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War at the edge of the world

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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.

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Written by SJAT

May 5, 2016 at 7:09 pm

Wulfsuna

with 6 comments

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For the sake of transparency, I’ll say that I’m a friend of the author, though as always I will not allow that to influence my review. Also, I would say that I have really no experience with this era, though I was lucky enough to have read and early first draft of part of this book, so when I picked up the finished article I was somewhat prepared, though the book has changed considerably since then.

My great love is Rome, and I love in particular late Rome. Living in the north of England, the events of 383-410AD (from Maximus’ withdrawal of troops to the Roman withdrawal total) are ingrained in my psyche. But what happens after 410 and Roman money and government is removed from Britain? I mean, my knowledge from then on is largely Mediterranean-based and full of Vandals, Goths and Byzantine Emperors and Persian Satraps.

Well, so what does happen after 410? Well, in this particular read, a bunch of Saxons (Seaxens) – whose headman had served with the Roman border forces in Britannia and had returned to Germania after 410 – decides to return to the island, meet up with those of his tribe who stayed and married locals, and find a place in Britain to settle. So the Wulfsuna (Wolf Sons) have come back for good.

But two major events are about to kick that headman’s son in the metaphorical nuts. Firstly, the betrayal of their cousins upon arrival leaves them with his father dead and the tribe divided and in disarray – and with that strong enemy lurking somewhere, the job unfinished. Secondly, on the far side of the island, a young seeress is hounded from her village, haunted by the past and with visions of a brutal future in which the picts of the north swamp her home. These events are all going to combine and cause both horror and elation for the wolf sons as she joins with the tribe, while their betrayer seeks allies among the picts.

Enough of the plot, per se, in case of spoilers. Suffice it to say there is the oddest love triangle you’ll see, a plot driven by visions and guilt and revenge, and a most excellent fight in the woodland to boot!

The book is very well written. I’m not talking about the prose, the language, the copy etc, though I have to say they were all good. I found not one editing error or problem with the whole book. No. I’m talking about the writing itself. It is, I believe, one of the most difficult possible things for a writer to write convincingly from the point of view of the opposite sex, especially in a historical context. In no way would I ever be able to write convincingly a period piece among, for instance, Georgian ladies at leisure. One of them would inevitably grasp a gladius and dispatch another in a swathe of blood, with numerous fart jokes. Hence, I find it thoroughly impressive that Elaine Moxon has managed to write a tale of which two thirds revolves around the androcentric culture and battle lust of the warrior men of a Saxon tribe, and do it as convincingly as Giles Kristian or Rob Low portray their Vikings.

As I’ve said, I have little knowledge of the era in the north once the Romans left, so I can hardly claim to be any kind of expert in the historical accuracy. But, saying that, the whole book felt to me thoroughly immersed in the period and culture. It felt authentic, and for the reader, I would say that’s what matters. From the few points that I was able to consider the accuracy of, I would say that Elaine has hit the mark pretty much all the way through. It appears that she has really put in the research and knows her stuff. I do know that she attends and even gives talks on the Roman world at her local historical site and spends a deal of time with reenactors.

Lastly, for those who dislike the unknown/magic/spiritual in their historical fiction, you might want to think twice here. The mystical thoroughly influences and pervades this book. For me, it worked well and in fact felt appropriate as is often the case with such works.

On balance, this was a thoroughly immersing read and I would recommend it to anyone with an interest in ‘Dark Age’ fiction or who is happy to dabble in this strange time.

Written by SJAT

February 19, 2015 at 11:23 am