Hunting the Eagles | Ben Kane | 2016 | Arrow | 389p | Review copy | Buy the book
Few Roman soldiers survived the slaughter of the Battle of Teutoberg Forest in AD 9. When ally Arminius turned traitor and united the Germanic tribes against the Romans, no quarter was given. The bones of the Roman dead, in their thousands, were left to turn white in a terrain as hostile as the men who mercilessly cut the soldiers down. Three eagles were stolen, a disgrace for the survivors to bear. Centurion Tullus lived to tell the tale but, even though he saved the lives of more men than any other officer on that bloody campaign, he is still demoted and dishonoured. But five years have passed, Augustus is dead and Tiberius is emperor. Tullus is given the opportunity to regain his pride. Rome wants its eagles returned and Arminius destroyed. No one shares in Rome’s dreams of vengeance more than Tullus and so, once again, he crosses the Rhine and enters the forest killing lands.
Much has changed for the Roman army, particularly those soldiers stationed along the Rhine. Along with the change in imperial leadership and a new General (Germanicus), the soldiers must also get to know new comrades as the legions are reshaped after the massacre five years before. Not being paid for months doesn’t help and soon there is the real risk of mutiny. We watch the situation deteriorate, through Tullus and also through the men under his command, most of whom fought alongside Tullus in the forest. There is great danger here, not only from Arminius who once more is raising the tribes against his bitter enemy, but also from within the ranks. Rome seems very far away indeed. Safety, even further.
Eagles at War, the first novel in Ben Kane’s series on the Battle of Teutoberg and its aftermath, was a masterpiece. The battle comes alive in page after page of thrilling, bloody, horrifying and tense drama. I’ve always been fascinated by this battle but for the first time I was made to realise how utterly terrifying it would have been for the soldiers, fighting back to back to stay alive against an enemy that couldn’t be seen until too late. They could certainly be heard, though, and the sound made by the tribes as they moved in for the kill stuck with me from this wonderful book. To be honest, I didn’t know how Ben Kane could follow Eagles at War or the battle it describes. But I needn’t have worried. In Hunting the Eagles, Ben Kane achieves the incredible – a novel every bit as good as the one that went before and just as exciting and exhilarating to read.
The impact of the battle has been severe, for the tribes and for the Roman soldiers stationed on the Rhine border, and we are vividly shown the extent of the trauma. The mutiny is brilliantly portrayed as are the scenes within the forest as Tullus and the other soldiers pay the price for the decision to seek out and bury the remains of their fallen comrades in the forest. But the book doesn’t just show the point of view of the Romans, it also gives us Arminius, his family, and the perspective of the tribes. In this book, more than in the predecessor, the brutality of the Romans is made clear. And not just against the enemy either. The mutiny is every bit as bloody. Tullus and his men are caught in the middle and try to do their best to calm the situation and save lives, even amongst the enemy.
These soldiers have been traumatised by the events of five years before, a state that has been compounded by their disgrace, and Ben Kane does a brilliant job of continuing their stories. It is so good to see Tullus, Piso and the others again, while I enjoyed getting to know Germanicus, father of the little boy known to the soldiers as Caligula. The situation is lethal. Not everyone can survive and so there are some heart wrenching moments alongside the excitement of the battle. The visit of the soldiers to the site of the original battle is powerful stuff. Arminius himself is much more rounded in this novel. We see a little more of his motives.
Hunting the Eagles is a fantastic novel, a triumph of Roman historical fiction, as thrilling as you could ask for, while still showing how complicated the situation was, how frenzied, on the borders of the empire. The setting is so well done. Ben Kane’s thorough research into the period, warfare and the location really pays off. Hunting the Eagles is not only a terrific follow up to Eagles of War, one of the best books of 2015 in my opinion, but also superb in its own right.