Reviewed by David Maclaine
The Amber Road, volume six in Harry Sidebottom's Warrior of Rome series, finally leads the title character home. It's been a long road for the hard-fighting soldier, known to the Romans he serves as Marcus Clodius Ballista. He's traversed the deserts of the Near East, the coastal provinces of Anatolia, the realms around and across the Caucasus, and on beyond the Black Sea to the nomad-dominated steppes. Now comes a mission that will take him back to the land of his birth, the Baltic Shores where he is known as Dernhelm. A glance at the maps in the front of the book gives away the fact that he will survive the perils of the long, long journey upriver, but as this latest volume seems also to be the last in the series - Sidebottom has begun a new series set several decades earlier - the reader soon feels an added layer of suspense as the omens turn against Ballista. The skeins of treachery that crisscross the divided empire also entangle the Germanic tribes, and old rivalries lurk to threaten the hero's life and happiness.
The mood of this road trip is somber, due to a core character's death in the previous volume, and the interplay of personalities found earlier in the series is now much muted. The Amber Road really needs to be read by those already familiar with the earlier volumes and their perspective on the men of Ballista's familia. As usual the endnotes are illuminating, and the reader daunted by the technical vocabulary and the multitude of character names should know going in that there are copious lists at the back to answer almost any question, including what's expected if a third-century bedmate asks you to "play the Phoenician." Compelling as ever remains Sidebottom's ability to make ancient cultures feel alive, from decaying Hellenic backwaters to the halls of Germanic kings. (2013, 443 pages)
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