Lion of the Sun by Harry Sidebottom

Rating 7.5/10
Sidebottom goes rather over-the-top with the Latin asides.

Lion of the Sun: Book three in Harry Sidebottom's Warrior of Rome series, first published by Penguin in 2010.

Mesopotamia, AD 260: Betrayed by his most trusted adviser, the Roman Emperor Valerian has been captured by the Sassanid barbarians. The shame of the vanquished beats down mercilessly like the white sun, as the frail old emperor prostrates himself before Shapur, King of Kings. Ballista looks on helplessly, but vows under his breath to avenge those who have brought the empire to the brink of destruction with their treachery. One day, maybe not soon, but one day, I will kill you… But first he must decide what price he will pay for his own freedom. Only the fearless and only those whom the gods will spare from hell can now save the empire from a catastrophic ending. Ballista, the Warrior of Rome, faces his greatest challenge yet.

In my review of book two in the Warrior of Rome series, King of Kings, I looked at three vital ingredients in a good historical fiction series: authenticity, characterisation and story. For this review of Lion of the Sun I will look at what an author needs to do to keep readers continually engaged as a series progresses.

I feel that it is very important for the characters to grow and become more lifelike as each book passes. Much will have befallen them over the course of a series, they will have suffered hardship, loss of friends or family, made mistakes and earned regrets - all this must be reflected in how they behave, think and speak. Events in life change people and make them who they are and we need to see this in the characters we read about. Sidebottom has done a good job here, particularly with Ballista, and shows how the deaths of those around him, added to becoming a father again, have turned him into a more mature, thoughtful human being than the one we first met in the first book.

As well as character progression the story also needs to vary and remain interesting. I'm afraid that here I have to come back to my only real problem with the series, and that is that it often seems like the three books are following a rather similar path - one which sees  Ballista continually being sent east against the Persians only to fail, return in a state of disgrace, spend a year on the side-lines before once again being sent east to fight the Persians. Thankfully though, many other things do happen that help keep things fresh but the sense of repetition was hard to overcome. I feel a little uncharitable voicing this complaint about a series I have greatly enjoyed reading but it was a feeling that was there and needs to be mentioned.

Finally, in a lengthening series of book it is important that that minor characters begin to come to the front. No reader wants to read about the same set of characters continuously and so the Warrior of Rome series needed a shift of perspective coming into the third book. And this was exactly what it did. With Ballista being held prisoner by the King of Kings the story was allowed to progress through the eyes of his trusted familia: Maximus, Calgalus and Demetrius and it helped to breath new life into the series. We also spent more time with Julia, Ballista's wife, who was a strong and interesting figure.

If I was to be brutally honest I would have to say that I found Lion of the Sun to be the weakest of the three books so far. That is not to say that it was a bad book, it just wasn't as much fun to read as the previous two instalments - one reason being that that Sidebottom goes rather over-the-top with the Latin asides. There was also a rather strange passage in the book where Ballista is overcome with grief and openly seeks death - I did not enjoy this part at all, it seemed completely out of place and had me reading back to see if I had inadvertently missed a few pages as it just didn't seem to fit at all.

Reading back over this review it appears that I have focussed on negatives far too much. I DID enjoy this book, just to a lesser degree than was previously the case. However, I would certainly recommend it to those who have read and enjoyed the series so far and am looking forward to staring on The Caspian Gates in a few days time.

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Important note: My Mum has just read the first book in the series, Fire in the East, and liked it so much she is re-reading it and has asked for a copy of King of Kings.

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