04 February, 2012

King of Kings, by Harry Sidebottom. Book review

Penguin, 2010, ISBN 978-0-141-03230-6. 469 pages.

Second in the Warrior of Rome series, King of Kings follows on from Fire in the East (reviewed here earlier). Emperor Valerian, the Imperial officials Macrianus the Lame and his two sons, and the Persian ruler Shapur are historical figures. Ballista, the central character, is based on a historical figure about whom little is known. Other major characters are fictional. King of Kings is set in 256–260 AD, in the Eastern Mediterranean and what is now Syria.

Marcus Clodius Ballista, originally a noble hostage from the northern tribe of the Angles and now a senior Roman army officer, was one of the few survivors of the siege of Arete (recounted in Fire in the East). Bringing disastrous news to the Imperial court at Antioch, Ballista falls foul of the sinister official Macrianus the Lame and his slimy son Quietus, as well as the arrogant patrician Acilius Glabrio who blames Ballista for his brother’s death at Arete. The Empire is beset with difficulties, many of which are blamed on the cult of Christianity, and in the east the powerful Persian king Shapur is threatening war. But the greatest threat comes from within Rome itself...

King of Kings picks up at the moment where Fire in the East left off, with Ballista and his companions fleeing for their lives from the sack of Arete. The opening sequence gives a good idea of what to expect; there is no shortage of military adventure and gruesome battle scenes in King of Kings, from pirate raids to full-scale campaigns against the Persians. Political intrigue plays a larger role in King of Kings than in the earlier novel, as Ballista has to deal with fanatical Christians in Ephesus and the back-stabbing (literally as well as metaphorically) machinations of the Imperial court. A few quiet periods between assignments, when Ballista is out of Imperial favour, provide glimpses of Ballista’s home life, with his intelligent and politically astute upper-class Roman wife Julia and their two adored children.

Ballista’s position as an outsider to Imperial Rome comes over strongly in King of Kings. As well as the impenetrable etiquette and protocol of the court itself, he also finds Roman domestic customs alien and sometimes disturbing. Many among the Imperial court look down on Ballista as a barbarian, and even Julia insults him as such during a marital row. The closest members of Ballista’s household are also foreigners – Calgacus, the old Caledonian slave from Ballista’s northern homeland; Demetrius, the intellectual Greek secretary with a weakness for the occult; and Maximus, or Muirtagh of the Long Road, the tough Irish ex-gladiator bodyguard. For all that Ballista holds a senior position within Roman society as a high-ranking military officer, he is not part of it. As an outsider, he (and therefore the reader) is well placed to observe the flaws in the Imperial system, with power concentrated in the person of the increasingly infirm Valerian – a sympathetic, if rather pathetic, figure – and consequently vulnerable to misuse by corrupt officials who manipulate the Emperor for their own ends. Indeed, the main villain is so obviously evil that he is almost a cartoon caricature, cackling over the hero’s powerlessness while explaining the next step in his nefarious plan, which is all very well in a Bond film but I found it a bit disappointing here. If the portrayal bears any resemblance to reality, no wonder Rome managed to get itself into the mess of the ‘Third-Century Crisis’.

As with Fire in the East, King of Kings doesn’t so much reach an end as take a brief pause for breath before Ballista’s adventures continue in the next instalment. I am finding the series faintly reminiscent of Bernard Cornwell’s Sharpe novels, partly because of Ballista’s position as an outsider, partly because of the frequent and dramatic battle scenes, and partly something about the style (it’s a toss-up at present whether the no-nonsense Irish bodyguard Maximus reminds me more of Russell Crowe in Gladiator or Sergeant Patrick Harper). On reaching the Historical Afterword at the back, it turns out that one of the Sharpe echoes was intentional.

The narrative is told in third person, mainly by Ballista but also by other characters as occasion dictates, so the reader sometimes knows things that Ballista doesn’t know. The style is mostly straightforward modern prose, liberally sprinkled with archaic terms (explained in a glossary at the back, although I found most of them could be worked out from context), and with a fair helping of modern four-letter words. I found the pace rather uneven, speeding along during the fight sequences and then seeming to drag during the episode of persecuting Christians in Ephesus. This may be intentional, as Ballista himself is much more at home with military command than with a civilian governor’s job. I wonder if the Ephesus episode was covered at such length because it has some wider significance, perhaps setting up for something in a later book?

The Historical Afterword at the back outlines some of the history underlying the novel, and a map at the front is useful for following Ballista’s journeys. A list of characters at the back may also be helpful for keeping track of who is who, although I never needed to refer to it.

Military adventure, gruesome battles and political intrigue as the third-century Roman Empire clashes with the mighty Persian Empire in the Near and Middle East.


Gabriele Campbell said...

We'll be back in Ephesus in book 4. :)

Carla said...

Aha - so did I guess correctly that the Ephesus episode is setting up for something in a later book?