The Falling Sword by Ben Kane – a complex book of battles and the men who fought them.
A tale of battle hardened men facing many challenges, this is a book of men at war, but not a continual battle. This is a searing portrait of soldiers who are travelling from skirmish to seige, battle to negotiation, losing friends or creating uneasy alliances. It holds nothing back in terms of the privations of living in an assortment of tents and temporary buildings, with uncertain rations and inadequate shelter. This is the story of men having friendships which survive on a tenuous basis, as they compete for food and wine, and watch out for each other when attacked. It is also the story of leaders who must make strategic decisions amid their personal anxieties; it shows how even a king and an army commander have moments of uncertainty and regret. As history and classical tales combine to give the themes for this novel, there is also the eternal reality of a soldier’s existence on a daily basis. I found this a fascinating read and unexpectedly affecting as relationships between the soldiers are considered and seen as part of a wider campaign. I was grateful to be given the opportunity to read and review this impressive novel.
The novel begins with a description of a principes or soldier, Felix, amid preparations for the siege of Elatea, a small town. As the soldiers relax, he discovers a secret attack and goes from inactivity to frantic fighting mode. His commander, Flaminius, is revealed in the novel as a clever strategist who nevertheless is anxious that his powerful role is insecure, partly as a result of military problems and political manoeuvring back in Rome. He has also made an enemy who appears to have threatened him, and as a result he believes he cannot trust anyone, however loyal. He is a skilled political operator, though ruefully aware that his consumption of sweet cakes would be limited if his wife was present. His opponent is Philip, a king who is painfully aware of the limitations of his rule, his need to negotiate and plan for his reign and that of his son, who is not quite old enough to take over as yet. There is a significant set piece when he visits a temple incognito in order to discover what will happen in battle, and there is evidence of much research into the small details of the sacrificial process. One of his soldiers, Demetrios, is a very significant character as his feelings for his fellow soldiers are complex. He has an enemy, Empedokles, who is a continual annoyance, whereas the death of one of his friends is unexpectedly moving following a surprise attack from the mists.
As betrayal and distrust mean that this second book in a series keeps up a fast pace which is not just concerned with actual fighting, a world of ancient times is shown to be just as complicated as any modern society. This is a book of battle and conflict as well as dialogue of a convincing nature. Kane maintains a firm hold of so many strands of plot and character throughout this novel that he shows himself to be a powerful and very able writer with a firm understanding of his audience’s expectations. I found it an admirable novel and a worthy successor to Clash of Empires, maintaining the tension of the first book brilliantly well.
Although this book follows closely on the heels of Clash of Empires, it can certainly be read alone. Though frankly, it is worth finding the paperback of the first book as well!