Smale can tell a story, of that there is no doubt.
The opener of Alan Smale’s Hesperian Trilogy has a theme that will be familiar to a generation who have read of Pocahontas (or seen the Disney film); a younger generation will find a more salient comparison to the film “Avatar”. This time, the author retains wholly the Native American setting, but throws in his own ‘twist’ of: “what if the Roman Empire was still existing in the twelfth century A.D”? Wrapped around this is the current socio-literary requirement to have a hero who is both taciturn and stubborn, yet open to both change and redemption coupled with a strong female lead, an icon for a gender.
The story commences with one of land-grab: the Roman Empire has turned up in the US two hundred years ahead of Mr Columbus, courtesy of an established Norse naval presence, and decided to march a legion in a straight line towards their own promised El Dorado. Their Praetor, Gaius Marcellinus, doesn’t manage to emulate Cabeza de Vaca, suffering a defeat of Carrhaean proportions, saved only by the Great Sun Man of the Cathokian, ostensibly to teach these semi-nomadic peoples new technologies. Come page 138 Gaius is forced to reconsider his options given “his legionaries were gone. There was no one else who spoke tolerable Latin in whole sentences within a thousand miles… Marcellinus’ enemies had become his keepers. And his keepers were not a mass of barbarians but a motley collection of human beings.”
What follows over three parts and three years is the gradual integration of Marcellinus into Cathokian society: learning their vocal and sign language, understanding how to fly, teaching them Roman infantry tactics, forming strong social bonds with their youth, learning to love their women (this is where Sintikala/Sisika comes in), bringing the concepts of steel and city defences to their culture. All of which starts out well, but then, inevitably, leads to a break in the balance of power in the region, hubris, and destruction with our narrative culminating in a battle against the Iroqua and sets us up for the next instalment.
Smale’s narrative is evenly paced as our male lead transitions from narrow-minded soldier into culturally adept leader. His battle sequences are astute, both at a personal fighting level and a tactical overview. He doesn’t suffer from a need to move from one testosterone-laden cliché to another, spending time developing relationships in Cahokia between all strata of society. Whilst the narrative isn’t first person, it is clearly told from a singular conscience, Marcellinus struggling to accept his failure, then achieving through stoicism an ability to change. Almost Stockholm Syndrome with echoes of that 1985 film: “The Emerald Forest”. As such the language of Smale’s prose is focused on either introspection or interaction; descriptions of both landscape and exuberant use of adjectives are reined in, deprioritised to the human story rather than the pictorial one. It means the novel moves along at an intriguing pace, rather than a gripping one, but this allows us to finish more replete than sated, looking for the next book.
A small gripe: even though this is an alternative history, Smale doesn’t steer away from the language of European prejudice, early in the narrative referring to ‘slant eyes’ and ‘redskins’. Frank L Baum might approve. There was also the classic “just deserts”, rather than “just desserts” that appears through so much of fiction these days. But these are minor quibbles. Cleverly (whether by accident or design), in removing Marcellinus from the geographic reality of inventing a twelfth century Roman Empire, Smale saves himself from accusations of historical inaccuracy despite this being an alternative history novel. It means he doesn’t have to develop a culture by an imaginary six hundred years (if we assume the end of the Roman Empire at 410.A.D.) but, for this reviewer, the failure to take up that challenge is the only disappointment in the book as I think he might be rather good at it. To the discerning eye this is quite evident as Marcellinus’ points of historical reference are all known Roman history, he never speaks, for example, of an imaginary Rome of the 9th Century. As such his alternative history is solely focused on imposing the technological advancements of a Rome that really seems to have stagnated since about 400A.D. to a Native American culture that is barely Bronze Age despite working out how to fly in a manner that is part Da Vinci, part Wright Bros..
Smale can tell a story, of that there is no doubt given this reviewer enjoyed the read and came away both satisfied and wanting to read the next in the series.
Review by travelswithacanadian
8.5/10 from 1 reviews
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