Reviewed by David Maclaine
Ship of Rome, the first novel in John Stack's Masters of the Sea series, introduces several characters who will dominate the narrative through all three volumes. There is the Greek captain of a pirate-hunting warship, Atticus Perennis; his friend Septimus, the legionary commander of the ship's marines; and Septimus' widowed sister Hadria. There is Hamilcar Barca, the more intelligent and humane of the two chief Carthaginian commanders; and two prominent leaders of the Roman Senate, Gaius Duilius and Gnaeus Cornelius Scipio. The conflicts begin when the series' chief protagonist Atticus discovers that a great Carthaginian fleet is on its way to sweep across the northern reaches of Sicily and cut off the Roman forces engaged in a siege on that island. Soon Rome's survival hangs in the balance. Can the Republic on the Tiber build a fleet capable of matching the Carthaginians?
Stack makes one bad blunder, adopting the hoary myth of ancient galley slaves, but Ship of Rome otherwise does a good job working out the key elements of naval war in an age of rowed warships armed with rams and troops for boarding. The action scenes build genuine suspense, although readers who know their history will not be surprised when Atticus hits on the key innovation that allows Roman soldiers to use their disciplined style of combat at sea. Stack does a solid job with the political infighting in the Senate and among the Carthaginians, though the heart of the novel is its battle scenes. A side plot dealing with the Greek captain's growing love for his friend's sister is a bit too pro forma to evoke much emotion. Ship of Rome is a competent enough action novel, even though the characters rarely rise above the level of cartoon stereotype. But the astonishing ebb and flow of the early stages of this naval war is compelling enough to carry the reader to the book's end and evoke enough curiosity to look forward to the next volume. (2009, 368 pages)More about Ship of Rome at Powell's Books, Amazon.com or The Book Depository