Review: The Caspian Gates – Harry Sidebottom

Warrior Of Rome 4

My version: Hardback
Genre: Historical Fiction, Rome
 Penguin Books Limited
First published: 2012
ISBN: 9780141046167
Pages: 448

From the cover:
“AD262 – the Imperium is in turmoil after the struggle for the throne. Furthermore, Ephesus, Asia’s metropolis, lies in ruins, shattered by a mighty earthquake. Its citizens live in fear as the mob overwhelms the city, baying for blood to avenge the gods who have punished them.
Yet an even greater threat to the Empire advances from the North. The barbaric Goth tribes sail towards Ephesus, determined to pillage the city. Only Ballista, Warrior of Rome, knows the ways of the barbarians, and only he can defeat them.
The Goths’ appetite for brutality and destruction is limitless and before long Ballista is locked into a deadly blood-feud, with an enemy that has sworn to destroy him – and the Imperium – at all costs.”

It’s been a while since I read a Harry Sidebottom Roman novel. The last was this one’s predecessor; Lion of the Sun. So, I was quite looking forward to getting stuck into The Caspian Gates.

However, while it is good, it’s not great. Of course, better than a lot of others, but definitely not vintage Harry Sidebottom. Not close. I can only presume the glowing praise printed on the paperback jacket, was for others in the Warrior of Rome series.

It’s way too bitty in my opinion. It just seems to wander fairly aimlessly around the eastern Aegean and up into the Caucasus in search of a plot. Finds one, then ends. ‘Well, that’s that, here’s your next mission, off you go.’ Reading the paperback, as I did, it actually felt like there was still a good 50+ pages to go, but it was just the Appendix, Historical Afterword, Thanks, Glossary, List of Emperors, List of Characters, the prologue from ‘The Wolves of the North and pretty much unnecessary. You surely know something’s gone wrong when you have to include a list explaining who your characters are, don’t you? Who are we trying to impress here? Me, or your professor mates? More likely it’s to cover over a flimsy plot. That’s why I would include all the ‘this is based on real history, this’ stuff anyway.

Don’t get me wrong, I like the Warrior of Rome books and I like Ballista. He’s a likeable man. Normal even – for Roman times. Almost as if he could function perfectly well in the 21st Century. He’s a well-drawn, sympathetic character, one you could imagine yourself getting on well with. Certainly, his language (and that of his Army colleagues) wouldn’t be out of place nowadays. It’s certainly is ‘salty’ at times, as someone from the Daily Telegraph says on the book jacket. But that’s ok, they’re tough, barbarian, army – and normal. That’s the way these characters in this case would be. Though it may be Ballista seems normal when set against some of the more eccentric characters Harry Sidebottom has put together here. Though only the Emperor Gallienus really seems mad, or devious, enough to be likely to consider sleeping with his horse, maybe.

One interesting thing is, as the narrative flows, the source of the focus shifts. If I can put it that way. It’s not just a first person narrative. It feels like it though, like it’s coming from the same person. Until i realised that there are, at times, two first persons. Sometimes it is Ballista we’re with, hearing his thoughts, seeing the action from his view. Then his companion Hippothous. His thoughts are much more urbane and esoteric. And irritating, if you ask me. I’d have dispatched him off elsewhere in the Empire at the earliest opportunity, even if he is a good fighter. However, using him to drive the narrative on occasions, is a good way of looking at the character of Ballista, who is and has been the main focus, the ‘hero’ of the Warrior of Rome series. We see him inside, from his view and outside, as other people see him and the situations he leads the story into.

However, it seems as though Ballista merely goes with the flow on this one. He doesn’t seem to have a plan. He’s on autopilot. As is Harry Sidebottom. There’s an earthquake, so he moves. The new place gets attacked by Goths who are then unfortunately underdeveloped as a plot line, at the expense of frankly less interesting ‘barbarians’, whom the possibly mad Emperor dispatches Ballista off to negotiate with, instead of exiling him. It maybe that they’ll feature in the next one – waiting on the shelf up there *points* ‘The Wolves of the North’ And this does in the end, feel like a transitional novel, moving Ballista from one place to another, physically and psychologically, ready for the really interesting one (hopefully) next.

Oh yeah, and the really irritating thing with ‘The Caspian Gates’ – apart from that it does nothing – is Harry Sidebottom’s habit of dropping Latin words into the story. Fine, even interesting, once in a while, but not three times every sentence. This, for example: In Chapter 10 (Chapter X, here of course); “The Emperor was in bed with his cineadus when the rain came.” No explanation given, no idea what the Emperor may or may not have been in bed with. His wife? His supper? His breakfast? His boyfriend? His horse? His boyfriend’s horse? What on earth is a ‘cineadus’? Maybe I missed it first time round, I don’t think so, but it ain’t my fault if I did, is it? Fine that that is how Romans would have described certain events or positions or ideas, but meaningless unless you’re going to explain the concept to us in English, and therefore show how the Latin perhaps sums up the concept better, or with a nuance English hasn’t got covered. I know this, from having learnt – and using every day – Danish. Some concepts are impossible to translate or explain in the same number of words as English. So don’t bother, unless you’re going to take time to explain, it’s just meaningless, just a random collection of letters, a bad Scrabble hand – and increasingly irritating.

Otherwise, here’s hoping the ‘Wolves of the North’ is better. If it has a plot, it will be.

You can buy The Caspian Gates at The Book Depository

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