Preface Random House, 2009, ISBN 978-1-84809-010-1. 603 pages.
The Forgotten Legion is set in 70 BC - 53 BC, in Rome, Gaul, Parthia (roughly modern Iran and Iraq) and Margiana (in modern Turkmenistan). The Roman politicians of the First Triumvirate, Crassus, Pompey and Julius Caesar, play secondary roles, as does the military officer Decimus Brutus*. All the main characters are fictional.
In the hills near Rome in 70 BC, Tarquinius, a slave proud of his Etruscan heritage and trained as the last Etruscan haruspex (soothsayer), leaves the estate when his mentor is killed on the orders of a Roman noble. In Rome at the same time, a slave girl is raped in the street by a Roman nobleman, identified only as "the lean man" and later gives birth to twins, a boy and girl named Romulus and Fabiola. In 61 BC, in Gaul, the mighty warrior Brennus witnesses the destruction of his tribe the Allobroges by Roman armies and is himself captured and sold into slavery as a gladiator. All four slaves are, in their different ways, determined to gain their freedom and exact revenge on Rome. Fabiola, sold into prostitution in a brothel that caters for the rich and powerful, has to learn to navigate the turbulent world of high politics and street violence in Rome. Tarquinius, Brennus and Romulus face a journey to the ends of the known world, as Crassus launches his invasion of Parthia. Can the four survive against overwhelming odds?
All the time I was reading The Forgotten Legion, I had the theme tune Nobody Does It Better from the James Bond film The Spy Who Loved Me running in my head. All four lead characters are gifted with innate, exceptional talents. Fabiola, a household slave sold to a brothel aged 13, quickly becomes the establishment's star attraction and highest earner, and a mean street fighter into the bargain. Her twin brother Romulus, sold to a gladiator school also aged 13, is a champion gladiator within months. Brennus, who mows down legionaries despite being outnumbered a dozen to one, must be the mightiest Gaulish warrior since Asterix and Obelix (no, magic potion isn't involved). Tarquinius has a supernatural ability that means he really can read the future in a chicken's entrails and is an expert military strategist who invents in months a technique to withstand horse archery that the Parthians have never thought of, despite having been fighting enemy horse archer cultures from the steppes for years and having a ready supply of the requisite raw materials. Nothing wrong with this; it establishes The Forgotten Legion as a Romance** in the old sense of the word, full of exceptional characters doing extraordinary things in exotic locations.
And are the locations exotic. One of the things I enjoyed most about The Forgotten Legion was its enormous geographical canvas. Most of the Roman-set fiction I've read tends to be set in Europe (the Roman invasion/occupation of Britain seems to be especially popular) or in Rome itself, so seeing the world beyond the eastern frontiers of the Empire makes an interesting change. Crassus' soldiers march through Asia Minor (modern Turkey) to the vast deserts of Parthia, then over mountains to the green hills and valleys of Margiana, giving the reader a sort of whistle-stop tour of Central Asia. The sketch map provided at the beginning of the paperback is invaluable here, especially if used in conjunction with a modern atlas. The Parthian Empire occupied approximately the area of modern Iraq and Iran, and at the time of the Late Republic it was Rome's chief rival for power in the region. Crassus really did invade Parthia, and anyone who doesn't already know the historical outcome can find out by Googling for the Battle of Carrhae (insert modern parallel of your choice).
The Forgotten Legion features lots of action. As well as the Battle of Carrhae itself, which is one set-piece among several battles in the Parthian campaign, we also have gladiator contests in the arena and bar-room brawls, street fights and murder attempts in Rome itself. The narrative cuts back and forth between the different characters, always stopping on a cliffhanger (although there is not actually that much suspense, because Tarquinius predicts practically everything before it happens). Paradoxically, the sheer amount of action both speeds and slows the pace. On the one hand there's hardly a chance to draw breath as the tale ricochets from one mortal peril to another. On the other, it gives the narrative a rather rambling quality; for example, it takes 350 pages before our three heroes finally come together in the legion of the title. This is perhaps because the novel is clearly only the first part of a much longer tale, and the "end" isn't really an ending at all but more of a brief pause between volumes.
Tarquinius has magical powers to foretell the future that really work. It's made quite plain that this isn't just belief or coincidence; he really can predict the future accurately from clouds and animal innards. This makes the foreshadowing a bit heavy-handed for my taste, but conversely it does mean that the book is an easy read. If I had to stop reading for a lengthy period I never had to back-track to remind myself what was going on because so much is effectively told twice, once in prophecies and once in the action.
The aristocratic rapist who fathered Romulus and Fabiola seemed oddly contradictory to me. He is apparently so overcome with drink and lust that he rapes a random slave girl in a back alley, oblivious to dirt or the possibility of disease, yet so cool-headed that as soon as he has finished he mentally reviews a potted history of his entire political career to date. Although he is at this point identified only as "the lean man", his identity could hardly be more obvious; and I suspect that I don't need Tarquinius' powers of soothsaying to predict where the story is eventually going to end up.
A preface and author's note explain the history behind the Forgotten Legion's remarkable journey, and a glossary explains the numerous Latin terms scattered through the text. I rarely referred to it because I found I could work them out from context, but it is helpful to know it's there if needed.
Entertaining all-action blockbuster in book form.
*The Brutus everyone has heard of, of "Et tu Brute" fame in Shakespeare, is Marcus Junius Brutus. Decimus Brutus was a contemporary, who served as an officer in Caesar's army in Gaul, and he is the Brutus who appears in The Forgotten Legion. I guess they were probably related, but I don't know how closely.
**By this I mean a 'romance' in the sense that El Cid is a romance, not in
the modern sense of a love story. The Forgotten Legion includes a few sex
scenes, as one would expect given that one of the characters is a prostitute,
but no love story to speak of.