Eagles in the Storm: Ben Kane

★★★★

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…

Buy the book

I received this book from the publisher via Netgalley in exchange for a fair and honest review

Last in this series – Hunting the Eagles

6 thoughts on “Eagles in the Storm: Ben Kane

  1. RT says:

    Oh, I was so delighted to read this and hear how much you enjoyed it – particularly your comments about the characterisation. Ben has always been a cut above, I think, but the characterisation in his first series was not so rich, and it is something that it has been a delight to see develop in his writing over the years.

    • The Idle Woman says:

      Hello! I was thinking of trying his earlier series, because I loved this so much, but I’ll bear in mind what you say. His ear for the way that soldiers talk among themselves seems to be spot-on (as far as I can judge) and, yes, Tullus is an amazing character. He reminded me at some points of Vinius in Lindsey Davis’s Master and God – that same kind of dyed-in-the-wool army man – and he’s just so real… There are so few characters who inspire you, as a reader, to chivvy them along, get frustrated with them and really have a sense of being on ‘their’ side. It’s always a pleasure to find another one!

  2. RT says:

    Do try them if you have time – hand on heart I found the characters a bit wooden in the very first series but it’s a good tale nonetheless. Or try the Spartacus duology: what a climax that comes to! If you like Roman novels with ‘real’ army men I’d recommend Ian Ross’s Twilight of Empire series – four published so far, first one called War at the Edge of the World.

    • The Idle Woman says:

      Thanks so much for the recommendation! I have a few ‘sword and shield’ / ‘sword and sandals’ books of various periods lined up, but after that I shall have to seek out some Ian Ross. We really are spoiled for choice for classical-era historical fiction at the moment. I just wish Hollywood was capable of making decent classical-era period dramas to match…

  3. Ben Kane says:

    Wow. Gosh. What a review. I am – and this is rare – almost speechless. Thank you, ‘The Idle Woman’!
    RT – you’re spot on about the characters in my first series. If I could ever find the time to go back and write them again, I would. Glad you liked the Spartacus books, however. I wrote the final scene of book two in two days – 18,000 words in 48 drink-fuelled, weeping hours – the most incredible writing experience I have ever had. Gladiator soundtrack pumping at maximum volume – you get the picture. Anyway, thanks to both of you. Ben.

    • The Idle Woman says:

      You’re welcome, Ben. Thank you for such a great story and characters! I shall definitely seek out your other series in due course. I love the image of you working away to the Gladiator soundtrack. Such a perfect evocative score. That and the Alexander soundtrack have seen me through many a deadline… So, what are you working on next? More Roman stuff in the works, I hope?!

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