Reviewed by David Maclaine
The Caspian Gates takes Harry Sidebottom's "Warrior of Rome" series outside the bounds of the Roman Empire. Even though the Warrior himself, the protagonist from the northlands who calls himself Ballista, has done his best to demonstrate loyalty to Emperor Gallienus, there are understandable reasons for suspicion to linger. Ballista is as energetic as ever, and when hordes of Goths sail their longships from the Black Sea to attack the western shores of Asia Minor it's no surprise that he leads the vigorous defense. But his leadership skills are just another reason for an emperor to fear Ballista may become a rival. Luckily, Ballista's former Greek slave, dispatched to the emperor, has become the ruler's "favorite" - a discreet way of saying "boy toy" - and helps to engineer a solution less final than a quick death sentence. Why not just send off Ballista, along with several others who are out of favor, on a diplomatic mission to the nations between the Black Sea and the Caspian who hold those crucial entry points against hordes who might any day come pouring through the passes? It's a perilous job, and that's the point. Ballista will need all his wits and fighting spirit if he and his circle of followers are to live on to populate the next volume in the series.
Author Sidebottom shows his usual keen craftsmanship married to an exhaustive knowledge of the ancient world, and The Caspian Gates is yet another engaging military adventure that moves the series forward. It does, however, feel a bit as though the author is vamping, keeping his hero occupied in the boondocks, while he anticipates the next episode of known history when the main stage action will heat up again. Will the next installment head west, toward the emperor, or south again, where the challenge of Palmyra beckons? Those of us hooked on Sidebottom's series can't wait to find out. (2011, 432 pages)More about The Caspian Gates at Powell's Books or Amazon.com