Saturday, 19 December 2015

Legionary: Gods & Emperors

I don't read much fiction, on the whole. This is partly because I no longer have the large chunks of time necessary to devote to reading something relatively long in one go, which is they way I prefer to read a story, especially a novel. And it's partly because I no longer have much "free" time full-stop, and it has to be rationed fairly carefuly against other competing interests, like research.

Image nicked from
But that doesn't mean I'm closed off to the genre even now. I've just finished "Legionary: Gods & Emperors" by Gordon Doherty, which is an historical novel set in 378 AD. The battle of Adrianople in other words. The novel is actually 5th in a series, but works fine as a stand-alone tale. And I only knew of the existance of this one because the author sent me a copy... Why? Because a) he's obviously a nice guy, and b) because he's an amateur historian like myself, and has found some of my work useful in his research: I get a thank you mention in the book's forward :-)

Now, as a genre, historical fiction (not to be confused with fictional history) has some unique constraints - the most obvious being that the reader is quite likely to know in what ways many of the major plot components are going to work out even before they have made it a couple of pages into the book. And in particular, if you are someone like me, you just know that near the end of the book that some dude called Valens is not going make it out of a particular burning farm house alive...

(Of course I'm aware of the other report of his death, but that's nowhere as interesting, so it's unlikely to make it into a fictional account!)

So part of the excitement of reading the thing isn't figuring out these plot elements, as such, but seeing how the author will weave his tale around them. And in this case, I came away pretty satisfied. Without giving too much away, Valens is depicted in a reasonably positive light, and this contrasts very much with Gratian's characterization, which would fit right in with a Nero or Commodus.

And judging by the reviews on Amazon, I'm not the only who came away satisfied after reading this book - the reviews there are so positive, I feel no need to add my own. So I will here go a little into the more historical than literary aspects. The author keeps, for the most part, titles such as ranks in the original latin, so tribunus instead of tribune, but centurion is retained. I guess centenarius (not centurio, note, this being the 4th century!) would just confuse the reader. I don't mind this - it is fairly standard to see this sort of thing in strictly historical analyses too. More grating, at least initially, was seeing all the palatine infantry legions referred to as auxilia. Now there is every excuse to call auxilia palatina units "legions", because they were frequently so-called by the Romans, not just by poets like Claudius, but by staff officers such as Ammianus.  But the reverse is a bit jarring - and would have certainly struck a Roman legionary as simply wrong - there were clear legal differences in being an auxiliaryman and a legionary, even if they were "legacy" features that made no real sense in a 4th-century context. But ultimately that's a detail that the (somewhat mythical) "average reader" is unlikely to care about, even if it was pointed out to them, and I can certainly see why it's there - it's of no import to the story at all, and drawing attention to the distinction would only confuse things. So I came round to accepting it, no problem. But I would have done it the other way around, simply not mentioned auxilia at all, and just have the lot as legiones. But here I'm straying into the reviewer's cardinal sin - talking about the book they would have written, and not the one actually under review...

I noticed a few typos: a couple of places where "to" was confused with "do", and the odd missing quote mark - a legacy of my being a professional proof-reader for nearly 4 years in my thirties is that it's hard for me to miss these...

But anyone reading this blog is going to be glad to have read this book, I reckon. It's 2 quid on Kindle; 11 if you are going for the paperback. It's 407 pages (not counting blurb, appendices, etc), and the font size and spacing is reasonably generous; but now that I'm getting older, I need my reading glasses on to read it in anything other than outdoor sunlight...

1 comment:

  1. Just finished it and, like you, enjoyed seeing how the author wove the fictional elements into the greater whole. Cheers for the loan!