If I was reviewing the last quarter of this book it would be flawless. The pace is right, the threat real and the ending in question. However, this is a novel about waiting for the inevitable. Waiting for the river to freeze, waiting for the barbarians to cross the frontier and waiting for help that might never come.
Characters are poorly fleshed out and I genuinely didn’t care when they died. Perhaps this is because the protagonist Maximus, leader of the 20th Legion, doesn’t seem to care very much about them. The novel is written from his perspective, after all, and so we see the characters through the eyes of a man that had to command rather than love his men.
The novel is written in first person and this struck me as unusual for a novel that tries to give the reader a sense of the scale of the threat to Rome’s frontiers. It leaves events within the novel feeling disjointed as we are shackled to Maximus. We are told that plenty of events unfold but we rarely get to witness these first hand. If the protagonist occupied the place of a legionnaire we would probably experience a more action packed, darker narrative of men dying for an emperor they’ve never seen. Instead Maximus’ leadership position let’s the reader witness the endemic corruption of the late Roman empire. He regularly battles with a crumbling civic administration to get the support he needs. The figures of power which Maximus confronts throughout the novel seem to have forgotten their allegiance to Rome whilst simultaneously demanding aid from her.
Whilst this book has it’s moments of excitement it is in all a rather slow read. Perhaps I wasn’t expecting this when I picked it up but this novel struggled to deliver a narrative that made me want to turn the page.