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Since the release of ''Gladiator'', Roman life has been a growth industry in the entertainment world, with even ''Doctor Who'' visiting Pompeii at one point. The last time I visited Roman times in written form was when I was still doing Latin at school. Fortunately, Ben Kane's ''The Forgotten Legion'' is far more engrossing than school ever was.
In 70 B. C., the Roman Empire is spreading through Europe. In Gaul, a warrior is captured after his village is destroyed and is taken back to Rome as a gladiator. In Northern Italy, a haruspex is betrayed by a man looking for fortune and his young apprentice is forced to flee to avoid death. In Rome itself, a young slave is raped by an important politician late one night.
Fourteen years later, the Gaulish prisoner Brennus has become famed for his abilities in the arena. Tarquinius, the haruspex's apprentice is looking for revenge on the man who betrayed his mentor and also trying to avoid being killed as a deserter from the legions. The young slave is now a mother of teenage twins, Romulus and Fabiola, who are sold by a greedy master to a gladiator school and a whorehouse respectively.
The story follows these four as they seek revenge, try to improve their situation and battle just to stay alive. The political machinations of pre-Empire Rome are in evidence, although they mostly take a back seat to life in the gladiatorial arena and the legions. Most of the political intrigue involves Fabiola trying to gain information about her brother and her battle for supremacy in the whorehouse, with only brief mentions of the battle for power in the senate. This helps to keep the pace high, but also allows for a lot of switching between characters that helps keep the reader interested.
Kane is an expert at keeping the story flowing and the pace high. Given my limited knowledge of Roman life, particularly in the days when Rome was still a republic, I can't be sure how accurate the historical background is. But given the time period, the way he moves his characters around and the situations he places them in, it does feel quite natural. Scholars may point out inaccuracies and may lose some of their enjoyment in this knowledge, but without that I found it a fantastic read.
As well as great pacing, Kane writes his characters very well. Although they are described in slightly vague terms, they all have wonderfully distinct personalities. Brennus is born to kill, Fabiola determined to succeed at any cost, Romulua frustrated by his position in life and Tarquinius accepting as he knows it's all pre-destined. Kane's physical descriptions may not allow you to pick them out of a line up, but there's never any danger of getting their personalities mixed up.
Kane separates his heroes from his villains very well, too. Whilst many of us may find killing for entertainment unpleasant, the politicians are even more so. They believe themselves above the common people and the arrogance this gives them is used to excuse all sorts of corruption and distasteful behaviour. Killing for a living may be bad, but Kane ensures that we see that being a politician is even worse.
The one point at which Kane becomes most descriptive is in battle. Whether in the midst of a war or fighting one on one in the arena, he goes into great detail. It is so well and so lovingly written that you can almost see the droplets of blood hit the ground and feel every injury a fighter suffers. In a story that Kane has done well to make feel real, the screams and bloodshed of battle seem even more so. This may not suit the weak of stomach, but it's wonderful writing for the rest of us.
The one aspect I felt let the story down was the ending. Whilst I realise this book is merely the first in a series, I found the ending rather abrupt; it didn't so much end as just stop. I know there is more to come, but the characters seemed stranded in mid-flow and it was terribly frustrating. Kane had to pause somewhere, but the point at which that happened didn't feel right. Fortunately, what had gone before more than made up for this, but I put the book down feeling slightly disappointed, which was a pity and a little unfair considering how much I enjoyed it.
What is evident is that there is a long way to go for all the characters. If future parts are as compelling and well written in terms of both characters and story, they will be unmissable. No matter what the fates have in store for these characters, this is one legion that won't be forgotten by anyone who encounters it. With prices starting from as little as 99 pence on eBay, I would recommend an encounter as soon as you get the opportunity.