Blood Forest by Geraint Jones
|Blood Forest by Geraint Jones|
|Category: Historical Fiction|
|Reviewer: Lesley Mason|
|Summary: A powerful and bloody telling of the beginnings of the end of the Roman empire, as seen from the inside. Echoes of Cornwell's The Last Kingdom.|
|Buy? Yes||Borrow? Yes|
|Pages: 400||Date: April 2017|
|Publisher: Michael Joseph|
Felix. The lucky one. He doesn't feel especially lucky when he staggers out into the grove and finds twelve of his comrades butchered and mutilated in the worst possible ways. He felt even less lucky when the soldiers arrived, Roman cavalry. He might have run, but he knew he'd never make it. He stepped out to face whatever came next.
What had come before, he tells them (and us) he cannot remember.
Felix is not his name, it's the one they give him when they take him in and clean him up, wiping the blood from his body in a way that they'll never wipe it from his mind. His rescuer is a German with a Roman name: Arminius… but whose side is he really on?
And how much does that matter to the man now called Felix, sent to serve with Governor Varus's army on the Rhine? He joins an army, a cohort, a century, a section. He's put in as a new-comer, a replacement…but it's soon very clear to those he serves alongside that he's served before. Whatever secrets he's keeping, he cannot hide the drill-memory, the sword-craft, the sneaking woodsmanship that keeps soldiers alive against an enemy that won't face the Romans on open ground but will harry them to the death in the darks of the forests.
The forest. The best ally the enemy has. This isn't ground that the best Roman legionnaires have been trained for. This is ground where the glory of war becomes the inglorious fight for personal survival. But it's also the ground where you learn who your friends are. And where you find that you've made some, no matter how hard you tried not to.
The blurb on my advance reading copy suggests that what we have here is Gladiator meets Full Metal Jacket. It's not the description I'd have chosen but it's not too far off the mark. What echoed mostly in my head while reading it, was Cornwell's Sharpe series and perhaps more so his Last Kingdom escapades. Whatever parallels you want to draw, this is the retelling of European history in its bloody reality. Although most of the action in what is clearly intended to be the fall of the Empire series is set on the Roman side of the action, it's hung about with all the reasons why Rome is not the glorious, humane, democratic, justified empire it proclaims itself to be.
It's four hundred pages taken to tell a few days' tale. A tale of war. A tale of comradeship – how it's built and how it's destroyed. It is a vicious and bloody tale. It might just be me, but my schooling in Roman history seemed to skip over that part of it. In telling of the Roman tactics and drill and marching camps, it forgot to tell us how much blood, shit, sweat and tears went in to them. It forgot the fact that the Roman army was largely not Roman at all. It didn't tell us what a legionnaire got when he retired from service and how and why it wouldn't be enough. And of course it didn't tell us about the enemies they were fighting – and how they were the oppressed looking to protect their own farms and families and beliefs.
We read such stories differently now, because we can see both sides of the story. What Jones has done is to force us to consider both sides of the story because we cannot be sure which side our narrator is actually on.
We know he dissembles in front of his officers, and his section men, mostly. Not always. We see him opening up at times. But can we as readers believe him any more than they can? Is he letting us in on his secrets as he slowly remembers them…or is he choosing to trust us slightly more the longer we listen to his tale?
Is he a spy? A deserter? If so for which side, if so why, in both cases where is he headed. Britain, he tells us, beyond the rule of Rome…but that's a long way from the Adriatic where he started…a long way still from the forests of Germany where he is now desparately trying to stay alive as Vargus' army is falling apart, where he is trying to save the band of few that despite his best defences have come to be a kind of dysfunctional family to him. He can't save them all, can he even save himself?
If you grew up reading Rosemary Sutcliffe's tales, then this is what you graduate to: this is the Roman wars for grown-ups. Nasty. Vicious. Fighting men leading hard lives, looking for an edge, but protecting their own. It gives no quarter to modern sensibilities, but that in itself is enough to keep the pages turning. From a military perspective it highlights the highlights of the Roman way of doing things, and puts them in the depths of guerrilla tactical territory. Any echoes there for modern strategists? I spent no time wondering.
Part of me feels it would have been good to have had a least one honourable leader among the pack…but then, maybe that depends on how you define honourable. And how you define leader.
There's clearly more to come, I can only hope it lives up to episode one.
If you enjoy this you'll love The Pagan Lord (Warrior Chronicles 7) by Bernard Cornwell or for the latest factual thoughts on the fall of Rome we recommend you take a look at The Ruin of the Roman Empire by James J O'Donnell.
You can read more book reviews or buy Blood Forest by Geraint Jones at Amazon.co.uk.
You can read more book reviews or buy Blood Forest by Geraint Jones at Amazon.com.
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