A detailed chronicle of the foundation of the Roman fortress of Eboracum, circa A.D. 71, today known as the city of York.
Given the detailed appendix and author’s warning that any presumably unfamiliar word in the text will be italicized, the book begins gratifyingly right in the thick of early Roman Empire conquest. The graphic and lovingly rendered atmosphere of fire, death and victory lets readers know immediately that this is no mere academic exercise; it’s high melodrama, but with a historian’s dedication to detail. We meet Gaius Trebonius, a Roman engineer whose career has been hindered by a tarnished family name. A sympathetic Roman general has given him a project that will not only establish a fortress from which to launch future conquests, but will help Gaius polish his tarnished name. The conversation of the Romans is blessedly unencumbered by the pseudo-formal stylistics that are so endemic to the historical genre, and when the author can’t help but use an unfamiliar term, there is always the appendix. However, the most human characters are the Britons. With their muddy lives and chieftains that find themselves sleeping on the vomit-laden ground amid a hundred others, the Britons’ humble form of elitism is charming and sets taut the central conflict of the novel: civilization versus civilization (though the Romans might put it differently). Cethen, an Eburi chieftain and loyalist to the increasingly incompetent King Venutius, and his wife Elena live on the proposed grounds of Eboracum. And so without establishing any diametrically opposed villains and heroes, readers enjoy the confrontation between human perspectives. During a battle, Gaius is taken prisoner and, though he finds himself with the opportunity to harm Elena, he does not. Elena, by far the sharpest and most sophisticated character, recognizes this and treats him well as a prisoner. It’s not entirely unpredictable, but the chemistry feels legitimate as these two intelligent characters interact amid the chaos created by the conflict between their respective civilizations. The novel will mostly enamor history buffs, but there is enough action and intrigue to satisfy lovers of thoughtful prose, larger-than-life characters and trilogy addicts (this is book one).
An impeccably worked historical novel with a flare for the sensuous and melodramatic.