Monday, November 10, 2014

Under the Eagle

Under the Eagle
© 2000 Simon Scarrow
256 pages

If given the choice between being attacked by foul-smelling, weirdly-painted Germans, and being attacked by foul-smelling, weirdly-painted Celts, which would you choose? For Centurion Macro, it's rather obvious: the Germans! At least monitoring the Rhine doesn't involve crossing a temperamental sea and fighting on the edge of the world, where foggy bogs hide all manner of monsters and men. But the Emperor Claudius says, "Invade Britain!" and so it's off across the channel and into the slime. To make matters worse, his second in command is a gangly boy who the emperor wanted appointed centurion despite the fact that he was a palace slave who knows more about literature than combat. The boy can't even throw a javelin without almost decapitating the man in front of him!   But you can't defy the emperor, not unless you're plotting to assassinate him, and it's hard to do that in Germany. So it's off to Britain, and so starts a fairly entertaining series of Roman military fiction.

Under the Eagle is the first book by Simon Scarrow, and he makes it easier on himself and readers by having his Romans speak what makes for contemporary English.  That's British English, of course, complete with slang, reinforcing the Hollywood-based conceit that the Romans went around chatting in RP. (New recruits' induction features a screaming DI who might as well be R. Lee Ermey in sandals.) That slight absurdity, coupled with the author's deliberate humor -- including some physical, like the aforementioned javelin foul-up, but mostly rendered in dialogue -- provide plenty of laughs. Part of that is laughing at little Cato, the aforementioned gangly youth, for whom army life is a decidedly harsh adjustment. He is a prim and proper boy in the company of rough and tough men, and worse yet, in a position of trying to force them to take him seriously as their commander despite the fact that he's still going through basic training.   The amount of danger the plot throws at them (ambushes by screaming Germans, ambushes by screaming Celts, ambushes by scheming Romans, and every altercation ending with something on fire) offers him plenty of opportunity to prove his Roman manliness, often to his own surprise.

It's an interesting start to the series, no doubt; my sympathies are wholly with both of the leads, Marco and the boy-on-his-hero's-journey, and considering that the invasion of Britain just started there's a lot more to look forward to. Most of Under the Eagle takes place in Germany, with the final chapters featuring the British landing and a quest to recover something buried during the last Roman invasion of Britain, led by Julius Caesar.  It's part military fiction, and part political intrigue  which is unavoidable given the setting of Rome. The battles are more interesting at this point, though I hope the Britons become more than just generic screaming hordes; considering how new the invasion is there is plenty of room for them to develop as proper antagonists.  I'll be continuing in the series, no doubt about that!

The British History Podcast; season one covers the Roman period. I'm up to the aftermath of Boudica so far.


  1. I have several of his books in 'the pile'. Rome is such a great subject that I could probably do a whole series of 10 books based there without getting bored.

    As to the Romans in Britain. They never did like it here and I don't think they were particularly sad to leave when they did. We didn't exactly make them feel welcome - indeed we almost kicked them back into the English Channel at one point. What an interesting historical turning point that could have been!

  2. No Saxons, only Romans and Celts? Sounds like France to me. :p

    I wondered if you had read this fellow before -- he's Cornwell-lite. That is, rather like Cornwell, just not as terrific. I've got the second book being shipped to me, though.

  3. Haven't read any of his yet - but I do tend to pick books up only to read them years later. A bad habit I know.... [grin] I enjoyed my 'recent' Ben Kane Roman book and I'm looking forward to more of his. He seems to concentrate on Rome's enemies which is interesting...

    Quite a mixture of things coming up. Nothing Roman though - at least not fiction wise. I might be able to slip in a few non-fiction Ancient History before New Year [muses].


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