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Fire In The East

Fire in the East is the first instalment in an planned grand narrative – the Warrior of Rome series. Dr Harry Sidebottom, who teaches classical history at the University of Oxford, combines accurate historical detail with contemporary relevance as he explores the important and enduring question of how far the West will go to defend its liberties before it destroys the very thing it is trying to protect.

Kudos to Dr Sidebottom for deciding to focus on the criminally overlooked ‘Third Century Crisis’ (235-284 AD). A rich playground, though one lacking historical resources, meaning his character Ballista is able to have free reign to indulge in the deviations of historical fiction.

Leaping in with the assassination of Maximinus Thrax we meet a young Ballista, a German born prince who some twenty odd years later has been elevated knight of Rome and holds the title Dux Ripae, a dubious ‘gift’ that sees him dispatched to protect the shores of the Euphrates & Tigris from the encroaching Sassanid Persians.

You can’t fault Sidebottom’s knowledge, though the continued reference to Roman terminology, even within the bounds of quotes, can start to grate a little, especially in the first few chapters where it is to the detriment of character development. That said there’s a nice line in both witty and coarse humour, and a refreshing effort at describing individual combat, though I’d argue with some of the assertions concerning wearing period armour. But that’s a niggly point that most readers will not even notice, along with the decidedly scholarly in-jokes, ’Hypozamata, whatever that may be’ being one for the naval gazing reconstructor.

Overall this is a strong opener for a potential series, there’s plenty to enjoy and lots to stimulate further reading. While not quite at the page turning level of the similarly themed Eagle series from Scarrow or the  novels of Cornwell or Iggulden. Ballista will at least make for a brutal distraction on a wet summer day. If nothing else it should generate wider interest in the 3rd Century with all its resonance for the modern world.

The only real complaint is with the cover, once again inaccurate and impractical...which is a shame considering the level of period detail that Sidebottom has instilled in his text...a recommended read then.

Warrior of Rome I: Fire in the East

Harry Sidebottom

Michael Joseph/ Penguin hardback

£12.99

Out 3rd July 2008