I’ve been meaning to read Simon Scarrow for a while. Fiction set in the Roman Empire is a favourite of mine, ever since I first read The Eagle of the Ninth. Simon Scarrow’s books sat on the shelves in bookstores glossily, promising to be exactly the sort of book I love; there’s something about that Empire, the contradictions and complexities of the ideas, that I find very appealing.
The Romans brought the light of civilization to dark places, but their civilization was brutal and frequently depraved. Disciplined legions spread across Gaul while insane aristocrats poisoned, stabbed, and seduced each other. There’s a constant conflict in the stories, tropes and archetypes between the glories and the practicalities of Rome.
Under the Eagle definitely focuses more on those practicalities, the seamy underbelly of the Roman Empire. It is not a book about Horatian heroes on bridges, or honourable men, or emperors calling for their lost legions. Under the Eagle is about a Roman Empire built on the backs of crude, common soldiers, not peerless rhetoric.
It’s the first book in a series that focuses on two main characters – the battle-scarred and earthy Centurion Macro, and the slight, fussy Cato. Cato – a freed slave from the Imperial court – joins the army and ends up under Macro’s wing. Under the Eagle covers Cato’s recruitment and training, and the invasion of Britain in 43 AD.
The basic plot is mostly as above – Cato struggles to adjust to the roughness of army life, dealing with bullies and drill, and the invasion of Britain sends the two soldiers off on a special mission to recover lost gold while the Roman army is stalked by the British forces. The book has lots of little interweaving subplots, from budding romance to imperial spies, all of which join up together as the novel progresses. There are also hints of a larger, series-wide plot, about plots on the Imperial throne, hints that presumably resurface and resolve in later books.
The plotting, I felt, was one of the weaker aspects of the text – some of the subplots serve only to confuse the issue, taking up space in the narrative that could have been used to flesh out other aspects. The main idea is a strong one that could fill up a novel without getting tired, but it’s got too much ornamentation; aspects of the plot that I would see as quite important – Cato’s adjustment from pampered scholar to at-least-competent soldier, for example – get skimped on or glossed over, which leads to some of the character development feeling rushed or unconvincing.
The book is at its best when focused narrowly, eschewing the grand continent-spanning plot for the daily trials and tribulations of the legionaries. That’s when the narrative picks up the pace and the excitement, that’s when Scarrow immerses the reader and creates stronger characters. Fending of Germanic hordes while waiting for relief, crouched in a swamp when betrayed and ambushed – this is when Scarrow shows Under the Eagle to best advantage. The writing is tense and immediate, the central characters take centre stage.
One aspect of the book that deserves mention is the swearing. Swearing in anything except realistic modern fiction is always something of a hurdle for authors – you can’t leave it out because then the dialogue often sounds overly mannered (people swear when stubbing toes, they aren’t going to restrict themselves to “blast” when a dinosaur is chasing them). On the other hand, you also can’t really include it; archaic profanity lacks bite, i’faith. Previous eras did swear using some of the same words we do, but such words now sound anachronistic; people don’t think of Regency rakes as calling people bitches.
Fantasy and science fiction, as an aside, have an even harder time – they have to make them up, and other than “frak”, which I rather like – it neatly gets the main idea across – original cursing tends to sound ridiculous. Blood and bloody ashes, etc.
Simon Scarrow addresses this problem head on, which I admire. His soldiers have to swear – they drink and brawl and wench, swearing is a logical counterpart. But “furcifer” (scoundrel) and “pestis” (pest) now sound very timid, even comical to modern readers. So Scarrow updates all profanity wholesale – his soldiers use modern profanity.
It’s an approach I rather like. It does suffer occasionally from feeling anachronistic, but it’s consistently applied, and I found that I adjusted to this throughout the novel. It took a bit of getting used to, occasionally punctured my suspension of disbelief, but it’s hard to see a better way of doing it. It works well to build the legionaries characters – they aren’t prissy or flowery to any extent, and there is no artistry to their language. They are blunt and coarse.
To be honest, that’s not my preference. This isn’t a mark against the book in any way, but I like my protagonists sophisticated, capable of adjusting to different situations and planning ahead. Cato fails to adjust to new situations, and Macro, whilst intelligent, is firmly grounded in the present and his duties. Again, that’s not a criticism, save of myself for being predictable. But, in keeping with the rest of the book, this is not a story about a golden boy, a glorious hero with a shining sword. It’s about soldiers, on campaign, living and dying based on the discipline of the ranks, not glorious swordplay and pithy comebacks.
I would have liked, on that note, for battle to have played a bigger part in the novel. There isn’t much about the actual warfare side of things, with the protagonists mostly being involved in minor skirmishes, or cut off from the line of battle early on. Again though, this is not a book about an entire continent, or a book about a single man turning the tide of battle by divine right and prophecy.
Under the Eagle is a novel about legionaries. Under the Eagle is a novel about the realities of the Roman Empire, the unpolished yet effective spearhead of civilization. It’s a book that is at its best when it is small-picture, focused in on single soldiers and their daily lives. The weaker parts tend to be the larger events, with far-reaching effects. The book has a tendency to lose focus in those parts, and that’s a shame; keeping the focus tight all the way through would have made it a stronger book overall.
I’m getting the next one, and hoping that the occasional woolliness I’ve noticed here is a symptom of the book being the first in the series, rather than an ongoing issue. If the later books stay narrowed in, I’ll be more than happy – there are lots of positives, and only excusable negatives.