Adventures in Bookland: War at the Edge of the World by Ian James Ross
Oh, goodie, I thought: a historical novel set in the twilight of empire, just at the cusp of the adoption of Christianity as the state religion, and the series starts on the Wall and heads north. If you’re reading this review, you probably already know that I have a particular interest in this part of the world, having written novels and non-fiction about Northumbria. This is set three centuries earlier, but it’s a landscape and place I love. What’s more, it’s the first in a series, following a Roman centurion, Aurelius Castus, as he makes his way in this changing world, caught up in the wake of Constantine, who will be emperor but at this point is the up-and-coming son of Constantius Chlorus, Augustus of the Western Empire in the tetrarchic system set up by Diocletian. Just up my street.
Not really, I’m afraid. The book is well written, the story takes many turns, most unexpected, but the thought of ploughing through any more books in the dour company of Aurelius Castus is just too much to bear. I know there’s a tendency in male historical fiction for protagonists to be dark and brooding, but it does get a bit wearing on the reader. I could, maybe, have put up with more of Aurelius’ stoic indifference to pretty well everything if he hadn’t actually been so rubbish at what he’s supposed to do (spoilers ahead): when I read what is basically male wish-fulfillment fantasy (big bloke with sword who does the right thing, gets the woman, gets injured but stoically shoulders on through), and given that this is wish-fulfillment fantasy, I require at base a hero who actually achieves the quest by the end of the book. OK, there will be setbacks, a sidekick or two might be killed along the way, maybe even his lady love murdered despite his best efforts (this providing an efficient character engine for the rest of the book and series), but the hero has got to be basically competent. Aurelius Castus, though, loses his command, in its entirety, fails to save the man he’d sworn to save and basically makes a pig’s ear of things for most of the book. Now, I grant that this sets the book apart from the usual run of ridiculous historical fiction, where the hero mows down legions with just a few decorative injuries along the way, but Aurelius is, for me, just too damn dull to persevere with. A pity, as the writing is good, and the period interesting. If you’re thinking of reading it, I would say give it a go: this is a particularly subjective review. Some characters I simply don’t engage with, through no fault of the author, and Aurelius is one of them.