Sidebottom, Harry. Fire in the East.

(Warrior of Rome, Book 1) NY: Overlook Press, 2008.

Writing a good historical novel is rather harder than writing a good novel with a contemporary setting. You not only have to get all the regular book-type things right — a good, involving plot, interesting and believable characters, dialogue that carries the reader along, descriptions that make the reader see what the author sees — you also have to place the whole thing in the past without insulting history.

You would think an academic historian, with all that training and specialized knowledge to hand, would have a leg up in this process, right? Actually, training and experience in the sort of precise, analytical writing a successful academic has become skilled at is not at all the sort of background that ordinarily produces a good novelist. But there are exceptions. And one of them appears to be Dr. Sidebottom, a lecturer in history at Oxford and a specialist in ancient warfare. This is his first novel but it obviously will not be his last.

It’s the middle of the 3rd Century and Marcus Clodius Ballista is a Germanic nobleman, the son of a chief of the Angles, who has spent most of his life living as a Roman — first as a diplomatic hostage, then as a young officer, and now as the newly appointed dux ripae (commander of the riverbanks) on the Euphrates. His specific commission from the father-and-son emperors, Valerian and Gallienus, is to get the walled town of Arete ready to withstand the siege that they all know the vast Persian armies under Shapur the Great will be leading down upon them in a few short months. How Ballista gets there and how he accomplishes the job with not enough troops, or supplies, or cooperation from the locals, is entirely fascinating and takes up the first three-fifths or so of the story. And then Shapur arrives and settles down on his golden throne to watch the unbelievers get what’s coming to them. Except that, . . . well, I won’t spoil it except to say that the author successfully combines a very cinematic narrative style with the ability to explain technical matters without either slowing the pace or boring the reader. Arete is fictional, to allow Sidebottom as much freedom with the story as possible, but it’s based closely on the real Dura-Europos. The Rome of the period is much different from the Rome of Julius Caesar, both in geopolitical problems and in the details of military weapons and equipment. There are relatively few “Romans” (as in “from Rome”) in the army and most of Ballista’s staff originated on the fringes of the empire. Sidebottom tells the story in a straightforward manner and seems to make all the right narrative choices. I can imagine certain obvious groups of present-day readers being upset by the ending of the story, too, but the author’s selection of villains is entirely defensible. This story was designed as a series from the outset so I’ll be chasing Book 2 very soon now. (And if you know your history, you know Valerian’s days are numbered.)

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