The book reviews of UK children's author, Brian Keaney
There is a large and growing body of historical fiction set in the ancient world. Characterised by almost fetishistically detailed depictions of the mechanisms and paraphernalia of war, this burgeoning toga-lit is aimed primarily at male readers. Hero Of Rome, which begins with Roman soldiers attacking a Celtic hill fort and ends with a vast set piece battle between the massed tribes of Britain under Boudicca and the disciplined but heavily outnumbered legionaries, is a perfect example.
It is also much more. A fine piece of storytelling, it takes the shadowy details of the revolt that came within a whisker of driving the Romans from these islands and weaves a plausible and enthralling story. We always know how the tale is going to end, of course, but that only adds to the poignancy as we see the strongly-painted characters torn between their natural instincts and the demands of their culture, manipulated by careless and corrupt politicians, struggling to know how to behave amid so many conflicting demands.
At the heart of the tale is a doomed love between the hero, Valerius, a young officer only posted to Britain for a few unlucky months and Maeve, the British woman whose father's land has been taken by the conquerors. There's no doubt that the author is better at battles than he is at relationships but he does a workmanlike job nonetheless.
What really makes this book worth reading is the way in which it conjures up a lost world. Of necessity it's a slow build as the author meticulously recreates the sights, sounds and smells of Roman Britain; but the pace accelerates as events develop their own logic and the last third of the book is compelling as the horrors of slaughter draw inevitably nearer. Jackson brings the past vividly to life, reminding us that along with central heating and floor mosaics the Romans brought us financial meltdown and ethnic cleansing.