Blood and Steel | Harry Sidebottom | 2015, Pb 2016 | HarperCollins | 419p | Review copy | Buy the book
In March AD 238 the Emperor Maximinus was challenged for the imperial throne by Gordian the Elder and Younger, father and son, who declared themselves joint emperors. Their aim was to seize control of the empire from the barbarian Maximinus and return it to Rome’s rightful heirs, the patrician descendants of the original Caesars. Despite being based in north Africa, the Gordiani were able to send envoys to the Senate in Rome where, through peaceful means as well as foul, they staged a successful coup, safe in the knowledge that Maximinus was distracted and otherwise engaged by war in the north. They now had to consolidate their control in the short time they had before Maximinus awoke to the revolt and hurried south with Rome’s most battle-hardened, experienced legions.
Blood and Steel picks up exactly where Iron and Rust left off. While that previous novel dealt with the three years that saw Maximinus rise to power, convincingly combining his talents as general, thug and murderer, Blood and Steel focuses on the tumultuous events of this one particular month of March 238. Its technique is the same as before. The narrative moves across the empire, shifting perspectives among some of the key figures of the day, representing both sides, including rich and poor, male and female, but mostly ambitious, determined, untrustworthy men. Prominent amongst them are the main protagonists – the Gordiani and Maximinus and his despicable son, a son that Maximinus knows he must outlive. Other perspectives come from people familiar to us from Iron and Rust, such as the able administrator Timesitheus, Pupienus, Prefect of the City of Rome, and Iunia Fadilla, the unfortunate woman married to Maximinus’s son. Others include Priscus, the Governor of Mesopotamia, Capelianus, the Governor of Numidia, and Decius, the Governor of Hispania Tarraconensis, and other extremely influential figures. The whole empire is in crisis, lines are drawn, allegiances are made and broken, armies begin to mobilise. Other lives take us into the streets of Rome, inhabited by prostitutes, soldiers, tradesmen and die cutters. When the Gordiani declared in Africa, everyone across the whole empire of Rome was about to be affected.
One story that I especially enjoyed was that of Menophilus, one of the Gordiani envoys to Rome. Here is a man with ideals who realises that he is slowly becoming the brute he detests. One of the reasons why the Senate was so quick to replace Maximinus was the man’s cruelty – letters arrive regularly from the Northern front listing the latest victims of his conscriptions. But Menophilus must go further than the Gordiani to end this regime of terror – he must kill with his bare hands in their name.
The structure of the novel ensures that this is a book of action, moving quickly back and forth across the empire, taking us into the camps of both Maximinus and the Gordiani. There are some intriguing portraits. Maximinus’s view of himself tallies in no way at all with the way that the world perceives him and his relationship with his son contrasts starkly with the opposing father-son relationship of the Gordiani. It is between these two, particularly as the novel progresses, that we have some glimpse of the ideals and nobility in action that they find so easy to profess in words. As history closes in on Maximinus and the Gordiani, I found myself increasingly moved. There are other characters, though, that deserved everything that the fates could throw at them.
This is a book about warfare (civil war, no less) but it is equally about politics and the picture it paints of the empire during this period does not cover it in glory, although it does make it utterly compelling. The deceit and corruption amongst the higher ranks is matched by the underhand actions of the lower ranks in Rome’s streets, in particular the lengths to which the prostitute Caenis must go to survive. There’s nothing noble here. The poor are as bad as the rich, although perhaps with more urgent cause. And they are all fascinating.
With Blood and Steel, Harry Sidebottom confirms the appeal of the Throne of the Caesars series. Although set at a simiilar time to his successful Warrior of Rome series, I find this new series much easier to engage with – it draws me into the very heart of this extraordinary period of unrest and upheaval, dominated by astonishing individuals. This period is made for historical fiction but it works here so well because it is written by an author who is not only an authority on the period but who also knows how to combine knowledge with the ability to tell a good tale.
As you’d expect from a Harry Sidebottom novel, Blood and Steel is supported by notes, a hugely useful cast of main characters and, most particularly here, a copious glossary of almost 50 pages. At the end of the novel, the reader has not only enjoyed themself, they’ve also learned something about a period of history that shouts out for attention.