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The Field of Swords by Conn Iggulden
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's review
Jan 27, 2010

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bookshelves: historical-fiction
Recommended for: Fans of historical fiction, Roman history

** spoiler alert ** This is the third book in Iggulden's Emperor series and like the first two, he takes liberties with historical fact in order to tell his version of Julius Caesar's story. Many people seem to take offense to this, comparing his work with Colleen McCullough's immensely thorough (and excellent) Rome series, which more closely follows history. However, I think this is unfair to Iggulden.

He's not trying to retell history. There are plenty of nonfiction books out there about the Roman Republic and Julius Caesar, if you want to know the facts. Trying to learn about history by reading historical fiction is like trying to learn French cooking by watching Julie & Julia. Iggulden is simply trying to tell a good story and I, for one, think he accomplished that.

This book takes place where the previous book left off. Caesar is in Spain as quaestor, taking advantage of its natural wealth for the benefit of Rome (and himself). He and his legions have been there for years creating settlements and keeping the peace. Caesar finally decides it's time to go home to Rome and become reconnected with his city.

After getting elected as consul, he decides to take his legions to Gaul to conquer the tribes there, claiming the land as Rome's and the glory as his own. Caesar is intensely ambitious and wants to be remembered in history as Rome's greatest conquerer. He spends nearly a decade subduing both the Gauls and the Britons, suffering hardships and setbacks as well as enjoying victories and conquest.

Meanwhile, Caesar has a bit of a tangled personal life. He has a daughter he's barely seen in all her sixteen years (and whom he promises to Pompey, a man three times her age, in marriage in order to solidify an alliance); an older lover, Servilia, who seems to run hot and cold (she goes from wanting to have public sex with him to dumping him to traveling to Gaul to make up with him); and a best friend, Brutus (who just happens to be Servilia's son), who loves him fiercely one moment and hates him the next. Brutus sees Caesar for who he is - a man filled with ruthless ambition who will stop at nothing to achieve his goals - and yet, he can't forget the boy Caesar used to be. There's a subtle shift in their relationship throughout the book, neatly setting up the inevitable showdown between the two that will take place in Book Four. (It is historical fact that Brutus is one of Caesar's assassins. And while Iggulden has altered a lot of history, he's kept the main points intact, so I have no doubt that the basic facts of Caesar's murder will be included in the last book.)

The book is very well written. Iggulden's prose is swift and descriptive and they way he writes battle scenes is very compelling. He also breathes life into ancient historical characters, making them feel more current and real. He manages to juggle many different pieces at once, forming them into a story that makes sense.

If I have one problem with the book, it is that the majority of it involves Caesar's time in Gaul. There were a couple times during the second part of the book where I felt like I could have skipped a few pages and not missed anything. Of course, the real Julius Caesar's Gaul campaigns were a huge part of his history, so Iggulden choosing to make them a big part of his book makes sense.

The ending leaves the reader wanting more. Caesar and his legion, along with all the "usual suspects" (e.g. Brutus, Mark Antony), are poised on the Rubicon River, on their way to confront Pompey and his army in Rome. This, of course, is the first step towards the Roman Civil War that spells the end of both the Roman Republic and Caesar himself.

More to come in the final installment.

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