Political intrigue and erotic charge fuel this novel set in the waning years of the Roman Empire.
“Stories get better and better after four hundred years,” according to this tale about Gen. Magnus Maximus, commander of the Roman forces in Britain in the twilight years of the fourth century. But if a 400-year-old story is great, a 1,600-year-old yarn must be even better. Such is the logic of Evans’ (Menace, 2017, etc.) engrossing work of historical fiction, which puts flesh on the biography of Maximus, one of Rome’s more intriguing figures. Maximus is a military leader—and a fine one at that—but the grumblings of his troops against the local emperor, Gratianus, have given the general dreams of the throne. Could he turn his military power into an empire? The temptation is real. Yet Maximus has other dreams too; these nighttime visions are of a woman of surpassing grace named Elen, who the author is at great pains to remind readers is the “most beautiful woman” that just about anyone has ever seen. Driven by his ambitions—both political and romantic—Maximus puts two plans in motion, one to become emperor and the other to win the literal woman of his dreams. All good historical fiction must start with superb history, and Evans has picked an excellent source. The general is complicated in all the right ways: Ambitious and talented, proud and provocative, Maximus is a protagonist pulled directly from central casting. And while the author is supported by the historical record, he is not confined by it, and he tweaks and bends the story adeptly to fit his own narrative needs. Perhaps the only small defect lies in the prose itself: Evans is an academic by training, and sometimes his book reads less like a novel on ancient Rome than a scholarly essay about it. But his writing is never too purple, and readers will be happy to trudge through the occasional linguistic thicket to find out what happens next.
A maximally engaging tale of ancient Rome.