Ben Kane has turned his attention to the infamous loss of three Roman legions in A.D. 9 in the Teutoburg Forest. Central characters are the Germanic leader, Arminius, his counterpoint, Centurion Tullus, and a series of supporting actors like Varus, Vitellius, Maelo, Osbert, Afer, Piso et al.. The story is well known to those with even a passing interest in Roman Imperial history so I won’t go into it here.
Where this novel excels is in the narration of the action of the battle in the Teutoberg Forest. It’s fast, gripping, narratively superb, and eloquently drawn. As readers we genuinely hike with Tullus and the remnants of his cohort through the hellish trap of death; can believe the violence, misery, blood, willpower, bone-weary journey. Kane doesn’t fall into the trap of having excessively unbelievable numbers of fighters, recognises that the effort and pain of a few easily brings the reader to empathy rather than drowning us in shocks based on unimaginable numbers. It is narrative that draws us in:
Dense, green, dripping with moisture, it appeared to go on forever, mile upon mile of beeches, hornbeams, oaks and trees Piso didn’t even recognise. Tall ones, shorter ones, thick-trunked and thin-,gnarled, diseased, aged, and saplings, they stood side by side in disapproving legions of their own, sentinels at the entrance to another world.
However, no book is perfect and there are three aspects of the writing that sat uncomfortably in the otherwise excellent story. Firstly, the prologue where it is evident from the opening lines that the scene is being narrated either directly by, or from the memory of a seven year old – Arminius. No seven year old would observe the action and environment in the vocabulary that is used. I wanted to feel that it was truly a seven year old’s vision of the sacrifice and no child thinks: “runnels of blood coated the sacrificial table, and the air filled with a cacophony of screams and the cloying smell of burning flesh”. It is the vocabulary of an adult, not a child. Plausibility of language and thought is required.
Secondly, there is an indecisiveness of vernacular in the text – particularly when it comes to cursing. The word “damn” is used often, which is a linguistic reference to damnation – not only a Christian concept, but an early medieval one – something that simply would not have existed in A.D.9. (There’s actually a good paper on the etymology of the word by Gary Amirault).The author chooses to educate us with italicized reference to Roman objects (“scuta”, “pilum”, “turmae”, “pteryges” etc. which is nice) but baulks when it comes to the actual spoken word. Mr Kane sagely follows his editor’s advice when it comes to constancy in the name Arminius, yet not in common nouns which means we get four words used in a single page to describe the same object: framea, pilum, javelin, spear. Also, there are some amusing mixed metaphors: “like hot knives through cheese”. If the author wishes to have his books appeal to a global audience then he needs to move his characters’ coarse vernacular away from a predominantly western, Christian origin and have more accurate cursing for the time he depicts. The same is also true of his tropes. For example, “Let him squeal”, “stitch your lip” or “swanned” mean little to someone outside the US or the UK.
Thirdly, the depiction of women should be better. There is almost an apology for it in the scene where Tullus acknowledges he’s not even bothered to find out the name of the woman and girl he’s managed to get to the fort at Aliso; he gives a pretty lame reason as to why he hasn’t (self-protection). Apart from that, women are nameless and few throughout. Instead they are described with faintly lamentable descriptions like: “She leered and pulled down the neck of her grimy robe, exposing her still pert breasts”, or “a pair of hefty tribeswomen with braided hair…[who]…rained a barrage of abuse”, or “women squawked”, or “the stupid bitch”, or “prostitutes and the infections they were prone to carry” or “he spat in the woman’s direction”.. It’s not quite meiosis, but it’s close. Whilst this reviewer understands the novel is aimed at a mainly male audience, depicting a harsh world of Roman legions, it doesn’t offer much to entice a female readership with such objectifying descriptions.
There’s a few historical mistakes. For example ‘pox’ = syphilis which didn’t exist in Europe until the late 15th century – http://www.unl.edu/rhames/armelagos-syphillis.pdf (same for conjunctivitis); or, the attributing of Augustus saying “Alas for the Roman people, to be ground by jaws that crunch so slowly” five years ahead of time. But this is churlish, these are miniscule points given the accurate wealth of history in the novel. It is great to see an author taking time to understand his subject matter and producing a piece of fiction that is utterly plausible. Indeed, it makes this a stand out novel amongst some of the other Roman army trite languishing in bookshops these days.
For this reviewer, Part One of the novel is not bad, though it struggles as though the author is chafing to get into the action. The conversational interactions between non-legionaries is laboured at times, punctured by small vignettes of ever-growing action as we move from bar brawls to minor skirmishes. It’s clear Part One is a taster for the greater part of the novel – Part Two…which excels and leaves the reader well pleased and satiated. To that end, Ben Kane has produced a novel that will while away a good three or four hours of your time and will pique any reader to learn more about this infamous battle. I look forward to seeing how Centurion Tullus gets his revenge in the coming novels.
Categories: Ben Kane