They say that the Roman Empire never truly fell – that it simply became the Roman Catholic Church. But what if the Roman Legion hadn’t shifted its power to the theological? What if they continued their conquest of the world, taking under their wings nation after nation? That is the bare bones idea of Alan Smale’s alternative history novel, Clash of Eagles, book one of the Hesperian Trilogy. He takes it a step further however. Had the world power that was the Roman Empire not fell, it would likely be them to cross the ocean to the shores of North America, or ‘Nova Hesperia’ as Smale refers to it, instead of the Spanish.
The logic of the novel, had history gone in that direction, made total sense to me. The Romans would have utilized viking technology in their ships to make them fire resistant. They certainly wouldn’t have waited until 1492 to sale the ocean blue. Instead, Clash of Eagles sees the Roman Legion, led by Praetor Gaius Marcellinus, into the newly discovered Nova Hesperia in search of gold nearly 200 years prior to Columbus’ existence. Small mention of Genghis Khan putting up a strong fight against the Roman Empire on another front really helped put the time period into perspective. The Romans expect their superior war strategy and advanced weaponry to be an easy victory over the native inhabitants of the land. But they couldn’t be more wrong.
War between the native tribes of Nova Hesperia and the Roman Legion is one of those incredible what-if novelties you don’t realize you need to read until you pick up Clash of Eagles. And I was delighted to discover after finishing that this book is actually part one of a trilogy, meaning it won’t be the last time we visit this revised historical landscape.
And then the book lost me a bit in its historical accuracy. And I know: why would I take points away from a novel that prides itself on its alternate history for a few counts of historical inaccuracy? Well, up to this point the book does an excellent job of setting up a believable background of Roman history and conquest. This in theory shouldn’t have affected the North American native tribes any. But according to Smale’s novel, the natives have the ability (200 years before they would have originally been discovered by the Spanish) to operate mechanized winged hand gliders, which they use in warfare. This took me a while to come to grips with. Even in a book that deals entirely with a warped history, I, as the reader, expect a level of realism when it comes to devices and plot elements native to the time and people. (And as far as I’ve researched, there were absolutely no winged gliders in Native American tribal history or customs. If I’m wrong, please call me out on that.)
That said, I soon got over this qualm. The flying instruments were actually quite instrumental in the way the plot developed, and it was truly very cool. Alan Smale does a fine job of presenting the mechanics of his alternate world, and representing the different tribes native to the area he wrote the story around (Cahokia, Iroqua, Mohican, etc.). But for a large portion of the novel, we are taken on a trip to help understand the intricacies of the world. And the novel loses itself slightly, the momentum of the plot dipping quite rapidly, with chapters that simply don’t seem to know how to end. That said, the character development, the different languages and the barriers therein, the terrain and seasonal issues – all are handled with extreme care.
Clash of Eagles is an excellent read. If you’re a fan of Roman history, Native American tribal warfare, or stories of first contact, this book is for you.