Over the summer I read and rather enjoyed the debut novel of Ben Kane, The Forgotten Legion. Although I found it to have a few flaws, the story was good enough to make me want to come back for more – in this case for the second part of the trilogy, The Silver Eagle. The middle parts of trilogies can often be tricky things, having to bridge the beginning of a story with the conclusion, and make sure all characters are suitably manoeuvred into place for the finale while being a good self-contained read. I have read plenty of trilogies where the middle book was the weakest, where the story seems to slump between good starts and endings. The Silver Eagle, fortunately, doesn’t fall into that trap and I thought it was a stronger and more accomplished book than The Forgotten Legion was. But first, a summary of what The Silver Eagle is all about.
The story takes us back to the turbulent times of the first century BC, when the Roman Republic was on the verge of collapse and the first Emperor of Rome was not long from emerging. Fabiola, a former slave bought out of prostitution by her lover Brutus, is now living a more comfortable life than she could have ever imagined on his country estate near Pompeii. Her star seems to be very much on the rise, until Brutus leaves to fight with Caesar’s army in Gaul, leaving her to oversee the running of the property in his absence. Then, a chance encounter with a band of ruthless mercenaries paid to hunt down runaway slaves leads to an argument, and Fabiola suddenly feels very isolated and unsafe in the middle of the countryside. She flees to Brutus’ home in Rome, only to find the city descending into chaos and civil war, meaning she is no safer there. In a bold move, she leaves for the dangerous journey towards Caesar’s armies in Gaul, hoping that joining up with Brutus will guarantee her safety once more.
Meanwhile, our other protagonists find themselves in Margiana (modern day Turkmenistan), on the very edge of the known world. Tarquinius, Brennus and Romulus were all members of the catastrophically mismanaged Roman army lead by Crassus that was defeated by the Parthians at the battle of Carrhae. With Crassus and his senior officers executed, the ordinary soldiers are given a choice between crucifixion and acting as borders guards for the Parthians to protect their Eastern lands. The survivors of the battle unsurprisingly choose the latter, meaning they survive but are stranded in a strange world and given up for lost by Rome. The three friends, part of what is now termed the Forgotten Legion, must survive deadly attacks from Parthia’s enemies while all the while looking for a way to return home and for Romulus to be reunited with his twin sister Fabiola, who he hasn’t seen since childhood. We therefore see the political manoeuvrings and historical developments of this fascinating period through the eyes of Fabiola, and the breadth and scope of the ancient world through Romulus and his friends, a rich and fascinating combination of perspectives.
This series of books is clearly based on a good deal of historical knowledge and has an engaging storyline. However, one of my main criticisms of The Forgotten Legion was that the characters in it were a bit too flat, too perfect, and too good at what they do to be realistic. In The Silver Eagle, that issue has been well addressed and all our leads develop into more rounded and believable characters capable of making mistakes and getting things wrong. The writing in general is more mature than in the first book, with Kane happy to move many complex cultural explanations into a useful glossary in the back of the book rather than dumping lots of information into the prose and disrupting the storyline. The result is a plot that cracks on a fearsome pace without interruption, and I think is the equal of anything produced by Simon Scarrow or Conn Iggulden.
I have just one small niggle, though. While Fabiola is busy journeying north, we are told that she and her companions are afraid of going too near watercourses as they couldn’t swim, which was entirely normal for people at this time. Fast forward a few chapters and a key plot point for Romulus is that he needs to be a strong swimmer, and indeed proves to be. Hang on a minute – where did he learn to swim if it was normal for people to not be able to? There was nowhere in his storyline that would permit him the chance to learn. In the army, perhaps? But then how come the veterans protecting Fabiola also fear the water? Just a little thing, but an inconsistency like this should really have been picked up by an editor at some point and tidied up!
Pedantry aside, The Silver Eagle is an excellent historical adventure story and I particularly like that a well-researched strand on Mithraicism has been woven through the story – not just because it adds depth and details to our heroes’ world, but also because Kane has developed it to add a bit of mysticism and fantasy to proceedings. There was nothing too outlandish, but it did add a little extra seasoning and interest to the plot that I rather liked. I hope this will be continued into the final part of the trilogy, The Road to Rome, which I am now very much looking forward to sampling.
|Buy book online