Posts Tagged Cato
-THIS REVIEW CONTAINS SPOILERS FOR UNDER THE EAGLE, IF YOU INTEND TO READ IT, MY REVIEW CAN BE FOUND HERE–
Simon Scarrow’s difficult second novel is a damn sight better than his first one. The journey continues for Cato and Macro, through the bitter wilderness of South East England, about ten years after their fellow Romans seriously annoyed a group of Israeli Christians for crucifying their Lord and Saviour. The novel takes off about four days after the end of the previous one. The Second Legion are reeling from a messy victory against the British and the prospect of continuing a campaign in which the battles get bloodier and bloodier with no sign of any let up.
Cato has developed nicely from the first novel in the series. He’s more confident at fighting, and following the rhythmic process of thrusting a shield out then goring a man in the throat. For a scholarly young man he’s surprisingly ineloquent at public speaking, especially in the position of second in command in his century which he stumbled into one novel previously. He is also dreadfully mournful of the departure of his young lover Lavinia and pines for her throughout the novel, using her image as a reason to fight. These flaws and fumblings build up to make a nicely rounded character. The same, unfortunately, cannot be said for his centurion.
Macro seems to have gone backwards. For a series which is purportedly about both Cato and Macro, his character goes from the complex hard outer shell with a softer centre – like a crème egg – to a man who is as brutish and simple. Cato has evidently more on his mind than to worry about giving him reading lessons as the entire plotline regarding Macro’s illiteracy seems to have been ousted and the novel passes by with just one solitary mention of it. It’s a great shame in my opinion. Macro was a complex and interesting character, and all though he is now depicted as a fearsome warrior, who fights by day and drinks the best wine the legion can offer by night, he’s lost a sense of vulnerability which Scarrow had so carefully built up in the last novel.
I must admit, this is honestly my only criticism. The novel is leagues better written than the previous one. Scarrow has nicely ironed out the cliché and the bizarre turns of phrase. The pacing is a lot better, and the climax is rightly where it should be, at the end (and what an end it is!). The other notable improvement is the politics in the novel. Where Under the Eagle bogged down in convoluted details, The Eagle’s Conquest deals with politics in the way a good thriller should. The wonderfully evil Tribune Vitellius sees to it that only the protagonists see him as who he really is, while he has Emperor Claudius on all fours, with a length of string around his neck like a leash.
Overall, it still shows as a second novel but Simon Scarrow is definitely finding his feet as a novelist at this stage. While there are some shortcomings, the novel is succinct, interesting, gritty and exciting. But please read the first one before this one.
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.