Author: Alan Smale
Publisher: Titan Books
Review by Richard Williams
In the interest of full disclosure I should probably point out that I'm quite the fan of alternative history. And while there are more than a fair share based around great moments and wars in history (the second world war seemingly accounting for most of them) this is the first time that I've come across a 'Romans in America' story. And the results are so-so. It's not a bad book, the writing style is easy and perfectly accessible, but it's also not exactly wowed me into thinking 'I can't wait for the next book'.
Clash of Eagles is the first instalment of a new trilogy by author Alan Smale based around the premise of the Roman empire not collapsing under the barbarian hordes and instead trying to conquer the Americas (or Nova Hesperia, as it is called in the book) in the year 1218. The book takes great care to be as historically accurate as possible regarding names, equipment and practices, both in regard to the Romans and to the Native American tribes they encounter. There is even a set of appendices at the back of the book in case you wish to get a firmer grasp of the things being discussed and described. However those are names, equipment and practices that are accurate up until the time of the Roman collapse and therefore some of it seems dated by the time in which the book is set. In truth, who can say what the Romans would have devised with an extra eight centuries of imperial domination? The book sticks to a relatively undeveloped version of Rome (in terms of progress beyond 400CE), something that might well be expected in the world that was left after Rome's borders shrank following it's demise but which almost certainly wouldn't have existed had Rome prospered. As great thinkers have said in the past; what if Romans had discovered steam power? I'd like to think that, by the time of the book, this is not at all unlikely to imagine given the Roman propensity for innovation. Perhaps the book would have worked better if, instead of setting it in an alternate timeline, the author had simply sent a legion to the Americas. Why set it in the early twelve hundreds? Possibly to better fit with Native American cultures of the time but even so, the point remains that the Romans should have had some new tricks up their sleeves by 1218.
The main character is a Roman Praetor called Gaius Marcellinus and, without giving anything away (because it's on the back cover) his mission to find gold in Nova Hesperia takes a dramatic turn for the worse when his legion is annihilated by the native Cahokiani. What follows is a fairly run of the mill 'dancing with wolves' style story about a man trapped in another culture who comes to call it home. He is kept alive for his knowledge of warfare and the advancements in weapons that the Cahokiani could gain. I only have one slight problem with this and it is simply the fact that I'm not sure anyone would keep someone alive, for the sake of advice and training, from an army they had just wiped out. Crushingly. Decisively. But, if you can look past this seemingly unlikely situation (perhaps it's actually happened in the past), what unfolds is a richly detailed and decently written piece of fiction. Book one takes place across three years but Gaius seems to become one of the tribe within the first couple of months and develops a strong bond of loyalty to the Cahokiani long before what I would deem realistic.
Overall I would say that this book definitely falls into the category of light fiction and is to be taken with a pinch of salt and a good cup of tea in a cozy chair. There are no particularly challenging characters and I wouldn't say that this book addresses any of the great questions of mankind, as some speculative fiction is wont to do, but rather revels in action scenes and telling a fairly straightforward story (despite interesting developments towards the end).
I'd rate this as good holiday reading material and one for people who like warhammer/40K tie-in fiction.