Head of Zeus | 2018 (1 June) | 370p | Review copy | Buy the book
It is about 100 AD, Trajan is on the throne far away in Rome, and centurion Flavius Ferox is doing his best to keep the peace along the empire’s northernmost fringe. Ferox is perfect for the job, bridging both worlds. Born a prince of the Silures tribe of southern Britannia, he is now a well-respected Roman officer, albeit one who likes to keep his head down, avoiding the attention of the rich, powerful and political. But Ferox is not going to have things his own way.
Time might have passed since the recent deadly Druid threat, but more rebels are again making their presence felt, irritating their Roman occupiers. It’s bad timing. Rome wants to impress the kings of Hibernia (Ireland), who are currently competing for the role of chief king. A meeting is about to take place on the British coast and the forces of Vindolanda and its neighbouring forts will be in attendance. Ferox will be there playing a crucial role. And he’s worried.
The Encircling Sea is the second novel by Adrian Goldsworthy to feature Ferox, looking at life on the northern fringes of empire, a couple of decades before Hadrian built his Wall across this landscape. Vindolanda is already a large and busy fort, and it’s Ferox’s job to move regularly between the forts, settling disputes, looking out for trouble, keeping it peaceful. It pays to have read the earlier novel Vindolanda first because then you’ll have more of an idea of his complicated relationship with Cerialis, the Batavi prefect in charge of Vindolanda, and, most particularly, his beautiful wife Sulpicia Lepidina. But, if this is the first novel you read of the Vindolanda seres, you’ll have no trouble picking up the story’s threads.
The Encircling Sea presents a whole new and self-contained adventure, this time featuring the strange dark men who come at night in their boats from the sea. They appear to be targeting certain individuals in their raids but it’s not easy for Ferox and his second-in-command, the Brigantian Vindex, to work out the purpose of the attacks. But what is clear is that these pirates will use deadly force to achieve their goals. A lot of people are going to die. Very nastily.
As before, The Encircling Sea resonates with the insight and knowledge of its author, the historian Adrian Goldsworthy. This is supported by the extraordinary archaeological discoveries that have been made at Vindolanda over the years. Many of the people in this novel were real. They walked those excavated streets and lived in those buildings, now uncovered. They are named in tablets and it’s likely that even their shoes have been found. It’s evocative for sure and Adrian Goldsworthy captures all of that.
This is a novel in which, for me, the historical setting wins first place over its story. The author undoubtedly brings the border to life, especially for its soldiers and their wives, but the plot does fall rather flat and a little laboured in my opinion. It never becomes as exciting as it could be, nor as engaging. I enjoyed the repartee between Ferox and Crispinus and I really liked Crispinus, their young and witty commander, but they are let down a little by some of the dialogue, especially when words such as ‘humping’ or ‘humped’ are used in place of the more expected curses. This isn’t done as much as in the first novel, thank heavens, but it still stands out. It all feels a little strained, and restrained. I did, though, appreciate the historical notes at the end.
Adrian Goldsworthy undoubtedly knows his stuff and I love seeing the archaeological remains of Vindolanda brought to life in his pages. And that is undoubtedly the main strength of The Encircling Sea. I must also mention that this is another beautiful hardback from Head of Zeus.