“Thrice happy is the nation that has a glorious history. Far better it is to dare mighty things, to win glorious triumphs, even though checkered by failure, than to take rank with those poor spirits who neither enjoy much nor suffer much, because they live in the gray twilight that knows neither victory nor defeat.”
– Theodore Roosevelt, The Strenuous Life
That quote opens Soldier of Rome: The Legionary. Many authors adorn their books with quotes from people, books, or songs. Typically I skim them and move on, intent instead to read a new story by the author of the book. This quote struck me though. I first thought of our country and wondered if still applied to us. Roosevelt gave the speech in Chicago in 1899. He praised the people of the city for their hard work, for not shirking difficulty, but overcoming them. With the government stepping in so often to ‘bail out’ companies and people, it seems to me that we no longer embody what Roosevelt sought for himself and for his country.
After ruminating on that idea, I wondered what it meant for the book. I quickly surmised that it was aimed at the Romans. After all, they built and maintained a glorious nation and empire for a thousand years. They dared great things, and although they failed from time to time, they had a glorious history. However, after finishing the book, I’m certain the quote applies to the Germans. It was Arminius, the German chief who dared to unite the German people as one nation and dared to wipe out three Legions of Roman soldiers. He won a glorious triumph. Unfortunately for him, and for the German people, they only woke up the Roman armies, who came back six years later to annihilate them.
My last thought on the Roosevelt quote was that it was the best thing going for the book in the first hundred pages. I was not initially drawn into the story. This is Mace’s first book, and I think it showed for a while. I can’t question his research, or his ability to relay the structure of the Roman Legions. He did a fine job laying that out. However, his voice early on didn’t fit with his characters. There were times where his characters would advance the story through dialogue, and to me they were talking well above themselves. It didn’t fit.
Mace found his voice though. Once the main characters in the book were trained as Legionnaires and set out to avenge the treachery of Arminius, the story moved along well.
I’m a bit of a history buff myself, and always enjoy a good Roman book. Mace did a great job putting the reader into the life of a Roman soldier and I was happy to go there with him. The portrayal of training, campaigning and going to Rome for a triumphant parade were spot on. Or so I would imagine, having not been there myself.
The main character, Artorius, grows as a man and a soldier as he campaigns to avenge his brother’s death at hands of the Germans. I hope Mace keeps Artorius and his comrades and uses them in other stories. (It looks like he has already done so.) They were an enjoyable crew. My favorite was the Sergeant named Vitruvius. The man was built like a bull, and was the only soldier Artorius saw with no scars. No one could touch him, let alone beat him in a fight. There’s a great scene when the soldiers have returned to Rome where Vitruvius fights the greatest gladiator that Rome has. I won’t spoil the fight for you, but it was rather enjoyable.
I like reading historical fiction because you get a good story, while learning about our world. You need to be careful in assuming everything is real, but it gives a lot of material to read up on. I’d recommend reading about the Teutoburg Forest after reading this book to see how closely Mace keeps with accepted historical findings.
I wonder sometimes which is more difficult; writing historical fiction or writing fantasy. With historical fiction, the story is already there. The writer just fills in the dialogue. At the same time, you don’t have a lot of room to maneuver and still keep to the real story. I’ve seen authors give some notes before or after the story to tell what was and was not real.
I think that’s a great thing as it gives the author the ability to venture out on his own while not deceiving the reader. I’m all for the author supplying a full bibliography at the end of the book, while detailing what was real, what wasn’t real, and what was conjecture. In this case, Mace gives several footnotes for quotes taken directly from the Annals of Tacitus, Book III. He also took at least one detour from history. Pontius Pilate shows up as an artillery commander. I’m assuming Mace was referring to the Pontius Pilate of biblical fame. If so, Pilate’s history is unknown before he shows up in the Gospels. I thought it was great to drop him into the story.
With fantasy, the author must imagine the entire world. Descriptions of economics, science, magic, and politics must all seem plausible and at the same time relevant to the story. There’s definitely an art to world building. But, on the other hand, they can take their story wherever and however they want to. No one can question how something happens because it’s in a different reality all together. The author has complete control.
Soldier of Rome: The Legionary was an enjoyable read. It’s not my favorite historical fiction, but I’d definitely give another Mace book a read.
3 stars – see the book rating explanation here
Here are a few other books that I’ve read along the same lines:
- Yes, it’s not a Roman novel, but it’s GREAT.