Thursday, 17 September 2009

Harry Sidebottom's Ballista

A recent short review of mine from the Times Literary Supplement of 7 August.

Harry Sidebottom

King of Kings is the second volume in a trilogy of military-historical novels set in the mid-third century AD Roman empire. Few people know as much about this shadowy period of Roman history as Harry Sidebottom: the title page credits him with his doctorate, and there are over twenty pages of historical apparatus, with suggestions for further reading and a glossary. Such academic material may seem jarring in this rollocking page-turner. In fact, the author’s learning, though lightly worn, combines with his narrative skills to produce a superior example of genre fiction, with unusual depth, authenticity, and sense of place.

The lack of known names and dates in the period gives plenty of scope for the historian’s and novelist’s imagination; the first volume, Fire in the East (2008), focused on the fiectional Persian siege of a fictional Roman city in AD 256, modelled on the siege of Amida a century later. The present tale is woven around a military campaign of 257, contemporary persecutions of Christians, and the capture of the emperor Valerian by Shapur I of Persia in 260. This division into three separate narratives means that this story is perhaps not quite as consistently successful as the previous volume (which should certainly be read first); but the climax is very well done.

Sidebottom captures the group psychology of soldiers, and he is good on the peculiar role of ‘barbarian’ soldiers in the Roman army. His hero, Ballista, is an Angle (his chief sidekicks are a large-hearted Irishman and a grumpy Caledonian). Although he has as much culture, and greater linguistic ability and strategic intelligence, than Roman colleagues, Ballista is seen as suspect and is expendable when the chips are down. Having the Romans viewed through the eyes of semi-outsiders also helps the novelist to avoid didacticism. The text offers a number of hints as to Ballista’s future career, and in the next volume he will merge with the little that’s known of the historical Ballista.

One colleague wrote wondering how favourable I had meant to be, perhaps because quite a few of my adjectives were removed in order to fit this on a page with three other reviews. Lest there be any doubt, these books are a great read. There is plenty of good robust historical military fiction about, but it is striking to see it combined with such academic expertise without loss of narrative vigour.

I did think that the second volume was not quite as unremittingly exciting as the first; and I should expand on an oblique comment above. It seemed clear to me that the central and recurring model for the siege which is the principal episode of Fire in the East is a later event, the Persian invasion of Roman Mesopotamia and the sack of Amida (Diyarbakir) in AD 359, described in detail by Ammianus Marcellinus in books 18 and 19. Sidebottom has detailed supplementary material about ancient sources and further reading, but he never mentions Ammianus. I don't see that this is wrong - it's a work of fiction, after all - but it is odd. I shall put the novel in the bibliography when I teach Ammianus books 18 and 19 in the new year, and take pleasure in the thought that my favourite historian inspired - as well, perhaps, as exhibiting - 'the creative and imaginitive powers of a novelist'.


Richard said...

An Angle, an Irishman and a Caledonian walked into a bar...

Gavin Kelly said...

At that point I had written the word 'appropriately' to signal the vague hint of a joke, but TLS subs quashed it. Perhaps rightly, as you still found it!