25 August, 2009

The Forgotten Legion, by Ben Kane. Book review

Preface Random House, 2009, ISBN 978-1-84809-010-1. 603 pages.

The Forgotten Legion is set in 70 BC – 53 BC, in Rome, Gaul, Parthia (roughly modern Iran and Iraq) and Margiana (in modern Turkmenistan). The Roman politicians of the First Triumvirate, Crassus, Pompey and Julius Caesar, play secondary roles, as does the military officer Decimus Brutus*. All the main characters are fictional.

In the hills near Rome in 70 BC, Tarquinius, a slave proud of his Etruscan heritage and trained as the last Etruscan haruspex (soothsayer), leaves the estate when his mentor is killed on the orders of a Roman noble. In Rome at the same time, a slave girl is raped in the street by a Roman nobleman, identified only as “the lean man” and later gives birth to twins, a boy and girl named Romulus and Fabiola. In 61 BC, in Gaul, the mighty warrior Brennus witnesses the destruction of his tribe the Allobroges by Roman armies and is himself captured and sold into slavery as a gladiator. All four slaves are, in their different ways, determined to gain their freedom and exact revenge on Rome. Fabiola, sold into prostitution in a brothel that caters for the rich and powerful, has to learn to navigate the turbulent world of high politics and street violence in Rome. Tarquinius, Brennus and Romulus face a journey to the ends of the known world, as Crassus launches his invasion of Parthia. Can the four survive against overwhelming odds?

All the time I was reading The Forgotten Legion, I had the theme tune Nobody Does It Better from the James Bond film The Spy Who Loved Me running in my head. All four lead characters are gifted with innate, exceptional talents. Fabiola, a household slave sold to a brothel aged 13, quickly becomes the establishment’s star attraction and highest earner, and a mean street fighter into the bargain. Her twin brother Romulus, sold to a gladiator school also aged 13, is a champion gladiator within months. Brennus, who mows down legionaries despite being outnumbered a dozen to one, must be the mightiest Gaulish warrior since Asterix and Obelix (no, magic potion isn’t involved). Tarquinius has a supernatural ability that means he really can read the future in a chicken’s entrails and is an expert military strategist who invents in months a technique to withstand horse archery that the Parthians have never thought of, despite having been fighting enemy horse archer cultures from the steppes for years and having a ready supply of the requisite raw materials. Nothing wrong with this; it establishes The Forgotten Legion as a Romance in the old sense of the word, full of exceptional characters doing extraordinary things in exotic locations.

And are the locations exotic. One of the things I enjoyed most about The Forgotten Legion was its enormous geographical canvas. Most of the Roman-set fiction I’ve read tends to be set in Europe (the Roman invasion/occupation of Britain seems to be especially popular) or in Rome itself, so seeing the world beyond the eastern frontiers of the Empire makes an interesting change. Crassus’ soldiers march through Asia Minor (modern Turkey) to the vast deserts of Parthia, then over mountains to the green hills and valleys of Margiana, giving the reader a sort of whistle-stop tour of Central Asia. The sketch map provided at the beginning of the paperback is invaluable here, especially if used in conjunction with a modern atlas. The Parthian Empire occupied approximately the area of modern Iraq and Iran, and at the time of the Late Republic it was Rome’s chief rival for power in the region. Crassus really did invade Parthia, and anyone who doesn’t already know the historical outcome can find out by Googling for the Battle of Carrhae (insert modern parallel of your choice).

The Forgotten Legion features lots of action. As well as the Battle of Carrhae itself, which is one set-piece among several battles in the Parthian campaign, we also have gladiator contests in the arena and bar-room brawls, street fights and murder attempts in Rome itself. The narrative cuts back and forth between the different characters, always stopping on a cliffhanger (although there is not actually that much suspense, because Tarquinius predicts practically everything before it happens). Paradoxically, the sheer amount of action both speeds and slows the pace. On the one hand there’s hardly a chance to draw breath as the tale ricochets from one mortal peril to another. On the other, it gives the narrative a rather rambling quality; for example, it takes 350 pages before our three heroes finally come together in the legion of the title. This is perhaps because the novel is clearly only the first part of a much longer tale, and the “end” isn’t really an ending at all but more of a brief pause between volumes.

Tarquinius has magical powers to foretell the future that really work. It’s made quite plain that this isn’t just belief or coincidence; he really can predict the future accurately from clouds and animal innards. This makes the foreshadowing a bit heavy-handed for my taste, but conversely it does mean that the book is an easy read. If I had to stop reading for a lengthy period I never had to back-track to remind myself what was going on because so much is effectively told twice, once in prophecies and once in the action.

The aristocratic rapist who fathered Romulus and Fabiola seemed oddly contradictory to me. He is apparently so overcome with drink and lust that he rapes a random slave girl in a back alley, oblivious to dirt or the possibility of disease, yet so cool-headed that as soon as he has finished he mentally reviews a potted history of his entire political career to date. Although he is at this point identified only as “the lean man”, his identity could hardly be more obvious; and I suspect that I don’t need Tarquinius’ powers of soothsaying to predict where the story is eventually going to end up.

A preface and author’s note explain the history behind the Forgotten Legion’s remarkable journey, and a glossary explains the numerous Latin terms scattered through the text. I rarely referred to it because I found I could work them out from context, but it is helpful to know it’s there if needed.

Entertaining all-action blockbuster in book form.

*The Brutus everyone has heard of, of “Et tu Brute” fame in Shakespeare, is Marcus Junius Brutus. Decimus Brutus was a contemporary, who served as an officer in Caesar’s army in Gaul, and he is the Brutus who appears in The Forgotten Legion. I guess they were probably related, but I don’t know how closely.


Gabriele Campbell said...

I bought that bad boy and its sequel, The Silver Eagle, in Scotland because the trilogy (there'll be a third book next year) sounded interesting. It seems to be a mix of Cornwell and Conan. :)

Carla said...

Gabriele - not a bad description :-) I have a review of The Silver Eagle on the go, which will appear in due course. Will be interesting to see if my guesses about the end of the tale are anywhere near the mark.

Constance Brewer said...

Hey, this one sounds interesting. I like the dollops of romance to break up the blood and guts. :)

Carla said...

Constance - that's 'Romance' in the sense that El Cid is a Romance, not romance in the category sense. There are a fair few sex scenes (as one would expect given that one of the characters is a prostitute), but no love story to speak of.

Rick said...

The lean man, huh? As in 'lean and hungry look?'

Interesting that the Etruscan guy has the name of two of the last Roman kings.

On the subject of Rome and the East, one thing that has long intrigued me is that two great empires, Rome and Han China, existed at the opposite ends of Eurasia at this time, each thinking of itself as universal (or nearly so) ... and for all practical purposes neither had the first clue that the other one even existed.

I wonder if the forgotten legion will eventually make its way along the Silk Road to That Other Empire?

Kathryn Warner said...

Thanks for this very helpful review, Carla - the novel sounds interesting and well worth a read. Thanks also for ensuring that I'll have Nobody Does It Better stuck in my head for the rest of the day...;)

Carla said...

Rick - Nope, guess again :-) I don't want to give it away here in case it's supposed to be a secret, but really it couldn't be more obvious when you read the guy's potted history of his political career.

Yes it is. I don't know if that's just because Tarquinius is a name that readers are guaranteed to recognise as Etruscan (about the only one?) or whether it's going to have some deep significance in the last book of the trilogy.

The distances and terrain are such that Han China and Rome could each have thought the other more or less mythical. A caravan carrying silk is a key plot point in the novel, and there's a mention that the merchant has been two or three years on the journey and is still only halfway back.

The author mentions in his preface that there's a town in China with a name that might derive from a Roman original, and there's a theory that it was founded by the survivors of Crassus' army. But given all the set-up of Roman high politics, I suspect that even if some of the Forgotten Legion ends up there, our three heroes will rejoin the heroine in Rome for the finale.

Alianore - sorry about that :-) At least it's quite a good song.

Rick said...

I'll take your word for it that the potted history is a dead giveaway! But since you don't mention Mark Antony by name, he's an obvious suspect. :-)

I started to guess Octavian, but he was only seven years ten years old at the end date you give!

And yeah, given the focus on Roman politics the story probably won't end up in Han China. Merchants presumably made the round trip, but whatever they learned evidently didn't reach official/intellectual circles.

Carla said...

Keep guessing :-)

I don't know enough about trade at that time to know if many people from either end (Rome or China) did make the round trip, or if trade mostly went hand-to-hand through a chain of intermediaries. The merchant in the novel is a Judaean; he's been to China, but I don't know whether he actually goes to Rome or just sells his goods on to a Roman merchant when he gets home.

I suppose there was no real need for the military-political classes at either end to have much interest in each other. It's not as if either could send an army across Central Asia, or a fleet all the way round by sea, and expect it to achieve anything when (if?) it arrived.

Rick said...

I'm out of guesses - it would just be throwing darts at Roman names. Plus my knowledge of the late Republic is much weaker than it should be, something I'm only just starting to rectify.

About 200 years later, in the Antonine era, a Chinese official did make his way to the Roman Empire, and got back to file a report. I don't know if he actually got to Rome, but he reported that the ruler's name was 'An-tun.' Which makes an amusing counterpoint to the pseudo-Latin name Confucius.

Apparently what most impressed him about the Roman Empire was its stone post-houses. Since the Latin word for them was mansio - whence 'mansion' - I imagine they were rather impressive.

Carla said...

I didn't know about the Chinese traveller! What was his name? His take on the Roman Empire should make fascinating reading, being from an outsider's perspective. (Like Ibn Fadlan's description of the Vikings in Russia) He got the Roman emperor's name pretty well right, considering the differences in the languages. Presumably Confucius is a vaguely phonetic attempt to render a Chinese name?

Interesting that he was so taken with the mansios. From what I know of them, which is not as much as I would like (as with so many things), they were fairly standard-issue Roman stone buildings. I'd have thought that a rich senator's house in Rome or a flashy country villa would have outdone them, not to mention big public monuments like the temples and the Coliseum and so forth. I wonder if accommodation for travellers in China was organised differently, and he was impressed because he could compare them directly with the equivalent (whatever it was) in his own country?

Rick said...

I googled, and if Wikipedia is to go by I was giving a fractured memory of two events: A Chinese official named Gan Ying who reached Mesopotamia, but not Rome, c. AD 97, and a Roman embassy that is reported by the Chinese to have visited in AD 166.


It seems to me that, compared to Greeks and Romans, the classical Chinese were not big on monumental architecture, with the spectacular exception of the Great Wall. Otherwise you hardly think of Famous Ruins with respect to ancient China.

Carla said...

Thanks for the link! The Roman ambassadors must have had quite a journey - to the end of the world and back again. I wonder how long it took them? Wikipedia seems to be of the view that they went by sea and not overland by the Silk Road like Marco Polo.

The Great Wall had a practical function (assuming it really worked as a defensive frontier), which is different from monumental architecture built for display. Did the Chinese build in perishable materials like timber? If so, they could have had buildings that were pretty impressive but didn't last for us to marvel at, and the contrast with stone architecture would have been striking.

Interesting that the Chinese empire seems to have lasted a lot longer than the Roman one.

Elizabeth Chadwick said...

Thanks for the review Carla.
I have this on my TBR so it's interesting to see your views. I bought it for the DH's birthday. He enjoyed it although not as much as he enjoys Cornwell (not that Cornwell writes Roman, but talking in terms of action novel style) but was generally shruggish and non commital, so I'll just have to suck it and see when I get round to it.

Carla said...

Elizabeth - I'd say it's nearer Conn Iggulden's style than Cornwell's, though I haven't noticed as many, ahem, modifications of history as in Iggulden's Emperor series. I daresay there's no need, since the central characters in The Forgotten legion are fictional and aren't constrained by reality. It reminded me of the better James Bond films; an entertaining ride through a succession of spectacular set-pieces. I'll be interested to hear your views.