Sunday, November 28, 2010
The Last Legion a review
Fiction review, Historical or Hysterical?
Good day my well regarded viewers, I hope this missive finds you all in excellent health, no need for the application of leeches? As promised we are now embarking on a rollercoaster ride of book reviews. Just to remind you I will be assessing these works on three criteria. The first is the quality of the story is it well written? Secondly then is it engaging with good characters and an absorbing plotline that pulls you in? Thirdly, how does it rate on the hysterical or historical metre?
Oh yes I just remembered another important factor to check out, the Reviews description on the Amazon website. Is it an accurate description and assessment? Perhaps since that’s what most buyers base their purchase on we will have a look at that revealing statement to start. Please note this qualifier, these reviews will be without fear or favour and is my personal opinion based on my research and my perception of the novel.
The Last Legion by Valerio Manfredi
“Ancient Rome, Roman history, gladiators. This novel has them all. So it comes as no surprise to learn that Dino De Laurentiis, producer of Gladiator, wants to make the film of this historical epic by the author of the bestselling Alexander Trilogy. Set in the twilight years of the Roman Empire, a band of British Roman soldiers try to save the decadent crumbling Empire by rescuing Romulus Augustus, the young son of the last Emperor, and installing him as the figurehead of a rejuvenated Empire. But it all comes to nothing and they return to Britain where further adventures await them. Stirring, atmospheric and factually accurate historical fiction (the author is an archaeologist and historian) that certainly makes the most of the current interest in Roman adventures, Hollywood style. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title”.
The Novel or the Film
Ahh… cough cough! I must admit I watched the film at the same time as reading the book and well, what can I say? Hollywood History did not disappoint, it was truly dismal and plumbed new levels of Rotten Tomato-ness. Unfortunately it had top line actors like Ben Kingsley and Colin Firth who really really tried to pull the pathetic script up to standard. I can only hope they were well rewarded for their efforts. However that is straying away from the book and all I can honestly say of this fantasy Sword and Sandal piece is that it is a considerable improvement on the novel.
As for the accuracy of the above blurb, it kind of describes the book, well at least two sentences do. Dino de Laurentis did produce the film and they do rescue Romulus Augustus. However after that ahhh… no, the claim that the author is an archaeologist and historian has no internet discoverable basis in fact. Now I do understand that a number of publishers and authors want to boost their profile and credentials and have been known to err on the side of ‘creativity’. That is a standard tactic of advertising. Be that as it may, I have found no proof that the awards listed as given to the author actually exist. At least one can be proved to false (Hemingway Award) while another appears to be of dubious credibility (American Biographic Association). As to the professional credentials of archaeology I have found no evidence for any site reports or literature in that name. I also have other doubts about that but I will cover them in the third section.
The Story… Quality?
Need I say anything? Those beastly Barbarians!
Despite the above criticisms many a poorly reviewed story has proved to be hidden gold. The real quality of a story is in the way it grabs the reader and carries them along with the plot, engaging and sympathising with the characters. Well if that is what a good story does, in this case that is not so. I am not sure whether the translation has let the novel down and I will be charitable and allow that this may be the case. The story starts with a sudden attack on three of the main characters, we do not yet know or understand. From there it limps along lightly skimming across plot and character justifications and events, except when it is decided to linger on the odd blood thirsty detail of battle, rape or murder.
'A Barbarian Warrior'
The key antagonist is Wulfila the bloodthirsty and incompetent lieutenant of Odoacer the usurper of the remnants of the Western Empire. Wulfila, despite his overwhelming bestial obsessions and limited cognitive abilities seems to possess an uncanny knack of always tracking down the fugitives in an otherwise empty European landscape.
As for the heroes good romans all, except for the druidic merlin type character who steps striaght out of popular fantasy. As you would expect they are beset by problems and set backs, difficulties almost insurmountable especially the Xenia-ish Livia. Still they soldier on, though the excuse for heading to Britannia deserted by Rome for some twenty to sixty years is less than lame. All the characters are conflicted as expected in such a story, each with deep dark secrets that I found no interest in discovering. However I found them all without exception flat and two dimensional and the coincidences were more farcical than interesting. The Barbarians are extremely barbaric and suicidally dim, while the Romans on the other hand were upright skilled and trustworthy, well most of them, but you can easily pick the traitors. In short I’m glad I only borrowed this from the library and didn’t waste any money on it, it goes back tomorrow!
Historical or Hysterical?
Britannia Reenactment group Later Roman Legionaires
This novel truly plums the depths of Hysterical. Its grip on history is tenuously linked to a scattering of Late Roman titles, a basic grasp of Late Roman geography and a shaky knowledge of the time of Romulus Augustus and Odoacer. As for Post Roman Britain the subject of the last quarter of the novel and search for the Legion of the Dragon the whole point of the journey to Britannia, it is obvious that whatever research was used is over forty years out of date if not more. Any reference to the recent wealth of archaeological discoveries or revised discussions of the Post Roman British culture and society is superficial where it is mentioned. Vortigen the Romano-British tyrant and his hired Saxons make an appearance and are the focus of the last threat along with the ever persistent Wulfila. However the British landscape is, like the Western Empire essentially empty apart from a few Celts and the gone native Legion of the Dragon.
New Legions... Old Legions
The Ermine Street Guard re enactment group
of early Imperial Roman Legionaires
As for the idea that not one, but two separate legions were re-trained and equipped in the manner of those of the time Augustus or Hadrian some hundreds of years before, oh dear, that was really effective. Wasn’t the Nova Invicta easily wiped out in Northern Italy during the introduction by the savage barbarians it was supposed to defeat? That concept is farcical beyond belief and even surpasses the usual extravagant whims of fantasy. The Late Roman field army was not degenerate or lacking in ability as is suggested. It had successfully evolved to deal with the ‘barbarian threat’; it was well trained, professional and flexible. The fact that the Western Roman Army did in the end succumbed, had more to do with the ‘ignorant barbarians’ upgrading with Roman equipment and organisation as fast as possible. The story concept is akin to creating army of Spanish Conquistadors as a sound move to face the threat of a Napoleonic army because that what our ancestors used to conquer the empire. After all didn’t they both have gunpowder and cannons? I am sure I don’t have to paint that picture. At least in the author’s note at the end he admits this mostly come from his imagination.
Colin Firth trying to look Late Romanish
Okay, its just a story- you can’t expect too much accuracy. After all wouldn’t that bog down the narrative? Well the author is the one who makes extensive claims as to historical accuracy. If he’d stated it was a fantasy then it wouldn’t be reviewed as Hysterical fiction. Good use of historically accurate information never hurt other authors like Lindsay Davis and her Falco novels set in Imperial Rome or Stephen Saylor’s Gordanus the Finder series. As for fantasy Guy Gavril Kay seamlessly integrates the Late Roman/Byzantine period into his richly evocative Sarantine novels, proving that use of appropriate detail gives a story depth that easily transports the reader’s imagination to those distant times.
This novel has so many gaping historical holes relating to the Late Roman period it would take too long in this article to recite. As it is, I find it extremely difficult to credit the author’s claims of historical professionalism. Especially since he refers to well known translated historical texts in the end note, occasionally a name or phrase will crop up in the story then it disappears providing little relevance of the times or society.
Odoacer's warriors according to
Even worse the correct information is readily available either on the internet or from libraries, hundreds of books and sources and not all of them academic tomes. Quite a few are even written with young students in mind. This one at Amazon is quite reasonable and easy to understand.
The Fall of the Roman Empire: A New History of Rome and the Barbarians by P. J. Heather (Jun 11, 2007)
So in short I was deeply unsatisfied by the premise, the quality and the accuracy of this story and I will not be reading any further works by this author.
For an amusing review of the film I suggest you check out this site;
As the good Doctor Says keep taking the pills!