13 November, 2007

The Eagle in the Sand, by Simon Scarrow. Book review

Edition reviewed: Headline, 2007, ISBN 978-0-7553-2775-1

This is the seventh in Simon Scarrow’s Roman military adventure series featuring the centurions Macro and Cato, and is set in Judaea and Nabatea (roughly the area of modern Israel and Jordan) in the first century AD. The two central characters, tough veteran Macro and the younger and more intellectual Cato, are fictional. So are most of the other major characters. The historical Imperial Secretary Narcissus has a walk-on part. Several familiar figures from the New Testament play important secondary roles, and look out for a cameo appearance by two famous and controversial Christian relics.

The devious Narcissus suspects high-level treachery in the Eastern Roman provinces of Syria and Judaea, and Cato and Macro are sent on an undercover mission to investigate. With corrupt local officials, a brigand with a suspiciously large number of well armed and equipped followers, and the rival empire of Parthia happily fishing in troubled waters, our heroes soon find their problems multiplying. Amidst political skulduggery and double-dealing, Cato and Macro find themselves besieged in a remote desert fort. Can their desperate defence hold out until help arrives? And what is the connection between the brigand leader, the mysterious scout Symeon, and a strange religious sect led by a lady called Miriam?

Readers of the Cato and Macro series know what to expect by now; an action-packed military adventure with the Roman legions facing desperate situations in far-flung outposts of the Empire, with plenty of battle scenes and a leavening of political intrigue. This seventh instalment is true to form. The plot rattles along, scarcely drawing breath between one crisis and the next, and the 500 pages zip by.

A particular feature of The Eagle in the Sand is the exotic desert setting, and the story makes full use of dramatic locations such as Petra and Wadi Rum. The Roman fort that plays a central role in the plot is a real place, and the author comments on the evocative nature of the surviving ruins in his Author’s Note. After five novels cursing the cold and rain of damp Britannia, Cato and Macro now have to deal with the harsh challenges of the beautiful but unforgiving desert landscape.

Battle scenes are among Simon Scarrow’s strengths, and The Eagle in the Sand won’t disappoint readers in search of plenty of blow-by-blow battlefield action liberally spattered with blood and guts. The plot manages to include cavalry raids on desert caravans, artillery bombardment, escalade, hand-to-hand infantry struggle and a duel to the death in the desert.

The style is colloquial modern English, and dialogue includes frequent modern expletives. Readers who are offended by the ‘f’ word may like to take note. The accessibility of the modern idiom contributes to making the novel a fast read, and suits the action-packed nature of the plot. One problem I had with it was that certain modern phrases seemed to be used to hammer home the contemporary relevance of some elements in the plot. Here we have a military force from a Western great power facing armed insurrection, incomprehensible factions and an uncompromising religion in the deserts of the East. Sound familiar? Undoubtedly history has a tendency to run in parallels, even if it rarely repeats exactly, and recognising such parallels is one of the reasons why history can be such a rewarding field of study. In this case, I did feel I would have liked a little more subtlety. Similarly with the elements relating to early Christianity. I daresay it would be impossible to set a novel in first-century Judaea without covering it, and I have no problem with the author taking a few liberties (which he admits to in the Author’s Note). I just wish they hadn’t been signposted quite so obviously. Or was that just me?

There’s a slight oddity in that the fate of one of the slimier villains is unresolved at the very end, but perhaps he may turn out to be the connection into the next instalment. If he is, I shall be interested to find out if my deduction about him is right!

A fast-moving action yarn full of battles, blood, guts and javelins, for fans of Roman military adventure. If you’ve always fancied Roman military re-enactment but haven’t quite got the inclination, this is probably the next best thing.

Has anyone else read it?


Gabriele C. said...

I've read the first five and enjoyed them, but somehow I never felt like buying book 6. I should check out this one now it's out in paperback. Though I have a feeling the use of the f-bomb increases during the series, and since it's a very bad word in Germany, the language of brothels and pimps (not as casual as in the US) it throws me.

Carla said...

I don't much care for it either. I mostly tune it out, which can sometimes mean I miss a lot of the dialogue. If anything, I'd say it seemed less frequent here than in his earlier novels.

Gabriele C. said...

Maybe he's finally listened to the people who said it bothers them and toned it down - there were a number on RAT and I suppose elsewhere as well.

Alianore said...

I haven't read any of these, but my local library has some, so maybe I'll give them a try. I'm not sure about the use of the f word, either - not because I object to it as such, but because it would sound rather anachronistic to me. But then, I read a review of Colleen McCoullough's latest novel where the reviewer complained about her use of Latin equivalents of swear words, so it seems that whatever choice an author makes, someone won't like it.

Gabriele C. said...

Ain't that the writer's own truth? :)

In case of Scarrow, it's not so much the word per se which after all goes with the modern language, but the overuse that bothers me and other readers. And that's something he could tone down without changing his writing.

McCullough doesn't use mentula on every page, either. :)

Carla said...

Gabriele - maybe he has. It wouldn't detract from the novels at all if he had, I think. As you say, the word tends to lose its impact if it's used too often. I tune it out, and it sometimes has the effect of making me skim over everything Macro says for several pages, which I'm sure isn't the intended effect. I think Robert Harris uses it all of twice in Pompeii, which is much more effective.

Alianore - too right. You can't please everyone and whatever you do there's always going to be someone to carp about it, so you may as well follow your own instincts and let readers who like the same things find their own way. I happen to like Colleen McCullough's use of Latin equivalents of modern expletives, so I disagree with that reviewer on at least one point!

Bernita said...

I will check at the library.

Russell Whitfield said...

I have to say that I'm a big fan of Simon's work, and I think that the Eagle series is amongst the best historical fiction I've read.

Use of colourful language doesn't detract from my enjoyment of the books, for me it adds authenticity...I imagine that's how soldiers have spoken since soldiering began.

I think Simon's use of modern language is deliberate...I tend to think of it as a translation for our 21st century ears.

Carla said...

Bernita - if you like battles, you'll love Simon Scarrow's Eagle series! All the books feature lots of battlefield action, so if you can't find this particular one, try one of the others. Let us know what you think!

Russell - Hello and welcome. It's a matter of personal preference, I think, and it's interesting that different military authors take different lines. Bernard Cornwell's Sharpe series never uses "the efficacious word", as Sharpe occasionally calls it, but makes liberal use of words like bloody and bugger. Conn Iggulden's Emperor series doesn't use expletives at all. Ernest Hemingway substitutes 'mucking' in For Whom the Bell Tolls and lets the reader substitute it back. They all work. Yet, as you say, soldiers have probably made liberal use of the f-word and its equivalents ever since soldiering began. It just depends on what method a particular author chooses to use to 'translate' soldiers' speech. I've no doubt at all that Simon Scarrow uses modern idiom intentionally, as his style suits the fast-paced action of the book very well. Have you read all the Eagle series? Am I right in thinking that there's less f-word in the later novels than in the first two, or is that my imagination?

Russell Whitfield said...

Hi Clara - thanks for the welcome. Oh yes, I'm a huge fan of the Eagle series, I've read them all several times. I can't wait for the new one to come out so I can re-read the lot.

I think you're right, that there's less swearing in the later books, but I'm not sure if this is deliberate. Gabriele points out that he may have toned it down due to comments on the Roman Army Talk forum...I'm not sure. Does RAT have enough of an influential readership to make an author change style? I'm an infrequent visitor to RAT, so I can't say.

I do know that Simon has his own forum - maybe there are comments on there about the language...I'll try to check that out.



Carla said...

Good question. I read Simon's forum from time to time, and occasionally drop in on RAT. I've no idea whether RAT is influential, but many (most?) writers are keen to get reader feedback and take it seriously. I've certainly seen him ask what people thought about the swearing - I think it was probably a thread on his own forum, but I'm not sure where I saw it. Perhaps he's had the same point raised in several sources and considered doing it differently? I recall someone asking Bernard Cornwell on his site why he didn't use the f-word in Sharpe, and he said it was because some people found it so offensive that they wouldn't read any further if they encountered it. Which I think is a fair point; I know I find it more off-putting than most other expletives, and when it's used a lot I tend to tune it out so it also loses its impact for me - the worst of all worlds! I'd say that it could be removed or dramatically reduced without adversely affecting his robust soldier's style at all. I haven't been to his forum recently, though, so I don't know if the issue has come up again. Have you read his new Wellington/Napoleon series? What does he do there?

Gabriele C. said...

I don't think it would have been the comments on RAT alone, but if he asked the question elsewhere (I didn't know he has his own forum now) he'd probably have gotten the same replies than on RAT with a tendency to wish for less.

Elizabeth Chadwick said...

Thanks for the review Carla. Your opinions more or less echo mine re this book which I reviewed for the HNS Review a little while back. I generally enjoy Simon Scarrow's Macro and Cato novels, although I probably prefer the earlier ones. I can't say I notice that much swearing as such in TEITS - perhaps it went over my head, but the use of modern phrases such as talking about winning the 'hearts and minds' and calling people 'Sunshine,' jarred me personally out of the story. I accept that others may not find these a problem and it's purely a matter of taste.

Carla said...

Gabriele - I can't remember what the response on his own forum was, but you can probably find it in the archives - the forum is linked off his website somewhere, which Google will find for you. I have a vague recollection that most of the responses were along the lines of 'it's fine as it is', but you might expect that an author forum would attract people who already liked that author's work.

Elizabeth - I noticed your review as I was reading the novel, and we did seem to have picked up much the same things! "Sunshine" didn't bother me, but "hearts and minds" hammered home the contemporary parallel a bit heavily for my taste. As you say, it's personal preference.

Russell Whitfield said...

Hi gang - I did join Simon's forum, but it's fairly quiet! I'll keep an eye on it, though.



Carla said...

Hi Russell - it seemed fairly quiet last time I was over there too (though that was a while back!). I'd expect most of the posters on Simon's forum to like his style just as it is. Lots of people evidently do, judging from the success of the books! One thing I did wonder about was whether Centurion Parmenion in Eagle in the Sand was named after the Parmenion who's a regular poster on the forum? When I saw the name in the text the first thing I thought of was the forum poster! How's that for everlasting fame?

Simon Scarrow said...

Hi people
Simon here. The swearing issue is intentional and relates back to my very limited military experience where the non-coms had a highly developed vocabulary which I have tried to reproduce in the books, as that is how soldiers speak. Any other form of representation is a delusion. I could have taken the cynical line and not used such words for the sake of the market and probably have earned bigger sales. In retrospect... maybe I should have. But it would have felt a bit limp-wristed. That's one of my problems with Sharpe and Iggulden's writing, it just doesn't feel very true to the military.

As for using latin originals, why bother? If you're going to do it for swear words then why not for the rest of the book? It's just too coy for me. And as for theose who have said real Romans wouldn't have spoken like that, can I recommend a book called The Lating Sexual Vocabulary - it's a real eye-opener on this subject.

Carla said...

Simon - hello and welcome. Thanks for coming by to clarify. From your comment, there hasn't been any change in style over the series. I had no doubt the use of language would be intentional, and it can't have hurt sales or your publishers would surely have mentioned it, wouldn't they? It's a matter of preference and readers vary. I'm sure every culture has had its own eye-catching slang for the activity in question, and it's the author's choice as to how to represent that in modern English. Good luck with Book 8 and for the future!

Russ Whitfield said...

heh - I guess that answers the question onc and for all. Massive props to Simon for taking time out to let us know.



Carla said...

Russ- yes, absolutely, a definitive answer!