Or a Beginner’s Guide to his books anyway! He has been releasing historical novels for a decade and a half now, and it seemed like a better idea to do a general overview than review a specific book. First the background – if you’re unfamiliar with him, Simon Scarrow is an English author of historical fiction with a style not too dissimilar to Bernard Cornwell. Before the writing took off, Scarrow was a teacher and he still works with schools to encourage pupils in creative writing. Teaching english and history contributed to his initial topic of Rome, once he had decided that the Napoleonic era was a little too overpopulated with heroes for now1.
He’s best known for the Eagle Series that vaguely follows the end of the Julio-Claudian Emperors and the rise of Vespasian through the eyes of an experienced centurion, Macro, and young officer, Cato. He has also written a great tetralogy of books that follows the Duke of Wellington and Napoleon through their early lives and respective military careers. There are also a scattering of other books and short stories.
The Eagle Series
Lucius Cornelius Macro is a veteran in the Second Legion. He’s solid, stocky, dependable, no-nonsense and all that would be expected of an efficient centurion. When we first meet Quintus Licinius Cato he is more or less the antithesis of this – a young, lanky, well-educated slave who (due to palace intrigues beyond his understanding) has been freed and sent to join the legion at the Rhine as an Optio (the second in command to the centurion). This doesn’t really go down well with anyone, but in the first book Under The Eagle he pulls through, discovering skills he never thought he had and wins the respect of his colleagues (and the friendship of Macro).
Over the next decade and a half worth of books Cato and Macro develop as characters, discovering more about their own histories and pushing themselves beyond their capabilities. Future emperors (not a massive spoiler) Vitellius and Vespasian are recurring characters – with Vespasian often detached from their direct activities while Vitellius often fills the role of villain in the books (similar to Welington and countless upper class minor officers in the Sharpe books). Other historical characters include Emperor Claudius, Nero, Narcissus (one of Claudius’ freedmen). Location-wise, the duo are often detached from a legion on a flimsy excuse to do some sort of undercover work or take on an extraordinary task – so they pop up in Britain, Egypt, Judea, Crete, Rome, among pirates and just about anywhere else of interest at the time.
Initially the series is a bit formulaic but, while that never really disappears, as it goes on the characters develop and Scarrow’s writing becomes slicker. The plot may contort to deliver the heroes to one famous event after another, but in this kind of Sharpe/Hornblower adventure series that is the appeal. It wouldn’t be quite the same if we had them stuck in an uneventful garrison fort for a few decades. It is definitely a worthy series for anyone looking for a new Sharpe.
Begun more recently, the Revolution series covers the lives of Napoleon and Wellington – until Waterloo anyway – in four books. Looking back after Waterloo and Napoleon’s eventual defeat these two may seem like great rival generals, but the contest really is quite unequal. Napoleon had an early start in the French Revolution and quickly rose up to become the most powerful man in France, if not the world. He directed grand wars from Egypt to Iberia to Russia and reshaped countries in his image before finally being toppled. Wellington fought well in India and had a great campaign in the Peninsular war, but it’s still a level below.
Scarrow uses this disparity throughout the book – particularly as Wellington becomes frustrated at the slow development of his career. Their progress is placed alongside each other, finding parallels and differences in their turbulent love lives, their military careers and their relationship with their friends, families and allies. This is enjoyable and does give a different take on each of the stories than perhaps two individual tellings would have, although the relatively strict biographical detail means that there are few unexpected twists if one knows the story already.
It’s not overcomplicated, but the real biographical details reduce the tendency towards formula that occurs in the Eagle novels and by the time of these Scarrow had already become a more polished writer. They are definitely a fun bit of historical fiction that has something over the repetitive heroic stuff, even if it has to stick so tightly to history that there are few surprises.
The Sword and the Scimitar
This is a standalone book from 2012 set in the Siege of Malta in 1565. Forty years before, the Ottomans had kicked the Order of St John (or the Knights Hospitailler) off their longtime base on island of Rhodes. The Order then set up on the island of Malta to continue their resistance against Islam – while the Ottomans were obviously keen to get rid of this fanatical menace once and for all. With a great army assembled against them and the forces of Christendom weakened and divided, things were looking bad. An exiled knight of the order, Sir Thomas Barrett, is recalled and settles uncomfortably alongside his former friends and enemies to defend the island.
Compared to Tim Severin’s Corsair, which I recently reviewed and is set in the same period, this gives a less colourful and complete picture of the 16th century Mediterranean. However, it is a lot better! The main characters are engaging and both the main plotline of the Siege and the various subplots feel worthwhile. As a standalone, it is more throwaway than some of his other books but it is well crafted none the less.
This is his young adult series. In the final years of the Roman Republic, Marcus Cornelius Primus is enslaved and sent to fight as a gladiator. I haven’t actually read any of it – but I would imagine he should adapt well to the age group, based on his normal writing style and teaching experience. The period too is a good choice – I love the end of the Roman Republic and, if treated well, there is a lot of scope for a great series of books.
Simon Scarrow has become a very good writer of historical fiction in the mold of Bernard Cornwell. His Eagle series would be well recommended for anyone looking for a new Sharpe-like series, while his Napoleon/Wellington series provides something a little different.