The Soldier of Raetia: Heather Domin

★★★½

Valerian’s Legion: Book I

This was an automatic recommendation from Goodreads, which clearly leapt to certain conclusions about my reading preferences based on the large number of books I own by Mary Renault. However, as has happened before, their suggestion hit the mark. Domin writes beautifully, creating rich and believable characters, and succeeds in giving the flavour of an historical period without overloading the exposition and research. I’d never have stumbled across her book by myself and, even if I had, I might’ve (unfairly) been a little cautious because, when I read it, it had only been published digitally. In that case, I would have missed a rather lovely novel. It was a very pleasant surprise; and I’m pleased to hear there’s a sequel in the works about the same characters.

Lucius Manilus Dardanus comes to Rome at the age of twenty with a letter of introduction and some serious misgivings. His ambitious father has sent him as a suppliant to Marcus Cassius Valerian, the famously self-sufficient general, hoping he might be persuaded to act as Dardanus’ sponsor for his military career. Such sponsorship is the only stated aim of Dardanus’ arrival, but it’s also tacitly understood that Valerian is rich and has not yet named his heir. For his own part, Valerian has faced innumerable young men hoping to make a good impression, and the prospect of another awkward new arrival – from Helvetia, of all places – doesn’t fill him with high hopes. But Dardanus turns out to have qualities that this jaded general can respect: despite being young for his age, he shows modesty, determination and a willingness to learn.

And so, contrary to his usual practice, Valerian decides to give the young man a chance and offers him a home at the Villa Cassia while he undertakes his training at the military school. Dardanus can hardly believe his luck: with Valerian’s name behind him, he immediately gains the best possible chance of success and he works hard to be worthy of it. As the training progresses, and he makes friends among his fellow recruits, he proves himself a capable and reliable soldier; and when, at the end of the summer, the new recruits head north with their general, Dardanus goes with the knowledge that he has justified Valerian’s faith in him. In northern Raetia – near the banks of the Danube, where the Germanic tribes are still struggling to assert themselves – Dardanus and his cohort will find their courage tested to the max as they are flung into the horrors of battle and made responsible not only for their own survival but that of their friends.

Let’s be frank about this: it’s a love story too, and that’s another reason I was wary, because I’ve bought a couple of books recently which turned out to be rather simpering romances and which exasperated me no end. I enjoy well-written relationships between characters whom I care about – look at The Vizard Mask, for example, which I loved – but I can’t stand self-indulgent mooncalfing, or supposedly adult characters who turn into angsting teenagers the minute they conceive a fancy for someone. Fortunately Dimon more or less avoids this trap. It’s true that you can see what’s going to happen from a fairly early stage, but she focuses on the characterisation rather than the romance itself, and that makes a world of difference. Her characters are dignified, sensitive and sensible, and their relationship feels like a natural development, albeit a very neat one. Since I’d had time to grow to care about them as people, I had greater emotional investment in their affection for one another. Although there are a couple of rather explicit scenes, just to forewarn anyone else who’s easily embarrassed, these are consistent with the level of description in the rest of the story and didn’t make me feel uncomfortable; which I often do. No mooncalfing here, thank goodness: just two fully-rounded, modest, slightly shy people trying to do the right thing.

Moreover, it’s set in the context of other equally important and equally plausible relationships – friendships, rivalries and working partnerships – so it feels like part of something greater than itself. There are a couple of big, cinematic battle scenes which do a very good job of conjuring up the horror of being in the middle of a bloody fight to the death, and the psychological difficulties that follow it. The dialogue is well-written and there’s banter which actually works: that rarest of things in a novel. In fact there’s just one character who didn’t work for me. I won’t name him, to avoid spoilers, but in playing the role of traitor in the company, he felt a tiny bit like a plot device rather than a real person.

Apart from him, however, everyone seemed to be very nice and noble and accepting; I enjoyed reading about these peripheral characters, although I have my doubts about whether a Roman legion was really full of quite such cuddly chaps. It’s probably no surprise that I particularly warmed to Valerian, with my weak spot for noble suffering. How could I fail to feel sympathy for this emotionally wounded man, whose severe persona masks his grief at the death of his young wife and his determination never to care for anyone, or to be hurt, so deeply again? (In my mind he looked rather like Viggo Mortensen, which probably didn’t hurt either.)

I’d be very keen to read more about Valerian as a character, and more about the setting, which Dimon seems to have researched well but which is written with a light and unobtrusive touch. She includes an interesting author’s note at the end, explaining the historical facts behind the novel, and she also – much to my amusement – included a playlist which presumably reflects the tracks which became associated in her mind with each part of the story. More writers should do this: it’s a fun insight into the process. The novel isn’t quite up there with Renault, but in its flavour, and its fundamentally thoughtful and well-intentioned characters, it reminded me a little of Paul Waters’s Of Merchants and Heroes.

Buy the book

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