WHAT I THOUGHT: Clash of Eagles by Alan Smale

WHAT IF the Roman Empire didn’t fall apart? What if the Roman Empire conquered much of the known world and eventually sent a legion to the North American continent? This is the premise for debut novel CLASH OF EAGLES by Alan Smale. Alternate history is my favorite. Not solely because of a few Robert Conroy and Harry Turtledove books either. Instead, I’ve always wondered the “what ifs,” and how minute, or large of a change they would have instituted. CLASH OF EAGLES certainly presents a plausible historical scenario.

The story picks up right where it needs to. We bypass the long voyage across the Atlanticus, the first stumbling sentiments of the XXXIII Fighting Hesperian legion and instead the story begins with the legion already weeks into their journey. Low on food, attacked by fierce Iroqua Indians and troops on the verge of mutiny. The main character Praetor Marcillenus navigates his legion masterfully through the world, but two chapters in they face a more sturdy enemy in the form of the Cahokian Indians.

It’s a massacre.

Now, let me say this: Smale’s writing is masterful. He could have went heavy on the prose, but his battle scenes are clear and concise. That being said, I’m sad that “Romans in North America” becomes “Roman in North America” after the second chapter. I was excited to see the legion itself falter, or change, as necessary to survive in the climate of a mostly undisturbed North American continent. This isn’t even a heavy spoiler, as this description is on the book cover of the book.

That aside, Marcillenus’ transformation from a full fledged Roman into a member of the Cahokian tribe is detailed and believable. You get to see Marcillenus change, grow and adapt as he realizes that he must adhere to and befriend the very enemy he was once hunting. The other characters: Great Sun Man, Sintikala and a few others could have been fleshed out more, though this is attributed to Marcillenus’ lack of understanding of their culture.

There are additional battles—my favorite part, to be honest—in the book. Marcillenus, as a pseudo-member of the Cahokian tribe helps fight off and takes the fight to different Iroqua tribes. The ending left the road well paved for another Roman incursion, and I guarantee you Marcillenus will have a difficult decision to make in the interim.

The book was a damned good read. It left me wanting to know more about the 700 years in between when the Roman Empire fell in real life (476 AD, though I think Smale’s point of divergence is somewhere in the 200’s) and when the Hesperian Legion was sent to North America. I’m sure when other Roman legions finally show up on Cahokia’s doorstep, we’ll get another history lesson.

Bonne journée, mes amis.

What I Thought: HITLER’s WAR by Harry Turtledove

My first Turtledove book!

For a long while now, friends and other authors had been telling me to read a Harry Turtedove book. See what it says right there on the cover? “The master of alternate history.” I was both surprised and disappointed with this read, but so much so that I’ve added another Harry Turtledove book to my list, GUNS OF THE SOUTH.

The book’s premise is a Second World War that arrives a year earlier than the historical norm. There are two PODs, or point of divergences from real history. The first is that the Spanish general Sanjurjo, who historically was killed when he overloaded his plane with his clothing trucks, instead survives. Sanjurjo was one of the chief military conspirators of the Spanish Civil War. The primary historical differences between Sanjurjo and Francisco Franco (who led in Sanjurjo’s place after his death) are that Sanjurjo was not such a stark isolationist as Franco had been. Interestingly enough though, Spain remains mostly uninteresting throughout the duration of this book, and—from what my research can discern—the rest of the The War That Came Early series.

The other historical change is Konrad Henlein’s assassination in 1938 goes off successfully in Czechoslovakia. This gives Hitler the Cassus belli he needs to declare war on Czechoslovakia and subsequently, the Allies. France and the United Kingdom are forced to abide their pacts with Czechoslovakia and the war proper begins. I find it most interesting that those two were the primary points of divergences, because while things ARE different, they are not necessarily decidedly so until book 2 or book 3 of this series. That aside, I’ll dig into HITLER’S WAR—book 1—now.

The first chapter has character viewpoints of General Sanjurjo and Adolf Hitler both, then they are never seen again (except for Hitler, halfway through the book from the perspective of another Axis soldier). The book itself is from the viewpoint of approximately a dozen characters: a German tank commander, a French infantryman, a British infantryman, an American Marine, a Japanese rifleman, internationals fighting on Republican Spain and Nationalist Spain’s sides, a German bomber pilot, a Soviet bomber pilot and a German U-boot captain.

These characters DO grow throughout the book and there is a major character death near the end. However, I felt strange about a certain piece of history while reading this book. They say war is hell, and it is. War in the Second World War was also, at many times, boring and confusing. Fighting aside, months often went by of soldiers simply crouched in hastily dug foxholes while being shelled by the opposite side. This is true here as well and I applaud Turtledove’s historical accuracy. That being said, it’s boring to read. I feel approximately five percent of this book is simply characters digging a hole, enduring an artillery barrage and smoking cigarettes. I’m not quite sure how I feel about that.

There are two non-combative characters, an American stuck in Berlin while the war is on and the other is a Jewish family suffering under Hitler’s regime. The second is well built and they grow as they pages turn, but the former is almost entirely irrelevant to the story. The character—a tourist named Peggy Druce—has almost no agency. She reacts to what the Nazi’s do to her and is mostly helpless to change the plot. Her story from halfway through is frivolous, as she doesn’t achieve much at all.

The fighting scenes are decent enough, though I would’ve preferred a bit more detail as I went into this book with the expectation: “this is war, I want to embody war,” but perhaps I understand why he did that: to appeal to a larger audience.

Turtledove’s writing is impeccably simple though, and in a good way. I, few times—if ever—wondered about what he was attempting to convey with his shorter, simple sentences and method of writing. I felt that I would have a much better opinion of this book had I also possessed the hindsight of the other books in the series, but that’s for another time, perhaps.

A good book, but only marginally alternate history.

Bonne journée, mes amis.