Book Review by JGolomb
Fire in the East is a strong newcomer in the category of Roman Military Historical Fiction. The book is smart, finely detailed, violent and exciting.
Author Harry Sidebottom is a published professor of ancient history and he draws very detailed accounts of all aspects of Roman military life in the mid 3rd Century. This is the true victory of what's intended to be a 3-book series titled "Warriors of Rome". Few historical fictions contain the detailed notes, glossary and bibliography that Sidebottom presents in Fire. He's clearly done his research, and worked his academics into his richly built story.
The core of the story is quite simple. A barbarian from the north, Ballista, climbs the ranks of the Roman Military (quite common during the second and third centuries in the Roman Empire), and is assigned to lead the defenses of a key city on the far eastern outskirts of the Empire. He's strong, smart, witty, emotionally tortured, loyal, and blonde. The fictional city is called Arete, nestled on two sides by deep ravines, on another side by the mighty Euphrates river, and on the fourth by a desert. Roman intelligence reports that the Sassanid Empire is planning a springtime attack on the city. It's Ballista's job to prepare for a siege and lead the defense of this important outpost at the crossroads of the Eastern World.
While the details are painted with colorful details and make the story unique, Sidebottom has turned a specific kind of military event into as strong of a character as any of the Roman or Persian good and bad guys alike. The true star of Fire in the East is the siege - the machinations of defense and attack. Sidebottom tells of ballistae, hidden pits, spies, city-taking siege towers, etc. The story hums along as Ballista prepares for the siege, many items discussed in great detail, but some held back for a literary surprise.
There's no lack of violence. As detailed as Sidebottom is with his descriptions of military life, he's equally as vivid in his depiction of military death. Huge stones take off a man's head while his body still stands. Arrows hit soldiers and Sassanids alike – killing and maiming in any number of ways. It wasn't too gory and added to the effect and realism of the story.
Overall, I enjoyed this book. Sidebottom incorporates a theme of betrayal and espionage throughout the story that's uneven and ultimately disjointed and disappointing. This branch of his story is the strongest reason I rate the book with 3 stars instead of 4. I may revise the relative weight of this negative once I'm able to get my hands on the rest of the series, but as a standalone, the plot gaps leading up to the flat conclusion were awkward enough to knock it down a notch in my mind.
A strong historical novel should hit on at least two key qualities: An ability to transport the reader to a foreign place and time, and a strong story that legitimizes (at least in the reader's mind) that history. I think Sidebottom does a nice job in both categories; he's at his best, though, with the history.
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