War at the edge of the world
I wasn’t sure what to expect from Ian Ross’ debut, to be honest. I’ve a soft spot for the Late Roman Empire these days, and it often worries me that writers won’t do the era justice. After all, for centuries now scholars have considered everything from the early 3rd century onwards to be the Decline and Fall etc. I needn’t have worried. What should you expect from War at the edge of the world? Rollocking Romans, put simply.
This book, set at the time of the tetrarchy with Constantius as Augustus, is based at a time when the Roman world was on the cusp of new things. Only fifty years earlier was what they call the ‘crisis’ of the third century and an era of soldier emperors. Within fifty years will be the flowering of fully Christian Rome. This is the time when things change. And that was nicely reflected in the book for me.
Essentially, the story and its action and characters could have taken place in any Roman era with just a few tweaks. That is how familiar Ross’ Rome is. At the level of the general soldier much is as it has always been. It’s the detail and the background, oddly, that show us we are in late Rome. Details like the armour, weapons and clothing are not what you would find in Principate books. And in the overall background, there are Christians about, watched with suspicion, but they are there. There is a system of emperors rather than a straight Dynasty. But the most striking thing for me is that, appropriately for the era, Rome is no longer the centre of the world. Yes it’s a great city, but it’s no longer the home of emperors. Imperial courts are held at Nicomedia or Trier, or more or less wherever the emperor is. And the emperors are not Italian these days. In fact the majority descend from Balkan stock. It is nice to see this ‘devolved’ state of later Rome shown in books.
Then there’s the writing and the style. For those of you who read Roman fiction often, the best comparison I can present you with is Anthony Riches. Ross’ book reminded me in many ways of the first three of Riches’ Empire series. The story flows well and hardly ever lags from its fast, adventurous pace. The plot is intelligible but not simplistic, the descriptive atmospheric but not over-the-top. The writing is very easy and engrossing. It is very easy to pick this book up for a 5 minute read and put it down after an hour wondering where the time has gone.
There is, I would say, nothing strikingly unusual about most of the characters for the regular reader of Roman fiction. Grizzled centurions, barely-disciplined ne’er-do-wells, untrustworthy civilians in high authority, barbarous barbarians etc. The exceptions for me are the teacher-turned-legionary, who I found entertaining and would like to see more of, and the female Pict, who broke the mould a little.
In short, War at the edge of the world was a welcome surprise for me. A fast paced, very engaging read, at the same time comfortably familiar and yet strangely exotic, it was one of the best debuts I’ve seen and I shall most definitely be reading the second volume.