A military juggernaut stands poised to conquer Europe, and it seems nothing can stop it. The year: 451.
At its head is Attila the Hun, so feared that the Roman Empire, shaking in its boots, has been shipping him annual payoffs just so he’ll leave them reasonably intact. But extortion is becoming unbearably expensive. What, then, are the alternatives? Diplomacy? Absurd. The Hun can neither read nor write, much less grasp the subtleties of a proper negotiation. What the Hun can do is butcher, shoot arrows over incredible distances with jaw-dropping accuracy, and ride pell-mell through Roman streets, “contemptuous of anyone slow enough to be trampled over.” If not diplomacy, how about treachery? To Emperor Valentinian and the rest of the Roman high command, that seems not merely sensible but viable. A plan is hatched: An imperial embassy will journey to Attila’s lair in far-off Hunuguri, ostensibly to parlay about the amount of the current year’s tribute. In reality, however, assassination is the object of the mission, since the Romans believe they have successfully corrupted a Hun lieutenant who can get close enough to Attila to be his Brutus. Joining the embassy—though ignorant of its darker aspects—is Jonas Alabanda, young, brave and callow. His fortunes are at a low ebb and his self-esteem lower still—thanks to Olivia having “discarded him like an old sandal” in favor of a richer suitor—so he’s signed on eagerly as embassy scribe and historian. In rough and ready Hunuguri, Jonas will lose his innocence, fall in love, best his enemies and, temporarily at least, help preserve the Roman Empire.
As always, Dietrich (Hadrian’s Wall, 2004, etc.) has a firm grip on setting, but his cast is standard issue for historical fiction—especially his underimagined, surprisingly pallid Attila, who couldn't scourge his way out of a paper bag.