Cast Not The Day by Paul Waters

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Cast Not The Day by Paul Waters

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Category: Historical Fiction
Rating: 3/5
Reviewer: Lesley Mason
Reviewed by Lesley Mason
Summary: Roman Britain just before the collapse of the Empire provides a rich literary mine, the surface of which is barely skimmed in this book. Strong themes and ideas are let down by a nervous reluctance in plot and characterisation.
Buy? No Borrow? Maybe
Pages: 400 Date: February 2009
Publisher: Macmillan
ISBN: 978-0230530324

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Round about AD 350 the Roman Empire is about a generation away from total collapse. The fault lines are already showing. Constantine the Great has created quite possibly the first global religious rift by disowning the ancient gods and becoming (thereby obliging official Rome to become) Christian. He has since died and by virtue of his will sharing the territories between his three sons has sown more seeds of conflict throughout the Empire.

This is the world into which Drusus is born. He never knew the mother who died giving birth to him and his father, a remote and austere man, once the Emperor's deputy in London, brought him up to be a Roman gentleman. The privileged life was short-lived however. At fourteen Drusus loses his father as well, called away to the court at Trier to answer non-specific allegations. Clearly knowing that he will not return from this trial, Appius sends his son, with only his aged retainer and tutor for support, to the boy's mother's family in London.

What follows is a fairly standard tale of the young orphan reluctantly taken in by an obscure branch of the family, many of whom fail to hide their true feelings on the subject. Of course, the orphan suffers and thrives, growing into a kind of man – the specific kind being dependent upon the precise measures of suffering and thriving.

Most of the characters are taken from stock, with little to endear or alienate any individual particularly. The kindly merchant, the grasping mother with ambitions for her son, the honourable (and dishonourable) military men, the corrupt in the government and religious hierarchy and those with more benevolent aims and academic interests.

The narrative thrust is by far the weakest element of Cast Not The Day. Much that happens is predictable, much else is not fully explored or effectively exploited as it could have been. In places the author seems unsure of his audience.

In the fight sequences for instance, he sets the scene admirably – be it in the wrestling arena, or in the darkened alleyway – but then baulks at organic, gritty description of the actual brutal encounters.

Similarly on the theme of manly love, he opts for subtlety to far too great a degree. In shying away from the explicit, which ordinarily would be a good call, he mires himself in too much suggestion and deprives the theme of the force it could otherwise have had. Anyone familiar with the ancients of Greece and Rome will know that homosexuality was a norm with no greater stigma than that it might prevent one fulfilling the duty of carrying on the family line, and that other forms of non-erotic love between men were elevated virtues. The links and dissonances between these two distinct ideas are washed over with the same reluctance as the expressions of physical displays of affection, which given the central thread of the novel, does it a great disservice.

It is on the ideas front that Waters is stronger. Alongside the exploration of responses to friendship and love (erotic & otherwise), there's a short diversion into feminine equality and the freedom teach what we believe; questions of definitions of loyalty (to who or to what?) form a recurring backdrop, but most clearly we're asked to consider the other great issue of our own time: religion and its relationship to censorship and/or free-speech. In this case we have the Christians destroying temples and burning books… plus ça change…!

Cast Not The Day is an easy read and at times a thought-provoking one, but sadly it doesn't quite live up to its own ambition.

I'd like to thank the publishers for sending a copy to The Bookbag.

If you prefer a bit more realism in your Roman reads, check out Centurion by Simon Scarrow.

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