When I was a kid, I used to love watching old Roman movies. These were big epic stories about both the struggles of trying to civilize the world, a world which often did not want the civilization efforts, and the moral turmoil within the Roman Empire itself. Clash of Eagles reminds me of these movies because it is epic in style and addresses many of the same issues.
The beginning is almost too typical in the way the Romans work, and how they interact with those not of Rome both in the ranks and outside of them. That isn’t to say it’s poorly written by a long stretch. I found the characterization both of Gaius Publius Marcellinus and of his troops wonderful from the start. The tension between auxiliary and citizen troops is well-written while I marked one action scene as excellent because it focused on what happen before and after but the actual action was swift and decisive. No long drawn out descriptions of what must have taken seconds to do.
Clearly I was enjoying the book, but in the back of my mind were grumbles at the portrayal of those native to the Americas (where this alternate history has Gaius undertaking his expedition). Imagine my surprise, then, when the book turns on its head (avoiding spoilers), and reveals the typical, and false, ideas about other cultures to be character, not author, beliefs.
With the one exception of what I believe is too much focus on scalping where it’s been largely shown to be a rare event until European intervention, Clash of Eagles offers a full-featured and complex journey of one Roman military leader’s transition from preconception to understanding.
The book feels historically accurate in that the deviations from what is known still fall within the technological and social levels of the portrayed cultures. In the back is an appendix describing the specific changes and why, but as a reader, I was never thrown out of the story by something that felt impossible or even improbable based on the presented cultures.
And the cultural complexity, though firmly grounded in what archeological evidence has been discovered of the peoples included, is lovingly introduced in dribbles that fit with the story. We, the readers, have the perfect narrator in Gaius because he discovers much alongside us.
Again without spoilers, I was disappointed in how this book ends but let me clarify: What happens matches the culture and circumstances well. It is a little short-sighted, but at the same time, it is the kind of decisions people will make, especially these people. The good news is this begins a series, so it’s not the final moment. I can still have hope. It is not a failed end by any means, bringing a satisfying conclusion to the part we have just experienced. I just had hoped for a different answer, and still hold out for that hope.
You probably guessed I intend to continue with the series. It is a compelling, complex narrative, with well-drawn cultures and individuals. How could I not?
P.S. I received this title from the publisher through NetGalley in return for an honest review.