Harry Sidebottom is an academic specializing in the 3rd Century Roman Empire who has written two popular novel series: the best-selling Warrior of Rome series (seven novels centered on a Germano-Roman general named Ballista), and the Throne of the Caesars series (three novels charting the tumultuous times between Alexander Severus and the Gordian emperors).
This year, a stand-alone novel was published (through Zaffre / Allen & Unwin), loosely connected to the Ballista tales, and titled The Lost Ten.
The cover blurb for The Lost Ten reads: ‘A crack squad. An impenetrable fortress. A desperate mission’.
Inevitably, this blurb conjures up sword’n’sandals Guns of Navarone or Andy McNab ripping yarn, which is probably how this title was pitched. In much the way his previous novel, The Last Hour, can be dismissed as Jack Reacher in Rome.
But I like Harry Sidebottom as a writer, and I like the way he evokes his ancient Rome, and I think it a mistake to dismiss these books.
Sidebottom writes in a fine tradition of historical fiction descending from Alexandre Dumas and Sir Walter Scott, through Robert Louis Stevenson to Patrick O’Brian and Bernard Cornwell.
At his best, in the Ballista novels, Sidebottom’s work is characterized by a keen eye and sense of humour, teamed with research-based authenticity, a confident, lucid writing style, rollicking plots, a moral awareness, a degree of sensitivity, and a grounding in the genres of contemporary popular culture, notably the Western.
The Ballista novels seem to hold a special place in the hearts of Sidebottom fans. With The Throne of the Caesars trilogy, he explored a weightier, more ponderous format, and my guess is it bit him in the butt commercially.
There was a change in publisher. The first two novels with the new publisher, Zaffre, are a bid to reassert the thriller creds of the Sidebottom brand. They seem to me directed to a target audience that is mostly (but not wholly) male, whose reading is perhaps (but not always) confined to military adventure novels and graphic novels, and really wants a fast page-turner.
Both The Lost Ten and The Last Hour deliver to that demographic.
For me, I think it would be a shame to consign the Sidebottom output solely to that demographic, however. In my humble opinion, there are rewards to reading Sidebottom novels that extend well beyond.
I look forward to whatever Sidebottom writes next, and to rejoining Ballista’s continued adventures.