Sunday, February 14, 2010

Book report: Harry Sidebottom's Fire in the East

I have a strange relationship with historical fiction. Being a lover of history, I should naturally be drawn to it, but I often view the relationship between history and historical fiction as I do the relationship between history or literature and the movies that are based on them. There is so much distortion that I feel repelled by the fear that any book (or movie) based on history will take so many liberties as to render the experience of reading (or viewing) it painful, rather than the delight it should be. Still, historical fictions rank among my favorite books ever. Robert Graves' Count Belisaurius, I, Claudius, and Claudius the God are first rate. Gore Vidal's Julian, Burr, and Lincoln are also terrific. Rosemary Sutcliffe's "young adult" novels such as Eagle of the Ninth and The Lantern Bearers are particular favorites. I've also enjoyed some of Bernard Cornwell's series, which I see more as fictions set in historical times than historical fictions. (I may be the only one to see that distinction, but there it is.)

Nevertheless, I tend to read much more non-fiction than fiction and, as I've posted before, the cats, being antiliterary, allow me to read precious little in any case. When a fiction title comes across that interests me, I'm in a quandary about how to allocate my limited reading time.

I got Fire in the East on a friend's recommendation. The novel is set in the Roman empire during the latter half of the 3rd c. AD (257, to be precise). This alone was compelling because I have a particular interest in 3rd c. Rome, the "time of crisis." But at the back of my mind was the worry that I would only be disappointed. I started reading the book last Fall and got just more than a third of the way through before I set it aside. Not out of disgust, certainly, but because other things crowded it out until a week ago when I got re-inspired to read it. I started back at the beginning and couldn't put it down.

So, after all this long introduction, I have to say that the book is excellent.

The author, Dr. Harry Sidebottom, is a distinguished scholar of classical history. As such, he has a greater feel for accuracy than a non-specialist would master. This shows in much of the detail he presents. Descriptions of Roman arms and armor, for example, are correct for the period. (I read one novel set on the Rhine frontier in the 4th c. that unforgivably described arms and armor for the Romans that was anachronistic by almost 200 years!)

The book is a fictionalization of the fall of the Roman frontier fortress of Dura-Europos (Called Arete in the book), which sat on the Euphrates river at the extremity of Rome's eastern frontier. The city was taken in 257 by the Sassanid king Shapur I and completely destroyed, never being reoccupied. The remains of the city were only rediscovered in 1920 by a patrol of British soldiers. Sidebottom's narrative of the siege and various Sassanid assaults on the walls is gripping. The fictionalized events of the siege are still closely tied to the archeological evidence for the siege, such as the mines, counter-mines, ramp, and collapsed towers. His story of the final fall through treachery is plausible without disagreeing with any known facts or the archeological evidence. (There is no written account extant of the fall of Dura-Europos, which is why its rediscovery took 16 centuries, and why it's fertile ground for story-telling.)

The main character of the story, Marcus Clodius Ballista, is based on the very slightly known figure Balista (or Callistus) who was Dux Ripae, commander of the river defenses, on the desert frontier at this time. Ballista is portrayed as a Romanized Angle, regarded as no better than a barbarian by some of the men he commands, who has risen to high command and been entrusted by the emperors Valerian and Gallienus with holding back the Sassanids while they tend to other urgencies on the empire's vulnerable extended frontiers.

It's not giving anything away to say that the city falls in the end, but the story and characters are vibrant and compelling so that en route to the story's dénouement, you are entertained and engaged by the narrative and the complex relationships. The story ends with enough loose ends that you are left eager to hear the story continue and have the ends tied up in the following books.

Fire in the East is the first of a series of three novels following Marcus Clodius Ballista's adventures in Rome's time of crisis. The next book–on order from the UK–is King of Kings, which covers Ballista's involvement in the events following the fall of Arete (Dura-Europos) and leading to the emperor Valerian's failed campaign against the Sassanids. The third novel, Lion of the Sun (to be published July, 2010), continues the story in 260.

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