Zaffre | 2021 (30 September) | 400p | Review copy | Buy the book
It is AD 265 and the famous general Ballista is returning from Rome and the empire’s battlefields to his family in Sicily. With him travels Isangrim, the eldest son he barely knows. The journey is intended to remedy that but, from its outset, catastrophe piles on disaster and it becomes a fight for survival. The island is aflame with a slave revolt. The roads aren’t safe, luxurious villas have become slaughter houses, as slaves spill out from farms, mines and houses, following the man they believe to be their messiah. Many of them are recently captured Germanic warriors and Ballista, himself considered a barbarian by many of his equestrian class, as well as by his son, feels a connection but his mission is to keep his son safe, to find his family and defeat the brutal revolt.
Ballista is back! Most readers of Roman historical fiction will be familiar with Harry Sidebottom’s ‘Warrior of Rome’, who has been missing from the author’s more recent historical thrillers. The author continues his run of stand along thrillers set in the ancient world but this time he gives us Ballista as well and the result is, in my opinion, the best of his novels. This is no mean feat at all as it has serious competition.
The action is non-stop and immediate, beginning with the catastrophic sea voyage – this is hugely exciting! From then on, Ballista and Isangrim, or Marcus as his son wishes to be known, undergo ordeal after ordeal and Isangrim, a boy on the edge of young manhood, has to grow up fast and brutally. This is one of the great successes of the book, the growing relationship between Ballista and Marcus, who are worlds apart in so many ways, and the development of Marcus into Isangrim. The theme of barbarian versus Roman is a major one and so much of it is embodied in the remarkable figure of Ballista, whose reputation is formidable and yet he stands apart from Rome in many ways even though he is so important to it.
There is violence here but it’s not overdone and reflects the cruel lives endured by slaves. My sympathies were conflicted, there’s no black and white, but the revenge inflicted on owners is as horrifying as you’d imagine. The novel also raises the question of can there be such a thing as a ‘good’ owner. We have to remember that this is a novel about the Roman world, which is so different to our own, but the theme of slavery is timely and The Burning Road is a reminder that the empire was built on the ownership, labour and mistreatment of slaves. Sometimes that backfired as here, with the realisation that slaves far outnumbered their owners.
Harry Sidebottom, whose background is teaching classics at Oxford, really knows his stuff and he enriches his novels with his knowledge about warfare and society in the ancient world. One of the aspects of The Burning Road is that the author places Sicily firmly in its historical and mythological context. The thrilling story of Ballista’s journey across the burning island, so famous for its volcano, is also a story of Sicily’s legends and Greek battles of the past. They almost signpost Ballista’s heroic, epic journey.
I’m also glad to say that Ballista gets his chance to lead men in a fight once more and there are fantastic sections in which Ballista fights to save a town from attack. Sieges are one of my favourite aspects of Roman military fiction and few write of them as well as Harry Sidebottom.
It’s not often that I read a book in one day, let alone in one sitting, but that’s just what I did with The Burning Road. I’m not a fast reader and so I spent some wonderful hours one sunny Sunday in the garden engrossed in this novel, enjoying spending time with Ballista again and getting to know his son. I didn’t even move to have lunch! If you haven’t read any of the Ballista novels it doesn’t matter. The Burning Road stands alone brilliantly as a Roman thriller and as an outstanding historical novel.
Warrior of Rome I: Fire in the East
Iron and Rust: Throne of the Caesars I
Blood and Steel: Throne of the Caesars II
Fire and Sword: Throne of the Caesars III
The Last Hour
The Lost Ten