Fire in the East by Harry Sidebottom

Rating 8.0/10
A well-researched and absorbing account of warfare during the decline of the Roman Empire.

Author, and occasional reviewer for The Times Literary Supplement, Harry Sidebottom has, since 2006, been working on the Warrior of Rome series of novels featuring the Anglo-Saxon nobleman turned Roman army officer Ballista. Set in the Roman Empire during the so-called “Great Crisis of the Third Century AD” it is a tale of courage, treachery and brutal warfare.

In the autumn of AD255 a Roman officer, Marcus Clodius Ballista, is sent east to defend the city of Arete on the Euphrates from attack by the Sassanid Persians, the religious fundamentalists who are the Fire in the East. From the start the mission is ill-omened. For nothing is as it seems in the Imperium Romanum. Imperial spies are embedded in the new commander’s staff. As Ballista races against time to prepare the defences it becomes clear that there is treachery within the walls. But who is the traitor? Is he a Roman officer unable to accept taking orders from an upstart northern barbarian like Ballista; one of the nobles of the city, with their armed retinues and links to the Persians; or a local whose home, family tomb, or temple have been demolished in the name of western freedom? As Ballista fights to defend the external walls of Arete, he also finds himself struggling with his own vows of fidelity in the face of Bathshiba, the wild and exotic girl from the east.

Fire in the East is rather intriguingly set during the decline of the Roman Empire and its lead is the German barbarian, now Roman citizen and diplomatic hostage, Ballista. It is an intriguing look at the internal machinations of an empire during a time when it finds itself involved in a religious war: a war without just cause, with no hope of compromise, or indeed end.

The narrative feature the use of contemporary speech, particularly when using expletives, and this is a method that will always divide opinions: for some it works, others find it inappropriate. The story itself is divided into three parts: the journey to Arete, the preparation for the siege, and the siege itself. One thing that is always evident is that Dr Harry Sidebottom knows his history and more importantly he possesses the necessary skill to present his scholarly knowledge in an accessible and realistic way while maintaining historical accuracy. A great deal of effort and attention to detail has gone into Fire in the East and this pays off as the reader will find it easy to immerse themselves in the author’s ancient world.

There are a couple of irksome moments though. Right at the beginning Ballista attempts to kill the Emperor, he fails and is at the Emperor’s mercy but the Emperor simply turns his back on him and walks from the tent. Surely he would have ended his life and not left an assassin alive behind him. OK, Ballista’s death in the first chapter was never an option but still... The ending is also slightly disappointing, with the pace and tension slowly ebbing away as a result of the final, climatic siege being a little too long. This was a shame as the build-up of pace tension and was something that Sidebottom had been doing extremely well up until that point. These are pretty small complaints though and all-in-all Fire in the East is a ripping yarn, strong on character and action, full of intrigue and treachery.

The biggest and most important question that surfaces after reading the first book in a series is whether you would read the second. The answer would be a definite yes as Fire in the East is a well-researched and absorbing account of warfare during the decline of the Roman Empire.

Recommended to readers who enjoy historical fiction and existing fans of Simon Scarrow and Conn Iggulden.

Warrior of Rome: Fire in the East by Harry Sidebottom
Paperback: 448 pages
Publisher: Penguin (1 April 2009)
ISBN-10: 0141032294
ISBN-13: 978-0141032290

Dr Harry Sidebottom is a Fellow of St Benets Hall and lecturer at Lincoln College, Oxford - where he specializes in ancient warfare and classical art.

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