Eagle and Empire

Imagine a world where the Roman Empire never fell, but instead continued to expand. . .

Thus read the very first sentence on the back cover of the advance reading copy of Alan Smale's Clash of Eagles. I've never been too keen on the alternate history subgenre, but this book intrigued me from the get-go. The premise seemed to be quite interesting and full of potential. Mixing an ever-expanding Roman Empire that never fell into decline with native American lore and traditions made for a promising novel, one that turned out to be one of the very best speculative fiction debuts of 2015.

I was wondering if the author could imbue the subsequent volumes with the same sort of originality and inventiveness. But the sequel, Eagle in Exile, was everything its predecessor was and then some! Indeed, Smale managed to raise the bar even higher, with a finale that set the stage for what promised to be a memorable final installment. And now that I've read Eagle and Empire, I'm pleased to report that this last chapter delivers on all fronts!

Here's the blurb:

The award-winning author of Clash of Eagles and Eagle in Exile concludes his masterly alternate-history saga of the Roman invasion of North America in this stunning novel.

Roman Praetor Gaius Marcellinus came to North America as a conqueror, but after meeting with defeat at the hands of the city-state of Cahokia, he has had to forge a new destiny in this strange land. In the decade since his arrival, he has managed to broker an unstable peace between the invading Romans and a loose affiliation of Native American tribes known as the League.

But invaders from the west will shatter that peace and plunge the continent into war: The Mongol Horde has arrived and they are taking no prisoners.

As the Mongol cavalry advances across the Great Plains leaving destruction in its path, Marcellinus and his Cahokian friends must summon allies both great and small in preparation for a final showdown. Alliances will shift, foes will rise, and friends will fall as Alan Smale brings us ever closer to the dramatic final battle for the future of the North American continent.

As a matter of course, the backdrop of this series continues to revolve around the Mississippian Native American civilization which once dominated the lands surrounding the Mississippi and the Ohio rivers. The author's depiction of the Native Americans' way of life remains my favorite facet of this trilogy. Once again in this third volume, the worldbuilding was original and compelling. The uneasy peace brokered by Marcellinus is generating tensions between the Romans and the Cahokians. Unsure as to how long they have to prepare for the coming of the Mongol Horde, the Imperator orders Marcellinus to travel to the lands of the People of the Hand to forge new alliances to help them stand against the Great Khan's armies. Hence, Eagle and Empire is another book of journeys. Although Alan Smale had already set the bar rather high as far as worldbuilding is concerned, somehow he was able to maintain that level of depth and creativity in his portrayal of other civilizations. His depiction of the People of the Hand, the Mongols, and other Hesperians from beyond the mountains to the West was as impressive as that of the Haudenosaunee, the Buffalo hunters from beyond the Wemissori river, and the Cahokians.

Though I've been hoping for additional points of view, as I feel it would be interesting to get other perspectives, I have come to accept the author's decision to go with Marcellinus' first-person narrative and nothing else. Tahtay, Enopay, Sintikala, and Kimimela helped shape the sort of man Marcellinus needed to become in order to earn the Cahokians' trust, and they all played an important role in the second volume. It's also true in Eagle and Empire, and I would say that each of them show a lot of character growth. Marcellinus is torn between trying to be both Roman and Cahokian, which strains his relationships with both sides. Imperator Hadrianus comes into his own in this book, and his interactions with both Marcellinus and Tahtay showed that there is a lot more to the man than meets the eye. The sense of impending doom forces many of the protagonists to open their hearts, which elevates the characterization to another level. Thankfully, Alan Smale takes no shortcuts and his characters remain true to themselves, for better or worse.

Eagle and Empire is another big novel. Weighing in at 544 pages and considering the long journeys that comprise the tale, one would think that the pace would occasionally be an issue. And yet, never does the rhythm suffer and once again this one makes for some compulsive reading. Other than the long-awaited showdown against the Mongol Horde, that is, which goes on for about 180 pages. Sure, I was expecting violent and bloody battle scenes, and there are plenty of those. And though these action sequences were quite exciting and often surprising, after a while it just felt like one big drawn-out battle.

Marcellinus' fear is that even if, against all hope, the Mongols are defeated by the combined Roman and Hesperian forces, Nova Hesperia may still ultimately fall under the yoke of the Roman Empire. The grand finale is as gripping as readers want it to be, but it's the aftermath that is shocking. Alan Smale has more than a few surprises up his sleeve and he closes the show with style and aplomb. I'm definitely looking forward to whatever he writes next.

Eagle and Empire is a thrilling conclusion to a superior series. Highly recommended!

The final verdict: 8/10

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