The Wolves of the North

by Harry Sidebottom


Reviewed by David Maclaine


The Wolves of the North takes place in 263 A.D. on a journey beginning on the coast of what we now call the Crimea and the Sea of Azov, and moves on to the Russian steppes. Harry Sidebottom’s latest work in his splendid Warrior of Rome series fills a previously empty slot in the sequence of at least eight historical novels I've read recently which describe this region and its people at various points between 1300 B.C. and 1500 A.D. Horse warriors dominated this vast grassland for millennia, and in the third century, they were Gothic tribesmen who had moved in from the northwest rather than Asians pouring in from the east. Their Germanic language and roots make a good excuse for the Roman Emperor to send the series' protagonist, Marcus Clodius Ballista, on an embassy with instructions to ransom hostages. Born Dernhelm, son of a war leader of the Angles, Ballista knows their language, but his family has an old feud with a crucial tribe and its leaders. This is one of many plot details which might have proved suspenseful if the author had wished, but in this novel he mostly reserves that role to a deranged killer stalking the mission. Sidebottom's chief aim seems to be an engaging reconstruction of the steppe cultures of the era, and his characters' sharply restricted range of choice becomes part of a meditation on the meaning of liberty.

The viewpoint of The Wolves of the North shifts from character to character as one after another meets a grisly fate. This skittering vision keeps Ballista from engaging the reader's sympathy. The impact of the novel hangs on its vision of the steppe tribes, and I’ve taken a few too many visits to the tents of horse warriors for these tribesmen to deliver a very sharp culture shock. Although The Wolves of the North is not the gripping read I'd have wished, Sidebottom's fine scholarship again produces a descriptive texture rich enough to make the journey worthwhile. (2012, 432 pages)

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Other novels about steppe peoples at war:

Tyrant by Christian Cameron (2008), about an Athenian soldier who attempts to unite trading people in a Greek outpost and Scythian tribes to defend themselves against Alexander the Great. See review or more info at Powell's Books

The Gathering of the Storm by William Napier (2007), about the early life of Attila the Hun, as he returns from exile to claim his kingdom and strives to unite the Huns and Scythians; #2 in a trilogy. More info

Alexander and Alestria by Shan Sa (2008), a novel about Alexander the Great in which he has a love affair with an Amazon queen from the eastern steppe country. More info


Nonfiction about the ancient steppe peoples:

The Empire of the Steppes: A History of Central Asia by René Grousset (1970), about the ancient steppe peoples from what is now Korea to what is now Hungary. More info

Classical Olbia and the Scythian World edited by David Braund (2008). More info

The Scythians, 700-300 B.C. by E.V. Cernenko (1983), #137 in the Osprey Men at Arms series. More info


Online:

Ancient Peoples of the Russian Steppes by Linda Delaine at Russian Life Magazine


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