Warrior of Rome: The Wolves of the North, by Harry Sidebottom

Review published on October 25, 2012. Reviewed by John Redfearn

German soldiers of the second world war talked afterwards of the mindless depression brought by the invasion of Russia. Day after day and week after week the same. Driving or walking across the Steppes the same scenery, the same cottages, farms and villages, never seeming to get anywhere, just extending the supply lines and gradually whittling down the army.

For Ballista and his familia in AD 263 it was the same. Sent into the region between the Caspian and Black seas by Emperor Gallienus to prevent tribal warfare and stabilize the Empire’s eastern frontiers his party is steadily being whittled down. One disappears, another is brutally murdered and the body left with eyes sliced out, extremities removed and blood in his hair. Others succumb to skirmishes with hostile nations, tribes, whose territory they pass through. All the tribes, including the allied ones, are hostile, either to Rome or to Ballista himself.

After a slow start the pace really picks up with some splendid battle scenes. It’s hard to imagine how two armies composed of light cavalry horse archers could fight. When things move so fast how do you keep control of a battle, keep the cavalry in a disciplined body, prevent wild charges or frantic flight? Not easily. What about the baggage train? The nomad baggage train comprised all the wagons and all the mobile possessions of the entire nation. While the horse army fought how was the baggage protected, who protected it, what did they do if attacked? It’s all brought to life here in fast flowing scenes without a hint of the history lesson that you nevertheless absorb along the way.

Even the slow parts of Wolves are full of an easily covered yet deep understanding of the belief systems of the region at the time. Maximus, whose fundamental philosophy is that if you ask every female you meet to sleep with you you’ll get a lot of rejections but have a good time at least twice a day, learns with fascination about various tribes’ marriage customs. Hippothous practices physiognomy on several of the party and on the elongated features of the Rosomoni.

When the cover quotes on a book all refer to other things the author has written it’s usually a bad sign. In this case it a sign that, with one notable exception, the wrong quotes are on the cover.

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