I was once again, much the novice coming into this series of books, I have an appreciation for historical fiction but I haven’t really explored it that thoroughly. It was interesting therefore to begin with a less commonly written about period of history: the second Roman invasion of Britain, rather than the more commonly written about, like the Plantagenet kings, or Caesar or Queen Victoria.
The novel follows two principle characters through their lives in the Roman army from living in Gaul and being attacked by barbarians to the invasion of Britain, a soldier mutiny and ther first battle on English soil. Macro is a powerful but illiterate Centurion who is a very strong willed person. He develops nicely from his introduction to Cato, the other main character, and inevitably is a student of literature and teaches Macro to read. Cato joins the Second Legion of the Roman Army as a Optio (a Centurion’s second in command) from the palace in Rome. He seems he would have been more suited to the libraries of the Roman palaces, yet somehow becomes a fairly formidable warrior by the end of the novel. The issue I had was there was very little character progression for Cato. He starts as an inexperienced and bumbling boy, elevated above his rank through a favour from the emperor and ends as a well deserving war hero. It could be put down to being a natural, but it seems too far a stretch of the imagination to me. The training of the soldiers is almost entirely glossed over, which innately is not a bad thing – endless chapters of sword drills and building base camps would be very tiresome indeed. But because there is so little mention of Cato’s training, his military prowess seems hard to explain.
Simon Scarrow is a former history teacher, and Under the Eagle is his first published novel. Unfortunately, it shows. It’s good to a point but it falls short in several areas. My first reading session ploughed through half of the novel, during which the main characters are introduced and sent off to deal with a small matter of legal business at a nearby German village. This quickly escalates into a brilliantly described battle. The problem is, is that this isn’t the end of the novel. The true climax at the end (which dealt with the first battle in Britain) felt somewhat anticlimactic in comparison. It had significantly less air time than the German skirmish and was less enticing to read. It didn’t make it bad, just not quite as good as the climax in the middle had been. It left the novel rather bloated and misshapen. There are frequent jarring moments throughout the novel as well, particularly in dialogue: Macro yells to a barbarian soldier “Piss off you bugger!” which sounds considerably too upper middle class British than you’d expect of a 43AD Centurion sticking a sword in a German’s throat. The politics in the novel are another point which I found somewhat lacking. The main political twists were either lacklustre or predictable and overall the writing felt somewhat unfitting in comparison to the action sequences. Macro’s reaction to the politics is what I found most interesting. Being illiterate, he cannot read the messages and cannot sign his papers. His slow understanding of the politics behind the army is a very nice touch.
One commendation I have is the historical accuracy of the novel. The Second Legion (of which Macro and Cato are part) march to invade Britain, and the events which pan out are as history dictates. The research is second to none and the atmosphere (with the exception of some dialogue) is very Roman, and creates an excellent feeling within the novel. It is obvious that Scarrow truly knows this period of history.
The reason I will be reading the next one is because despite the novel’s flaws I can definitely see potential here. Scarrow’s first novel will never be as well written as his seventh, but it’s the place to start if you are at all interested in getting into this series. I am hooked, and the other books will be reviewed in due course. Under the Eagle is an okay book, but it’s the prospect of this book with the promise of a seasoned and experienced writer in the future which kept me reading.