Fans of Roman Historical Fiction will undoubtedly have tried at least one Harry Sidebottom title. They're well written, beautifully researched and have memorable characters who find ways to help keep Rome on top of the world, stamping their own brand of Justice in their size x steel studded caligae.
What unfurls in this title, for me, is Harry's best book to date, from its almost Gemmellesque prologue to its heavy adventure of bloody slaughter as our hero, Ballista, faces the might of the Goths in a no holds barred battle to the death. Back this up with great prose, some deliciously soldierly dialogue and tie it up with an almost mythical reading of pace and you know that it's going to be a book that will be hard to put down. Great stuff.
on 26 July 2011
The fourth Warrior of Rome novel begins with a bang as Ephesus is struck by a mighty earthquake. Not long after the Goths invade and Ballista is involved in the defence of a number of nearby poorly prepared cities. Yet Ballista's past is swift to catch up with him and his new Imperial Mandata sends him to the very edge of the Empire. Confronted with barbarian hordes, a rotten royal family and complex tribal politics, life for Ballista in the fourth book is quite eventful.
As ever the book oozes with detail, historical intricacies and subtle semantics. Yet I found the fourth book to be somewhat slower paced than the previous three. That was probably because the overall theme of the fourth book could be summed up as `travel'. Ballista spends an awful long time travelling to one of the furthest reaches of the Empire. It was therefore necessary for the author to fully describe Ballista's journey in order to give the reader a sense of the scale and monotony that Ballista endured. That being said, the travel passages are beautifully described, you really feel like you are stood on deck with the rest of the familia. In addition, these important plot building passages are not devoid of the occasional action scene.
There are a couple of new characters within the fourth book which inject fresh energy and charisma. Yet all of the old favourites accompany Ballista on his journey. It enabled that sense of family and camaraderie to flourish within the fourth book as it has done in the past three. I love the fact that the author takes his time to build his characters throughout the books. It's such a great and simple technique which allows the reader to remain engaged with the characters as the series progresses. By learning more about a character slowly, relationships strengthen and that shared sense of experience endures throughout each new book. Great stuff!
I think for me, Harry Sidebottom's unique selling point is his craftsmanship and the way his books are immersed in authenticity. Don't expect a simple read with this author and you won't be disappointed. Instead, allow yourself the time to fully enjoy this beautifully written Roman novel which really is head and shoulders above other Roman contenders. I think you'll find the descriptive prose some of the author's finest work in his fourth book.
The fourth book creates a fantastic foundation on which the fifth can be built. The end of the book was for me, one of the very best endings to a historical novel that I have yet read. Completely chilling, but very simple! I'll say no more.
Thoroughly recommended and thoroughly enjoyed by this reviewer!
So many times i have read reviews for Harry that say..."too detailed".."Too much like a text book" etc...
I have no idea what book it is these people are reading!
While Harry Sidebottom is not your typical swords and sandals writer, his books are full of action pace, great characters and a plot that leaves the reader begging for more.
I struggled to put the book down, had to force it closed at 2am etc.. that for me is the sign of an excellent book.
Ballisata could have been used as a character and kept in the confines of the empire for some more of what we have seen from others, but Harry sidebottom has taken the risk to take him away from the confines of the empire,a nd its life on the fringe of the empire that gives this series its power and energy.
Not only did this book thrill and entertain, but at the end it sets the reader up for the next book, and I'm looking forward to Book 5 so much more than any of the previous 4, for me that shows the improvements this series and this author have shown with each book.
Roll on Book 5 (2 a year Harry???)
Product Description: (From Back of Book)
AD262 - the Imperium is in turmoil after the struggle for the throne. Furthermore, Ephesus, Asia's metropolis, lies in ruins, shattered by a mighty earthquake. Its citizens live in fear as the mob overwhelms the city, baying for blood to avenge the gods who have punished them.
Yet an even greater threat to the Empire advances from the North. The barbaric Goth tribes sail towards Ephesus, determined to pillage the city. Only Ballista, Warrior of Rome, knows the ways of the barbarians, and only he can defeat them.
The Goths' appetite for brutality and destruction is limitless and before long Ballista is locked into a deadly bloodfeud, with an enemy that has sworn to destroy him - and the Imperium - at all costs.
on 25 July 2011
I have come to view these high brow historical epics from Harry Sidebottom as a bit of an annual event now. The need to flick constantly to the back of the book for latin translations or as I tend to do after about page ten just guess what the hell 'cinaedus' etc are, still irritates me no end but as this is now book 4 and he's still doing it I may as well concede defeat.
Anyway I have scored this four stars because it is too good to only score 3 but I would qualify this by saying this was my least favourite of the four Ballista books. I thought it lacked an actual story till about the last third when Ballista arrives at the Caspian Gates though the preceding ongoing skirmishes with the Goths was not without it's entertainment. But it did just have a bit of an aimless/ random feel which is always a bit of a risk when writing 'realistic' and gritty historical fiction. Also did the eunuch have to be called Mastabates!? I had to battle with my infantile need to giggle every time he was mentioned! Mind you there is at times a lovely tongue in cheek quality to these books so that was probably the authors intent! Still distracting!
However as ever there was much to enjoy. A rich and authentic feeling historical background. Likeable and real characters (so often missing in Sidebottoms competitors works) with great dialogue. Harry is also able to create some truly loathsome bad guys and a particularly unsavoury character who Ballista found himself 'on the wrong side of' a little while ago, makes a return here.
As I say a little short on story but themes here were exile, the further slipping of Romes power and the fragmentation of it's empire. Ballista remains a compelling central figure, noble but flawed, brave and skilled at arms but ageing and far from infallable, he is a hero I can believe in and sympathise with and with regard to the ageing, empathise too!
Perhaps a bit of a dip in form here but Sidebottom remains, with Robert Low at the front of the pack of historical fiction writers. (When will bookshops give it it's own section by the way?)
I have read the author's three previous installments on Ballista. The first (Fire in the East) was superb. The other two, when compared with the first, were somewhat disappointing and didn't live up to the (allegedly very high) expectations that the first volume had created. This is even more the case with the Caspian Gates. On the plus side, the period chosen - the crisis of the 3rd century ib the Roman Empire and its mix of civil wars of barbarian invasions - is original and has even been copied since Sidebottom's first novel. The author's knowledge (he is a historian of the period) ensures that the context of the storytelling and th historical facts are accurate. There are however a few problems, especially with this episode (as with the previous ones, although to a lesser extent)
- one is that a historian, even a good one, does not necessarily make a good writter and story teller. I couldn't help finding that the story was a bit slow going and feeling that the author had been compelled to display his knowledge to try to make up for this. Unfortunately, it didn't work for me
- another problem I had was that his characters, including Ballista himself, did not seem to come alive in this episode, unlike in previous ones
- My third, and last, grip was that this book has been somewhat "oversold". Granted, the prologue is rather exciting (although I wouldn't qualify it as "gemmellesque" as another commentator who got a bit carried away did), but this is hardly enough to make the story into a superb book. "The Times" suggested that this book was "searing". I found it tepid and I am sorry about it. It could have been much better...
on 2 November 2011
Sequels are a demanding task for any writer, in keeping the characters alive for the reader and consistent. In this, the fourth of the Warrior of Rome series, Harry Sidebottom triumphs effortlessly. Once again, he combines a fascinating interpretation of the mid-third-century Roman Empire in collapse with his lucid exposition and thrilling command of action scenes. His prose is taut--elegant and earthy by turn: when they curse and swear, the Roman soldiers do so like the troopers they are.
If you haven't read the first three titles (Fire in the East, King of Kings, and Lion of the Sun--and you should), the hero Ballista is a barbarian Angle who, through fortune and a fighting spirit tempered by a gift for diplomacy, is promoted to the heights of the Imperial Army. But it wasn't all easy. In between fighting the Sassanian Persian Empire, Ballista has contended with his numerous imperial enemies, all eager to bury a dagger in his back. At his side stalwart companions ugly Calgacus, testosterone-driven Maximus, and the young Greek slave-secretary Demetrius, fight against all odds.
In The Caspian Gates, Demetrius had been freed and now resides in the household of Gallienus, the emperor who rules barely a third of the Roman Imperium, thanks to the secession of Gaul, Spain, and Britain; and the East is in a mess. Away from his straight-laced former master, Demetrius is also free to indulge his homosexuality, worshipping at the fount of all power, on the couch of the emperor.
Another Greeks steps into the shoes of Demetrius, but Hippothous is a dark character with an agenda of his own. This, it has to be said is only hinted at and doesn't materialize in this book; maybe in the sixth? Like Demetrius, Hippothous is gay, but openly so, and much humor is wrung from his constant verbal battles with foul-mouthed Maximus over the subject, as well as many others, domestic and cultural; but unlike Demetrius, he's a stout fighter and fits in well with the others in the shield wall.
An uneasy truce exists between Rome and the Sassanians, and the frontier states of the Caucasus vie with both sides for advantage. Gallienus must bring them to heel or look even weaker than he is, which offers him an opportunity to kill two birds with one stone. He has a problem with several of his senior statesmen and soldiers, most particularly with Ballista who, for a few days at the end of Lion of the Sun, was actually proclaimed emperor by his eastern troops. Should he have his friend executed or exiled? Instead he dispatches him with the other suspects on missions to the Caucasus states to bolster Roman influence over the Persians. While they are doing something useful, they might as well be on the other side of the world, safely out of the way.
Ballista's two particular tasks will be to mediate in the dynastic struggle for the throne of Suania and to repair the ruined Caspian Gates (the Dariel Pass), which guard the pass into Suania from the north. And just in time--on the other side the barbarian tribe of Alans is pressing for passage into Asia Minor. The Alans aren't an isolated problem. The seafaring Goths pose an even greater threat, raiding and pillaging from across the Black Sea and even into the Aegean. Ballista's split-cultural mind is an advantage when it comes to dealing with fellow barbarians. The first part of the story opens with a Goth raid on Asia's capital, Ephesus, in the wake of a destructive earthquake. Abandoning the city, Ballista and his familia go to the aid of threatened Miletus, where Sidebottom gives us a riveting extended siege-battle sequence as Greeks and Goths clash.
With Miletus saved, the imperial command to head for the Caucasus arrives. The route is by war galley from Byzantium along the southern shore of the Black Sea to Trapezus, and thence inland. The locals call it the Kindly Sea, but it's far from gentle. The author knows his Roman shipping and gives an intimate portrait of what it must have been like to sail in a trireme. He also waxes lyrical with an appalling storm and then a gauntlet run through massed Gothic ships in thick fog. The two very different kinds of tension generated by first the hectic tempest and then the silent-running are an impressive feat of writing without, as usual in a Sidebottom book, any resort to purple prose.
The last half of the novel deals with the complex relations between the Caucasus and Caspian states and the Persians, who become unlikely allies in the climactic battle against the rampaging Alans at the Caspian Gates. And always at the back of Ballista's mind is the burning question: will Gallienus allow him to return to his home in Sicily when it's all done?
Harry Sidebottom's press claims that, "What [he] doesn't know about the Romans, frankly isn't worth knowing," but it isn't so much what he does know as how he effortlessly fuses that knowledge into an exciting, action-packed adventure story--history with guts (sometimes quite a lot...), adroitly packaged to entertain while at the same time elegantly imparting facts without pain.