Saturday, 10 September 2011

Ben Kane's The Silver Eagle

I enjoyed the first novel in The Forgotten Legion series and rushed to buy the second, The Silver Eagle. I found much of the book a splendid read. I like the characters a great deal, especially Brennus and Fabiola. Fabiola is a great creation, a slave woman who makes the best use of her looks and her intelligence to thrive in a world dominated by dangerous men. Kane introduces a lot of interesting minor characters who caught my imagination, sometimes more than the major ones. Sadly, he has a propensity for killing off some of these or letting them drift away from the narrative. Hopefully, some at least will return in later books.

I thought that the links between the Romulus and Fabiola sections worked better in this novel than in the first. I had to flip back to catch up with events far fewer times in this novel. The whole narrative flow worked better.

The best parts of the novel are where Kane focuses on the harsher aspects of life. He magics us to the cruelty and squalor that must have been everyday experiences for the Roman soldiers; shows the fragile hold that slaves had upon their own lives and illustrates well what Tom Holland says in Rubicon: the Romans were often very different from ourselves. Best of all are his battle scenes which are well researched and described with great skill and command of the narrative.

I thought he was poorly served by his editor on a few occasions. It could do with a little trimming over all. There are also careless errors in the text. Secundus, a one-armed veteran, was lucky enough to be able to raise his arms above his head for example. (Unless he carried the severed limb with him as a talisman this was surely beyond even the skills of the best healers.) On other occasions there are times when a word cut would have helped. 'Romulus looked over himself,' might have been better without the final word. Also, on occasion, modern idiom sneaks in when it shouldn't.

I know that we can be too picky about words but and the historical novelist has to tread a difficult path to give the sense of the past without distracting from the story. I am surprised that Kane continually uses accurate Roman ones, pilum and scutum, for example, which can sometimes slow the dialogue. Yet, at the same time, he calls ancient pirates Corsairs which conjures up the eighteenth century rather than the first century BC. I don't know if the names Ahmed and Mustafa were current two thousand years ago (especially for a Nubian) but again, they make me think of Moslem culture rather than Roman. Kane takes his research about Roman life very seriously so I was surprised to be brought up by these things which slowed my reading.

My biggest problem with the book is all the mystic foretelling of the future. However, this may be just about my personal choice so I won't harp on about it. I am sure that the people of this time were superstitious and would be able to read into events some explanation derived from a piece of liver or a bird flying backwards a few pages previously. On occasions, however, we are led to believe that the prophecies are really accurate rather than being explicable in some other way. I also found Tarquinius became more and more omniscient, soothsayer, military strategist and even a tour guide to Alexandria. I hope he calms down in the next novel.

Despite these criticisms I thought the book was a good read. The concept is a great one, showing how the powerful machinery of society can wreak havoc with individual lives, sending people from one end of the earth to another. The interesting thing here is how the characters deal with this maelstrom. The characters are interesting and I like the way he teases out their relationships under strain. I admire his ability to let us walk in Roman shoes, particularly those of the under-class. Kane interweaves historical narrative with the personal story with a light hand. His historical characters act in a believable manner and, in particular, he gives us a great insight into Brutus and, maybe, a believable motive for the later actions of the man. I shall definitely read the rest of the series and recommend it as one of the best novels set in a world which is a mixture of the strange and the disconcertingly familiar.

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