Clash of Eagles – Book Review

by Courtney Martin

If you like Dances with Wolves, you’ll enjoy Clash of Eagles.

Clash of Eagles is book one of an upcoming trilogy by author Alan Smale. It is an alternate history (or historical fiction) book supposing the Roman Empire never fell and invades the newly discovered North American continent. What would have happened?

Clash of Eagles

The story follows a Roman legion under the command of general Gaius Marcellinus as they make their way across North America in search of gold. Along the way the encounter various Native American tribes, ultimately coming upon a large city-state where the Romans attack the inhabitants. However, the Romans woefully misjudged the fighting power of the Native Americans and Gaius finds himself ensnared behind enemy lines. With his fellow Romans gone, he must start to rebuild his life, as well as his allegiances, in this new world.

To be honest, Clash of Eagles is not the genre of fiction I normally read. But I am always up for a new book, so I jumped at the chance to read this, especially as the second book in the trilogy just came out March 22nd this year. The book started of slow and, in my opinion, eye-crossingly specific on Roman military particulars. At first I thought I really wouldn’t like this author’s writing style, nor how detailed he was about the Roman legion. He obviously researched a LOT about ancient Roman warfare, and wanted to use it in his novel. But thank goodness after a few chapters this specificity dissipated.

The first several chapters of the book detail the Romans’ march through North American to the Mississippi River. I think the author took too much time on detailing the many Roman troops and officers; he made them instantly unlikeable to me. I was not drawn into the main character, Gaius Marcellinus, at all during the first half of the book. Which was disappointing and distracting, as a good book is only as good as its main character(s).  But not to worry, the character development improved drastically as the book progressed.

The book really got interesting when Marcellinus was captured by a Native American tribe and forced to reevaluate his loyalties. (*See reference to Dances with Wolves). At first the only side of the main character’s personality shown is his military prowess, how he’s a born and bred conqueror of Rome. However, once is he forced to live among and with his captors, his disposition grows. He shows humility, intelligence, fear, and love; all of which make him a better character than at the start of the book. I really liked to see how he comes to realize that the Roman Empire, no matter how large, still had things to learn about the world.

The characterization of the Native Americans is what one would normally expect – they are mound builders, archers, farmers and braves. Yet Mr. Smale mixes in some fiction by supposing they had more technological advances than in actual history. Now these advances weren’t outlandish (nothing electronic) and really surprised me with how well they fit into what could have been in Native American culture. Marcellinus brings his own knowledge of societal advances to the natives, and helps them improve upon warfare and civilian life. However, these advances may not lead to better outcomes.

I very much enjoyed how Mr. Smale gave accurate, factual information about the Native Americans of the region he focused on in the book. As Marcellinus was learning about the native culture, so was I. The author was able to convey the close family culture of the Native Americans, and this in turn was used to give more depth to Marcellinus as a person, not just a commander of a Roman Legion. The descriptions of how Marcellinus began to relate to his captors, both by learning about their culture and befriending them, got me to like his character and want to see more of his story. I also liked how descriptive Mr. Smale was when describing the native city and surrounding areas. His descriptions provided great visuals of North America past.

There are several gory battles through the book, which are made more exciting as I got to know and care about Marcellinus’ character. Mr. Smale’s writing style is easy to read, but the battles are detailed and I would easily miss a strategic description if not paying close attention. But this didn’t detract from the story nor the overall visual impressions I got from it.

Although I mostly enjoyed Clash of Eagles, there were some issues I had with it.

For one, I wanted to know more about how the Native Americans developed their technological advances. I expected more background on this, but never got any. I wanted to more of how their culture developed said achievements, and why. But Mr. Smale never gave any more information on this; they just had the technology. Perhaps he will revisit that in future novels.

Another concern I had was that there is really only one main character in the book (Marcellinus). The story is told strictly from his point of view. Yes, there are other core characters, but their thoughts and feelings are never discussed – the book is only from the Marcellinus’ perspective. I think adding another main character’s view would have helped me feel more connected to not only Marcellinus but to the tribe he was taken by. The author introduces so many Native American characters I had a hard time keeping them straight. I liked the characters that were most prominent in the story, but I could have done without of the superlative extra characters.

The story progressed slowly (this is a long book at 415 pages). The author spent a lot of time and chapters describing how Marcellinus was teaching the natives Roman fighting skills and how he was learning their language. There are several lulls in the action that stretch on for long periods, and I found myself losing interest at some points.  It pays off towards the end of the book, with a huge battle taking place. I’m glad I stuck with it, I really enjoyed the ending.

I’m going to start the second book of the Clash of Eagles trilogy now, entitled Eagle in Exile. If you enjoy speculative fiction novels, definitely pick up this book. I’d give it 3 out of 5 stars, and good enough I am looking forward to the second book. Just remind yourself as you start it that I said it does get better.

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