Saturday, May 24, 2014

Captain of Rome

Captain of Rome
© 2010 John Stack
400 pages

The Mediterranean is awash in blood as the first Punic War steeps in intensity.  Having risen to the challenge and successfully confronted Carthage on the high seas,  the Republic of Rome  is swaggering under the influence of expected victory. Its fleet greatly enlarged, its sailors gaining their sea legs, the early humiliating losses seem to have been left behind. But Hamilcar Barca is far from beaten, planning a brutal counterstrike that will imperil Italy itself.  None in Rome are wise to the danger, its politicians fighting to claim credit for the presumed victory. To the laurel-seeking politicians, the military is a route to glory, including the men of the good ship Aquila, its crew and the Ninth Legion which it serves.   Its captain, Atticus, is an outstanding tactician, having snatched victories from the teeth of defeat and prevented some losses from turning into catastrophes. His success is resented, however, by some Romans who see in him nothing but an uppity Greek, a wily Ulysses with suspect loyalty. His reputation highlights the failures of others; if a Greek can do it, why can't they? Such a failure is Tribune Varro, a  pup given high rank by his daddy's gold, who makes Atticus the object of resentful sulking. As Carthage's plan ripens and the hour for a crushing blow to Rome arrives, Atticus is deep in the snare of petty politicians and endangered not only by Barca's great fleet, but assassins from his own lines.  In Captain of Rome,   Atticus must survive not only the threat of enemy ships, but the aftermath of his own earlier successes.

 The promising setup is fulfilled by Stack's execution, delivering action not only on the sea, but on land and in political chambers.  Atticus isn't the only officer whose future is threatened by others' ambition; the Carthaginians have their own Varros.  The ongoing tension between Atticus and his counterpart in the Ninth, Septimus, is especially well done; although the two are comrades-in-arms and fast friends, Septimus' hostility towards his sister's romantic relationship with Atticus threatens to drive them apart. The tension is never dispelled in one big confrontation; whenever  their repartee declines, circumstances impel the two to work together and ally again. It's not a clean back and forth, either, but an area of muddy water the two are never quite out of, even during the epic-scale battle at the end.  The strength of their friendship amid these stresses is an unexpected and added strength to a novel that already has plenty of appeal, considering the familiar-yet-exotic nature of classical-era naval combat, and the scheming (Carthaginian and Roman) that delivers a series of crises for the characters.  Readers will also appreciate the handling of the Carthaginians, who aren't villainized, though there are villains among their ranks;  instead, through Atticus' experience we see in the war's contenders  two powers alike in ambition, served by both honorable warriors and loathsome cretins.  Captain of Rome is another triumph in this fascinating trilogy of historical naval fiction.


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