The Wolves of the North by Harry Sidebottom
My rating: 3 of 5 stars
A strange one. Not entirely an unpleasant experience, but nothing more than that. Though, as I remember the first three in the Warrior of Rome series as being pretty good, it is a bit of a let down.
The cover claims it ‘“Blazes with searing scholarship” (The Times). Well hardly. There’s scholarship, yes – and god knows there’s plenty of it. But nothing approaching a blaze. A warm glow, maybe.
We’re I to be churlish, I might describe it as ‘boring.’ It’s not that I want non-stop action, in my Hist Fic, but some would be interesting. Something happening would be nice. Ballista, the hero of the Warrior of Rome books, has been sent on a trip by some Roman Emperor or other, to somewhere or other far away. He has a whole load of people with him, from soldiers, to old friends, to young boys and homosexuals (though that could cover any of them back then it seems) to eunuchs and courtiers. Think that got them all. They’re off over the Steppes in what is now Russia, going north, I think. Quite why, I never really did figure out. Maybe to negotiate with someone or other out there, to do Emperor-type business anyway. Ballista is travelling in the direction of ‘home.’ His home, where he is originally from in the north. The others, the more urbane of his party, are clearly out of their depth. They’re a long way away from where they’re from and where they’d prefer to be.
What we get here is pretty much a ‘what we did on our holidays crossing the Steppe and the people we pre-judged on the way.’ A character in the book describes the party as; “This strange caravan plodding across the Steppe.” Plodding is right. Me, I’d describe it (so far) as just a long-winded trip through Harry’s research on the tales and legends of Ancient Greek philosophers, storytellers, his library shelves. Northern World section. It sure is clear Dr. Harry Sidebottom has, in the break between (the last one) and ‘Wolves’, been reading his book(s) of Ancient Greek Legends. And he really, really wants us to know what he’s found out. So, far from being in the slightest concerned about a possible ancient serial killer in their midst, his characters spend the long evenings around the campfire on the desolate Steppe, swapping lines from Greek, Roman poetry and philosophy and phrenology and mathematics (possibly). As you would. All riveting stuff – if you’re one of Harry Sidebottom’s history professor colleagues. It has to be said, it isn’t easy to keep track of who’s who with the tribes mentioned. Which tribe’s side we’re on, who we’re looking out for, who we’re passing through the territory of and who were here over the last three hundred years. That sort of thing. There are so many mentioned that after the first three or four and I’ve not heard anything that is sticking, my brain just hears ‘blah, blah, blah, please stop and get on with the story, will you?’ You see, when he talks about all the other tribes, sometimes, as when they’re gathering for battle, it’s pretty much pointless. The names mean absolutely nothing to us. Us who aren’t ancient history professors. He might as well have made the names up. He did, for all I know. There are no names that even sound familiar to act as a point of reference, as it were. So why do it, if not for the reader’s enjoyment? Because I sure as fuck ain’t gonna call him out if he mentions a tribe that I know either didn’t exist in that area, or did, but not at that time. Because I don’t know. And I’m not likely to remember, should I read in another book that a tribe lived there at that time, that contradicts what he says. And who is to say it’s not HS who is right, the other book, wrong. I don’t know. And I don’t really care. As long as I get to know ‘all the tribes of the Steppe pledged allegiance,’ I’m happy enough. I’m really not that bothered to have them named, as I don’t know if they’re right or not. Who does? Other professors? And one often gets the feeling that this (and previous volumes) were actually written for them. Other professors.
Yeah, there was something about a killer stalking them, but we don’t come across the ‘why’ in the bits of the book it’s ok to describe to you here. It could have been a decent idea. It could have built up to be a ‘Deliverance,’ or ‘Southern Comfort’ or even ‘Predator,’ set 2000 years earlier – an unseen stalker picks off the party one by one. Could have had have them worrying about the who and the why and the when. The story turning tense and them turning on each other trying to find out who it was. But no. It has no meaning to us the reader either, as the characters killed either have no influence on the story development, or are plainly the uninteresting ones, so – meh! They get on with their meandering over the Steppe, their discussions of the local tribes’ customs and the killer in their midst is forgotten, until the end. Which is ok, the killer coming back into the story towards the end, but not ok, when he and the theme has disappeared, had no influence whatsoever on the story in betwween.
To be brutally fair, actually, once the caravan gets ambushed – as you know it must – the story warms up and begins to take on a new identity. From about the two thirds mark and to the end, it is actually quite good. Actually, in a similar way to the last one as I remember, I warmed to this one. Too late really, but I did warm. But then…The end. And that’s pretty much how it does end. Just stops. Of course you know it must end soon, as there are only a few pages left, but so suddenly and not even with a ’to be continued.’ I had to go back and see if I hadn’t missed something. I hadn’t.
Sidebottom has quite a sparse style, his writing. Often just enough to convey what he wants. You can tell he’s an academic though, not a natural novel writer. So, if you’re looking for an all-out, blood soaked, sword and sandals riot, like Anthony Riches’ Empire series, then this isn’t it. Though there are a couple of occasions where the body count rises and characters are killed off by more violent means than boredom – and, remember, something of a rarity for a Roman book; not a single, or double, eyebrow raised through the whole of the book. See Anthony R.: it can be done!