Smale debuts with an intriguingly original alternate history supposing that the Roman Empire never collapsed.
It’s A.D. 1218. Pax Romana extends from the Indus to Hispania. After Rome captures a Viking pirate ship packed with riches found across the great ocean, Imperator Hadrianus decides to send "scouting parties into New Hesperia." Praetor Gaius Marcellinus, a veteran warrior, leads the 33rd Legion from Mare Chesapica across Appalachia to the great river called Mizipi, "a grueling trek with hunger, discomfort, and danger." Smale’s thesis, grounded in solid research into Roman history and pre-Columbian native societies, has a believable foundation, at least until he sails toward the fantastical. The Iroqua—"a confederation of five tribes: Seneca, Caiuga, Onondaga, Onida, and Mohawk"—and their enemies, the Cahokian Mizipi mound-builders, have aircraft. Think modern hang gliders made of deer hide from which warriors rain liquid fire. The Romans are bombed from the air by guerrilla Iroqua in Appalachia, and then the legion’s wiped out in a set piece air/land battle with the Cahokians. That tribe’s Catanwakuwa clan flies 12-man Thunderbirds and single-pilot Hawks. The legion’s sole survivor, Gaius, is captured, with Smale craftily outlining how Cahokian curiosity allows him to integrate the Latin language and Roman technology into Cahokian life. The author’s best work comes with descriptions and characters, both in legion life, "a bit of muscle and the willingness to shed blood were crucial in keeping an Imperium strong," and Cahokian society, "the calmest and most pragmatic people he had ever lived among." Romance looms as Gaius becomes smitten with "the most magnificent woman he’d ever known," Sintikala, all "liquid flame, a razor sharp ax, a Coliseum lioness."
Gaius is in limbo after the Iroquas' near destruction of the Cahokian city, which promises more adventure in the Hesperian Trilogy’s next volume.