Rousingly old-fashioned tale of a fourth-century philosopher-turned-Emperor.
The bloodletting starts early. Even before the opening, Emperor Constantius has killed off just about every relative he has to avoid even the semblance of rivalry. Left is his cousin, a shy, retiring thinker by the name of Julian, whose physician, Caesarius, is our narrator. Thinking that he has an ineffectual pawn under his thumb, Constantius appoints Julian as Caesar of the Western Empire, his second in command. To everyone’s surprise, Julian is actually a quick study at playing Caesar, rapidly learning basic soldiering skills from crusty old campaigner Sallustius and applying his philosophical knowledge to strategy and the basics of running the province of Gaul. Before long, Julian has utterly routed the pesky Germanic hordes that had been defying Constantius’ legions for years and has instituted reforms making Gaul the most prosperous and efficiently run of the empire’s provinces. But Caesarius notes dark pagan shifts in Julian’s personality, especially after an assassination attempt takes the life of his newborn child, and is troubled by Julian’s increasingly arrogant attitude toward his petty and vindictive cousin back in Rome. Second-novelist Ford (The Ten Thousand, 2001) makes sure that Caesarius’ narration is thoroughly that of a well-educated, aristocratic, and more than a little self-righteous Christian of the era, breezing over the horrendous behavior exhibited toward commoners by those of his and Julian’s station. There’s a wealth of knowledge behind the story, which doesn’t keep Ford from picking out the most pungent and graphic detail in every scene and playing it up for all its melodramatic worth.
Stirring and adventurous tragedy of the first rank, written with all the gusto of a master pulp stylist.