Sunday 18 December 2011

Book review: Snakestone and Sword

J.E. Bruce

Highly decorated Roman Centurion, Arrius Marcus Niger, hadn’t planned on being struck on the head and left for dead in a cold bog, but unfortunately that is what happened. Unsure how long he has been unconscious, Arrius awakens to the continuing sounds of battle and the mysterious black hound. A huge man approaches, draws a sword and speaks to him in a language he cannot understand. Preparing for death, and assuming that his death will be preceded by suffering of a worse kind, Arrius lies hopeless and waiting, but death does not come.

Instead, Arrius is captured, his wounds tended to – of a sorts – and in a delirium of fever and agony he is sold as a slave to a woman who can read his mind and bend his will, amongst other things. He is then dragged across the earth by his mysterious captors (whose very humanity and moral behaviour are highly questionable in various ways) and finds himself at the centre of an ancient alien war in which his own memories seem to be the key to triumph.

The opening to this book is exceptionally strong. Using a first-person point of view, Arrius tells us his story in brief: how he won his freedom from slavery, rose well through the ranks of the army becoming a Centurion to be revered and feared, and how he led his troops gloriously in battle – at least until he led them to their deaths anyway. Now he tells us to heed his warning: there are mightier and more capable enemies out there than even the Romans.

The main strength in this novel is the narrative voice, which remains consistent throughout. Arrius is a flawed protagonist, haunted by his memories of a dark and painful past, yet he tells his story with intelligence and wit, the light tone of the book helping the reader to deal with the more heinous elements of the tale.

Bruce uses a clever technique to fill in the background of the story whilst at the same time continuing Arrius’s journey post-capture. Each chapter begins with a short section from the character’s past as a young Arrius describes the hardships of his life before he became a Centurion. Each chapter then continues with events in the present. As the story progresses, the two narratives become closer together in time until they converge and we are fully able to understand how and why Arrius’s past affects his actions in the present.

The story moves at a good pace tracking Arrius’s journey with his captors as they take him farther than the ends of the earth to save humanity. Elements more akin to classic science fiction narratives play out in this novel but the main focus is on the principal characters and on Arrius’s story, rather than the action taking the key role. That is not to say that the book did not end with some unforeseen twists and turns and has set the plot up well to continue in the sequel.

Perhaps the most rewarding element of the book is the author’s ability to portray the intricacies of human behaviour in a lifelike and believable manner. Through Arrius’s point of view and his own perceptions of events, Bruce explores the effect of dominant relationships on the subservient party, as well as looking at sexual interaction and power struggles.

I am not overly familiar with the intricacies and history of the Roman Empire but Snakestone and Sword certainly made Arrius’s world accessible to me. The level of detail and description was enough to draw me into the story without being too much that it interrupted or detracted from the plot. The blend of scientific experimentation with the fae myth worked surprisingly well and the overall result is an enjoyable and well-executed read.

Elloise Hopkins.

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