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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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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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?


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Throne of the Caesars: Fire and Sword by Harry Sidebottom

fire-sword

Fire and Sword is the concluding novel of the Throne of the Caesars trilogy – although as I felt compelled to google the historical narratives of its real life characters afterwards, I hope author Harry Sidebottom might one day get around to writing sequels, if only in short story form. I loved the short stories he’s written to “bridge” the second part, Blood and Steel, and this third novel; the short stories are currently only available online, so if further short stories are added perhaps there’ll be enough for a hard copy volume.

As you’d expect from Sidebottom, an Oxford academic who specializes in ancient warfare and the Hellenistic influence within the Roman Empire, Fire and Sword is a riveting reconstruction of 3rd century Rome. Unobtrusively yet authoritatively, extensive research serves as the foundation for all depictions here of locations (terrains and town layouts), garments, foods, transport, historical personalities, politics and characters’ worldviews. But the trilogy is an epic of imagination, too: records of the politics and political players in this drama are unreliable and incomplete, so Sidebottom has to a large extent extrapolated personalities and inferred backroom events from scant sources.

The characters he’s `created’ are engaging, although it did take me a little while to reorient myself to who is whom and where we were in terms of where the plot picks up from the previous books and stories. The plot moves fast, much faster than in the first novel Iron and Rust. I was a little worried by the introduction of a caped bandit king early on, who I suspected might prefigure a bodice-ripper subplot, and I hope it’s not a spoiler to say Sidebottom, thankfully, had other purposes for this character.

As well as concluding the Throne of the Caesars trilogy, Fire and Sword is a kind of prequel to Harry Sidebottom’s popular Warrior of Rome series, and introduces Warrior of Rome’s main character, the Saxon hostage prince Dernhelm a.k.a Marcus Clodius Ballista. Even as a young teenager Dernhelm’s thought processes are recognizably those of his adult self as readers have come to know him through the six novels so far in the Warrior of Rome series. Sidebottom has more Ballista novels planned, and readers who love Ballista and his familia, his close cohort, will welcome both Dernhelm’s appearance in Fire and Sword and also future tales of his travels and travails 25 years later.