Elly McDonald

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Review: The Lost Ten (2019) by Harry Sidebottom

Harry_Sidebottom_The_Lost_TenHarry 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.


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Ballista blasts back at breakneck speed

The Last Hour is Harry Sidebottom’s first novel through his new publisher, Bonnier Zaffre. It’s extremely fast-paced, like online gaming, with a new peril confronting our hero Ballista literally every corner he turns. Ballista has 24 hours to gain access to the emperor, Gallienus, to warn of an assassination plot.

Gallienus, with gold dust in his hair and gemstones on the soles of his shoes and distinctly decadent tendencies, might not merit the pains Ballista goes through, but Gallienus was one of Ballista’s few early friends when Ballista was first in Rome as a royal Angle hostage, and Gallienus has been a sponsor since, even forgiving Ballista and granting him his life after Ballista was acclaimed ‘emperor’ briefly by troops under his command in the east, so Ballista owes him. Besides, as one of the emperor’s protégés, Ballista knows he and his family – his wife Julia and their two sons – will be killed if the emperor falls.

Ballista’s rich back-story is detailed in the previous six novels in the Warrior of Rome series, all of which I love. Sidebottom’s novels are well-written, with an outstanding sense of location and geography, excellent characterization, and psychologically interesting plots. They are always well researched, as we might expect from an Oxford academic who lectures in Roman history.

This novel is no less well researched –the details of each episode, and some ingenious plot points, offer astonishing insights into the Rome of the 3rd century of the Christian Era – but it would be possible to read this thriller simply as a thriller, without really registering the scholarship invested.

This is both a strength and a weakness. A strength, in that readers looking for an adrenalin rush can get swept with the flow. A weakness, in that it can threaten to render Harry Sidebottom’s usually multi-dimensional texts to a flatter, more generic experience. This might be just what the new publisher requested.

Sidebottom’s other series, The Throne of the Caesars, comprises three novels which are longer, much more informationally dense, and much more somber. It’s tempting to speculate some fans of the Warriors of Rome books found The Throne of the Caesars too weighty.

If this is the case, I trust Sidebottom will be given free rein to roll out his planned narratives for Ballista’s future without being compelled to maintain the break-neck speed of The Last Hour.

I look forward to leisurely banter, some reflection time, some ominous pacing and unexpected “Gotcha’s!” when next we meet Ballista. I miss the complexities.


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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

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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?