Ben Kane’s retelling of Hannibal’s campaign against Rome was paused to make way for his two superb Spartacus novels (The Gladiator and Rebellion). Now, Kane picks up the threads of Hannibal: Enemy of Rome to continue the story of young Carthaginian soldier Hanno, his Roman counterpart Quintus and Aurelia, the Roman’s younger sister. Do please read Enemy of Rome first. Once you’ve done so you’ll know that the ties that bind Hanno to Quintus and Aurelia are complicated. Hanno and Quintus might face one another on the battlefield but Hanno’s captivity as a slave in the household of Quintus’ parents has left its mark on the young North African, not all of which are displeasing but most, now that Hanno is back beside his brothers fighting for Hannibal while Quintus is defending Italy against the invaders, are very dangerous.
The centerpiece of Hannibal: Fields of Blood is the Battle of Cannae. This battle, fought in 216 BC, retains the dubious distinction, as Ben Kane informs us, of remaining one of the bloodiest battles of history, with over 50,000 Roman soldiers dead on the field. All paths here do indeed lead to Cannae, although we pass on the way skirmishes, raids and feats of daring on both sides, not least by Hanno and Quintus themselves.
While Hanno has to reassert his loyalty to the extraordinary Hannibal, proving that he is no friend of Rome, and attempting to find peace with his two brothers, Quintus has to prove himself to his father. No longer able to do this as a member of the elite equestrians, Quintus turns his back on his father and comrades and instead ‘re-enlists’ as a common foot soldier. In this lowly position he has to fight for supremacy, even survival, in the small world of his tent men. Enemies are easily made here. A knife in the back is so easily explained away. Meanwhile, near Capua, Quintus’ young sister Aurelia has to reassert her own independence against her mother who is intent on marrying her off to save the fortunes of the estate. Actually, there can be no independence, and that is the battle that Aurelia must fight, within herself. She is a young woman, barely out of adolescence and, like so many others of her age and time, she must deal with marriage to a virtual stranger, childbirth and anxiety about her father and brother on a frontline that is getting ever closer to her own home. If you want to be born into another period of history, it’s likely it wouldn’t be this one.
It was good news to learn that Ben Kane was returning to Hanno and Quintus. I thoroughly enjoyed Enemy of Rome, not least because Hanno was completely unexpected and a pleasure to get to know. Hannibal exists very much in the shadows – or in the sun – and instead we witness his ambition and genius through young men such as Hanno and his brothers. Likewise, Hanno’s period of slavery, getting to know Quintus and Aurelia, was fascinating. Since Enemy of Rome, though, we have been given the two Spartacus novels which, I think, are spectacularly good and again took me on a very different path to the one I was expecting. It’s possible that by the time Fields of Blood came around I had moved on too far and too much time had passed.
Ben Kane is a master of the details. His research is meticulous and every page reaps the benefit of thorough knowledge. His description of the two armies, their units, and the Battle of Cannae itself, are superb. But there is for me little of the enjoyment that I had felt reading Enemy of Rome. This might well be the result of the times being told here – this was hardly a good time to be Carthaginian or Roman – but I found it relentlessly bleak. I found Hanno and Quintus difficult to distinguish in terms of character and I had little grasp of the wider picture. Nevertheless, this is a vivid and exact picture of a brutal confrontation. Where I think Fields of Blood does suffer is in the sections dealing with Aurelia. Personally, I would have preferred them removed.
As a piece of military historical fiction, Fields of Blood has much to commend it. Its downfall for me is that it is a return to a story that I have been separated from for too long thanks to two of my favourite historical novels of recent years, Ben Kane’s retelling of the story of Spartacus.