Book Review: Fire in the East by Harry Sidebottom

Book 1 of the Warrior of Rome series

Dealing with a period generally untouched in Roman history (due to a considerable lack of scholarly sources from the period) this series from Classical Historian Harry Sidebottom is set during the 3rd century crisis, a period that sees an almost endless supply of Emperors being installed and then deposed.

Some 30 years before Diocletian would rise to power and divide the empire into four manageable parts, this novel throws us straight in to a critical time in Roman history.

Enter Marcus Clodius Ballista, a Germanic noble who has risen to significance in the imperial army and has been sent to the fictional town of Arete (modelled on Dura-Europos) on the Euphrates to defend against an imminent attack by an enormous Sassanid army. Under-trained, under-funded and at the back end of the empire, it is a battle that Ballista cannot hope to win.

For a novel written by a scholar rather than an amateur historian, this book is surprisingly not as heavy as you would expect. Meticulous research can very easily bog down narrative as the writer focuses on the minutiae of weaponry and siege equipment but Sidebottom has carefully crafted his work to be accessible to all levels of readership. I expected this to be as heavy as Conn Iggulden’s fictionalised series about the life of Gaius Julius Caesar but it flows as well as Simon Scarrow’s popular series.

A full half of the 390 page novel is taken up with the siege – yes, half – and the story flows seamlessly with each successive assault against the defences of Arete. This novel contains quite possibly the best battle sequences I have ever read.

The characters are pretty standard fair. A noble tradesman, his surprisingly emancipated (and irresistibly attractive) daughter whose sword skills match those of her father’s mercenaries, a Greek scribe, a selection of thuggish legionaries, some religious fanatics on both sides and a mysterious traitor that leaves us guessing until the final pages. All pretty standard stuff here and none of them will really jump out at you as being anything different, but it doesn’t really matter. This is about bringing a vague period of history to life and throwing in some amazing battle sequences. A nice touch was they way in which we see Christian cult through the eyes of Ballista. To him, it was something new and alien and we get the sense of confusion that he feels when he meets his first Christian in Arete.

If character development and grand sweeping descriptions are your thing then look elsewhere, but if you want flowing narrative and an accurate portrayal of siege warfare in the Roman period, this might very well be for you.

4.5/5 losing 0.5 of a mark because the characters are all too familiar

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