The bloody field of Cannae has left the forces of Rome and Hannibal reeling, many thousands of their soldiers dead. The focus now moves to the island of Sicily. Syracuse is held by Carthaginian forces, its mighty walls and harbour protected by the war engines of Archimedes. In Clouds of War, the third novel in Ben Kane’s Hannibal series set in the early 3rd century BC, Quintus, a Roman equestrian now in disguise as an ordinary legionary, is one of the many to camp outside the walls of the city. What he doesn’t know is that his sister Aurelia is within the walls. Having fled from Rome to reach the side of her injured husband in the Messina Straits, she was captured by pirates and sold in the Sicilian slave markets to one of the brothers who rule the island. Her rescue, though, comes at the hands of Hanno, the Carthaginian she has loved since he was himself enslaved to her own family years before. Now she and Hanno must fight to stay together while the world around them falls to pieces during this most violent and brutal of sieges, not knowing that one of the men who threatens them is her own brother.
There is much more to Clouds of War than the horrendous siege of Syracuse. We follow Quintus and his tent brothers as they fight to win the trust of their centurion, the brave Corax, while doing all they can to avenge the cruelty of Pera, a monstrous coward who is also, luckily for him, the cousin of Marcellus, the supreme Roman commander. At sea and in the streets, it’s a battle for Quintus to stay alive.
In the other half of the story is Aurelia, the young Roman matron whose father died at Cannae and whose husband is now lost. What Aurelia has to endure in Rome and Sicily is perhaps even more painful than what Quintus must undergo sword in hand but it is also completely different. Aurelia has no independence and quite aside from that Clouds of War harshly demonstrates how she and countless other women in war are its victims. She might be a slave owner herself but what a shock and degradation she must endure when she is stripped naked for the slave market. Aurelia suffers great personal tragedy during Clouds of War and it is heartbreaking to read. Alongside this is the storyline of Hanno and it is through him that Aurelia discovers a purpose again but it’s at quite a cost. The siege of Syracuse is a terrible affair for both sides and most especially for the women in the houses and bars inside the walls and for the fathers, husbands and lovers who lay down their lives to protect them.
Clouds of War is the third novel in Ben Kane’s Hannibal series and I think the best of the three. I had issues with the second, Fields of Blood, largely because the characters of Quintus and Hannibal seemed indistinct from each other and Aurelia’s scenes were too domestic and light. In Clouds of War there are none of these issues. Quintus and Hannibal are much more clearly defined and distinct, as are the events that carry them along through this exciting novel. Aurelia is also much more interesting, although I would argue that what she has to suffer seems more than any one woman should have to cope with. She, more than anyone else in the novel, is damaged and I think that is clear throughout even when she tries to rebuild her life during these most traumatic of situations.
The battles and skirmishes that lead up to the siege, and then the siege scenes themselves, are thrilling while also being utterly brutal. I don’t enjoy reading about the rape and slaughter of women and children and so I did take pause a little but it didn’t feel gratuitously done. Quintus is an interesting character here. He has the qualities you’d expect from the hero of a Roman military novel but he has his flaws and his grip on what matters does take a hit or two, especially when there’s the chance of diving into an amphora of wine. Hannibal is a slightly less interesting character in Clouds of War than he has been but I think that’s mostly because this novel focuses on Quintus and his sister and I like that the book does that. The novel does leave some unanswered questions – more than one character disappears without further mention – but this is an ongoing series.
As always with Ben Kane’s books, Clouds of War reflects his meticulous research into Roman and Greek warfare, history and places. It is written extremely well and with great authority. In Clouds of War, as with Kane’s superb Spartacus novels, Kane also brings to the fore the humanity of these three young figures, victims of their times, and, as a result, this is a richly rewarding, compelling read and without doubt my favourite of the series.