Once again, I have been captivated not just with the cultural elements new to me but the rocky coming together of different people. The misunderstandings, both deliberate and not, and the respect given when lies or manipulations are found out, give this story a complexity that makes it feel true to life. This book is similar to the two previous ones in bare summary, and yet, each time the scope is bigger and the risks higher. Not only that, but because we encounter new peoples, there is a need for constant growth in understanding and the opportunity for grave errors when the rules of one culture are imposed over another.
Like the whole of this series, Eagle and Empire offers an elaborate dance with lives, hopes, and nations on the line. It demonstrates the dangers of assumptions and expectation, of hypocrisy and double-dealing, but at the same time shows how honor can span cultures and school those who see only what they want to without valuing what is right in front of them. There will always be those like Agrippa who cannot learn, but also those like Tahtay, Marcellinus, and Hadrianus, who can see beyond assumptions and recognize foolishness among their own people and even in themselves.
This is the third in a complicated and layered alternate history that posits a Rome that never fell and so reached the point of expanding out across the Atlantic Ocean. It speaks well for the series that, though years have passed since I read the first book, I recalled not just the characters but also the major (and many minor) events. From the very beginning, I was enveloped in a known environment, visiting with old friends and enemies. Now, having finished the story, I feel it is a fitting successor to the first two, maintaining the focus on cultural clash and uneasy alliances while providing new challenges and twists rather than rehashing essentially the same story despite this again being a tale of war with Marcellinus torn between his first home and his new one.
When I ran across a line from Marcellinus stating how the mythology of a newly encountered people was as transparent as the nations he’d already encountered, I was worried. This lasted right until I read to the end of that very line where he clarifies how he doesn’t understand even the mythology of his adopted people some thirteen years since he’d come to them. This is part of what makes the series strong. The characters admit to ignorance rather than assuming understanding (at least some of the time), and familiarity is not easily won because the cultures encountered are as deep and complex as any other. At the end of the book, there are numerous appendices that give insights both into the cultures Smale includes in the story (with references) and into the historical changes he used to rewrite history. His logic is fascinating and well researched.
You might, by this point, have come to understand how much I enjoyed Eagle and Empire, but in case it wasn’t clear, the series conclusion continued to win me over by providing fully fleshed cultures and exploring how they interacted with both successes and disasters in turn. The technical ingenuity of the native cultures fits my understanding of the sophistication found in the archaeological record despite how these same cultures were dismissed as savages in our timeline, something the book deals with both overtly and through showing the comparison without comment. The skilled storytelling also shows when a choice in battle could have been illogical considering their enemy but before that impression settles in, a quick line or two explains the logic without disrupting the tale.
The underlying theme is one of honoring promises and working together rather than assuming those you encounter are little more than impediments. Sadly, this unity is driven by the need to destroy a common enemy rather than by a challenge too big for any one people to manage alone. I still like the message of cooperation and honesty, which is not to say either of these are consistent factors in the story but rather they prove more effective than other paths taken.
I’m talking a bit around the story because I don’t want to spoil anything, but I will say I was satisfied with the end of the book, which stayed true to the underlying themes and does not fall back on a simple ending rather than addressing the more tangled aspects of the situation.
If you enjoy alternate history and complex tales that feel real because they don’t depend on pat or simplified answers but explore the myriad of problems that would most likely arise, this series should prove an enjoyable, and thought-provoking, read. It certainly was so for me.
P.S. I received this title from the publisher through NetGalley in return for an honest review.