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TOP 500 REVIEWERon 12 October 2011
For a novel about the Roman world to succeed, in my opinion, it needs to combine historical accuracy, authority even, with an immediacy that snaps me out of the 21st century. I need to believe that the lives and events I am reading about could have existed, even if I know that they didn't. It needn't take much to throw a reader out of a historical novel but when the author is Harry Sidebottom the reader - and the characters- are in safe hands.

Harry Sidebottom is a Lecturer of Ancient History at the University of Oxford. By definition, that should mean that he knows his stuff. And indeed he does but it's the way that he carries this expertise that makes his Warrior of Rome series (or at least the quarter of it that I've read) so believable and readable. It helps, of course, that the series takes place during a difficult time in Roman history, the troubled third century, when more than one emperor was attempting to hold sway at the same time. The action also takes place in the mysterious east, in Syria, on the edges of the retreating empire. On both counts, Fire in the East is different from many other Roman military novels.

Fire in the East introduces us to Ballista, the long-haired barbarian from the north, an Angle, who has risen from dubious origins (to say the least) to be a commander of the Roman army. His mission is to fortify the city of Arete in Syria and hold it against the Persian King of Kings at all cost. Ballista has to dig in, win the favour of the mixed community within the city, and use all his wit, guile and courage to protect Arete from the thousands of soldiers and hoards camped around the city's walls.

With Ballista is his familia, gathered from across the empire, including Greeks and Spaniards. Not all are free, some are slaves, notably his bodyguard Maximus and his secretary Demetrius, but Ballista drinks with them all and will embrace them before battle. However, as Ballista is painfully aware, friendships are secondary when compared to the urgency of saving the city and its inhabitants.

This is a hugely exciting novel, carefully structured and paced, as we follow very closely Ballista's strategies to defend Arete and then his courage in facing the enemy, so much greater in number. You can almost feel the arrows fly past your cheek or the artillery smash stone and men at your feet. Ballista is an enormously likeable young man and the reader's feelings are intensified by the moments of vulnerability - for his past, his wife and child - that he lets slip to us yet to no-one else. He is mocked by the Romans in the city and yet the Romans are outnumbered in Arete by its eastern population and soon it's Ballista's name they chant. But the Angle can never forget that there are traitors around him and that his death may come just as easily, maybe even easier, from an act of betrayal as from an arrow or sword during battle.

The story moves around Arete, its different communities and religions. A range of characters are given leave to give their perspective on events. We know, for instance, that there are spies here and, as the novel progresses, part of the game is to guess who might be one of these `corn men'. The city itself is also a character, with its walls, towers, mines and tombs. The desert around it, with the mighty river flowing through it, is vividly presented.

Played off against the action of the siege we have the drama inside Ballista's head. Amongst his nightmares and dreams is the growing awareness that Rome is a long way away.
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TOP 100 REVIEWERon 30 March 2012
This book, which I bought from Amazon in 2008 but failed to review at the time, is, I believe, Harry Sidebottom's best so far. It is certainly the one that established his reputation as a writer of historical fiction. He is, of course, a Lecturer of Ancient History at Oxford, meaning that he can be expected to know his topic. This, however, is neither a prerequisite for writting a good historical book of fiction (Bernard Cornwell is not a historian, unless I am mistaken), neither is it always an asset (see, for instance, Victor David Hanson's painfully embarrassing The End of Sparta, which I started to read almost three months ago and still have not had the courage to pick up again and finish).

Essentially, I found Fire in the East excellent because it ticks all of my boxes for what a great historical novel should be, while mostly, if not entirely, avoiding the main pitfalls.

To start with the latter, one of the main pitfalls to which historians writting novels may be subject to is a tendancy to display their knowledge. This is often felt as pedantic, at best, or even pretentious, even by those who share a level of knowledge similar to the author's. As some of you will see if you scroll down all of the numerous reviews that this book has attracted, Sidebottom has not been able to entirely avoid this problem. However, such accusations are often quite unfair or even rather pointless. There can be many reasons for an author to display knowledge, apart from showing off. One of the most common reasons among historians is that he may have a passion for his subject and a wish to share what he knows about it with others, including the non-specialized readers. The problem, however, is that these, when confronted with such displays, may feel somewhat patronized (as another reviewer put it), especially when the display of knowledge is accessory rather than essential to the story being told. This has always been a bit of a problem with Mr Sidebottom's books. It is, for me at least, largely cancelled by all of this book's other favorable aspects.

One huge advantage this book had when first published in 2008 was the originality of the historical context and this is also very much a consequence of the author's knowledge. This book, the first volume of the Warrior of Rome series, is set during the second half of the third century AD, unlike most of its other competitors, and more precisely during the joint reigns of Valerian (253-260) and his son Gallienus (253-268). This was the most crucial part of what is sometimes called the "crisis of the third century", a period of 40-50 years of disruption and civil wars during which there was over 60 contenders for the imperial throne, and sometimes up to four or five at the same time (roughly from 235 and the murder of Alexander Severus to 284 and the seizing of power and murder of his predecessor by Diocletian). It was also during the joint reigns of Valerianus and Gallienus that the Empire seemed to disintegrate, with separatist states being set up in Gaul and in the East around Palmyra. Other novellists have tended to stear clear of this period, with the exception of stories on Zenobia and Palmyra perhaps, largely because of the complexity of the period and the paucity of its sources.

Another originality is it hero, Ballista, a Roman commander based on a historical character but about which very little is known. Sidebottom chose to make him into a (half) romanized Angle, son of an Angle warlord who had been brought up at Rome as a hostage for his father's good behavior, married the daughter of a Roman senator and served in the Roman army, including in Africa and in the Balkans against the Goths where he has developed a speciality in siege warfare. By the time the story begins, he is in his mid-thirties and a "Duke of the Frontier" (my lose translation from latin) and he is posted of to the East to fortify and hold the rich caravan town of Arete against the probable attack of the Persian (Sassanid) King and his army.

The third originality of this book is that it is essentially the story of a siege, that of Arete. This fictitious town and its siege are, as the author mentions, proxies for the real fortified town and siege of Doura Europos that rtook place in AD 256 and which Sidebottom has extensively researched. The real Doura has been excavated, showing traces of the siege. The author uses almost all of them to build a very detailed reconstruction of this siege and the techniques used by both besiegers and defenders.

The fourth original piece is the picture of the population of a caravan town on the border and of this town's Christian community. This is also based on historical records to a large extent. Although we do not know what the attitudes of Christians were in Doura or even whether there were any, the general attitude of early Chritians, and of some of their leaders in particular towards the Empire and Emperors were ambiguoüs, to put it nicely. As for the description of the town's most powerful men, this could also probably apply to a caravan city like Palmyra to a large extent.

Then there is the story of the preliminaries of the siege and of the siege itself, both of which are remarkably told. You get a rather good glimpse at the breakdown of Roman peace throughout the Empire with the naval encounter that Ballista has when sailing to Syria. The state of readiness and morale of Roman frontier troops and of their officers in Arete as Ballista reviews them is particularly well presented. The story telling and the assaults themselves are gripping and extremely realistic. At times, you really get the impression to be standing there, somewhere on the town's walls.

So, regardless of whether the author may seem (or even be) pedantic and pretentious at times, this is a "must read" for all those who like historical fiction in general, and the ones on Rome in particular. It is well worth it.

A superb read, which, unfortunatly, has not quite been matched by his three next volumes in the series.
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on 9 May 2017
Feels so authentic and very well written. I accidentally started in the middle of this series, but enjoyed the book so much I had to go back to the beginning. I love how well rounded the characters are and that you find yourself so drawn into their world that you begin to care about them and their lives. It is quite a brutal, no holds barred world, but if you can take the language and blood shed, there is quality story-telling in there as well
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on 6 March 2017
Enjoyable story well written
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on 31 August 2017
From start to finish its a page turning rip roaring staggeringly great read and its now 00:45 so now for part2 😁
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TOP 500 REVIEWERon 15 June 2011
Having taken a trawl through some of the reviews on here i am somewhat surprised at certain comments.
Ok the book is not an Iggulden, who lets face it is a natural fireside story teller, and he is not a Scarrow, who cuts straight to the action and delivers brilliantly real characters. But why do we want the same, surely we want something different, something new.
There seems to be a lot of Jump on the author for being an academic and oh no ...adding too much history to a historical fiction novel, now i for one don't want a text book when I'm reading fiction, if i want that i pick up a text book. But i want to be educated where possible, so bravo Mr Sidebottom, a book that entertains and educates, for me it was a real winner, one that i enjoyed.
Yes its a slow burner in comparison to others in the genre, but I'm happy with that and when i buy your future books (which i will be) then i will know to read them at a time that I'm in the mood for slow burn, great characters, great history, great plots, and well told tales.

Please keep it up and don't listen to those who say too much detail...just keep it tempered with the flowing blood and guts action. (Parm)
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on 5 January 2015
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on 19 August 2017
I fell in love with the Warrior of Rome series many years ago in the era known as the PBR - or Pre-Book Reviewing era.  However, for some inexplicable reason, I only read the first four books.  Therefore, in order to rectify that situation, I decided to reread them in preparation for reading the rest of the series and thus, reviewing them as I go a long.  I call that a win-win scenario as I get to read them again and you, my peeps and fellow travelers, get to read my penetrating, yet humble reviews.  In the first installment, Fire in the East, we meet Marcus Clodius Ballista, son of a Germanic chieftain but raised as a Roman, and who rises through the ranks of the Roman army to become the Dux Ripae of a force given the seeming impossible task of defending the city of Arete on the banks of the Euphrates.  Their opponent is the Persian King of Kings, Shapur and his far numerically superior  force.  To many in the Roman establishment Ballista is seen as a warrior leader of immense experience and ability.  Others, however, view him as nothing but a barbarian bastard far beneath their social standing.  The tale is at once intriguing, exciting; full of surprises as it progresses through Ballista's arrival, the preparation for the coming battle and siege and finally the battle of wills between this barbarian commander and the staggering, fanatic Persian host driven by the power of the King of Kings and bent on the total destruction of Arete.  It is also a tale populated with wonderful characters, Ballista, his retinue - Maximus, Calgacus and Demetrius to name but a few.  The historic research done is more than evident as you walk the streets of Arete; as you take in the defensive towers and the well placed artillery; the stone throwers and ballistas.  A tension filled atmosphere permeates the pages as Ballista recognizes the near hopeless situation he has been thrust into; not only from Shapur but from assassins and secret agents out to see he doesn't succeed.  A highly entertaining read - glad I decided to give it another go.  5 stars
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on 28 October 2016
Within the genre of Historic Fiction there is a subgenre that is big enough in itself that you could probably read books within it all year round. That subgenre is Roman Historic Fiction and it is Legion. Harry Sidebottom is an established member of the Romanati and deservedly so. He combines the chop suey action of some of the populist books in the genre, with a healthy dollop of historic reality and research; some of it based on his own work. Over the years he has learned to blend the academic with the action, but in his debut; ‘Fire in the East’, the balance is just not right.

Sidebottom has seemingly chosen a less well known period of Roman history with AD255 and the defence of Arete. His hero is Ballista, a Roman by birth, but half-German and therefore untrusted by the more traditional full blooded Romans. He is tasked with defending a city against a vast Persian army.

As an author is seems that Sidebottom likes to show he knows his stuff, this means that the action is interspersed with observations of life at the time. This is a nice mood builder in the right dose, but ‘Fire’ has far too much. At times it feels like you are in a classical teaching class and not reading a book for your own enjoyment. This is a shame as when the action does hot up you have a gruesome, but fun book. It is only a shame that the end falls away a little leaving the door open for the sequel, but the reader feeling a little underwhelmed.
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on 21 April 2009
Other comments on this book have suggested it stands out from the competition because it is set during the decline of Rome. For me it stands out because it moves away from the common soldier and lower ends of society which is the perspecive used in other novels of this kind. The hero is a German favourite of the Emperor who is tasked to lead the defence of a town on the border of Roman-Sassanid territory.

The book divides into 3 parts - the journey to Arete, the preparations for the seige, and the seige itself. The novel contains naval warfare, spies, assassins, and a few twists and turns as well. Some story threads are left, presumably to be concluded in later books.

If you enjoy the Scarrow series of 'Eagle' books, Iggulden, or Jackson's Caligula you will enjoy this.
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