When the Romans kicked Carthage in the teeth by stealing Sicily off them in the First Punic War, it was only a matter of time before the Carthaginians struck back with a vengeance. That vengeance took the formidable shape of General Hannibal Barca, a bunch of elephants and a mass of infantry and cavalry gathered from across the Carthaginian Mediterranean empire.
The story of Hannibal is legendary but there is much, much more to Ben Kane’s novel than a retelling of Hannibal’s crossing of the Alps. In fact, I’d argue that the book’s title is misleading. Hannibal is present, as charismatic as one would wish, but, for much of the novel, he is an embodiment of hope or evil. He is the force that drives the Mediterranean to war. The focus instead is on the men who flock to Hannibal – whether to fight and die for him or to destroy him and his army.
We follow Hanno, a young Carthaginian nobleman, and his friend Suni who play truant one fateful day, stealing themselves away to fish but instead find themselves adrift at sea until captured by pirates and sold as slaves in Capua. Suni is sold to be a gladiator but Hanno is bought by the young Roman equestrian Quintus, a youth whose bravery is matched by that of his spirited sister Aurelia. After Hanno saves Quintus and Aurelia, it’s only a matter of time before the two young men become friends despite the great difference between them. Their fathers oppose one another on the battlefield and the goal of both boys is to reach their fathers and join them in the fight.
Hannibal takes us from North Africa to Spain, Italy and Gaul. The horrendous hardships that Hannibal’s men face as they cross the Alps – from the elements, the mountains themselves and from the tribes that control them – are described in compelling detail. The miracle is that any man or beast survived at all. While virtue is found on both sides and neither side is the favourite, there is brutality here, as life becomes something precious and at risk. Ben Kane doesn’t shy away from presenting the outrages of both sides just as he doesn’t make any character faultless. Quintus and Hanno are both very likeable but through the course of the pages we see them become the tools of war. Hanno’s brothers Bostar and Sapho, deeply competitive and flawed, demonstrate even further what happens when war and vengeance becomes the reason for being. The fathers of Quintus and Hanno have both learned lessons that their sons have yet to recognise.
Quintus’ sister Aurelia is a particularly attractive creation here. Contracted to marriage with a wealthy man fighting alongside her father she longs to hunt, fight and ride with her male relatives but, thanks to the potentially very dangerous situation at home that Quintus and her father have left her and her mother to face, she shows that the women left behind could be equally brave and resolute.
The action sequences in Hannibal are thrilling and exciting but they don’t dominate. Rich characterisation and involving relationships ensure that you will finish Hannibal quickly, wanting to learn the fate of the people who fill its pages. Fortunately, this is the first in a new series and there is much more to come.
Ben Kane is author of The Forgotten Legion Chronicles.