I was recently told by a literary agent that ancient Roman settings were “a very tough sell” in the publishing world. Perhaps said agent should read David Rollins’ Field of Mars and reconsider her opinion.
If you want to be thrust backward full-force into the drama, order, chaos, smells, tastes, and sensations of the Roman Republic, then this is the novel for you. This reader (and writer) of historical fiction has fallen in love with the genre all over again thanks to Rollins’ masterful work.
The premise is irresistible: In the far west of China today, there are men and women who have blond or red hair and blue or green eyes. How did this happen? The author connects this modern mystery to an ancient one — the disappearance of 10,000 Roman legionaries after a devastating defeat at the hands of the Parthians in May of 53 BC.
I hesitate to even give away the slightest bit of the story lest I ruin it for you, but it must be said that Rollins captures the details of Roman city life and Roman legionary life exquisitely. From the very start of the novel, when a white bull is being sacrificed in the streets of Rome for the god Mithras, the reader is hooked. Having written a similar scene myself, I know how difficult it is to convey a scene which is unheard of in modern times, and thus impossible to observe and write down details of in order to use in one’s own novel. But Rollins paints the scene perfectly — it’s as if the reader is in the streets with the narrator, seeing every detail of the sacrifice, every smell, every sound, every ripple of the hot Roman air through the surging crowd.
And then there are the battle scenes, of which there are two major ones. Rollins obviously has an expert’s grasp on the armament and stratagems of the Roman army, and he uses his knowledge to great affect in the great battle between the Romans (under Proconsul Crassus) and the Parthians. The author isn’t shy about the ravages of war, providing the reader with a realistic look at what life in the midst of battle would have been like for a legionary. But he does not go over the top with graphic violence, as lesser authors might do. He finds a realistic middle ground and sticks to it.
The characters are varied and well-fleshed out, each with their own motivations and story arcs. We are sad, even, when a Parthian character dies, because Rollins has us so invested in his story.
The women in the novel hold the traditional roles of women in an ancient history tale, which is unfortunate. They are a witch and a prostitute, both of whom seem to exist only to serve the male main characters. But if you can will yourself to ignore these imperfections in the storyline and characterizations and forgive the author for falling into this traditional trap, you will be able to enjoy the novel. It is, after all, difficult to create more positive roles for women when you are writing about such a male-dominated topic as a Roman legion.
This is a story about Rome, but it is also a story about the world beyond Rome, and about the weakness of Rome — about Rome’s arrogance. And yet the characters are so real, one can separate the Roman legionaries from their leaders — from Crassus, from Pompey, from Caesar — and see the legionaries for what they probably were: simple men doing a difficult job serving their country.
This is a marvelous book. Highly recommended. My only wish is that the author would continue on and write a sequel, as I am dying to know the rest of the story!