I like reading alternate history, but I don’t often pick up stories in the genre because very few of them are set in time periods that interest me enough to want to spend money and time on them. But when a book like Alan Smale’s Clash of Eagles crosses my radar, I find it impossible to pass up – especially since it claims to play with two civilisations I’m fascinated by: the ancient Roman Empire, and pre-Columbian Native American cultures.
Clash of Eagles takes place in the year 1218 – per the calendar of those who follow the cult of the Christ-Risen, one of the five major religious cults worshiped by Rome’s citizenry. For this is not history as we know it, but an alternate version where the Roman Empire did not fall and remains whole instead of being split between East and West and falling to the Visigoths. In this alternate reality, Rome has consolidated its hold over Europe, and is expanding eastwards to brush up against Genghis Khan and the Mongols. The current emperor, Hadrianus, has vowed to expand the reach of Rome until the sun can never set upon it, and seems well on his way to accomplishing that vow.
And so Rome looks towards the setting sun – far to the west, out across the ocean, to a whole new land dubbed Nova Hesperia. Following rumours of gold and treasure beyond imagining, the 33rd Legion, led by Gaius Marcellinus, sets out to discover – and subjugate – this new land for the glory of the Empire. They think it will be no different than the other wars they have fought, the other conquests they have made. It may be hard going at first, but they are confident that Rome will be triumphant, as it has always been, and always will.
But that is not how things turn out. The land is harsher than they expected, and the natives more dangerous still. So when the 33rd Legion is destroyed and Marcellinus is captured in a battle against natives using techniques never before seen in Europe, the Roman general has no other choice but to learn how to survive in this strange and deadly new world.
The main reason I picked up this book is the concept. I rather like the idea of reading about a Roman Empire that was not divided, mostly because I tend to imagine how it would have handled threats like the Mongols and interacted with the Chinese. I also wonder if it would have set up a global empire the same way real-world European powers did: crossing the oceans and setting up colonies all over the world. But the Romans were not exactly famous for their sailing prowess, so perhaps they might not have? Or they could have, and maybe much sooner than the real-world European powers did because there would have been no “Dark Ages” when the knowledge of the ancient Romans and Greeks was lost.
Clash of Eagles certainly manages to suggest just how great Rome could have become had it not fallen apart. There are moments early in the novel where Marcellinus describes the state of the Empire as he knows it: for example, how an emperor called Titus Augustus “shut down the Viking raids on the coasts of Britannia thirty years ago,” and thus “acquiring every Dane and Geat and Sami clear up to Ultima Thule.” There is also mention made of “Temujinus–or Chinggis, or however he wanted to be addressed these days,” and how the current emperor is handling that particular threat.
But what these moments do not explain is how Rome got to that point in the first place. There are reasons, after all, that the Roman Empire split into two and then fell apart, and readers who are familiar with that part of ancient Roman history will likely want to know what specific thing changed to create the version of Rome presented in this novel. That explanation, unfortunately, is not given within the context of the novel itself, and is instead relegated to an appendix section at the end of the novel. While I understand that there may have been narrative-related reasons for shifting all that information to an appendix instead of incorporating it, I still wish that it had been included in the story itself. At the very least, it would have made certain other bits of information included in the story itself (such as how Rome managed to bring the Vikings into their Empire) make a lot more sense, instead of leaving the reader scratching his or her head until the very end.
Still I suppose doing that makes sense, since this novel is about how the ancient Roman Empire might have gone about conquering North America – which means, therefore, writing about Native American cultures. Now, I cannot say for certain whether or not the author has correctly portrayed the Native American cultures included in this novel. For one, what the tribes mentioned in this novel were like pre-Columbus was likely very different from the way they are now, and one of them (the Cahokia) is extinct. For another, I am no expert in the histories of the many Native American tribes, though I am aware of the deep suffering they experienced at the hands of white colonial powers. Therefore, I cannot say for certain if the author is really correct in his portrayal of them – I can only hope that the author has done his due diligence in his research, and that his portrayal is respectful of that research. At the very least, he has an appendix section that tackles the deviations of his writing from the history he has researched, so readers can distinguish which parts are made up and which are based on historical research.
What I do take issue with, though, is the characterisation – or rather, the seeming lack thereof. The novel is narrated by Marcellinus in third-person limited, so the reader gets to know him quite well, but in terms of development, he falls a little short. He does grow somewhat in this novel, but the full impact of his growth may only become truly relevant in the subsequent books of this series. While I am rather disappointed that Marcellinus’s growth as a character is not fully expounded upon in this novel, I realise that this is only the first in a series, and so he has plenty to time to come into his own.
I am more bothered by the other characters’ lack of development. I suppose this might be a flaw of the narrative technique used, but I do wish the reader was given an opportunity to see things from the other characters’ perspective. The way things stand in the novel, they feel more like walking set pieces that come and go as Marcellinus (or the story) needs them to, which is a supreme waste of all these potentially fascinating and complex characters who could make this story feel more well-rounded. This is especially true for the Native American characters, since they could provide a necessary counterpoint perspective to Marcellinus’s Roman (Imperialist) take on most things.
As for the plot, it’s not quite as action-packed as some readers might think. There are two major battles that occur in this novel – the first happens near the beginning, and the second happens towards the end. This means that there’s a huge stretch in between that might be a bit boring for some readers who are not interested in Marcellinus’ adaptation and integration into his new circumstances. I found that middle stretch entertaining enough, but it is rather one-sided, since there are no Native American narrators to round things out. I think that, had there been other narrators in this story besides Marcellinus, that middle stretch would be far more entertaining and enjoyable.
This lack of story and development from the perspective of the Native American characters also severely limits the potential themes that could have been explored in this novel. It is easy to understand the ideas that Marcellinus puts forward; they have been thoroughly explored and expounded upon by Classics scholars for years, and will continue to be explored and expounded upon by Classics scholars for many more years to come. But giving the Native American characters their own plot lines and their own character development would have created an opportunity for additional thematic complexity. It could have, for example, opened up avenues for tackling themes related to imperialism and colonialism – topics which would have been relevant in the world of the novel, but more importantly are relevant to the real world itself, given how Native Americans struggle to hold onto their culture and their land (for example, the issue regarding the Standing Rock pipeline).
Overall, Clash of Eagles is a three-star read that has an interesting premise and is entertaining in its own way, but is weakened by the lack of development for other characters besides Marcellinus, and by a lack of in-story explanation of how the novel’s iteration off ancient Rome came into being. Perhaps these issues are addressed in subsequent books, but after reading this book I am not quite sure if I wish to spend time reading the others. Maybe another time.
Clash of Eagles can be found on Amazon in a variety of formats; click on the title to see them all.