7 of 10 people found the following review helpful
More fire, please - in the East, West, North or South,
This review is from: Iron and Rust (Throne of the Caesars, Book 1) (Kindle Edition)
Inside every academic historian, it seems, lurks a historical novelist. Many are tempted to have a go at writing fiction. Sometimes this works; more often it doesn't. Extensive knowledge about a historical period doesn't automatically confer the sense of story necessary for successful fiction.
With his "Warrior of Rome" series, Sidebottom appeared to have cracked it, writing with an effortless erudition balanced by fluidity, pace, wit (loved the in-joke about an Englishman, an Irishman and a Scotsman who walked into a war), and most importantly, a strong central character we could relate to. I can understand the desire for a break from Ballista, but why, having consciously developed a best-selling formula, would he throw it away? Has he fallen prey to the curious anxiety that sometimes strikes best-selling authors - that they might be prostituting their muses? Just needed to stretch his intellectual wings?
"Iron and Rust", set in the period preceding the "Warrior of Rome" series, is the first in the proposed "Throne of the Caesars" trilogy. Political thriller rather than historical adventure, it focuses on events surrounding the elevation to the purple of soldier-emperor Maximinus Thrax, as seen from the point of view of multiple protagonists scattered throughout different parts of the Roman Empire. Labyrinthine historical political thrillers can work - Robert Harris' "An Officer and a Spy" is a good example - but "Iron and Rust" doesn't cut the mustard; its choppy, episodic nature slows the pace right down and prevents any build up of tension. And despite the requisite sex, violence and treachery, this is no "Game of Thrones". Believe me, I've never yet nodded off over "Game of Thrones"!
More dispassionate exposition than fiction in style, "Iron and Rust" has the feel of an old-fashioned narrative history. This is a work of overarching ambition in its magnitude of scale, and Sidebottom does succeed admirably in keeping a tight rein on all its many convoluted threads. However, the constant swapping between multiple perspectives hinders the ability to get fully into the story until you've finally worked out just who is who, a good third of the way in. I can't help feeling many readers would probably have given up well before then. Crucially, we can find no point of connection or rapport with any of the vast number of characters (the downloadable list of characters runs to 13 pages!), so really don't care what happens to them. This is a fatal flaw if a story is to hold the reader's interest right to the end.
Readers of historical fiction don't just want bread and circuses, though of course we can't get enough of them. We'll always enjoy an "Andy McNabb in a toga" story - the fictional hero is in our cultural DNA, after all. We do want to learn about the past, but don't want to be lectured. We can handle long words, complex plotlines and sophisticated concepts, but can't handle being bored. Reading a novel should not be a chore - we have textbooks for that. As Nirvana so aptly put it, "Here we are now, entertain us!"
"Iron and Rust" is well supported by Sidebottom's customary ample afterword, references, maps and glossary. Keep an eye out for Ballista, who slips unheralded into the story late in the piece.