Imagine a world where the Roman Empire never fell, but instead continued to expand. . .
Thus began the back cover blurb of the advance reading copy of Alan Smale's Clash of Eagles. I've never been necessarily too keen on alternate history novels, but this one clearly intrigued me. And since I had yet to read any debut this year, I decided to give it a go.
I found the premise quite interesting and full of potential. Mixing an ever-expanding Roman Empire that never crumbled with native American lore and traditions made for a promising debut, or so I believed. If the author pulled it off, that is. And for the most part, Smale writes with aplomb and came up with a truly original tale.
Here's the blurb:
Perfect for fans of action-adventure and historical fiction—including novels by such authors as Bernard Cornwell, Steve Berry, Naomi Novik, and Harry Turtledove—this stunning work of alternate history imagines a world in which the Roman Empire has not fallen and the North American continent has just been discovered. In the year 1218 AD, transported by Norse longboats, a Roman legion crosses the great ocean, enters an endless wilderness, and faces a cataclysmic clash of worlds, cultures, and warriors. Ever hungry for land and gold, the Emperor has sent Praetor Gaius Marcellinus and the 33rd Roman Legion into the newly discovered lands of North America. Marcellinus and his men expect easy victory over the native inhabitants, but on the shores of a vast river the Legion clashes with a unique civilization armed with weapons and strategies no Roman has ever imagined. Forced to watch his vaunted force massacred by a surprisingly tenacious enemy, Marcellinus is spared by his captors and kept alive for his military knowledge. As he recovers and learns more about these proud people, he can’t help but be drawn into their society, forming an uneasy friendship with the denizens of the city-state of Cahokia. But threats—both Roman and Native—promise to assail his newfound kin, and Marcellinus will struggle to keep the peace while the rest of the continent surges toward certain conflict.
The backdrop of this story revolves around the Mississippian native American civilization which once dominated the lands surrounding the Mississippi and the Ohio rivers. I felt that the author did a great job bringing the city of Cahokia to life. Readers gradually discover more about the city and its inhabitants and their culture, the same way Marcellinus, now a stranger in a strange land, learns more about his new environment and its people. Info-dumps are used on occasions and are a necessary evil, as the Roman is the only POV character and the sole purpose of some scenes/discussions is to relay information to the reader. By and large, Smale's depiction of the native Americans' way of life was probably my favorite aspect of Clash of Eagles. The worldbuilding was original and compelling. The author has set the bar rather high in that regard and it will be interesting to see if he can maintain that level of quality and creativity when he depicts other civilizations such as the People of the Hand and the People of the Sun in future installments.
Witnessing the utter destruction of his Legion at the hands of what he considered mere savages humbled Praetor Gaius Marcellinus in a profound way. Sole survivor, he is kept alive so he can share his "modern" knowledge with the people of Cahokia. Shunned at first, with only children as companions, he slowly learns their language and after some time he begins to teach his captors a number of innovations. Simultaneously, he realizes the error of having underestimated the native Americans as uncivilized primitives. As time goes by, Marcellinus is astonished by the wonders that are unveiled. More or less a pariah at the beginning, witnessing Marcellinus spending time with the children to make them learn his language and in turn learn to communicate using theirs makes for an engaging read. Tahtay, Enopay, and Kimimela help shape the sort of man Marcellinus will become in order to earn the trust of the Cahokians. Inevitably, there is a Pocahontas feel to the whole tale, what with his interest in Sintikala, but Smale has a number of surprises up his sleeves. Here's to hoping that there will be additional points of view in the upcoming books, as it would be interesting to get the perspective of other people and not just that of Marcellinus. It would have been fascinating to have the POV of a native American, if only to discover how the Roman's ways and strange ideas are truly perceived by his captors.
The Cahokians may not be as technically advanced as the Romans in most regards, but the author came up with a number of surprising inventions that helped them crush the Legion, chief among them the Catanwakuna and the Wakinyan. I don't want to spoil anything, but let's just say that it's with his imagination and ingenuity that Alan Smale truly shines.
As a matter of course, in a novel whose premise has to do with a Roman Legion being defeated by native American forces, and in which the main protagonist is kept alive so he can teach the Cahokians how to better defend themselves against the Iroqua, exciting battle scenes and action sequences abound. Maybe a bit too much, if you ask me. Oddly enough, I felt that the pace was more fluid during the "slower" portions of the book. The fight scenes sort of got in the way of the storytelling, or so it seemed to me.
It remains to be seen if Alan Smale can imbue subsequent volumes with the same kind of originality and inventiveness. But as things stand, Clash of Eagles finds itself in pole position as far as the fantasy debut of the year is concerned.