March 2006

Clayton Moore

fiction

Emperor: The Gods of War by Conn Iggulden

The king is dead.

The death of Julius Caesar, in the pages of Emperor: The Gods of War, is as brutal as his story was graceful. It’s the fourth and final book in British schoolteacher Conn Iggulden’s Roman saga and while it comfortably caps off the ambitious series, it ultimately feels somewhat muted. Iggulden has honed his writing talents well over the course of the last three books but by the end of this one, you can’t help but feel a little bit sorry the ride is over.

To recap, the series has followed Gaius Julius Caesar and Marcus Brutus from the time they were small children. The first book, The Gates of Rome, follows the training and coming of age of the boys, Julius as a Senator-to-be and Brutus as Rome’s most valiant warrior. The Death of Kings follows their adventures in far-off lands as soldiers of Rome, ending with the spectacular revolt led by the rebel gladiator Spartacus. The Field of Swords sees Iggulden artfully describing massive battles on the bloodstained fields of Gaul. 

And so Caesar has come home as The Gods of War begins. Fresh from victories in Gaul and Britain, the aging general has amassed the largest army ever fielded on Roman soil and is coming back to Rome in force. Its dramatic flourish is promising and its beginning is theatrical in its force:

Pompey announced each word as a hammer blow: "Therefore, by his actions, Caesar is today declared Enemy of Rome. His titles and honors are revoked. His right to command legions is struck from the records. His life is forfeit. It will be war.

War it is. As Caesar crosses the Rubicon and descends on Rome, his adversary Pompey flees to Greece, declaring himself dictator and taking the power of the empire with him. For the increasingly power-mad general, it’s an infuriating distraction from his desire to finally hold all of Rome in his hands.

That desire finally breaks the bonds of friendship between the king and his most beloved friend, Marcus Brutus, who has seen his own career fall in the long shadow of Caesar. Breaking ranks, the skilled warrior joins forces with the ailing Pompey on the bloody battlefield at Pharsalus.

But Brutus’s betrayal feels forced somehow. While his anger has emerged in full-bloom over the course of the books, not least because Julius is bedding Brutus’s mother, Brutus’s complete reversal is a bit brutal in its execution.

Where Iggulden succeeds magnificently is his battle scenes. With flourishes worthy of Ridley Scott’s Gladiator, Iggulden brings the battles alive. He’s able to effectively explain the intimate details and decisions that make these enormous battles as much about wits as swordplay but still portrays the shocking violence of men engaged in battle on the ground. The final earth-shaking battle is as well-drawn as any of the conflicts in the series, pitting Caesar not just against Pompey, one of the smartest military minds of his time, but also against Brutus, who knows Caesar as well as anybody.

The book’s shortcomings arise from Iggulden’s sprint through palace intrigue. Iggulden has nimbly navigated the internal politics of Rome before but wastes an opportunity here. By the time Caesar chases the ailing Pompey all the way to Egypt, we know his final battle is won. What should have been the book’s most compelling turning point -- the introduction of the seductive Cleopatra -- is stormed through with great haste. Her story, better told in Margaret George’s The Memoirs of Cleopatra, is a mere shadow of what it could have been. To be fair, Iggulden’s descriptions of the Egyptian kingdom are vibrant, particularly Caesar’s fascination with the Library of Alexandria and the Pharos lighthouse, but he doesn’t take time to linger on their wonders.

The end, when it comes, is as swift and merciless as we’ve been led to believe. It would have been more satisfying for the book to engage the reader a bit more, placing Caesar in context and further illuminating the reasons behind his downfall.

At the same time, Iggulden deserves fair credit for crafting a magnificent, world-spanning epic about one of the world’s truly compelling figures over the course of these four books. The Emperor series has been a thought-provoking antidote to typical historical fiction, rich with the veracity of history and yet full of explosive cinematic action. Iggulden, who is becoming a master of historical action, is working on a similar saga about Genghis and Kublai Khan. It should be damned interesting to see what he crafts out of the Mongolian Empire. Based on his track record so far, Iggulden could just give James Clavell a run for his money.

Emperor: The Gods of War by Conn Iggulden
Delacorte
ISBN: 0385337671
400 Pages