The Caspian Gates, by Harry Sidebottom
Ballista is back! The Caspian Gates is the fourth outing for Harry Sidebottom’s barbarian-turned-Roman hero, and he’s still up to his neck in trouble. Having been unwilling acclaimed as an Emperor by his troops at the end of the previous book, The Lion of the Sun, Ballista is now viewed with deep suspicion by the Emperor, and his fate is in the balance.
When the book opens Ballista is in Ephesus with his family and household, waiting to hear what is to happen to him – he expects death or banishment, and the exploration of what exile means in the Roman world is the underlying theme of the book. When a massive earthquake hits Ephesus, Ballista’s cool head allows him to keep his family safe, and he is instrumental in defeating the Goths who descend on the city in the aftermath. He then discovers his mission – to journey deep in to the Caucuses and reinforce the Caspian Gates, in the lands of a Roman client king, which guard against the depradations of the Scythians from the north.
Of course the mission is fraught with peril – more Goths, who have a blood feud with Ballista, treacherous local kings, an enemy invasion and the politics of the Roman Empire, which reach out even as far as Ballista’s small party. With his wife back in Ephesus, sexual entanglements also ensnare our hero, complicating things further – not to mention enemies he made in previous books being arrayed around him.
The Caspian Gates is a strong addition to the series – while it is to some extent two quite distinct episodes wrapped up within one book, they are both enjoyable in their own right. Sidebottom’s writing style has settled down from the earlier books, avoiding the technique of explaining Latin terms which grated with me, and becomingly increasingly confident both in terms of characterisation and description. There is a sense that Sidebottom is settling in for the long haul with Ballista and his companions, and like reading the books of Patrick O’Brian, you feel that the journey is more important than the destination with this series. That’s no bad thing, to put it mildly. This is Roman fiction with an extra dimension.