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by Conn Iggulden
Delacorte, March 2006
400 pages
ISBN: 0385337671

Buy in the UK | Buy in Canada

The back cover excerpts from leading reviewers contain words such as rapier-sharp, admirable, delightfully entertaining, stunning, sumptuous and enchanting, grand storyteller, brilliant, vividly written . . . All this left me with the feeling of ho hum, more promotional codswallop. But I read the book anyway. From the very first few pages, I changed my cynicism to feel that I was reading something sumptuous, stunning, brilliant, and all the rest. How could well-known history be so fresh and full of suspense?

The answer is that Iggulden knows historical fiction -- while hewing to historical facts -- must also entertain with emphasis on the fictitious. He does this by re-interpreting Brutus, one of Caesar's assassins about whom not much is definitely known other than what we can believe from Plutarch, Suetonius, and a few others.

To create fiction Iggulden violates history by making Brutus a contemporary of Caesar instead of the much younger man that he probably was. But the novel is so brilliant and the writing so rapturous that we can ignore the violation in the interest of enjoying a greatly entertaining story. Think of it as a what-if story: what if Brutus had been Caesar's long-time companion since they both were young, sort of as a parallel to the real lives of Augustus (who as Octavian is in the novel) and his friend Agrippa (who is not).

We have to ignore paradoxes, such as Servilia, -- Brutus's mother and a leading character in Iggulden's story -- having been a younger Caesar's much-loved mistress and yet described later during the Pompeian War as a woman whom time is just beginning to edge away from her beauty.

If Caesar had a long-time affair with his contemporary's mother she much have been much older than Caesar, so surely writers of the time would have commented on this fact instead of alluding to the generally believed view that Caesar loved -- and forgave -- Brutus so much because Brutus was actually his son.

But let's just relax with our what-if and be richly entertained. Let Brutus go to war with his oldest friend. Let Brutus recall the lessons he had learned with Julius decades before. There are few writers of history who can make history as suspenseful as Iggulden, and the relationship between Brutus and Caesar is at the heart of the most captivating events of the story.

Be on tenterhooks as Brutus confronts the hostile chief of city guards loyal to Pompey. Squirmingly empathize with the plight of Caesar's three-centurian delegation carrying a message to the bloodthirsty Pompey that he does not want to hear. Accompany Brutus -- now himself serving Pompey -- as he clandestinely visits his paramour, Pompey's wife.

Plot and suspense are among the best I've read in a long time. To them, however, we get the added treat of Iggulden's language. He is a showman. Far more than most novelists, he puts the reader fully in the picture. We are there peacefully in the fields as the invading army rests, and equally there in the midst of battle scenes that drip with verisimilitude.

In short, a wonderful story -- history served for both history buffs and those who don't particularly care for historical novels. It satisfies the appetite for good reading.

Reviewed by Eugene Aubrey Stratton, May 2006

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Contact: Yvonne Klein (ymk@reviewingtheevidence.com)

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