(Harper Collins, 2003, 624 pages)
I’ve know of Conn Iggulden for many years, but for whatever reason, never got around to reading any of his work until now. The Gates of Rome is, I believe, his first novel, and opens the Emperor series, which follows the lives of Gaius Julius Caesar and some of his closest associates. I was a little unsure what to expect, but when the book introduced me to the future Roman emperor covered from head to foot in mud, I decided it was probably worth reading on.
With his father often absent in Rome, there’s plenty of opportunity for young Gaius and his best friend Marcus – fostered by Gaius’ family after his father’s death – to engage in various escapades (and get into several scrapes on the side) as they roam the family estate. But all that changes when the boys turn ten, and Gaius’ father hires the sour ex-gladiator Renius to toughen them up, and train them in the art of killing – not to mention surviving in the very dangerous world that is Rome. The novel charts their progress, and the ways in which their lives are intertwined with so many others, as both setbacks and triumphs conspire in the formation of the eminent men they will one day become.
Iggulden’s prose is spare but sturdy, and if it sometimes borders on the inelegant, the pace of the book doesn’t let you notice it for long. The characters aren’t described in huge depth, and Iggulden could easily have slipped into stereotypes – larger-than-life Marius, loyal Tubruk, cranky Renius – but this doesn’t happen, with the major players in the main being powerfully drawn. Marcus and Gaius made engaging protagonists, and in particular I found their youthful antics great fun. Occasionally I did feel that their characterisation was a little uneven – perhaps because at times Iggulden seems to be trying to make them simultaneously equal and complementary – but I guess this could just as well be showing the uncertain steps taken in growing up and finding your identity.
Iggulden is, of course, well-known for his somewhat laid-back approach to historical accuracy, not being afraid to modify things as it suits him. Some of this he acknowledges in the Historical Note at the end of the novel – some of it he doesn’t. If you’re keen on historical novelists sticking to accepted fact, then you may have problems with the novel. Although I suspect that – depending on how it’s done – it might bother me in later instalments, it didn’t cause me much of a problem here. Neither did the very subtle ‘magic’ element, which was focused mostly on healing and foresight.
There were some aspects of the novel I did have reservations about – changes in character relationships that seemed implausibly rapid; events that had a whiff of contrivance; and above all, the placing of information dumps in dialogue. But on the whole, I found the book a quick, enjoyable read – although I fully admit that I’d read the next one as much to find out what happens to that delightfully crabby old git Renius as to Marcus and Gaius.