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Reviewed by Joe Tackett
t first blush, one would think you’d have to read the prequel to Ben Kane’s second novel, “The Silver Eagle,” in order to truly enjoy what Kane’s latest book has to offer. Not so. Solidly displaying the hallmark of a quality sequel, “The Silver Eagle” stands on its own, and yet constitutes a seamless transitional vehicle for the plot and characters first introduced by Kane in “The Forgotten Legion.”
For the uninitiated, meet Romulus and Fabiola, twin siblings born into slavery in the most powerful city of the ancient world, Rome. The beautiful and seductive Fabiola is sold to a brothel catering to the refined tastes of the Roman aristocracy and is frequented by the day’s luminaries: Caesar, Brutus and other well-coined and equally randy senators and magistrates. Meanwhile, Romulus is sold to a gladiator school, where thanks to the tutelage of a veteran warrior, he quickly learns the gladiator’s mantra: fight or die. Both twins escape their respective bonds – Fabiola into the arms and comfort of one of Caesar’s most trusted lieutenants, the brave and dashing Decimus Brutus, and Romulus to the legions of Rome. Separated by thousands of miles and not knowing the fate of the other, the twins embark upon their respective destinies.
“The Silver Eagle” beckons the reader to a time filled with colossal historical figures that in so many facets, timelessly impacted the world in which we now live. Kane seamlessly blends the politics propelling the drama of this time period – Caesar’s meteoric rise to eminence – with powerfully depicted battle scenes where the reader can almost smell the coppery scent of blood and hear the echoes of clanging shields and swords and the screams for mercy of the mutilated and dying. Weaving the best traits of historical fiction with just a sprinkling of fantasy through the use of a mystical soothsayer named Tarquinius, the book for the most part stays true to known historical accounts and does not slide too far into the fantastic. Of course, one would at first have to put some stock in Kane’s initial premise that thousands of Roman legionaries survived Crassus’ ill-fated invasion of the Parthian Empire. And that is not too far outside the realm of possibility. Kane is obviously comfortable with the notion that behind many purported myths are hidden nuggets, hints and remnants of truth just waiting to be fleshed out by a creative mind with a sense of historical purpose.
To that end, Kane has seized upon the plausibility of a captured Roman legion and made it into a historical drama worthy of the time and its participants. Skillfully, Kane takes the reader on an epic quest, at times retracing the steps of Alexander, another of antiquity’s great warrior-kings, as Romulus and the soothsayer Tarquinius struggle to fulfill their destinies. Fortune being a fickle master, the readers luckily find themselves transplanted to the bitter cold of the Parthian north where bloodthirsty Scythian warriors raid with impunity, down to parts of modern-day India and beyond to the Ethiopian countryside and up to the ordered avenues and burning wharfs of Alexandria and its great library containing the wisdom of the ancients. Kane does an excellent job teaching as he tells the story and the detail in which he describes these places of old is proof of thorough research.
Being an avid reader and writer on the subject of Caesar, I was fascinated by Kane’s rendition of the second most famous name in history. Kane’s Caesar remains the brilliant, charismatic man to which many are familiar, but with a turgid twist: Caesar the rapist. Actually, more like Caesar the serial rapist – and I’m not merely referring to the rapine manner in which ancient warfare was casually waged. Kane’s Caesar is literally a rapist, prone to avarice and taking what he wants from the softer sex. This depiction of Caesar I presume to be fantastical and not in accord with most historical records. Nonetheless, this version of Caesar works quite well within the novel’s flexible framework, and besides, Caesar suffered other, more sensational rumors about his sexual inclinations which are just as equally unfounded as Kane’s. But that is the price of quality historical fiction.
With all that said, color me a fan of these chronicles and I eagerly look forward to the next chapter in the saga of the twins and the Etruscan soothsayer, Tarquinius.