Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Reading Harry Sidebottom's "King of Kings"

On February 10, 2011, I reviewed Harry Sidebottom's Fire in the East (Overlook 2008). The story takes place in A.D. 255 during the dual reign of Valerian and Gallienus and concerns a siege of a city on the Euphrates called Arete. Arete is based on a real city, Dura-Europos, which was besieged by the Sassanid-Persians in AD 256, and which has been the subject of a great deal of research and excavation.The novel begins with Marcus Clodius Ballista, a former war leader of the Angles and now the Dux Ripae, appointed to defend Arete from the Sassanid and traveling by trireme to the east. As Ballista journeys from city to city, Sidebottom introduces us to the Roman world, its subjects and its enemies. The novel ends with Ballista fleeing the city after Christians betray the occupying and besieged Romans.

King of Kings (Penguin Books 2010), the second book of the series, continues the narrative from Ballista's escape and his flight across the Syrian desert. The prologue of the novel demonstrates Sidebottom's ability to tell a rollicking tale. However, as we enter the action of the second novel it becomes apparent that Sidebottom is writing a series, similar to Bernard Cromwell's Sharpe series, not a trilogy As a result, my expectations as a reader diminished. Writing a series is a marathon; and, as a result, the reader must sit back, take a deep breath, and enjoy the ride. The ride will usually consist of a a long narrative arc and a shorter, internal arc to be resolved in each novel. And so it is with King of Kings. The grand narrative arc in Sidebottom's series, entitled Warrior of Rome, involves the life of Ballista and his familia as they struggle in the East during the dual reign of Valerian and his son Gallienus. This arc consists of a mixture of fact and fiction;Ballista and family being the fictional aspects interacting with the history of Rome. In regard to factional accuracy and historical verisimilitude, Sidebottom is superb. As I ask in my earlier review: Has there ever been a man better trained to write a historical novel about Rome in A.D. 255 than Harry Sidebottom? He is a Fellow of St. Benet's Hall and Lecturer in Ancient History at Lincoln College, Oxford, author of Ancient Warfare: A Very Short Introduction (Oxford 2004), and an avid student of historical novels.

The action of the second novel divides into three distinct stories with the overarching and nefarious dealings with the emperor Valerian and his aid, Macrianus, serving as the glue. First, Ballista is sent to relieve a siege on Circesium, only to be undermined by arrogant aristocrats who look down on the barbarian general. Second, returning to Antioch the Emperor sends Ballista to Ephesus to rid the city of the Christian atheists but Ballista finds persecuting Christians distasteful and fails. Third, in disgrace and demoted, Ballista accompanies the legions on an ill-fated battle against the Sassanids. Each section of the novel are well-researched and exciting.

In some ways, I found this novel better written than the first, although the three inter-connected stories detract from the continuity of the novel. In the first novel, shifting points-of-view disturbed me; and, although there are fewer abrupt breaks in this novel, the few sudden shifts of POV shatter the narrative spell. Nevertheless, Warrior of Rome is a strong series: well-researched and well-told. The fact that it is a series, however, creates certain logistical problems that distracts from the ultimate strength of the novel. But it is clear that Sidebottom wants to entertain and he accomplishes his goal.

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