Eagles at War: Ben Kane

★★★★

The Eagles Trilogy: Book I

In a sacred grove in the depths of a German forest, a seven-year-old boy watches a human sacrifice and takes an oath which will shape his entire life and strike at the very heart of Roman power. The boy’s name is Ermin of the Cherusci. He will grow up to become Arminius, Rome’s ally, Rome’s auxiliary and Rome’s greatest enemy.

Ben Kane is one of those authors whose books have been automatically recommended to me several times in the last few years, as Amazon and Goodreads come to realise that I like reading classical-era historical fiction. Until now I’d steered away, as I did for a long time with Christian Cameron, fearing that the books would be all brawn and blood. However, I spotted this volume in the library and was persuaded to give it a go when I realised what it was about. Having seen Handel’s take on Arminius fairly recently, I was keen to find out more about what actually happened in the Teutoburg Forest in 9 AD. Kane’s novel may feature names which are familiar from the opera – Varus, Segestes – but it’s a world away from Handel’s sanitised story of noble rebels and lascivious Romans. It is, as I found to my delight, a rich and character-driven story in which simple black-and-white morality dissolves into shades of grey.

By 9 AD the Roman Empire has begun to make inroads east of the river Rhenus, inching its influence into lands which were formerly proudly independent. For Varus, the Governor of Germania, this is a sign of the times. The restive German tribes have realised the good that Roman culture can bring them: fresh water, good roads, law and order, and protection from the eternal squabbles with their tribal rivals. Peace has lasted for years. In return, all Rome asks is for the tribes to pay a tax to the Imperial coffers. Varus has seen the civilising impact of Rome at first hand on his auxiliary commander, the Cheruscan leader Arminius. In a life dominated by piles of paperwork and the grim obligations of imperial bureaucracy, Varus welcomes the chance to spend time with men like Arminius, who’ve had the worst of their tribal corners knocked off, but who retain enough of their native spirit to be refreshing. Indeed, he has come to look on Arminius as a personal friend, revelling in the Cheruscan’s charm and military ability.

At the age of 28, Arminius has won himself a reputation as a courageous and capable leader. He has served with the legions since boyhood, learning their tactics, strengths and weaknesses and developing his band of Cheruscan cavalry into a potent fighting force. In battle he has proven himself a fierce and reliable ally to Rome. He has the gift of being able to make himself agreeable to everyone, from low-ranking soldiers to Governor Varus himself, and his charisma is about to be tested to the limits. When the introduction of new taxes raises hackles among the tribal chieftains, Arminius sees that his moment has finally come: at last the tribes have something to unite against. It will take all his courage and wit to bring these disparate peoples together, especially since most of them hate one another, and his mission could collapse in a moment if the slightest hint were to get out to Varus. But it’s a risk he has to take. Slowly, quietly, he begins to plot an ambush that could bring even mighty Rome to its knees.

Tullus is the Senior Centurion of the Second Cohort of the Eighteenth Legion. He’s a well-seasoned old soldier, feared, respected and loved in equal measures by his men. Even the Governor knows his name and trusts his judgement. With a group of fairly hopeless new recruits to lick into shape, Tullus has his work cut out for the summer, but he plans to ease them into things. Coming up they have the usual nice easy trip over the Rhenus to accompany the Governor on a tax-collecting excursion. Tullus assumes it’ll be easy. But then he starts to hear worrying rumours running around the camp, and begins to look twice at the clubbable, friendly Cheruscan chieftain who seems so close to Varus. Tullus can smell trouble, but that’s no good if his reports fall on hard ears. With a heavy soul, the old centurion rallies his men to march across the river, hoping against hope that he’s been wrong.

Of all the characters, I warmed to Tullus the most. His relationship with his men is pitched just right, full of salty epithets and tough love: he’s the Roman equivalent of a good sergeant major, stopping the young idiots under his command from humiliating Rome and the legion, or getting themselves killed. His banter with his men, and with his long-time optio Fenestela, flows easily and sounds entirely convincing, down to the increasing frequency of four-letter words as their situation worsens. Tullus felt real and engaging – I wouldn’t quite dare to say lovable – in much the same way as Vinius in Lindsey Davis’s Master and God. He and his men sound like the rank and file in any army throughout history. The other characters ring equally true: Varus, the overworked bureaucrat; Arminius, smooth and urbane when necessary, fiery when that suits better, changing his cloak with the wind; and even Tubero, the Roman equivalent of the arrogant, pea-brained Bullingdon Club boy, whose daddy is friends with the emperor and thinks that the Germans are there to be personally wiped out by him. Tubero swiftly moved to the top of my ‘I really don’t care if he dies’ list, as may have been the case for many other readers.

The book isn’t going to pass the Bechdel Test, as there isn’t a single named female character in it (except the prostitute we hear about in passing, called Venus). This is a man’s world, full of blood, sweat, mud, tedious patrols and good-natured ribaldry and, whereas I’d normally take a very dim view of a book which overlooks half the human race, it works well here. This isn’t slash and stab fiction. We have the chance to get to know these men, not so that we know every tiny detail of their background, but enough to appreciate their qualities. Kane is an evocative writer and his style is more to my taste than Cameron’s, setting a nice slow-burning pace so that by the time we reach the crunch point, we really, really care about the men we might lose. There was only one point where the writing rang false and my absorption snapped, and that’s where a toddler is given the line, ‘What will happen if we’re pursued?‘ Perhaps I’m just overly sensitive in the aftermath of Emma Donoghue’s excellent child’s narration in Room, but I very much doubt any small child would use the word ‘pursued’. But, as wrong notes go, it’s a minor one and the only one I noticed.

This is a strong, sophisticated novel, full of flavour and with a deep understanding of Roman military tactics, arms and armour. Its characters are rounded and human, and no one is entirely good or entirely bad (except Tubero, who’s an idiot), because Kane allows us to see the situation from both perspectives. He doesn’t shy away from the grit and horror of warfare, but it isn’t gratuitous and helps to evoke the sheer mindless terror of the situation. Even those who don’t like battles may enjoy this, because at heart it’s a story of courage and the fierce desire for survival, against overwhelming, impossible odds.

Fortunately I had the foresight to check the second novel out of the library at the same time and will be hurrying on to find out what happens next. We’ll be returning to the sprawling dark forests of Germania very soon.

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