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Book Review: The War at the Edge of the World

By (July 8, 2015) No Comment

Keeping Up with the Romans

War at the Edge of the Worldwar at the edge cover

by Ian James Ross

Overlook, 2015

Ian James Ross’ fiction debut War at the Edge of the World has about as much working in its favor (apart from an even remotely good title, of course, but these days that almost goes without saying) as any first-in-a-series novel could. It has a publisher – The Overlook Press – that cares enough not only to make it look good but also to give it an enviable niche-home in their “Swords and Sandals” line (which also features, among many other goodies, the excellent historical novels of Paul Waters). It has an intriguing setting – barbaric early 4th century Roman Britain, in the shadow of Hadrian’s Wall. And it comes with adulatory blurbs from such popular purveyors of Roman historical fiction as Conn Iggulden and Ben Kane.

Veteran readers of historical fiction will know how little even such great advantages as these can matter if the finished product, the thing itself, arrives on their reading table as clammy and tired as a baited mackerel, and those readers can instantly take heart: War at the Very Edge of the World as We’ve Always Known It is leanly, unpretentiously gripping.

Its story focuses on a Roman soldier everyman named Aurelius Castus, who we first meet in the gore and madness of the battlefield:

The young soldier felt only the pump of pain through his body. Time and distance had no meaning now. A wrack of broken weapons and bodies, tumbled men and horses, caught at his feet. Around him he could hear the victory chant, ROME AND HERCULES, ROME AND HERCULES. The slope was taking him downwards, through the battleground and into the area of scattered slaughter, where the allied cavalry had already cut up the fugitives. His head was ringing, his vision shrunk to a bright wavering funnel ahead of him. He saw Persian banners trampled in the dust, the stream running red with blood, corpses sprawled in the shallows. The water had widened and he could not think why, then he glanced to the left and saw the vast bulk of a dead elephant, fletched with arrows, blocking the stream. He took a few more staggering steps forward and collapsed.

Our young hero survives (he only has a dislocated shoulder), gets highly decorated, is launched onto his career in the legions, and – shifting forward a few years – finds himself planted out in the wilds of Rome’s far-flung British outpost, where instead of Persian archers and war-elephants he confronts mainly the familiar tedium of army life:

VI Victrix was an old legion, based here at Eboracum for nearly two hundred years. Few of the men in the fortress had ever seen combat, although there were many among them with grey hair. Ever since he was sixteen, when he had run away from home to join the legions, Castus had wanted only to be a soldier in the army of Rome. So he was still, but this life – work details, route marches and paperwork, overseeing building and road-mending, ordering his men to cut wood for the baths or whitewash the charcoal to stop the locals from stealing it – did not seem much like soldiering.

This is a mighty predictable set-up, of course: in any novel like this one, the instant the main character makes the mistake of noticing that his life is mostly characterized by routine peace and quiet, disaster is going to strike in fairly rapid order. And the fact that Ross chooses to extricate his plot from this old cliché by employing and even older one hints either at savvy marketing on his part of a fairly encouraging faith in his own storytelling abilities: Castus is chosen to lead the armed escort of an envoy into the hostile territory of the Picts, and you’ll just never guess what happens – the mission falls apart! Violence, betrayal, disillusionment, and fiery tests of courage ensue! Part of the reason it’s a gimmick as old as Xenophon is because it’s a very good gimmick if handled well.

Ross handles it well, and along the way he tosses in little asides that perhaps owe as much to coalitions of the willing in the Middle East as they do to Tacitus. “I rather wonder,” one character muses, “what the people of this country must think of us. What do they tell themselves when they see a great fortress like this appearing overnight? Thousands of armed men, a city of tents, where there was only empty land …?”

The aforementioned blurb by Ben Kane asks impatiently when the next volume in this series might be appearing, and that sentiment will be echoed by every reader who reaches the finely-constructed climaxes of At The Of The; it’s terrific escapist fare.