Clash of Eagles tells of the tale of of an alternate world where the Roman Empire has not fallen, and the continent of North America has just been discovered. Hungry for land and gold, the Emperor has sent Praetor Gaius Marcellinus and the 33rd Roman Legion across the ocean to invade the newly discovered lands.
Marcellinus and his men expect an easy victory over the native inhabitants, but the 33rd Legion clashes with an unique civilisation armed with weapons and strategies that no Roman has ever imagined. Suffering a cataclysmic defeat, Marcellinus is spared by his captors and kept alive for his military and strategic knowledge. As he recovers and learns more about the native inhabitants, he finds himself drawn into their society and their way of life. But threats, both Roman and Native, are growing on the horizon, and Marcellinus finds himself struggling to keep the peace as the continent surges towards bloody conflict.
I am the first to admit that I love alternative history. I have demolished the works of Turtledove with glee in the past, and sat late into the night pouring over the historical nuances of Bernard Cornwell. One of the things that I loved about those works was their ability to transport me into a radically different world and keep me riveted. Does Clash of Eagles stand up to the works of those authors? In some ways yes, and in others no. I loved many things about Clash of Eagles, but I also found myself noticing things that I felt let the story down.
Firstly, the battle scenes were well done. Historically accurate (Smale could have taken some more poetic license though, and depicted a Roman Army that had evolved more in terms of weaponry and tactics... it is after all 1218AD in the novel), interesting, and action packed. I could almost feel myself standing in formation with the legionnaires at times, and the tactical nuances of the natives were crafty and fascinating (their use of air attacks and how fighting the legion changed them for example). This leads me to my next point. Smale's world building is great in some parts, and washed over in others. I found his passages on the native inhabitants (mainly the people of Cahokia, or the 'Mound Builders') intriguing and richly detailed. I became immersed in their great civilisation that once existed on the banks of the Mississippi, and I enjoyed the massive impact (cultural and technological) that Marcellinus had on their society. His passages on Rome were, in comparison, washed over. It is 1218AD in the novel, and the Roman Empire has not only repelled the barbarians but continued to conquer and expand its empire (for example Briton and Scandanavia are Roman provinces). We get very little meat on the bone in regard to these events. How did the Roman Empire survive? What were the ramifications of that survival? Smale just blazes through this and, in my opinion, avoids detailing what could have been an incredibly fascinating part of his novel (especially seeing as this is one the cool things about alternative history... the 'what ifs').
The characters of Clash of Eagles are also a little hit and miss. Marcellinus was an excellent protagonist, whose narrative kept me turning the pages in anticipation of what was coming. I especially enjoyed how Smale highlighted the cultural divide between Marcellinus and the Cahokians, and their attempts to communicate with each other were very funny at times. Smale's native characters are also extremely well done, with a richness and depth that I found very reminiscent of the Native Americans in the movie Dances with Wolves. In opposition to this I found Smale's depiction of his Roman characters (and other non-natives for that matter) to be a little shallow and lacking in the depth. Again I just wanted a little bit more on the bone to satisfy that alternative history nerd within me.
I enjoyed the overall pacing and plot of the story. At times the story did slow down, especially in the parts detailing Marcellinus initial introduction to Cahokian society. After that though the plot moved along nicely and I found myself more locked in the further along I got. All in all Clash of Eagles is a solid alternative history with tones of Dances with Wolves and The Last of the Mohicans. Yes, it has some weaknesses, but overall it was an enjoyable read and one I would recommend to fans of Cornwell, Turtledove, and Clavell.
3.5 out of 5 Stars