30 April, 2012

Lion of the Sun, by Harry Sidebottom. Book review

Penguin 2011. ISBN 978-0-141-03231-3. 409 pages

Set in 260-261 AD, mainly in modern Turkey and Syria with a couple of short interludes in northern Italy and the Alps, Lion of the Sun is the third in the Ballista series, following Fire in the East (reviewed here earlier) and King of Kings (reviewed here earlier). Historical figures include Emperor Valerian, Shapur of Persia, Odenathus of Palmyra, Macrianus the Lame and his sons Macrianus and Quietus. Ballista is based on a historical figure about whom little is known. Other main characters are fictional.

Captured along with Emperor Valerian and many senior Imperial officials after betrayal led to a disastrous defeat (recounted in King of Kings), Ballista is a prisoner of the Persians. He has two desires: to return to his beloved wife and sons, and to take vengeance on the Roman usurpers who betrayed Valerian’s army to the Persians, Macrianus the Lame and his two sons. Far away to the west in Italy, Valerian’s son Emperor Gallienus has his hands full dealing with a barbarian invasion and another crop of would-be emperors, and cannot come to the rescue. Closer at hand, Odenathus Lord of Tadmor (Palmyra), known as the Lion of the Sun, holds the balance of power in the East. Will he declare for Persia, for the tyrants Macrianus and Quietus, or for the Romans who remain loyal to Gallienus? As war, murder and destruction stalk the East, the fate of the Roman Empire hangs in the balance – and Ballista, bound by oaths to all three sides, faces a terrible choice.

Lion of the Sun picks up immediately after the end of the previous book, King of Kings, with Ballista in captivity and his freedmen Maximus, Demetrius and Calgacus in the middle of a desperate flight through enemy territory back to Ballista’s family in Antioch. The action starts immediately, and barely pauses for breath for the next 400 pages. Like its predecessors, Lion of the Sun is primarily a military adventure, full of battle, chase, skirmishes, hair’s-breadth escapes (or not, for some unlucky characters) and graphic violence. Also like its predecessors, particularly King of Kings, it has a firm depth of politics and intrigue underpinning the violence, so the reader gets an impression of how Ballista’s adventures fit into the wider picture. The political element seems to be getting stronger as the series develops, perhaps because Ballista’s position in high command places him at the centre of political events as well as on the military front line. There is a strong sense of the different cultures and religions of the time, giving the novel a feeling of authenticity.

Ballista’s character remains an attractive feature of the series. An outsider in the Imperial court, he knows he is also now a stranger to his childhood homeland in Angeln in the far north. His devotion to his beloved wife and two young sons is both a source of strength and a vulnerability, as his reaction when he believes a broken oath has brought disaster on his family shows. Julia, Ballista’s wife, is another clearly defined character, intelligent, calm and capable. She plays more of a role in Lion of the Sun than in the previous book, and I look forward to seeing more of her. Most of the secondary characters are also developed as individuals, especially Ballista’s freedmen Maximus, Calgacus and Demetrius. Bathshiba and Haddudad from Fire in the East also make a welcome reappearance. The villains have a cartoon-like quality, particularly Quietus, a deranged tyrant in the mould of Caligula or Nero but without the style.

The writing style is mainly straightforward modern prose, liberally sprinkled with modern expletives (readers who find four-letter words offensive should consider themselves warned), and with archaic Latin terms. There is a glossary at the back explaining the Latin terms, though I found most of them could be worked out at least approximately from context. Two maps at the front show the Roman Empire and the Roman Near/Middle East, and are very useful for following the action. A list of characters at the back may be useful for keeping track of who is who, though I never needed to refer to it and only found it after I finished reading. A detailed Historical Afterword at the back summarises some of the underlying history (what there is of it; the Third-Century Crisis is poorly documented) and suggests further reading. Continuing the tradition of the previous books in the series, Lion of the Sun does not end so much as pause briefly before Ballista’s adventures continue in the next instalment.

Action-packed military adventure with political depth and a strong sense of authenticity, set against the turmoil of the Third-Century Crisis in the east of the Roman Empire.


Rick said...

Belatedly catching up - does the author hint at a theory of the third century crisis.

Or do we have to wait until Ballista makes it (one hopes) to Diocletian's reign?

Carla said...

Sort of, if incompetence and treachery counts as a theory :-)