Roman general and Asiatic warlord trade places in childhood and find comradeship—before the tides of history sweep them into bloody conflict.
Ford (The Last King, 2003, etc.) writes manly historicals, the kind that, being set so far in a safely distant past, allow his readers the vicarious thrills of taking part in gargantuan military campaigns and being present at momentous events without having to be entangled in all those modern political complications. And there’s nothing wrong with that. This time out, Ford continues to mine the rich vein of antiquity and here, in fifth century a.d., comes up with Attila, a smart sort of Hun who gets sent as hostage (to enforce the keeping of a treaty) to the Roman court in Ravenna, where he meets Flavius Aetius, who, in turn, is soon hostaged to the rough wooden dwellings of the Huns. Raised in their respectively alien environments, the two men respond in markedly different styles. Ford delves deeply into Hunnish ways, providing extensive detail about how this fierce, nomadic Central European people lived—though he admits in a postscript that, given the dearth of almost any decent research on the Huns, much of this had to be made up—while practically ignoring Attila’s young adulthood among the decadent Romans. After being returned to their native environments, these two natural leaders react somewhat differently, with Attila immediately returning to his Hunnish roots and Aetius keeping a hard-bitten Hun’s perspective about him as he ascends to the rank of Roman general. Initially, it seems these two men will be able to forge some sort of lasting peace between their feuding empires, but outside pressures and the arrogance of power conspire against such a friendly resolution. Thus, the stage is set for the apocalyptic Battle of Chalons, in Gaul, where over a million men battle to determine who will rule Europe. It’s a massively long, brutal spectacle, supremely well-executed by Ford.
Well-rounded it’s not, but, again, Ford offers solidly researched and lustily violent military historical fiction.