Eagle in the Snow by Wallace Breem. Originally published 1970 (UK). This edition published by Rugged Land. Approx. 371 pages plus glossaries.
Historical fiction. A very slippery slope to master. The sheer amount of research required to recreate a lost world from a past time. The presence of mind to pen characters that fall in step with the mindset of their era, yet remain identifiable and sympathetic to today's readers. There is the obligation to remain dutiful to historical accuracy, but not to the point of being dry and indigestible, but also being careful to not sway towards parody or fantasy. If the correct balance is struck, an author finds themselves in truly esteemed company; Cornwell, Pressfield, Renault, O'Brian. And then, somewhere even high above those great authors, sits Wallace Breem. I say with full confidence that Eagle in the Snow, one of only three fiction novels penned by cavalry officer turned librarian Wallace Breem is the single greatest work of historical fiction that I have ever read. It introduces us to one of the most stalwart characters in literary history, and, for the 370 page duration of the the novel, recreates the Rome that was, allowing us to immerse ourselves entirely and watch an Empire die.
Fictional protagonist Paulinus Gaius Maximus truly epitomizes the military legacy of Rome; dedicated, strong, wily, cunning, and most of all, disciplined. He possesses a deep-rooted patriotic love for Rome, the "city he has never seen" (of Roman lineage, he was raised in Gaul and spends a good chunk of his adulthood in Britain), and seeks to continue his life according to the values of the great Roman Empire. But Maximus is living in a Roman Empire in the midst of a decline; not only are their borders constantly being harried from those trying to get in and get at their riches, but they are coming apart from within due to continuous instances of people claiming themselves Emperor. Around 400 A.D., when Eagle begins, there are multiple claimants to the purple cloak, and the Emperor in Rome, Honorius, is a man more interested in raising chickens than restoring Rome's halcyon glory. There is another reason that Maximus is the odd-man in his Rome; unlike most of his peers, who are quickly embracing Christianity (to a certain extent being a Christian is now required for advancement), he is a pagan, holding devoutly to his Mithraic beliefs.
However, any issue of Maximus' religious leanings quickly become moot when his aptitude is needed to stave off a great threat to the Empire. After helping to repel a brutal combined assault from Picts, Scots, Irish tribes, and Saxons from his fortress on Hadrian's Wall, Maximus is approached by none other than Rome's greatest general, Stilicho. Stilicho needs Maximus to repel an even larger invasion force than the one turned back in Brittania; a force of all the Germanic tribes, numbering in the hundreds of thousands. Maximus is tasked with holding the Rhenus (Rhine) from this massive force with an army of....one legion (about 6,000 men).
This section, with Mainz as the focal point.
Implausible, but not necessarily impossible, given Maximus' skill set. He is prepared to train his newly formed legion in the 'old way'. He has an excellent cavalry under a distinguished Master of Horse, his longtime friend Quintus. He has a pool to draw auxiliaries from, and the right men to train them. He has the mental acumen to contend with local magistrates and nobles in affairs of revenue and supplies. And, most importantly, he has the treacherous Rhenus herself to keep the assembled barbarians at bay. In fact, the only way a full head-on attack would be feasible is if a brutal winter came and froze the river itself. A winter like that hasn't occurred for almost forty years......
There is no need to sugar-coat anything, or worry about spoilers. This novel draws from historical events, and in a two week period beginning on the last day of 406 A.D., those assembled Germanic armies crossed the frozen Rhine, overcame the meager defenses, and went on to sack Gaul. So how did Breem make a novel about a foregone conclusion so interesting, and so darn good?
I'm guessing an extensive amount of research. Long-time librarian Breem gives us believable depictions from all corners of the fading Roman Empire, with rich glossaries providing names for many of the cities, along with their contemporary names. Details are meticulously followed regarding supply and trade routes, tax obligations, dialogue, etc. And one other way that Eagle surpasses? It is one of the better works done entirely as a first-person POV.
Great amounts of detail are also given to the Germanic tribes. This is not just a mass of shouting barbarians in furs and loincloths; Breem has detailed the traits and politics of the Alemanni, Alans, Burgundians, Franks, Ostrogoths, Visigoths, Marcomanni, and Vandals. These groups have never-ending allegiance shifts, in-fighting, etc. and Maximus puts his cunning to work in securing allies and instigating bad blood. Those are just some of the weapons in his arsenal, and he needs all that he can get.
Even with a good deal of text dedicated to tactics and geography, Eagle succeeds as a human story as well. Maximus holds deep affections for those he loves; for his dead wife Aelia, a Christian woman whom he held so dearly even though their marriage bore no children and was always fractured at its' very core. He also holds a near-brotherly bond with Quintus. And then there is his cousin Julian, a hard man who has led a hard life and is consumed now by hatred. Whenever he pops his head in, trouble follows. And any time he and Maximus have a conversation, it is a heartbreaking affair of things gone, and happiness lost.
Now, even though I find Eagle to be a masterful work, and I firmly believe that the prose holds up today, I can understand some aspects the might not resonate with today's readers. Some might not find Maximus all too sympathetic, he is of a money family (he accentuates his modesty by stating that he has never indulged in an excess of servants, capping out at two), and he employs brutal tactics at times. He can be cold and lean towards harshness. Also, those of the Che t-shirt set might be more sympathetic to the barbarians at the gate; poor hungry folk that just want their 'fair share' of Rome's riches and luxuries. These people should learn from Rome's suffering; angry, armed barbarians clamoring at your borders and demanding entry rarely have your country's best interests at heart.
Also, I can foresee some finding the battle scenes somewhat boring, or lacking in flair. This is a book about tactics; about fortifications, supply lines, feints, artillery, and strategic maneuvers. More focus is given to stating how much an action cost the enemy than is given to decorating the pages with viscera. If you prefer more of the full-contact, slaughter ballet of "Gladiator" or "300", then Eagle might be a little dry for your tastes. Nothing wrong with that. Those are great movies. This is a great book.
One final side note before we close up. This is in regards to the U.S. versus the U.K. editions of this book. The edition read, the U.S. Rugged Land one, has quite a few typos in it; words and names misspelled, and some dropped punctuation marks. I don't know if this is apparent in the U.K. one. Now for the biggest crime of all: the Rugged Land edition completely omits a Latin dedication (maybe an inscription or epigraph) that originally appeared between the epilogue and the glossaries. A little web search helped me acquire the missing text, but unfortunately my Latin isn't up to snuff regarding a translation. If anyone can decipher it, please do so in the comments. Here it is:
P GAIO MAXIMO FILIO CLAUDII ARELATIS
PRAEFECTUS I COH TUNG LEG XX VAL VIC
DUX MOGUNTIACENSIS COMES GALLIARUM
ANN LVII CCCCX ET Q VERONIO PRAEFECTUS
ALAE PETRIAE PRAEFECTUS II COH ASTUR
MAGISTER EQUITUM GERMANIAE SUPER ANN
LVI CECIDIT BELLO RHENO CCCCVII
SATURNINUS AMICUS FECIT
So just remember, get the U.K. edition if you can. It's the one featuring the legionary from William Bell Scott's iconic painting:
Pictured: Not at all how I imagine Maximus to look.
Here's what it is:
A bittersweet trip to ancient Rome in its' death throes. A gripping, inspiring, yet emotionally devastating character study that makes you truly appreciate what was lost, when it is lost. One of those works that has you routing for victory, believing that victory is still possible, up until that final moment when Death appears. A harsh reminder that no nation, and certainly no empire, can last when either the individual or the collective seek to attain dominance. A true masterwork that any historical fiction fan should feel obligated to track down and read.
This cover isn't too shabby. It leaves just enough to the imagination, and, in my opinion, edges out the current U.K. cover. It actually reminds me a bit of the cover for Paul Kearney's great military fantasy piece 'Corvus', which is also an excellent read (if you want well-rendered, brutal fighting scenes, grab it!), which might be because they used almost the exact blue tone.
That pic of the Eagle cover is actually pretty light. Trust me, they are pretty much the same hue.
Cover Final Score: