Eagles of Rome: Eagles at War
© 2015 Ben Kane
Cast from solid gold, and larger than a man could hold in both hands, the eagle was depicted lying forward on its breast. A golden wreath encircled its almost-touching wings, which were raised straight up behind its body. Its open beak and piercing stare gave off a real sense of arrogance. I know my purpose, and what I represent, it seemed to say. Do you, Tullus? Will you follow me, even unto death? Will you protect me at all costs?
Augustus is years from dying, but his Empire’s hopes in greater Germany have a much shorter life expectancy. Summer is ending, and a tenth of his army will soon be making their way to winter quarters. Lying in wait, drawn together by a charismatic Roman officer of German loyalty, are some twenty thousand warriors of diverse tribes. In only a matter of weeks, they will deliver to the Roman Empire its greatest defeat in a thousand-year history. Eagles at War is the magnificent rendering of that battle, which somehow succeeds brilliantly despite its viewpoint characters being not the victors, but the subjects of a confusing massacre.
The principal characters of Eagles at War are Tullus, a centurion; Varus, the likeable if doomed-to-disgrace governor; and of course, Arminius, a German auxiliary who has served Rome for years but only as the prelude to orchestrating her ruin in Germania. Kane portrays all three men as honorable and admirable; Varus here is not an idiot, but a man who enjoyed what he thought was a genuine friendship with a long-serving equestrian, German thought he might be. Tullus is more wary of Arminius, but ultimately he is only a centurion: without evidence, Varus will never accept his doubts of such a friend of Rome, honored by Augustus himself. Arminius, who disappears as a viewpoint character after he becomes the Enemy, must in the first half of the novel thread carefully — finding ways to meet with his allies and arrange the details of the great ambush, while not arousing suspicious. As compelling as the spy drama is, Kane surpasses himself with the extensive portrayal of ambush itself, unfolding across several days as the bedraggled Roman army, strung out, bogged down in mud, and constantly harrassed by the howling, wild Germans, fights an increasingly desperate battle — not for victory, but merely for survival.
I am most impressed with Kane, particularly enjoying his extensive notes at the end that reveal the extent to which he integrated real places and found artifacts into the story, and will be continuing in this series and others by the author. Solid characters, excellent worldbuilding, and effective writing have me hooked.
Related but not remotely comparble:
Give Me Back my Legions, Harry Turtledove. An attempt at the same.