Monday, February 2, 2015

Clash of Eagles - Alan Smale

Clash of Eagles is a brilliant debut novel from Alan Smale, set in an alternate history where the Roman Empire never fell.  It follows the Praetor of a Roman legion, sent across the vast depths of the “Mare Atlanticus” , following rumours of a new land to the west – and further rumours of gold. It’s an interesting conceit, and Smale has obviously done his homework. The officers and legionnaires are presented with a straightforward accuracy which suggests a great deal of research. 

There’s a lot of grit, grime, and a more than usual amount of blood – but it’s all wrapped in a wrapper of authenticity, which makes it believable, rather than gratuitous. There’s a few nice touches which provide a little bit of gilding around the muck – the inclusion of the odd bit of Latin swearing, for example.

The legion eventually marches a few hundred miles, blowing through various unfortunate indigenous groups, before running into a culture that is very different to anything they’ve seen before. I won’t spoil the rest, but the exploration of the way in which Roman culture could or would interact with an indigenous North American group is at the heart of the text alongside the authenticity mentioned above.

That interaction is very well done, largely through the  person of the legion commander, Marcus, and his growing relationships with different members of the ‘mound builder’ people he finds himself amongst. Smale draws his characters well, if sparingly, and we’re given enough insight into their lives to feel  for them, to understand their struggle. Marcus is particularly well done, as the central voice of the novel. It would have been nice to have had a little more depth, I think, especially for some of the central female characters, but there’s enough to drive the narrative along.

On that note, it’s worth saying that rather a lot does happen – enough to keep me rapidly turning the pages. I wouldn’t say there’s a bloody battle on every page, but where there is, they’re grinding, bloody affairs, which ask no quarter of the reader, and make sure that you have a stake in the result – as with the cultural work above, it feels like this has all been well researched, and because of that, it’s a very exciting read.

Overall, this is an absolutely storming work of alternative history. It pulls no punches, and each of those punches has, it appears been made to feel authentic. If you’re a fan of Romans in general, alternative history, want to see a man’s journey to understanding another culture, or just like epic battles, this is the book for you. 

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