24 July, 2013

The Caspian Gates, by Harry Sidebottom. Book review

Penguin, 2012. ISBN 978-0-141-04616-7. 366 pages.

Fourth in the Warrior of Rome series, The Caspian Gates is set in the Eastern Mediterranean, the Black Sea and the Caucasus in 259-262 AD. Emperor Gallienus is a historical figure and a secondary character.  Ballista is based on a historical figure about whom little is known.  The other main characters are fictional.

After his part in the fall of the usurper Macrianus and his sons (recounted in Lion of the Sun, reviewed here earlier), Ballista is waiting in Ephesus for Emperor Gallienus to decide his fate. When an earthquake devastates the city, the barbarian Goths take the opportunity for looting and piracy – and to pursue their blood feud against Ballista.  If he survives the Gothic attack, Ballista will face a yet more perilous mission, to the savage tribes of the Caucasus and his old enemies, the Persians.

Like its predecessors, The Caspian Gates has no shortage of action and adventure.  An earthquake, several fights with Gothic raiders, an extended sea-chase from Gothic pirates, a tumultuous storm in the Black Sea, a sabotage attempt, more than one murder and a gruelling chase across the mountains all feature, before reaching the climactic battle scene in the wild mountain pass of the Caspian Gates.  The sea chase and the storm were especially gripping, with a real sense of tension and menace.

Now that the political plotting of the Macriani has been resolved, Ballista is no longer at the centre of events in the Empire.  Indeed, Emperor Gallienus is actively looking for somewhere to park him out of the way.  This may explain why I felt that The Caspian Gates was rather episodic, as if recounting a series of incidents that happened to occur one after the other but with little connection between them. In the first half of the book Ballista is essentially kicking his heels waiting for Gallienus to make a decision, and apart from the decision itself, the first half of the book has very little bearing on the events of the second half. Previous instalments in the series also contained a fair helping of travelogues and digressions to explain background detail about culture, religion and myth, but the court intrigues and Ballista’s conflict with the Macriani helped to pull the narrative together into a coherent whole.  With that gone, The Caspian Gates seemed to have lost a lot of narrative drive.  This is compounded by Ballista himself, who seemed rather directionless in this novel.  To be fair, Ballista has no control over where Emperor Gallienus will choose to post him, and as a newcomer and an outsider he has little influence over the established rival factions when he gets there. However, he also seems to have lost direction in his personal life; there are several comments that ‘things are not good’ between Ballista and his wife Julia, yet he seems content to let matters drift without apparently making any attempt to find out what is wrong from Julia’s side (readers of Lion of the Sun will be able to hazard a guess). A certain amount of aimless uncertainty may well be highly appropriate for the chaotic period of the Third-Century Crisis, but it made for a somewhat disappointing narrative.  However, given the philosophical musings on the nature of exile in The Caspian Gates, perhaps it is setting up for something important in the next book.

Many of the core characters from the previous books reappear in The Caspian Gates, including Ballista’s Irish bodyguard the no-nonsense ex-gladiator Maximus, and the gloomy Caledonian Calgacus.  Ballista’s young Greek secretary Demetrius makes a fleeting appearance, now with Emperor Gallienus.  His place in Ballista’s entourage is now taken by another Greek, Hippothous, who fulfils the same role as a recounter of Greek philosophy and legend, but who is an altogether tougher and more violent character, an ex-bandit who enjoys killing for its own sake. Rather to my disappointment, Ballista’s intelligent Roman wife Julia appears only briefly.

As with its predecessors, The Caspian Gates does not so much end as take a brief pause for breath before Ballista is despatched on his next adventure.  It will be interesting to see how this develops, as Ballista is clearly feeling his age in The Caspian Gates despite, or perhaps because of, his encounter with a gorgeous Amazonian princess.  I wonder how many more adventures he can expect before (or indeed if) he is allowed to retire to Sicily with his family.

The writing style is straightforward modern prose, liberally sprinkled with modern expletives (readers who find f--- and c--- offensive should consider themselves warned). There are also a lot of Latin, Greek and Persian terms scattered through the text, and it is worth bookmarking the glossary at the back as they are not always immediately clear from context. A list of characters at the back is helpful for keeping track of who is who, especially minor characters or figures from history or legend. Maps of the Caucasus and the cities of Ephesus and Miletus at the front are useful for following the action.  There is a comprehensive Historical Afterword at the back, with sources and suggestions for further reading.

Episodic action-adventure set against the background of Rome’s third-century crisis.


Rick said...

Has the author indicated whether (or to what degree) there is a 'long arc' story line to this series?

An episodic feel is something of an occupational hazard for the middle volume of trilogies, and something similar might be happening here.

Carla said...

I think there are going to be six or more books, but whether there is explicitly a long arc or whether it's more of an open-ended adventure series like Sharpe, I'm not sure. As far as I know almost nothing is known about the historical figure on whom Ballista is based, so there isn't an obvious storyline around following the known career of a historical figure from beginning to end.

It may be that the episodes are setting up storylines that will be brought together in later books. This one picks up on previous conflicts between Ballista and the Goths and Persians, so by the same token some of the events in this book may influence later books.

Annis said...

I'm just ploughing through this series at the moment, Carla, and discovered an interview with Harry Sidebottom where he says he has four "Ballista" trilogies in mind, though somewhere along the line he intends to write a novel set during the First World War to stop himself from going stale on the Third Century. I'm currently reading "Wolves of the North", which I presume must be both Bk 5 in the series as a whole and also Bk 2 in the second trilogy.

As I mentioned elsewhere I got a bit grumpy about Sidebottom having Ballista quote a "long-remembered" piece from "Beowulf" which was highly unlikely to have been known during Ballista's lifetime. However he does mention in his extensive Afterword for "Fire in the East" that he took "Beowulf" as a inspiration for the Anglo-Saxon mindset. I'm sure I've spotted pieces from other Anglo-Saxon poems like "The Wanderer" pop up in some of the other "Ballista" books, too.

Sidebottom does quote very freely throughout the series from many and varied classical and early medieval works, and while I enjoy it, I wonder how many readers might wish he'd sometimes give it a miss? However, that said, he does write a very good historical adventure, and has the necessary sense of story sometimes lacking in novels written by academics. It remains to be seen whether he can keep our interest as the series continues :)

Carla said...

Annis - many thanks, that's interesting. The first three books do seem to form a group, linked by the Macrianus politics, which would make sense if they are intended as a trilogy. In which case this would be the first of a new trilogy, and the 'bits and pieces' feel might be setting up a new set of storylines to be developed in the next two books. I hope so.

As I said in my reply to you elsewhere, it seems quite likely to me that parts of the Beowulf poem might well have been around in Ballista's day, especially the central three fights, and the image of post-battle scavengers you quoted, which have a timeless quality. Ditto with The Wanderer; last survivors and exiles may well be another timeless theme explored by a long line of poets in and before Ballista's time as well as the poet/poets whose work got written down and survived to us.

Annis said...

Yes, given the tradition of scops taking favourite stories and reworking them in their own mould, I can imagine that the piece Ballista quoted from "Beowulf", might well have been an older bit of appealing imagery which went to Britain with the Anglians and was added to later material.

I've now read all the "Ballista" novels to date. There are pluses and minuses involved in reading all the novels in a series straight through, but these stand up well. "Wolves of the North" was the one I found least engaging, probably because Ballista spends so much him trundling endlessly back and forth across the Sea of Grass. "Amber Road" (last of the second trilogy) was much more interesting, as Ballista returns to his homeland and has to deal with the complex baggage of the past.

I wonder as well about Ballista surviving long enough to feature in so many more projected novels, but perhaps Sidebottom will do what Christian Cameron did with his "Tyrant" series and take the story to the next generation of his family? Assuming there are any of his family left - Ballista and his sons have to be most comprehensively cursed family ever!

Carla said...

Annis - I thought from the title that Amber Road might be taking Ballista back to his homeland. There have been a few hints that he feels he has been away so long that he would be an outsider there, as he is in the Roman world.

If the series is going to move to the next generation, presumably the characters of Ballista's two sons will be developed more in the next part of the series. Though the Sharpe novels must have 20-odd in the series by now, so for Ballista to have 12 adventure novels might not be impossible :-)