Heather Domin’s The Soldier of Raetia. At twenty years old, Manilus Dardanus has come to Rome, guided by his father’s intentions. He seeks the patronage of the illustrious general Marcus Cassius Valerian, who commands Augustus Caesar's twenty-fourth legion. General Valerian, hardened by battle and tragedies of the past, at first assumes that Dardanus is like the sons of so many sycophants who have sought his favor. Despite his own misgivings, Valerian helps mold Dardanus into a warrior and re-discovers deeply buried emotions within himself. Dardanus grows and changes as well, from a reticent young man at the whim of others’ designs to become someone who chooses his own destiny. A confrontation with Germanic barbarians is his first test of all Valerian’s training. Dardanus learns to be a staunch friend, a dedicated soldier and a valiant protector of his general.
I find Roman military history and the Augustan period extremely fascinating. Ms. Domin gives the sense of a Roman legion as a unit, truly fighting as one. With myriad details of training, camp life and fighting scenes, her work blossoms as an example of an authentic historical. Ms. Domin has a skill for painting worlds where visuals unfold on the page as if the reader is standing right there within a scene. What I enjoyed the most must be the characters, even more so than the descriptions of Roman legionary life. Dardanus and Valerian are the heroes of this story, but equally evident is the bond each has formed with his comrades. Valerian treats his tribunes, particularly Pertinax, his doctor Salvio, even his slave Tacitus with respect and tolerance, even when they overstep their bounds. His love for Dardanus is unlike anything he has ever experienced. It leaves him unprepared for the magnitude of his feelings. Dardanus finds his purpose as part of the whole and makes what seem to be friendships with his units, particularly Iocundus and Elerius. Those connections make this a strong, emotional piece of writing. The companionship between brothers forged by adversity and endurance, in tests of arms and by the spilling of blood had me cheering every victory. The relationships were just as believable as Ms. Domin’s descriptions.
Two concerns I did have were about the portrayal of Dardanus and his fellow soldier Elerius. There was personal and professional risk to Dardanus throughout the story, and he warred against himself with every decision. Still, I felt he did have any significant adversity to overcome. Living beyond the last battle provided him courage and made him a man. Keeping his wits about him in his interactions with Valerian brought out an inner strength he never knew he possessed. It would have been interesting to see him thrown into a situation where other emotions bubbled to the surface, instead of his usual acceptance and sometimes, resignation. Without spoiling anything for other readers, I also found Elerius’ grasping nature and the consequences of it predictable. For me, he was a less nuanced character and compelling character than the others Ms. Domin brought to life so vividly. While some of his actions are villainous, he does not come across as anything more than misguided and ambitious, yet not dangerously so. Still, I hope Ms. Domin may revisit his final fate in the future. She has told me there is a sequel to The Soldier of Raetia and I look forward to reading it.
Heather Domin has agree to give away a KINDLE copy of The Soldier of Raetia. Please leave your comment, telling Ms. Domin why you would like to win this book. This is an INTERNATIONAL giveaway.