The Eagles Trilogy: Book III
I’ve been eagerly awaiting this final book in Ben Kane’s Eagles trilogy, which completes a story that I’ve followed avidly in Eagles at War and Hunting the Eagles. The series follows the military and psychological aftermath of the Battle of the Teutoburg Forest in 9 AD, when three Roman legions under the command of Publius Quinctilius Varus were wiped out by a German tribal army under the aegis of the chieftain Arminius, a former Roman ally. In the first book we watched the tragedy unfold; in the second, set some years later, we saw the young general Germanicus stiffening the Romans’ resolve as Arminius tried to knit the tribes together into a viable force. Now, in 15-16 AD, the moment has come for battle to be joined again, and this time there can be only one victor.
For Germanicus, victory would mean acclaim, further popularity and a triumph in Rome. But, for some of his men, the fight against Arminius has an altogether more personal significance. For Tullus, now centurion of the Fifth Legion, and his loyal band of survivors from the lost Eighteenth, Arminius’ death would offer overdue recompense for the slaughter of their friends and brothers in the depths of the Teutoburg Forest, and go some way towards salving the shame of their lost eagle. For Arminius himself, the only option is to defeat Rome and halt the Empire’s inexorable push eastward into tribal lands. His people don’t deserve to have taxes imposed upon them, to have their young men siphoned off as auxiliaries to an occupying army, and to have their way of life destroyed. He knows he has the charisma and personality to lead his people – he’s proven it before – but now he has to convince his fellow chieftains to follow him. Even now, his Roman training shows in his expectations of discipline; his lack of patience with the posturing, the hedging and squabbling with which his peers seek to stand their ground. Arminius knows what they do not: that the next battle may be their last. They have been drawn into a lethal game of cat and mouse, among the forests and swamps of the German interior and, while Germanic patriotism can do much, Arminius knows that they can only succeed with a strong leader.
Although we spend time on both sides of the fence, I’m happy to say that much of the book unfolds in the Roman army camp. This means that we get to see a great deal of the faux-curmudgeonly Tullus and his companions – I hesitate to use the word friends, as I’m sure he would disapprove. Here are familiar characters from the earlier books: the no-nonsense optio Fenestela; the stout-hearted legionary Piso (who stubbornly maintained the form of Titus Pullo in my mind); and, of course, the pompous idiot Tubero, who had just enough appearances to keep my loathing for him at a healthy level. In this exclusively male world, Kane does a wonderful job of evoking the many colours of male friendship: earthy, swaggering, touchy and touching by turn, yet always utterly convincing. Like the first Eagles novel, this won’t be winning any prizes for the Bechdel Test: there are only three named female characters, only two of whom we actually ‘see’ (and one of those is a little girl). Normally I’d be spitting feathers about this, but the setting makes it perfectly reasonable, as much of the book is spent on campaign. And, to be honest, I’m willing to give up a female character or two in return for the scenes between Tullus and his men. His approach to management continues to be a delight, with every insult and term of abuse serving to show how deeply he cares for the safety and honour of his soldiers.
But the highlight of this novel, for me, was the main battle scene, a sweeping epic vision of the clash on the plain of Idistaviso at the Angrivarian wall. I’ve never been the kind of girl who likes reading battles for battles’ sakes, but this section was tremendously powerful. It carried us through the whole experience with the troops – from the impatient waiting, as other companies got to have first go at the enemy, to the choking fear of imminent engagement, to the adrenaline pulsing through your veins, to the final moment of being able to move forward, and yet, even then, discipline keeping you in line – the wedge and the saw and the shield-wall, the cramped and bloody morass of the battle, and the sheer dragging exhaustion whenever you stopped to breathe. And the wonderful thing is that Kane’s characters remain deeply human throughout. There were moments in this scene where the writing was so vivid that I didn’t even have to close my eyes to see it raging before me, and several times I felt the hairs rise up on my arms. Kane knows what it’s like to wear Roman armour and it shows in his evocative, unsentimental descriptions.
I’m not going to say more about the story, but I have to say how much I’ve enjoyed this whole series. I’ve grown terribly fond of the characters – the crush on Tullus, to which I alluded last time, hasn’t diminished – and it was fascinating to read about events in Germany alongside my reading of Manda Scott’s Boudica series, which dealt with a similar confrontation of tribes and legions on another European frontier. For me there was never any question about who was the hero in this story (Tullus!), which is perhaps surprising in view of the fact that I came to the books fresh from Handel’s Arminio, in which the case is very much reversed.
Vivid and engaging, these books offer consistency of characterisation and an appeal far beyond that of other ‘sword and shield’ novels I’ve read, whether that’s Bernard Cornwell’s Uhtred series or Christian Cameron’s Long War sequence. I strongly recommend them, even to those who normally shy away from such things, for they are not only well written but also immensely historically accurate. The author’s note is admirably thorough, not to mention good-humoured. It covers not only archaeological and historical evidence for the story, but also the in-jokes and allusions peppered through the text. I shall have to read it again, because I completely missed the two Gladiator references…
I received this book from the publisher via Netgalley in exchange for a fair and honest review
Last in this series – Hunting the Eagles