First in a new alternate-history series from the author of Coalescent (2003).
In 4 b.c., a woman struggling to give birth in ancient Britain begins babbling in Latin, a language of which she has no knowledge. Written down by a relative, her words prophesy the coming of three Roman emperors to the island. Nectovelin, the baby born that day, jealously guards the prophecy as an adult, although he can’t read a word of it, while family members scheme to peek at the document and take advantage of its predictions. Sure enough, in the year 43, General Vespasian invades Britain with armies and elephants. Nectovelin fails to assassinate the Emperor Claudius, but his niece Agrippina takes advantage of Claudius’s patronage to found a dynasty in Rome. In 122, quarryman Brigonius schemes with Agrippina’s granddaughter to make money supplying the Roman army with stone to build Hadrian’s Wall—but only if, as the prophecy states, the emperor decides upon a wall of stone rather than turf. In 314, Constantine the Great visits Britain, where another of Agrippina’s descendants, Thalius, hopes to persuade the emperor to return to a pure, early form of Christianity. Eventually, in 418, with the Roman armies gone and the empire itself tottering, British warlords strive to impose law and order while keeping Saxon invaders at bay.
Packed with dryly accurate historical detail and peopled with stock characters, the episodic, overextended narrative trudges along without any heartfelt social or political dimension.