The Eagle in the Sand

Simon Scarrow

Edition reviewed: Headline, 2007, ISBN 978-0-7553-2775-1

This is the seventh in Simon Scarrow's Roman military adventure series featuring the centurions Macro and Cato, and is set in Judaea and Nabatea (roughly the area of modern Israel and Jordan) in the first century AD. The two central characters, tough veteran Macro and the younger and more intellectual Cato, are fictional. So are most of the other major characters. The historical Imperial Secretary Narcissus has a walk-on part. Several familiar figures from the New Testament play important secondary roles, and look out for a cameo appearance by two famous and controversial Christian relics.

The devious Narcissus suspects high-level treachery in the Eastern Roman provinces of Syria and Judaea, and Cato and Macro are sent on an undercover mission to investigate. With corrupt local officials, a brigand with a suspiciously large number of well armed and equipped followers, and the rival empire of Parthia happily fishing in troubled waters, our heroes soon find their problems multiplying. Amidst political skulduggery and double-dealing, Cato and Macro find themselves besieged in a remote desert fort. Can their desperate defence hold out until help arrives? And what is the connection between the brigand leader, the mysterious scout Symeon, and a strange religious sect led by a lady called Miriam?

Readers of the Cato and Macro series know what to expect by now; an action-packed military adventure with the Roman legions facing desperate situations in far-flung outposts of the Empire, with plenty of battle scenes and a leavening of political intrigue. This seventh instalment is true to form. The plot rattles along, scarcely drawing breath between one crisis and the next, and the 500 pages zip by.

A particular feature of The Eagle in the Sand is the exotic desert setting, and the story makes full use of dramatic locations such as Petra and Wadi Rum. The Roman fort that plays a central role in the plot is a real place, and the author comments on the evocative nature of the surviving ruins in his Author's Note. After five novels cursing the cold and rain of damp Britannia, Cato and Macro now have to deal with the harsh challenges of the beautiful but unforgiving desert landscape.

Battle scenes are among Simon Scarrow's strengths, and The Eagle in the Sand won't disappoint readers in search of plenty of blow-by-blow battlefield action liberally spattered with blood and guts. The plot manages to include cavalry raids on desert caravans, artillery bombardment, escalade, hand-to-hand infantry struggle and a duel to the death in the desert.

The style is colloquial modern English, and dialogue includes frequent modern expletives. Readers who are offended by the 'f' word may like to take note. The accessibility of the modern idiom contributes to making the novel a fast read, and suits the action-packed nature of the plot. One problem I had with it was that certain modern phrases seemed to be used to hammer home contemporary ideas with a certain lack of subtlety. Here we have a military force from a Western great power facing armed insurrection, incomprehensible factions and an uncompromising religion in the deserts of the East. Sound familiar? Undoubtedly history has a tendency to run in parallels, even if it rarely repeats exactly, and recognising such parallels is one of the reasons why history can be such a rewarding field of study. In this case, I did feel I was being bludgeoned with the contemporary relevance. Similarly with the elements relating to early Christianity. I daresay it would be impossible to set a novel in first-century Judaea without covering it, and I have no problem with the author taking a few liberties (which he admits to in the Author's Note). I just wish they hadn't been signposted quite so obviously.

There's a slight oddity in that the fate of one of the slimier villains is unresolved at the very end, but perhaps he may turn out to be the connection into the next instalment. If he is, I shall be interested to find out if my deduction about him is right!

A fast-moving action yarn full of battles, blood, guts and javelins, for fans of Roman military adventure. If you've always fancied Roman military re-enactment but haven't quite got the inclination, this is probably the next best thing.