Italo-Normans of Robert Guiscard and Bohemond which included a number of Frankish knights as well as Lombards) attending such a meeting stretches credulity to the limit. In addition, the events at the war council, at least as reported by Anna Comnena (the daughter of the Emperor Alexis) in her Alexiad did not quite happen as described by the author. While the battle itself is rather well told, having Bohemond offering Vallon a job just in the middle of the fighting is another rather unrealistic feature. Finally, the unit commanded by Vallon is presented as light cavalry but it includes a mixture of Franks, Slavs, Patzinaks and Turks, something that is rather odd since the mercenary units serving the Byzantine tended to be recruited and formed on ethnic lines. These (and a few other similar details), however, are merely quibbles that will only (slightly) bother readers that like their historical fiction as accurate as possible.
Unfortunately, there are other features in this book which I found more problematic. The whole new Quest with which Vallon, a detachment of his men and his chosen companions (or, more accurately, the companions that are chosen for him) is also difficult to believe. With the Empire facing defeat and invasion by the Normans in the Balkans, after having lost most of Asia Minor (modern Turkey, more or less), and the Emperor and his clan quite literally fighting for survival, the reader is asked to believe that the Emperor would deprive himself of some of his already insufficient troops on what another reviewer has quite rightly termed a “suicide mission”. The biggest problem here is not so much the mission itself – to go right to China and bring back a powder called “the fire drug” (gun powder) and possibly swap it against a sample of Greek Fire, although this is also quite implausible. This is because it is hard to believe that the Byzantines, for whom the recipe of Greek Fire was such a State Secret, would casually give some away to an embassy that is to travel to the confines of the known world. Added to this, the travel to and back from China is to take about a couple of years, at least, with this taking place when the Empire is on the brink of collapse.
Having mentioned the problems I had with the plot, there were also some good and even brilliant pieces, such as those taking places in China. Also rather good was the crossing of the Caucasus, and the various dangers that the embassy was exposed to. I was however somewhat disappointed with the depiction of the Central Asian cities on the Great Silk Road, which I found somewhat bland. Maybe I was expecting too much to begin with.
I also had a bit of a problem with some of the characters, and some of the plot features that the author saw fit to introduce. The romance with the gypsy girl, if it can be called that, is another somewhat implausible feature. Since this happened when the story happens to slow down and become almost boring, I could not help wondering if this was some kind of ploy that the author had introduced to try to keep the reader interested. I also had a similar thought as one of the main characters (and a few others) wonders of with this gypsy girl on his own little quest after the pseudo-source of Christianity. Neither of these features really worked for me and I could not help thinking that the book would have been crisper and the action less slow if these bits (which add up to close to a hundred pages) had been shaved off.
Another character which I found a bit problematic was Lucas and his “big” secret that he does not dare to share with Vallon. As soon as the reader understand what this secret is (and it is not very hard to guess well before being told!), you know that there will be an “explanation” between the two. However, it drags on, and on, and on for so long that when it finally happened, I perceived it as a non-event. A third plot feature that did not work very well for me was the rivalry with the Viking band which gangs up with the embassy. Here again, the reader can easily guess that this will end up badly but the reckoning was delayed for so long that it lost most of its interest and appeal when it finally (at last!) happened.
I have two final notes of disappointment. As mentioned by other reviewers, the book finishes in a rather abrupt way. While it is clear that this is a trilogy, I am always a bit annoyed when an author cannot be bothered to finish his episode with a plausible end and leaves everything “just hanging.” The note of disappointment is that I would have liked to have more about hawk training, as in the first volume, and since this is the author’s speciality and was one of the main originalities of the first book. There is only a little bit of it and, for obvious reasons if you read the book, there might not be any on the third volume.
As a result, this one did not work as well as Hawk Quest had for me. Because it is still mostly good, I believe it is worth a good three stars, but not more than that.