King of Kings by Harry Sidebottom (Warrior of Rome: Book 2)

King of Kings: Book two in Harry Sidebottom's Warrior of Rome series, first published by Michael Joseph in 2009 (Penguin in 2010).

AD256: The Roman Empire is threatened from within. With the cult of Christianity spreading like wildfire, dangerous and powerful men vie for influence. Ballista, battle-bloodied general and survivor of the siege of Arete, has returned to an imperial court obsessed with intrigue and religious fanaticism. There he discovers men who would rather see him dead than alive. Even his courage and loyalty to Rome and the emperor are not above suspicion. But it is to Rome's eastern frontier - where a vast Persian army is assembled - that an even greater threat to Ballista and Rome awaits…

I read and enjoyed Harry Sidebottom's Fire in the East a few months ago and over the coming weeks I will be reviewing the following three books that make up Harry Sidebottom's Warrior of Rome series to date. To avoid repetitive reviews I have decided to come at each book from a slightly different angle and so, with King of Kings, I will look at what I believe to be the vital ingredients in an historical fiction novel.

I'll begin with authenticity. If an author is going to set a book hundreds, perhaps thousands of years in the past, during a certain time and featuring a certain race they had better make it believable. Even non-scholars such as myself can tell when things just don't feel quite right. The peoples and the locations have to be both believable and authentic and this is without question Harry Sidebottom's forte. It has been said that what Sidebottom doesn't know about the Romans is not worth knowing and I would not argue with that. In the Warrior of Rome books you find that the people; what they wear, what they eat, how they behave etcetera all ring true - OK, the author has opted for the use of contemporary speech but this is a popular and intelligent choice and it works just fine here. Weapons, buildings, even seemingly mundane everyday objects all show the benefit of detailed research and knowledge. So, it is a well-deserved 10/10 for authenticity.

Secondly, a historical novel must have great characters. Often, this genre opts for fictional main characters so that the author is not constrained by history. I think that the characters in these books are strong with Ballista and his familia (in the main Maximus, Calgalus and Demetrius) becoming better rounded individuals as the books progress. Sidebottom always make a concerted effort to create a persona for all those that have a major part to play in the series, so it is an  8/10 for characterisation.

And finally there is the story itself. Often using real-life historic events as a framework the author is left to use fictional events to create excitement, build characters and seamlessly connect history. In King of Kings the history and fiction blend well but with the first three books (I am including The Lion of the Sun in this comment) I have one major gripe. It felt to me that the same thing happened three times - Ballista was sent east, failed in his given task and was ignored for a year… then repeat. This may be very harsh, and maybe not even strictly accurate but it was the honest feeling that I had while I was reading. It would award 6/10 for the story (although this does seem a little harsh and may well change after a rethink).

So, with the above in mind, each instalment of the Warrior of Rome series is looking at an 8/10. But the reason they will score a little higher is due to the "Wikipedia effect". When I am reading an historical fiction novel I often find parts to be exceptionally interesting and feel compelled to put the book down and head on to Wikipedia to read further on a certain historical event. Now, there are probably better and more accurate pit-stops than the big W but a if you type "the battle of Carrhae" into Google you can guess what comes up top. I must have made 5 trips to Wikipedia whilst reading King of Kings, the aforementioned battle of Carrhae being one (I wanted to know if they really had poured liquid gold down Crassus's neck whilst he was still alive, as I had read in a previous book - apparantly not according to both Wikipedia and Sidebottom). Other searches were for Balista, Antioch and Valerian. So this is why I rate the book that little bit higher. Any books that make me go away and do some personal research deserve to be recommended - and that is exactly what I would like to do.

In the next review - for Lion of the Sun - I will look at how a series needs to be able to maintain interest through thousands of pages and if Mr Sidebottom achieves it, just how he manages to do so.

8/10 A well-deserved 10/10 for authenticity.

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from UK

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10/10 ()

9.2/10 from 2 reviews

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