By far the weakest and gassiest installment of this sixth-century alternate history series in which two entities from the far future attempt to rewrite the past by introducing new technology, glimpses of possible futures, and a quote or two from Dr. Johnson. Having helped the Roman general Belisarius and his Persian allies smash the Malwa army in Fortune’s Stroke (2000), good entity Aide encourages the Romans to build steam-powered battleships to tote gunpowder-fueled cannons down the Persian Gulf, through the Arabian Sea, and up the Indus River to the Malwa stronghold at Sitpur. Meanwhile, evil entity Link, having possessed the body of a Malwa queen, schemes to set some of Belisarius’s allies against him and introduces cloning technology to compel the loyalty of the wily Roman eunuch traitor Narses. Between stabbings, ambushes, and the occasional battle (mostly viewed at a distance through Belisarius’s trusty telescope), Flint and Drake let their characters chatter interminably about politics, intrigue, and fate in a world that, with each page, becomes an increasingly arbitrary construct to justify the increasingly unrealistic speculative combat scenarios, undermining what could have been a believable landscape for passionate action and inspired derring-do. Under the circumstances, it’s hardly thrilling news that a sixth volume is on the way.
Turbid dialogue, flavorless descriptive passages, and characters so obvious and numerous that it’s almost a relief when the bombs and bullets blow them away.