The Amber Road by Harry Sidebottom
My rating: 2 of 5 stars
I was hoping for a bit more action this time out. I kind of got it. This time though, we’re fighting a desperate rear-guard action while the pagan hordes are rampaging through Harry Sidebottom’s Roman history books for the year 264. Northern section. The northern pagans are clearly made of sterner stuff than their soft southern counterparts and there’s a lot less musing on phrenology, ancient Greek philosophy (probably) and writing of “Sir, sir! Please sir, tell him!” notes back to The Emperor. Not that you would know if the Roman Post Office worked and T. Emperor got to read the notes, as I can’t remember said notes figuring in the stories at all after the eunuch writing them had written them… Anyway that loose end aside – we are now travelling through the lands of The North. Up through what is now Germany, to the coast, over to what is now Denmark. What it was called then, he tells us, but even having lived here for ten years, the names, I can pretty much stake my reputation as a gentleman and a scholar on – I’ve never come across. If I wasn’t looking at the map at the front, he could be talking about areas on the Moon, for all I’d know. All the tribes they go past or meet on their journey, or even are in the same timezone as, we get names, chapter and verse on. Unfortunately, in the end and in what were probably battles vital to the story, I got lost amid all the obscure ancient tribes and Roman Romans. I pretty much also forgot who was fighting who and where. Not a good sign.
That leads to what has has bugged me with the whole series really, so many Latin words. Yeah ok, we’re dealing with the Romans and they spoke Latin. Problem is, we don’t. We are reading, he is writing here, in English. I criticised previous books for dropping in Latin words, two or three a time in sentences and then having to explain them, in the same sentence, as breaking up the action into irritation. Here, or in the last two in the ‘Warrior of Rome’ series anyway, he’s just been using the Latin words for just about everything. No explanation I can see. Clearly, we’re supposed to have learned by now. Only, the dog ate my homework, sir! Like writing half the book in a foreign language (!). Becomes meaningless. Comes between me and enjoying the story. I’m not praising ignorance here, but Ben Kane and Robert Fabbri and Douglas Jackson manage to write perfectly good, best-selling, historically accurate, Roman period books without feeling the need to do the same. And I’d hazard a guess their books sell more than HS’s. What do all the Latin words mean? No idea. Are they the right ones for the position, for the period? No idea. Has he made them up? Who knows…actually, maybe he has made them up. Or, they are real Latin words, just don’t mean (Roman Army ranks, etc) what we, in the context of their use in the book, think they do. Probably there are dusty old Latin professors creasing themselves with laughter. As the meaningless to us Latin words actually translate to some hilarious scholarly ‘my dog’s got no nose…’ Latin joke. Could be? Who knows?
Ballista, the main character from all the previous Warrior of Rome novels, is still on his mission from (one of) the Roman Emperor(s) to ’somewhere’ up on the northern edge of the empire. Maybe to seal an alliance with them to, if not help Rome, then not helping the Empire’s enemies. Maybe. Ballista seems all along to have been selected for this job because where he will eventually travel to, is where he is originally from. He travels through many lands and deals with many different tribes and customs on his way to an eventual homecoming. Though he comes home to not exactly a warm welcome. It seems that neither the family or the enemies he left behind, are particularly thrilled to see him, but then he doesn’t seem exactly thrilled to be ‘home’ either.
Style wise, Harry goes for brevity. Too much. Too little. Maybe thinking he’s adding weight and atmosphere, but really he manages to leaves out the feeling and involvement. Just hard edges remaining. Doesn’t engage. Then, he mentions ‘iron and rust’ so many times, in this (and the last one), he’s probably guilty of product placement of some sort. What with Iron & Rust being the title of his next ’searing scholarship’ book, you see? I’m guessing this is some sort of commentary on the Roman Empire being – at that point – on the road to ruin, but again, as Ballista has had little to nothing to do with anything Roman in the last two books, it is also pretty much meaningless and isn’t developed in any real sense above being stuck in there several times.
And then it ended. Just finished. Two epilogues (no less), but still no getting away from it, it just ended. What about the guy who was unmasked as the serial killer stalking them on their holidays in ancient Russia last time out? They ended that one poised just nicely – on reflection and comparison with this one – to go single-minded off in pursuit of him in this one. But no. A couple of mentions tops, but no bearing on story direction. As the next Sidebottom, Iron and Rust, seems to be a different aspect of Roman history and is set, or at least starts, before the ‘Warrior’ books, in 235 and has nothing to do with Ballista or any kind of resolution of this/his story…very odd thing to do. Maybe HS just got bored, ran out of boring books on ancient tribal names and one day said “no more!” “Well, finish this one off and get on with something else” said the publisher. And that he seems to have done. Buy the first four and leave it there.