Sidebottom, Harry. King of Kings.

(Warrior of Rome, Book 2) NY: Overlook Press, 2009.

Writing an historical novel is hard, and the farther you go back in time to a chosen venue, the more difficult it is. That’s if you’re really concerned with getting everything right, and Prof. Sidebottom definitely is that.

(Some purveyors of historicals, like Conn Iggulden, apparently don’t care, so they don’t bother. And I avoid their books.) The setting is the Near East during the Crisis of the Third Century (it wouldn’t hurt readers without a background in classical history to check out the relevant article at Wikipedia, just to nail the context), and especially the continuing struggle between Rome’s legions and the huge armies of the Sassanid Persian king, Shapur the Great.

In the first volume, Ballista, a high-ranking Roman soldier and official of Germanic origins who started his career as a diplomatic hostage and made a good thing of it, was in command of the defense of Arete (standing in for the real Dura-Europos) against the Persian forces, and was doing okay until the city was betrayed at the last, inopportune moment by the local Christians. He and a handful of others escaped, and he finally made it back to Antioch, where he reported his failure to Emperor Valerian without expecting much. And he manages almost immediately to make a couple of very bad enemies among key figures of the emperor’s court, one of whom begins making attempts to have him assassinated for personal reasons. It’s to his considerable surprise, therefore, when he’s given command of another force and sent back out to meet the Persians again — this time accompanied by a young officer of senatorial rank who loathes and belittles Ballista as a stupid barbarian, but who manages to make himself the hero of the hour by disobeying orders (and reaping a lot of luck).

Then the story shifts to the Ionian city of Ephesus, where Ballista is posted as Vice-Governor with primary responsibility for the all-out persecution of local Christians, whom Valerian and nearly everyone else is convinced are responsible for Rome’s continuing domestic and foreign problems. And Ballista, who has no reason to like Christians himself, goes and does his duty, but discovers he doesn’t like it much. Persecuting anyone turns out to be something he really doesn’t want to do, so he finds ways to avoid it, . . . which, of course, gets him in bad with the Imperial Court again.

The third section of the book follows Ballista, now reduced to assistant to the guy in charge of the baggage train, following a very poorly organized Roman army, led by the emperor himself, as it goes off to defeat the Persians once and for all. At least, that’s their intention. And if you know your history, you can anticipate just how complete and stultifying a disaster that all turns out to be.

Sidebottom does a generally very good job of balancing military adventure with politics and diplomacy, and while he invents a lot of detail for the sake of the story, he never gets anything wrong that is knowable to modern historians. In other words, you can trust his history. You can say to yourself, “Yes, that’s how it might well have happened.” And there are only a small number of historical novelists I can say that about.


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