Reviewed by David Maclaine
Lion of the Sun is the third installment of Harry Sidebottom's series on the Roman Empire's third-century crisis, as seen through the eyes of his protagonist Ballista, an astute military leader whose non-Roman background tends to raise the hackles of his snobbish peers. In this installment he has been released from captivity after Emperor Valerian's defeat in the deserts of Mesopotamia, and must do his part to prevent the complete unraveling of Roman rule. Among the challenges he faces is the continuing Persian invasion and the malice of those who have seized power in the east. When Antioch falls and Ballista's beloved wife goes missing, his life enters a very dark phase. But fresh challenges appear on the horizon when he finds himself on the road again with yet another deluded "emperor," once more heading into hostile territory.
A certain loosening of focus occurs as Sidebottom's Warrior of Rome series proceeds. The action covers more ground, and nothing in this third installment matches the sustained building tension of the first two books, in which a hard-fought siege and a dangerous desert campaign gripped attention. But if the action meanders, the story remains well-crafted, and its background still glows from the burnish of Sidebottom's impeccable research. In Lion of the Sun Ballista gets a brief taste of a very high honor and has a first serious encounter with a power that will doubtless play a bigger role as the series unfolds: the Kingdom of Palmyra. As always, Sidebottom's endnotes are a delight and his bibliography an invitation to dive into the sources he recommends. If the itinerary wanders a bit, this can hardly offset the pleasure of surveying a previously unknown era through the work of a brilliant scholar and superb crafter of fiction. (2010, 400 pages)More about Lion of the Sun at Powell's Books or Amazon.com