'The Eagle's Prey' is my first Simon Scarrow novel, and I'm afraid it will be my last. In fact, had it not been given to me as a gift I probably would'The Eagle's Prey' is my first Simon Scarrow novel, and I'm afraid it will be my last. In fact, had it not been given to me as a gift I probably wouldn't have finished it, and that is a rare thing for me.
I'm a huge fan of historical fiction, from Steven Pressfield and Bernard Cornwell to Robert Low and Tim Severin, but I've found that whenever I venture beyond these authors to try and find something new, I end up disappointed. Granted, 'The Eagle's Prey' is probably not the best place to step into Scarrow's series, since it's some five or six books after the first, but this novel (much like Conn Iggulden's 'Wolf Of The Plains') left me with no desire to complete the series.
My main issue with this book is the writing. It is absolutely amateurish. It reads like fan fiction in places, and Scarrow distinguishes himself as a master of telling instead of showing. The plodding, basic prose had me convinced I was reading a YA novel until I encountered some swearing, which jolted me back to the painful fact that this was written for adults. The plotting, on the other hand was reasonably accomplished, even if you can see every 'twist' coming a mile away.
Dialogue is similarly rubbish. It's cliched, anachronistic and downright cringe-worthy most of the time. I appreciate some modern terms in my historical fiction, especially swearing, but some of the things Scarrow throws in here are ridiculous. One of the most irritating examples that springs to mind is the frequent use of "what's up?" when Roman soldiers are addressing each other.
Characterisation is pathetic to say the least. The protagonists, centurions Macro and Cato, are as bland and uninteresting as they come. The former does very little of anything and has no depth whatsoever, while Cato just comes across as an obnoxious little prat. Flick through the book again and take note of how many times Cato roars "shut up!" at just about anyone who tries to ask a reasonable question, even his (supposed) friends. The baddies too, particularly Maximius, are hilarious caricatures of mustache twirling pantomime villainy who seem to have little or no reason behind the ridiculous things they do.
Finally, and perhaps most damningly for a novel of this kind, I had serious issues with the historicity of the book. I have never encountered a blander, less nuanced and detailed portrayal of the ancient world. The blurb on my copy quoted much praise for the author's supposed eye for detail - but this extends solely to the layout of a Roman legion. That's it. The Britons are not fleshed out to any degree whatsoever. They are given a few brief descriptions (lifted, it seems to me, entirely from 'De Bello Gallico'), and are referred to throughout the novel as 'Celts' who speak 'Celtic', despite the fact that the Romans did not refer to them as such. All we get as far as the natives are concerned are the same old Victorian stereotypes like mustaches and woad (which is not a very likely candidate for tattoo ink).
Indeed, the term 'Celtic' is now viewed as erroneous when referring to the British Isles. No imagination is spent trying to conjure up an ancient Britain of any depth or interest. Now, I'm not a big fan of Manda Scott's 'Boudica' novels, but at least she did an admirable job of trying to create an imaginative vision of what life in ancient Britain might have been like - even if it was a lesbian-feminist-horse lover's fantasy and ripped off Gaelic culture to a huge degree. Her Romans too were far more detailed and convincing - proving that at least she had an interest in BOTH sides of her conflict.
Simon Scarrow has failed utterly to bring the past to life here, in my opinion. I realise that his interests lie with the Roman legions, and that his novels are supposed to be written from the point of view of hard-bitten Roman soldiers, but if the people and cultures they interact with are cardboard cutouts, then what's the point?