The Art of M C Scott
There’s only one way in which I could say Manda Scott’s work is predictable: every time I pick up a new Scott book, I can guarantee it will be new, refreshing, fascinating and totally different from anything that’s gone before.
I’ve loved the Rome series from the first book and it’s natural for a series to improve as the reader gets used to the characters, the milieu and the writer’s style. Scott’s series is different, though. The first and second books followed a style, being third-person tales revolving around a small group of characters based on a central protagonist. The third though, Eagle of the Twelfth, was a wonderful departure, continuing the series while yet taking it out on a wide swing, choosing a new viewpoint and treating the series’ main character in an almost peripheral fashion. I’d wondered after that how Scott was going to tackle a fourth book in the series. And the answer is that she’s thrown the reader another astounding curve-ball. Rome: The Art of War is a stunning tale written in the most unusual, fresh and astounding way that it will have authors crying out ‘Why did I never think of that?’
So what is this astounding style? Well the entire story (which takes place over a surprisingly short space of time) is told in the form of the affidavits or sworn statements of almost all the characters that had a role in it. Each chapter is told from the point of view of another character, in the first-person, and yet each picks up the tale where the previous teller left off, giving the reader a view of the entire story through the eyes of those that were instrumental in it. Once again, as in the previous book, the central protagonist of the series is not the teller – he is the subject of the story instead, and it is interesting to see him being assessed by each teller, often with different views of him. I cannot think of an adequate comparison for the method of storytelling, which in itself is a suggestion of how fresh the style is.
This is, of the entire series, the book most rooted in espionage. Though the main character throughout all four (Pantera) is a spy, this is the first time we’ve had a chance to see him in his element, doing what he does best rather than in the field, in the provinces. The result is a twisting, turning, often surprising trip into the seedy underbelly of Rome. A comparison struck me at one point that I can only see as favourable. One of my favourite movies of all time is Where Eagles Dare. If you’re familiar with it, you’ll remember the scene at the dining table with the German officers under the watchful gaze of Richard Burton and Clint Eastwood. You’ll remember how the story suddenly corkscrews through the revelations of double and triple agents and plans and background set up so long ago that the characters must have live more than one life for a long while. THAT is the direction I found the Art of War going. Magnificent. Another comparison that leapt to mind is the scene of main characters besieged upon the capitol, which put me in mind of the stunning scene of Colchester’s temple siege in Doug Jackson’s Hero of Rome (to my mind one of the most tense and nail biting scenes ever written.)
Characterisation is, as always, perfect, especially given that a number of important characters or ones that will wind up dead cannot have a say in the tale and are only seen through the eyes of others. I’ll largely gloss over this because if you’ve read books 1-3 you’ll know what you’re in for, but I will state for the record that I’ve long had a hidden soft spot for the Emperor Domitian. He may have been damnatio and condemned by history, but we all know who writes the histories and the fact remains that Domitian had a very academic and studious mind, was very popular in a number of important circles, actually repaired Rome’s broken economy and probably only suffered history’s hammer because of his relationship with the senate. Well, Scott has painted a sympathetic and believable portrait of this strange and complex man and I found that one of the freshest and most memorable parts of the tale.
In short, this is the conclusion of the Year of the Four Emperors, taking the story from Vespasian initial claim to the purple, through to the death of Vitellius and the way being opened for him. It takes the manoeuvring of troops and men (and mostly spies and agents) that has slipped into being a footnote of Vespasian’s story and opens it up in fascinating detail, telling the tale closely and with great care. Mixed in with the documented facts are the interwoven storylines of Scott’s spies, from the secret network of Seneca to that of Antonia, the network of street urchins that rule Rome’s rooftops, the agents of the emperor Vitellius and his cruel and dangerous brother, and so much more, forcing Pantera to call in all his favours and contacts built up over a lifetime in an attempt to put the right man on the throne for the good of the empire.
Rome: The Art of War is a masterpiece and out on Thursday 28th. Read it and agree.