Elly McDonald

Writer


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Throne of the Caesars: Iron & Rust by Harry Sidebottom

iron-rust-harry-sidebottom

Iron & Rust is the first of Harry Sidebottom’s planned trilogy Throne of the Caesars and is quite different in tone and ambition to his Warrior of Rome series. The Warrior of Rome novels are earthy, exciting, frequently funny and filled with engaging characters. Iron & Rust is grander in scale and more emotionally distanced, dissecting power politics at the highest level. It’s a study in power – why it’s desired, how it’s achieved, how it might be held. The characters are not loveable and function like chess pieces. Their machinations are appalling – sometimes desperate, sometimes pathetic – and what is at stake is not simply power but survival. Overwhelmingly there’s a sense of nowhere to run, nowhere to hide; no place of safety. These players cannot choose to remove themselves from the game.

Is it entertaining? Yes indeed. But it’s not a light read. It’s information-dense, with surprising, sometimes startling, insights into how people thought and behaved in the Roman Empire of the 3rd Century C.E. It’s thoughtful about politics and philosophy. It’s very well-written, which is not always the case within this genre. I enjoyed the second book of this trilogy, Blood & Steel, better than Iron & Rust; I think the pacing and characterization gain confidence. But Iron & Rust is extremely interesting and sets up the trilogy well.

Highly recommended.


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Wolves of the North by Harry Sidebottom

wolves-of-the-north

Wolves of the North is my favorite novel so far in Harry Sidebottom’s excellent Warrior of Rome series. This time, the central character Ballista and his posse, his familia, venture out into what was for me – and I suspect for most readers – uncharted territories. Prior to reading Wolves of the North I knew next to nothing about the Goth tribes living on the steppes of the Caucasus in the 3rd century C.E., and next to nothing about the Hun tribes in what is now eastern Europe. Reading about the Heruli, the Urugundi and the Alani tribes was like reading science fiction or action-fantasy (like GoT’s Dothraki).

The author seemed to be having fun imagining our small group of Romans into this hostile and very alien environment. He also had fun playing with genre, weaving a serial killer whodunnit sub-plot into his action adventure. 

I found this book immensely entertaining, maintaining the high standard of the previous four Warrior of Rome installments but shaking up the formula. I look forward to Ballista’s further adventures.


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The Amber Road by Harry Sidebottom

amber-road

Harry Sidebottom’s Warrior of Rome series is superior historical fiction, conspicuously well-written and exceptionally well-researched. I’ve loved all six novels in the series so far and this latest did not disappoint. In The Amber Road, the central character Ballista is sent on a political mission to his childhood home in northern Germania. Ballista is a younger son of an Angle warlord but his welcome is uncertain. A hostage in Rome in his teens, he has spent the 20 or so years since in Rome’s service as a senior military commander. Where do his loyalties lie? Which identity will prove stronger, the Romanized ‘Ballista’ or the Angle ‘Dernhelm’?

Ballista/Dernhelm and his companions are beset with physical dangers but for Ballista, perhaps the deadliest threats are embedded in unresolved family and intimate relationships from the past. Can he survive? Can he even see what’s staring straight at him?


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The Caspian Gates by Harry Sidebottom

caspian-gates

The Caspian Gates is the fourth novel in Harry Sidebottom’s outstanding historical fiction series Warrior of Rome, set in the turbulent 3rd Century C.E. Although the series has consistent elements, it avoids being overly formulaic; it’s as if with each instalment the author sets himself the challenge of incorporating something different and distinctive.

Consequently, in The Caspian Gates readers can expect the characters to be familiar friends, the Angle-born Roman military commander Ballista and his ‘familia’. They can expect the meticulous attention to place – geographical features, topology, climate conditions. They can expect to be introduced to at least one culture most of us will find exotic – in this case, the kingdom of Suania, the Caucasus region now known as Georgia. They can expect that the narrative will be driven once again by Ballista and his familia being sent on a perilous political mission.

What they might not expect is that The Caspian Gates is, simultaneously, a reworking of the ancient Greek legend of Jason and Medea: Jason being the leader of the famed Argonauts, in quest of the Golden Fleece; Medea being his sometime lover turned harpy. The lands Ballista travels through in The Caspian Gates are infused with mythic ‘memories’ of Jason and Medea. Ballista is about to find out that the past is never really past.

Harry Sidebottom writes so well, and so intelligently, that reading these books is a pleasure. Yes, Ballista behaves badly in this tale. But we really wouldn’t want him to be predictable. Would we?


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Shadow and Dust (short story) by Harry Sidebottom

african-desert

Picture this: battle lines are drawn – it could go either way. Nothing goes to plan. You – in the guise of a Roman special forces’ scout – hurtle through lethal challenges towards whatever end Fortuna decrees.

Harry Sidebottom’s short story Shadow and Dust is a narrative offshoot of Blood and Steel, the second novel in his Throne of the Caesars series. It precedes his latest novel Fire and Sword. The action is set in North Africa in the tumultuous 3rd Century Roman Empire and in moments of respite Sidebottom’s characters reflect on the pros, cons and consequences of empire in terms relevant to contemporary politics.

For readers like myself, who are not military history buffs or re-enactors, the initial descriptions of how battle forces are arrayed are slightly confronting (but I have trouble telling left from right). Once the set-piece strategies break down the tale is unfailingly tense, gripping – and fast. It’s a tribute to Sidebottom’s storytelling skills that his characterisations are as strong as the action.

The ending packed a punch. I found the epitaph – an actual historical inscription – moving.


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Ancient Warfare: A very short introduction by Harry Sidebottom

roman-ballista

Accurately subtitled “A Very Short Introduction’, Ancient Warfare is ambitious in that it attempts to summarize a range of academic perspectives and to critique their main premises. This makes for a genuinely helpful overview for students new to the formal study of warfare in the Classical worlds of Rome and Greece. The first four chapters do assume some ability to engage with academic theory but general readers will find the writing accessible. The final three chapters – including chapters on ‘Strategy’ and ‘Fighting’ – are enthralling.

The Further Reading list at the back of the book is an invitation to explore in more depth how different historians have interpreted Classical warfare; I found the diagrams, reproduced art and Chronology useful too.


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Silence & Lies (short story) by Harry Sidebottom

silence-lies

Readers of Harry Sidebottom’s Warrior of Rome and Throne of the Caesars series will already be familiar with Castricius, an enigmatic and oddly sympathetic sociopath referred to in Silence & Lies as “the knife boy”. Silence & Lies allows us some insight into part of Castricius’ personal history and leaves us with as many questions as it answers. With the release of the third Throne of the Caesars novel, Fire and Sword, we may learn more.

Castricius is the perfect character through whom to explore issues of secrecy, identity, mutability, espionage and evasion. Sidebottom explicitly pays tribute to a familiar pulp fiction genre – the sheriff in pursuit of an escaped outlaw – and does not neglect the action side, but here he is largely concerned to investigate character and philosophy.

A striking hallmark of Sidebottom’s novels is the sense that despite the Roman Empire of the 3rd Century being geographically vast, there is little leeway for a fugitive to lay low – places to run, maybe, but nowhere to hide, nowhere to claim safety. This short story addresses this head-on.

Castricius might think he can shed one skin and transmute. But can he?