Even though I’m into fantasy, historical fiction has always been a huge influence, in part because there is quite an overlap in many of the ways that matter. Both tell stories that take place in worlds which do not exist, the main difference being that with historical fiction it’s a world that was was in the past, while fantasy is set in a world that never was and never could be.
With that in mind, THE WAR GODS MEN is a solid entry that should appeal to readers looking for a fast paced tale of war, betrayal and bloodshed that will satisfy fans of both Robert E. Howard and Bernard Cornwell, and should prove especially appealing to those with an interest in stories set in the glory that was Ancient Rome. Most Roman historical tales focus either on the era of Julius Caesar and the Fall of the Republic, or on the final Collapse of the Empire four centuries afterward. David Ross Erickson’s story instead places it;s focus on an era usually ignored by readers and writers – the First Punic War.
When most people think of Rome’s struggle with Carthage, they think of Hannibal and his elephants crossing the alps and the titanic Roman defeat at Cannae. THE WAR GODS MEN is set a generation earlier, when Carthage was the dominant power in the Mediterranean and Rome merely an Italian upstart with no navy to speak it. Several narrative threads are woven together, the main one being that of Juba, a Numidian cavalryman in service to the Carthaginian army led by Hannibal Gisgo (a different man with the same name.) The action begins at the city of Acragas in Sicily, where a Roman army is besieging the Carthaginian garrison. After seeing one of his men crucified at the city gate by Hannibal Gisgo, Juba swears vengeance, embarking on a long strange journey that see’s him fighting on no less than three separate sides. Meanwhile, the Roman Consul Scipio has recovered an abandoned Carthaginian warship, which the Romans use as a template to construct their own war fleet. Having little experience with fighting at sea, they enlist the help of the ancient genius Archimedes to design a new weapon that will even the odds with their enemies in naval battle.
Erickson is a talented writer, and the story flows well. The level of historical detail is quite high and the characters well rounded, giving the impression that they were actually living in their period. That said, I do wish the author had explained more – the reader is dropped right into the story, and immediately surrounded by numerous characters and historical facts without much in the way of context. More than once I found myself asking “who are these people?” and logging onto Wikipedia to find out. Also, the narrative is a bit off-putting. The plot basically follows the fortunes of Juba, Hannibal Gisgo and Scipio over the course of several years without weaving them into some sort of larger plot, more like a documentary about ancient warriors than a traditional story. The book ends every abruptly with a “the battle shall continue” set-up and no sense of resolution for two of the main characters, suggesting this is merely the first part of a larger series.
Still, the good parts of the story balance out the bad. The characters were compelling, and Erickson’s level of historical knowledge, and the sheer joy he takes in exploring this ancient conflict, comes through with every word. A good read, all things considered.