Reviewed by: L. Greg Graham
It is the last half of the fifth century. The Roman Empire is a wizened old man unable to protect Rome much less Northern Gaul where partially Romanized Franks ally with the last of the Romans to protect their homes from the land and loot hungry Germanic tribes to the north and east. On the outside looking in are the Theodi, a small Germanic tribe, who live a marginal existence in the Rhine delta. Looting the last of the Roman settlements supplements the meager sustenance they pull from the ground and out of the sea.
This is the situation that Ascha, the hero of the story, is born into. He is a half slave. His mother is a Christian Prittani captured during a raid to Britain; his father is headman of the Theodi. In the rigid society of the Saxons, Ascha is not a free man because his mother was a slave, and he is not a slave because his father was a free man. His story is what he must do to get himself declared a free man. Along the way he works as a spy, a wood carver, a military commander, and a slave.
Good historical literature takes the reader to a time and a society that he or she knows little about. The very best historical literature allows the reader to think and dream and understand the world as that far away protagonist might. Mr. Bloom succeeds admirably. We are taken to a world where a person’s worth is determined by his closeness to you. A family member is better than a tribe member who is better than a Saxon who is better than a Frisian who is better than a Frank who is better than a slave. The Saxons do not wish to destroy the Romans and the Franks; they want to replace them. They yearn for the comfort and the material wealth that the Franks and the Romans are accustomed to. The Saxon tribes unite and invade Gaul. Ascha through no fault of his own finds himself between the Saxons and the Franks, and must decide which side he is on.
One of the strengths of the book is the cast of characters Ascha encounters along the way. We meet and understand the world-views of Saxon warriors, Frankish warriors, river traders, a rash king, Roman patricians, Frankish usurpers, a Hun warrior, and slaves. Mr. Bloom’s research is impeccable. He works hard to avoid the clichés. The Saxons are not bellowing, mead-swilling berserkers, the Romans are neither hard-bitten legionnaires nor are they effete patricians, and the Franks are not barbarian clods pretending to be Romans. Each character instead is fresh and vivid.
We experience the squalor of Fifth Century life, the uncertainty of the food supply, and the very first clashes of Christianity against the Germanic gods. A theme that runs through this book is that civilization is a hard won ideal, and that there were times in history when the forces that drove us apart were stronger than the forces that kept us together. Ascha in the end decides that civilization with all its flaws is better than chaos.
There are two groups I would heartily recommend this book to. People who love a good adventure should enjoy this book; Ascha is a heroic character in every respect. The second group I would recommend this book to are those trying to understand that critical period in western history when the old Roman ways are supplanted by newer, rawer forms of government.