01 September, 2011

Fire in the East, by Harry Sidebottom. Book review

Penguin, 2009. ISBN 978-0-141-03229-0. 391 pages

Set in 255-256 AD, mainly in the Roman frontier city of Arete (Dura Europos) on the River Euphrates in modern Syria. The central character, Ballista, is based on a historical Roman officer, although little is known about the historical figure. The Roman Emperors Maximinus Thrax, Gallienus and Valaerian, and the Persian King Shapur, are historical figures who appear briefly or have an important off-stage presence. All the other main characters are fictional. The siege of Arete is a real event, known from some remarkable archaeological discoveries (see the Wikipedia page).

Originally sent to Rome as a diplomatic hostage for his father, chief of the Angles in what is now southern Denmark, Ballista has risen to high command in the Roman Army. His career has taken him to the frontiers of the Empire on the Danube and in the far west. Now he is on his way to face the Empire’s greatest threat of all, the Sassanid Persians in the east. Posted to the frontier city of Arete on the River Euphrates, last outpost of the Roman Empire, Ballista is given the title Dux Ripae (War-leader of the Riverbanks) and charged with defending the city against the expected Persian invasion. But Ballista has few troops to strengthen the city’s depleted garrison. Watching the Persians’ enormous army mass before the gates of Arete, Ballista knows that to hold the city with the limited resources at his command will take a feat of military genius – or a miracle. And to make matters worse, there is at least one murderous traitor at large in the city, intent on sabotage, assassination and betraying Arete to the Persians...

This is a military adventure with plenty of action – naval battles, desert ambush, assault and siege engineering – reflecting the author’s background as an academic expert on ancient warfare. At first, the pace is leisurely to slow, as Ballista and his staff travel across the Mediterranean in a trireme on the way to Syria to take up his appointment. This section felt like something of a travelogue, perhaps because it is so clearly a prelude to whatever is going to happen when Ballista takes up his command, although it gives the reader time to get to know the main characters and introduces some of the various religions and cultures. Once they reach Arete and begin the preparations for the city’s defence the pace picks up, and when the siege itself gets underway it becomes positively gripping. The last half of the book, as the Persians try various ingenious methods to take the city and Ballista’s defenders try equally ingenious methods to stop them, reminds me a little of Tolkien’s Battle of the Pelennor Fields in Lord of the Rings (and in case anyone is wondering, that’s a compliment). The mounting evidence of a traitor, or traitors, in the city adds to the growing menace of the Persian army outside to ratchet the tension ever higher. As the narrative is told in third person from a variety of points of view, the reader sometimes knows things that the main characters do not, which also helps to build suspense. Ballista is both intelligent and highly experienced, so he is always trying to out-think the Persians as well as out-fight them – and the Persians in turn are always trying to out-think him. If you have even the slightest interest in military engineering and have wondered how artillery, assault towers, siege ramps, battering rams and mines were used in practice, this is a book for you.

Contrasting cultures, opinions and religions are well drawn. Arete has a mix of classical paganism, various Eastern religions and Christianity, and a Persian slave boy provides a zealous description of the Persians’ religion. Ballista’s religious beliefs from his childhood among the Angles are based on Tacitus’ Germania and Norse mythology (in the total absence of any sources in between), so don’t be surprised to encounter the Viking gods in this novel; if anything, the slightly incongruous note helps to reinforce Ballista’s situation as an outsider to patrician Roman society. The prose style is straightforward modern English with a generous helping of modern four-letter words, sprinkled with archaic terminology for period colour and with an attractive line in sardonic humour.

The ‘end’ of the novel is clearly only a pause leading into further adventures, and the historical notes in the Appendix make it clear that at least two more novels will continue Ballista’s story. The half-century or so between 235 AD and about 285 AD is sometimes called the ‘Third-century crisis’, reflecting the many political and military upheavals that shook the Roman Empire as it got into a habit of losing battles and rattled through short-lived Emperors like a bored child through a toy box. It’s a period with plenty of scope for drama, and as it is also a poorly documented period – possibly because everyone was too busy trying to stay alive and on the right side of the chaotic politics to write anything down – very little is known about it so the scope for historical fiction is similarly immense. The author comments in his historical note that one of his academic colleagues congratulated him on his choice of setting because “...so little is known for sure that no-one could prove me wrong.”

Nevertheless, as the author says, he has taken care with the historical background. Even when events and people are not known with any certainty and have to be invented, something is often known in broad terms about the world in which the story takes place, such as technology, trade routes, material culture and so on. A detailed Appendix gives a brief introduction to the known history, people and places, together with suggestions for further reading. A list of characters may help to keep the cast straight, although I found the writing sufficiently clear that I did not need to refer to it, and a detailed glossary defines most of the period terminology for readers unfamiliar with the setting. Two maps at the front of the novel are invaluable for understanding the geography and the detailed progress of the siege.

Gripping military adventure set against the dramatic background of the Roman third-century crisis in the Near and Middle East.


Gabriele Campbell said...

Ballista will be around for some time - the 4th book, The Caspian Gates, has been released a few weeks ago, and there are to be at least six in all.

And those pirates aren't the only Goths our friend is going to meet. ;)

Carla said...

Six! I didn't realise it was that many. Still, the third-century crisis has lots of scope for adventure :-) I only came across this series fairly recently when someone recommended them to me. I'm impressed so far.

Rick said...

Is Ballista the guy's nickname, from the weapon (as I'd expect, him being an army officer) or an actual name?

Anyway, sounds interesting!

Carla said...

It's his cognomen, so a sort of official nickname, if you like. His full name is Marcus Clodius Ballista. Yes, from the weapon. He has an interest in artillery and engineering, both of which feature strongly in the siege.

Rick said...

As well they might - artillery and engineering were basic elements of siegecraft.

Carla said...

Quite so, and both the Romans and Persians were sophisticated and skilled at both. One of the most interesting things about the novel for me was looking up Arete (Dura-Europos) on Wikipedia and seeing how the archaeology more or less provided the script for the account of the siege in the novel.

Ballista has more than just a pragmatic interest in engineering; at one point he is contemplating a water clock (an item of, ahem, limited military applicability) and trying to figure out how it works, just out of curiosity.

Gabriele Campbell said...

We should alert Constance to those books, lol. She's always the first to plan sieges of the castles I blog about. :)

Carla said...

Yes, I thought of Constance when I read the siege scenes :-) I daresay she already knows about the series.