Monday, 18 January 2016

The Eagle series: Cato and Macro



I recently completed the 14th book, Britannia, in the current Eagle series from Simon Scarrow. And what a thoroughly stirring historical adventures series it's been!



It's been a long while since I've read such a long series of books back-to-back and, for me, it's testament to a talented writer who can draw along their readers at a fair old pace, hardly noticing the number of books they're getting through. They're real page turners, or in my case, digital page tappers!

These books follow the careers and adventures of two Roman soldiers. The first book of the series - Under the Eagle - is set in Germany in 42AD where we're introduced to Quintus Licinius Cato, a young, gangly and bookish son of a Freedman who joins the Roman Second Legion as Legionary recruit. 

Cato, completely out of place and even more out of depth in the tough and disciplined world of the Roman army, really struggles at first until he's eventually taken under the wing of an older, battle-scarred Centurion, Lucius Cornelius Macro.

From there on, we have 13 more books following their 'buddy' exploits across the Roman Empire. Think Lucius Vorenus and Titus Pullo from Rome, the mini-TV series or even Sharpe and Harper from Sharpe.

It's a familiar vehicle but works very well for a series of stories examining life in the Imperial Roman army at the time. With the protagonist's introduced, the second book, The Eagle's Conquest, takes our intrepid duo to the Empire's frontiers, with the second invasion of Britannia under Emperor Claudius in 43AD.  

And that's' just the start of it. Later we have the duo dealing with pirates, and the Roman navy, off the Illyrian coast. Facing the Parthian empire fighting over Palmyra, dealing with a slave revolt in Crete and later tracking the slave's gladiator leader to the province of Egypt, which is under threat from the Numidian Empire. 

Then it's back west to Rome, battling treachery in the Praetorian Guard and then, 10 years later, our veterans are finally back on the shores of the troubled and restless province of Britannia. They sure get around a bit!

What did you like about the series?

Firstly, the Eagle series is exactly what I was looking for; a fast-paced, easy reading adventure series set in a historical period that I'm interested in. You aren't going to get some prosaic, ponderous work of literary fiction here. This is what it says on the tin. A snapshot of life in the Imperial Roman army from the soldier's perspective. With many, many battles. To write a series that is both informative and entertaining is tough challenge, something which I think Simon Scarrow pulls off admirably.

Which leads me onto something that is done exceedingly well in this series. The battle sequences. I've read many novels, covering varied genres over the years, so I've come to understand that the pacing and structure of an action sequence that can totally absorb the reader with every shield bash and gladius thrust is not something authors can always pull off. But boy, Simon Scarrow does! 

If you want to know what it probably was like standing in the compressed confines of a Roman shield wall whilst frenzied, screaming barbarians are smashing long swords and axes at you, then you've come to the right place.

The book's perspective is refreshingly uncontaminated by contemporary morals and values too, which I've found some authors, whether consciously or not, allow to influence their work. No, here Simon Scarrow, for example, does not dissect the subject of slavery in the Roman Empire. From the character's perspective, slavery is simply a fact of life and they are basically soldiers following their orders.

Similarly, the book is full of vividly dramatic and violent scenes, which is almost treated casually by the protagonists. And why not? Macro and Cato exist in a very different world than the one, I suggest, most of us - certainly in the West in the 21st century - may find hard to understand.

I mentioned that the 'buddy' vehicle is used to drive the series. For me, this is a simple but effective plotting device, allowing the author to tour the Roman Empire from the martial perspective. It's a successful plot tool and one I like. For many readers, the draw is the camaraderie, shared experiences and friendship of our protagonists.

As for Cato and Macro, their individual characteristics are pretty much set out from the onset. Cato - younger, educated and intelligent but prone to over-thinking and self doubt. Macro - a tough, no nonsense 'soldier's soldier' but occasionally impulsive and certainly no diplomat! There's little in-depth character development from book to book, which can either be a positive or negative. It really just depends on what you're expecting.

It's clear the author is fascinated by the period and has visited many of the sites of Cato and Macro's adventures, evident in his place descriptions. In fact, I was near one of the locations whilst exploring Crete on holiday a couple of years ago. Certainly brought book 9, The Gladiator, alive! As the books progress you can almost feel you're there, in ancient Palmyra, Alexandria or the sodden, cramped confines of a British tribal capital.

You are also going to come across many historical figures, brought to life as our plucky duo progress their careers. From Claudius, Nero and Narcissus to the British rebels, Caratacus and Boudicca. And many more.

I also like the fact that the author does not attempt to get too bogged down with the authenticity of the spoken narrative. The character's use the same language and references as we would recognise today, which enables the author to simply get on with the story. This may not to be everyone's taste, especially if you're looking for total 'authenticity'. 

Alternatively, one could argue that the use of contemporary dialogue actually helps the reader's engagement with the characters. For me it does. It also underlines, when you strip away the progress of technology and the veneer of modern social norms, how similar many of the difficulties and struggles faced by those ancient empires and peoples reflect many of those of today. Are we really that different now?

Anything not so good?

Well, I've mentioned above that our protagonist's characterisation doesn't really develop too much over the course of the series. This can be a double-edged gladius in my opinion. For me, it simply isn't necessary for a fast-paced military adventures across the ancient Roman Empire. However, readers looking for deep character examination may find the books a little anaemic in this respect. Like most things, it's quite subjective. It depends on what you're looking for.

There is also some notable repetitiveness in description throughout the series. For example, either Macro or Cato are inevitably going to take a bash to the head where everything momentarily 'goes white' with almost predicable regularity.

Similarly, regular explanations of how effective the Roman short sword, or gladius, was in close quarter fighting started to detract a little from the pace. Occasionally I thought, 'not this again, I know that!'  For all I know this may be an editorial decision, possibly aiding readers who may have picked up the books mid-series. Still, it's mildly irritating.

The fast, furious action sequences are perhaps the main draw and strength of these books. And as mentioned, exceptionally well done. But even I had suspicions on occasions, after a particularly breathless battle, that Macro and Cato must have super-human constitutions. 

They never seem to take much of a breather. The author begrudgingly has them snatching the odd hour or two of sleep here and there and then they're up again facing yet another calamitous situation. Same when they take injuries. The author is a hard task-master. He'll have no shirkers whilst on duty!

Any wargaming context?

Oh yes. From assaulting forts or being besieged. Small-scale skirmishes to massive set-piece battles, they are all covered in rip-roaring detail. Historical wargamers will find plenty of inspiration for scenarios here.

Let's take a couple of examples. In book 10, The Legion, there is a full scale, set-piece battle on the banks of the Nile describing the formations and tactics of the Roman legion up against the massed Numidian hoards. You have the formal ranks of Legionaries using javelin, gladius and shield supported by auxiliary cohorts, cavalry and ballista units. It's all there, and of course, Cato and Macro are in the thick of it. Perfect for some of the larger scale ancients rules sets around.

Another example is book 12, The Blood Crows, where Cato and Macro are in the Welsh Valleys, defending a besieged Roman fort on the frontier of Silures territory. A couple of cohorts, mostly Thracian auxiliaries bolstered with a scattering of Legionaries, desperately holding the walls against a huge British tribal army led by Caratacus before a relief column arrives. Lots of possibilities here for skirmish level rules-sets. And each book is filled with many more options.

Many of the books are prefaced with a chapter on Roman Military organisation and hierarchy, and where necessary useful sketches, for example the layout of central Rome in book 11, Pretorian. Its a useful resource for anyone with sketchly knowledge of the subject.

Warlord Games even have a Macro and Cato resin and metal miniature set. Yes, I've ordered one. One more set of miniatues added to my unpainted Roman legion won't hurt!

In summary, you've probably realised by now that I'm a big fan of this series. I wouldn't have read all 14 back-to-back if it didn't have enough to capture my imagination or engagement.

The author, Simon Scarrow, is quite accessible too. He regularly posts on his Facebook site and there are numerous fan and formal sites online. For the Eagle series, I recommend visiting the Cato and Macro site. It has an interesting interactive map showing the track of the novels across the series, with a brief synopsis of each novel when you click on the Roman helmets icons!

The author has many other book projects, such as the Revolution quartet, following the early years of Duke of Wellignton and Napoleon. Something I'm sure will be downloaded to my Kindle at some point

So, thank you Simon Scarrow for the adventures of Cato and Macro. I'm sure there's more to tell before they retire to a veteran's colony!