Deceit & betrayal in ancient Rome
Reviewed in the United States on 16 August 2013
It is a long time since I last read a book set in Ancient Rome, having overindulged in the period when I was younger. So it was with some hesitation I approached The Sign of the Eagle, worried that it might leave me disappointed. Not so. The Sign of the Eagle is a fast-paced adventure story that quickly had me hooked. Complete with a gritty female heroine, a cast of several fascinating characters and a complicated story of conspiracy, treason and kidnapping, it was quite difficult to put the book down.
Set in the first century A.D, in the reign of Emperor Vespasian, the book centres round the fact that a young officer, Titus, is accused of treason. His wife, Macha, sets out to prove his innocence, and as she wades deeper into the coils of deceit and conspiracy she meets dangers at every turn. Macha is an engaging character with whom it is easy to relate. She is intelligent, brave - foolhardy at times - and very determined. Of Celtic descent, she rides like a man - in breeches - knows how to use a knife when she has to, and is also to some extent still an outsider within the Roman society, which allows her to reflect on some of the less pleasant aspects of it.
The author has done a fantastic job in recreating the historical setting. Nightly walks through the underbelly of Rome, headlong gallops along the Via Aurelia Scauri, barge rides into Rome, it is all vividly depicted - without ever becoming a history lesson. Foods are mentioned in passing, sandals slap against the marble floors, big neckerchiefs are worn under the helmets, silver pendants adorning the horses' harnesses jingle ... and it is all done in a way that allows the reader to be submerged into this ancient world. No lectures, no long asides explaining what for example an impluvium is - it sort of becomes clear anyway. One of my favourite scenes is the raid to the Baths of Memnon, where Mr Hughes has combined quite some action with a very detailed description of the baths as such.
What I also like is that the author has made Macha a woman of her times. For example, as a wealthy Roman citizen, she owns slaves and thinks nothing of it. She is surprised when they betray her, metes out punishment when she finds it necessary, and considers freeing one or two because of their devotion. But all in all, her life depends on these silent servants, her entire household is run by people she owns - and she would never dream of considering doing without them.
At times the prose is a bit clunky, the dialogue is somewhat uneven, in that Macha has a very distinctive voice, but many of the others don't. Also, while the dialogue mostly is very modern - a good thing, in my opinion, as it ensures good pace - now and then it becomes a bit stilted, especially in the woman to woman conversations. In general, the text could have done with some further editing, as it is somewhat irritating to read "let her eyes wonder", "I've longed treasured it" or "you are a woman of principal". It detracts from a very good reading experience!
Mr Hughes skilfully ties up his convoluted plot in the last few chapters - always a relief - and I close the book knowing I have discovered an author I will gladly read more of. I also hope to see more of Macha and her gruff husband, Titus. Who knows, next time in Britannia?
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