When I first noticed this book I realised I had read very few works of fiction set in ancient times. The book description told me the story took place in the classical Roman era and, as a fan of historical fiction and former university student of Latin, I decided to broaden my experience. After reading The Sign of the Eagle, I am very glad I made that choice.
The story is based on a treasonous plot against the Emperor Vespasian, which leads to murders and kidnapping. The whole narrative is infused with mystery and suspense.
The novel centres on Macha Carataca, a red-haired British Celt, who was forcibly moved from her homeland to Italy as a child and raised as a Roman. It is not only her exotic appearance that makes her stand out among the locals, many of whom look down on her. She is an intelligent and cultivated woman, with moral courage that circumstances soon drive her to balance with physical bravery. The author draws Macha in a mixture of bold and subtle strokes, engaging the reader’s empathy.
I admire the way the author depicts the time and place by putting a carefully worded phrase or sentence here and there without detracting from the focus on the story. Small details of clothing, food, furniture, architectural features and other things all keep the reader immersed in the ancient Roman world. Authorial knowledge of the times and customs is surely felt, without any sense of authorial intrusion into the narration.
For anyone prone to confusion over the Latin names, the author has provided a handy list of the places mentioned with today’s equivalent word, and a list of Dramatis Personae to remind us who each character is.
I thoroughly enjoyed this novel and I am eager to read more of Jess Steven Hughes’ work. He deserves a large readership.