Reviewed by David Maclaine
Eagle in the Snow is a superb capstone to the story of Rome's rise and fall. Wallace Breem was a writer of astonishing power, and his novel brilliantly captures the mood of the final twilight years of Roman rule before the barbarians swept that world away. His protagonist and narrator is a general, stationed in the early stages of the book in northern Britain where he survives the betrayals that lead to invasion and deep personal loss. He then takes service under Stilicho, the energetic Goth who tries hard to hold the beleaguered Western Empire together, and he accepts the thankless job of holding the line against the restless hordes across the Rhine. The harried commander has too few Roman troops, supplemented with some allies on both sides of the river, but it will clearly take brilliant leadership and a lot of luck to keep the crucial Roman wall along the Rhine from being swept away. Brilliant leadership he has, along with the resolve to fight the good fight for as long as he can. But our narrator is badly outnumbered, and the onset of a winter cold enough to freeze the river brings on a desperate battle. Although we know how the fight must end we are nevertheless caught in the high drama and steady suspense of the long, hard-fought defense.
I read Eagle in the Snow right after finishing Harry Sidebottom's Fire in the East, another novel about a commander charged with a hard defense against overwhelming odds. Breem's great accomplishment is that he provides not only a detailed, utterly believable account of the complex military action, matching Sidebottom's craft and deep knowledge, but also adds a layer of literary excellence: a command of description and mood and pure beauty of language that raises this novel from the very good to something more. From the viewpoint of one devoted soldier, steadfast in his duty, we are made to feel the deep loss when an army dying in the snow signals the Empire's end. (1970, 320 pages)More about Eagle in the Snow at Powell's Books or Amazon.com