Book review: The Legion by Simon Scarrow

An author who travels the globe to walk the ground on which he sets his historical novels might be viewed as either commendably diligent or pedantically obsessive.

Friday, 3rd December 2010, 6:00 am

In the case of Simon Scarrow, it is evidence of a bestselling writer in determined pursuit of both realism and inspiration.

The Legion is the 10th novel in his exhilarating Roman adventure series featuring Acting Prefect Cato and his mentor, Centurion Macro, and sees Scarrow on cracking form.

It is a brilliantly imagined and brutal story of revenge, betrayal and bloody conflict using the dangerous and exotic Roman province of Egypt as its seductive backdrop.

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Scarrow’s personal odyssey through the marshy deltas and searing heat of the upper Nile has paid dividends as it allows us to experience second hand the alien landscape faced by Cato and Macro as they track down a terrifying enemy.

Ajax, the rebel gladiator we met in Scarrow’s last novel, is now stirring up trouble in Egypt, a jewel in the crown of the Roman Empire.

A ruthless and wily adversary, Ajax is seeking revenge for his father’s gruesome death at the hands of Cato and Macro and he and his band of cohorts kill all those who stand in their way.

Posing as Romans, they are attacking small naval bases, merchant ships and villages along the coast, encouraging anti-Roman feeling and creating unrest and alarm.

The governor of Alexandria can offer little support to the legion’s hunt for Ajax because his forces are fully stretched on the southern border which is being raided by Nubians.

Will the combined strength of a psychotic and fatalist gladiator and his newly acquired Nubian supporters, hell bent on wholesale destruction, be the force that finally defeats the Roman warriors?

What makes Cato and Macro so successful as a double act is their recognisable humanity. They are not just fictional heroes accomplishing fantastic deeds, fighting battles and winning against the odds; they are flesh-and-blood soldiers with flaws, fears and complications.

The fascinating dynamics of their ever-changing relationship, with its tensions and rivalries, helps to drive the action and makes them more believable and, ultimately, more likeable.

Macro is older and has plenty of experience while Cato, now promoted over him, is young and has a good brain. Thrown together through military service, they have learned to respect each other’s strengths and weaknesses.

Combine such great characterisation with a thrilling plot and almost scholarly attention to detail and you witness Scarrow at the top of his game.

(Headline, hardback, £18.99)