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 totally intrigued me. 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, one of the very best of 2015.
It remained to be seen whether or not the author could imbue subsequent volumes with the same kind of originality and inventiveness. And now that I've read Eagle in Exile, I can vouch for the fact that it's everything Clash of Eagles was and then some! Smale managed to raise the bar even higher, with a finale that sets the stage for what should be a memorable final installment!
Here's the blurb:
Perfect for fans of Bernard Cornwell, Steve Berry, Naomi Novik, and Harry Turtledove, Alan Smale’s gripping alternate history series imagines a world in which the Roman Empire has survived long enough to invade North America in 1218. Now the stunning story carries hero Gaius Marcellinus deeper into the culture of an extraordinary people—whose humanity, bravery, love, and ingenuity forever change his life and destiny. In A.D. 1218, Praetor Gaius Marcellinus is ordered to conquer North America and turning it into a Roman province. But outside the walls of the great city of Cahokia, his legion is destroyed outright; Marcellinus is the only one spared. In the months and years that follow, Marcellinus comes to see North America as his home and the Cahokians as his kin. He vows to defend these proud people from any threat, Roman or native. After successfully repelling an invasion by the fearsome Iroqua tribes, Marcellinus realizes that a weak and fractured North America won’t stand a chance against the returning Roman army. Worse, rival factions from within threaten to tear Cahokia apart just when it needs to be most united and strong. Marcellinus is determined to save the civilization that has come to mean more to him than the empire he once served. But to survive the swords of Roma, he first must avert another Iroqua attack and bring Cahokia together. Only with the hearts and souls of a nation at his back can Marcellinus hope to know triumph.
Once again in this sequel, the backdrop of this tale revolves around the Mississippian native American civilization which once dominated the lands surrounding the Mississippi and the Ohio rivers. In his debut, Smale did a great job bringing the city of Cahokia to life. Info-dumps were used on occasions and were a necessary evil, as the Roman was the only POV character and the sole purpose of some scenes/discussions was to relay information to the reader. But that didn't take anything away from my reading experience. By and large, the author's depiction of the native Americans' way of life continues to be my favorite aspect of this series. Once more, the worldbuilding was original and compelling.
In Eagle in Exile, we see Marcellinus journey deep into Iroqua territory, in an attempt to make peace with the Haudenosaunee and bring an end to the long-lasting Mourning War that afflicts the tribes. Only by setting this conflict aside can the native Americans hope to stand up to the Roman legions. Another journey will take Marcellinus and his party down the Mizipian river all the way to the Market of the Mud, where a shocking discovery may put all of his plans into jeopardy. Decidedly, this second installment is all about journeys and another expedition takes them beyond the Wemissori river, in the distant lands of the Buffalo hunters. In Clash of Eagles, Alan Smale set the bar rather high as far as worldbuilding is concerned, and I was wondering if he could maintain that level of quality and creativity in his portrayal of other civilizations. Well, it's safe to say that it's mission accomplished for the author!
Although I was hoping for additional points of view in the upcoming books, as I believed it would be interesting to get the perspectives of other people and not just that of Marcellinus, yet Eagle in Exile features the Roman's first-person narrative and nothing else. Tahtay, Enopay, Sintikala, and Kimimela helped shape the sort of man Marcellinus had to become in order to earn the trust of the Cahokians, and they play an important role in the events chronicled within the page of this second volume. As a matter of course, as the sole POV character, Marcellinus takes center stage. But it's the supporting cast that, with their interactions with the Roman, which makes this an enjoyable read.
Weighing in at 556 pages and given the amount of treks to remote locales, one would think that the pace would suffer from time to time. And yet, never does the rhythm drag at any point in this story and Eagle in Exile makes for some compulsive reading.
We have known from the very beginning that the Romans would one day return to Nova Hesperia and that Marcellinus means to prepare his new allies for their coming and hopefully prevent a bloodbath. Alan Smale brings everything together in the last part of the book, offering readers a spectacular and unexpected ending that sets the stage for what should be a remarkable finale.
The author definitely managed to avoid the pitfalls associated with the second book syndrome. Building on the storylines from Clash of Eagles, Smale upped his game and came up with what should be one of the best speculative fiction titles of 2016.