Clash of Eagles is the first in a new trilogy by English-American astrophysicist Alan Smale. In it, we’re asked to consider a world where the Roman Empire never fell, and in the 13th century, they’re the ones who discover the New World, and an expeditionary force led by Gaius Marcellinus is sent to explore the interior. With his forces massacred, he is spared for no really good reason by his captors, and given the chance to be the white man who saves savages from themselves. This novel was precipitously close more than once to being just really really gross, but Smale saves it in a few really excellent ways that allow this to deviate from the kind of ‘enlightened white guy saves the world’ story that has been distressingly common for so many years.
Ever hungry for land and gold, the Emperor has sent Praetor Gaius Marcellinus and the 33rd Roman Legion into the newly discovered lands of North America. Marcellinus and his men expect easy victory over the native inhabitants, but on the shores of a vast river the Legion clashes with a unique civilization armed with weapons and strategies no Roman has ever imagined.
Forced to watch his vaunted force massacred by a surprisingly tenacious enemy, Marcellinus is spared by his captors and kept alive for his military knowledge. As he recovers and learns more about these proud people, he can’t help but be drawn into their society, forming an uneasy friendship with the denizens of the city-state of Cahokia. But threats—both Roman and Native—promise to assail his newfound kin, and Marcellinus will struggle to keep the peace while the rest of the continent surges toward certain conflict.
I enjoy a good ‘The Roman Empire never fell’ story as much as the next guy. Usually they take place in much more modern times, where the Imperium is alive and well alongside spaceships or at least automobiles. By setting this book in the 1200s, it asked a much more interesting question of where would the Empire have actually gone in the couple hundred years since the actual decline and fall. Having the Romans be the ones to essentially discover America was a neat and at least a little original idea that made me interested in carrying on. Everything else seemed pretty typical of this kind of story. Rome has a very strict military doctrine and superior military technology in the form of steel armour and weapons, the Aboriginals have superior tactics for the terrain and the home turf advantage. Rome wants to force a nice line-up battle where their advantages can shine, but when they get their battle, it turns out that the 1200s Aboriginals also have what is essentially bombers and napalm. Wrecked in the face, virtually all the Romans are killed, except for their leader, Gaius who is captured and, he figures out, is being held hostage for his military and technological knowledge. He very quickly decides to take on the White Man’s Burden and do his best to make the Cahokians as Rome-like as possible, so that when the rest of the Empire eventually shows up, they won’t have to fight.
Why these people even care to learn from him is a little strange to me. His army showed up and they wrecked it. Sure, in hand-to-hand combat, the Romans did really well what with the steel swords and helmets and platemail, but you’d think they’d care more about practical knowledge like ‘how many more of you are there?’ and ‘when do you think other people will be here from your people?’ instead, he slowly earns himself trust and respect by bringing them all the advanced technology of the Imperium even though they seem to be doing pretty good all by themselves. He spends 10 minutes looking at technology they’ve been using for who knows how long, and just starts telling them how to improve it. Granted he was nobility of a sort back in Rome, but somehow in and around all of his military training, he picked up an awful lot of secondary skills. He knows how to build a kiln and make bricks, and forge iron, tin and copper all on his own. He seems to know a good amount of architecture, engineering, blacksmithing. For how young he is, and that he’s career military, some of it would make sense to have an inkling of, but he seemed pretty overqualified so he could prove how amazing his knowledge was.
For all his genius though, he still manages to barely learn any of their language, even as he teaches a bunch of young people how to speak Latin, and manages to basically give them an entire written literacy/numeracy that they previously lacked. He also has a series of sort of gross interactions with one of the chieftains, and their primary ‘pilot’ for lack of a better term. He first interacts with her as a prisoner who gives her name as Sisika. He later discovers that she is part of the tribe that defeats his army, and that Sisika isn’t even her name. Their second interaction ever has her correct him that that was basically her name in the language of the people she was near when she was captured, and that her actual name is Sintikala. Throughout the time he spends with these people, he has a romantic obsession with Sintikala, but for that same span of time, continues to call her Sisika despite hearing that name once, and knowing it’s not her name. It felt gross to me every time it happened, especially when she started doing the same grudging respect thing everybody else was doing. I thought that if they ended up together that I’d just stop reading right then. Thankfully, she pretty much continues telling him where to stick it throughout.
Altogether, this was a confusing novel. On the one hand, the whole idea of a soundly defeated enemy being kept around for years to influence and change their culture made no real sense, and the way Gaius acted was in many cases really gross. On the other hand, the tone of the novel ended up shying away from ‘Gaius saved us’ which would have made it irredeemable, and instead trended more towards a slightly more nuanced approach to his presence among the Cahokians. Even so, anything with the plot of a European ‘civilizing’ non-Europeans is treading on some thin ice to begin with, though Smale does pull it onto some firmer ground through his ending of this first book. I’ll read the second instalment of this series as much to see whether he maintains the high ground or not, as because I think I’ll actively enjoy reading it. So here’s hoping.
Dan received an Advanced Review copy of this novel from DelRay via NetGalley