BRIEF SYNOPSIS: The story of one of Rome’s most embarrassing defeats, told through the eyes of Romans and Germans.
PROS: Clear writing style that is always engaging; fascinating historical detail all through; the characters speak realistically for their regions and across various languages.
CONS: An unfortunate amount of repetition
BOTTOM LINE: A delightful piece of historical fiction and a good starting point for Harry Turtledove’s work, but marred by a single repetitive problem.
Like most people, I associate the name ‘Harry Turtledove’ most strongly with the field of alternative historical stories. It’s a natural association, like tying William Gibson in with cyberpunk stories, in that they are both the names which serve almost as flagships to their respective fields. And like many people, my first introduction to Harry Turtledove’s work was through his Colonization books, because who cannot be charmed by an alternative World War II in which all the warring nations must band together to fight a sudden alien invasion.
However, it was The Guns of the South which turned me into a solid Turtledove fan, and this was only partially for the delightful alternate-history story which that book contained. What I appreciated even more was his at-once very clear and very detailed look at the historical period in which he was working. You read a delightful story, and maybe you come away knowing more history than you did before. As a history buff, I take pleasure in that.
This novel, Give Me Back My Legions! is rather unlike any of his other works which I have encountered, in that this one is just straight historical fiction. There are no aliens here, no time travel. In fact, there are no science fictional or fantastic elements at all. This is a pure Roman historical novel.
This is the story of two primary characters. one is Publius Quinctilius Varus, a former consul and governor who has just returned from the opulent provinces of Syria. Coming back to Rome, he is dismayed to find that his next assignment is in the muddy, cold, savage, untamed land of Germany, instead of somewhere more sensible and with a less harsh winter. He is given three Legions of Roman soldiers. And he is ordered to bring the area into Roman rule and pacify it, for good. They’ve been trying and failing to do it for years.
The other character is Arminius, a Roman Citizen and member of the Equestrian Order (which is just below the Senate and is very prominent, in Roman culture). He’s made a career out of fighting in the Roman legions, and he’s made a name for himself. But Arminius is German, born and bred, and has never stopped hating the Romans, nor planning for ways to drive them out and gain the freedom of Germany and all his people. He returns to Germany at the start of the novel to claim a woman who was promised him, and then he remains and begins working to stir up his people to fight the Romans. All the while trying to keep his growing rebellion a secret from Publius Varus. Because with three legions of Roman elite soldiers (three legions is about twenty thousand men), he could easily crush any outright rebellion.
This is how the stage is set for the remainder of the novel, and we alternate between the two sides frequently. From the Romans, who are trying to pacify Germany, which does not want to be pacified, and who are also having to contend with the hostile and untamed Germanic land and the aggressive winters, which cause them to retreat. A German winter, after all, is nothing like a Roman winter in somewhere like Syria, or Italy. And we also spend time with Arminius, who is building resentment against the Romans and trying to find strategies to organize his people and defeat a tactically and strategically superior force.
In this book, one of Harry Turtledove’s biggest talents and strengths is made plain: he brings a tremendous amount of historical detail and nuance to play in the novel. Everything from the relationship between Romans and the Greeks, to Romans and the Germans. We learn about beer and wine and a soldier’s life, we see methods of entertainment and the treatment of wounds, the building of bridges. We see a lot of detail in the lives of not only Roman legions who are in the field, but the average life of Germanic tribes. And all of this historical detail would easily sink the novel, except that Turtledove delivers it all in a clear and comfortable fashion. You are never bogged down. They are just interesting and informative touches that do not slow down the story or get in the way of the characters.
The characters are another strong point. Everyone is distinguishable from everyone else. They all have unique voices and ideas and speech patterns. And thanks to Turtledove’s writing, you can find yourself in a novel full of names like “Arminius” and “Varus” and “Aristocles” and many more, and you will not get confused as to who is talking, and who they are referring to. That’s a real trick, considering some of the names.
Unfortunately, the novel does have one problem which other Turtledove works do not, which is what keeps this book from getting a better rating. The problem is a matter of repetition. It comes up a lot, and it can leave the reader feeling like he should close the book and move on. Or else, he might feel like he’s read the same passage a second time.
The Romans do not like being in Germany. They want to conquer it and leave, because it is cold and wet and miserable and they hate it. And the Germans are savages and should be obliterated. But the German woman are pretty nice. Varus does not like being in so savage a place, after the wealth and civilization of Syria. His Greek companion resents him and resents the soldiers and resents the Germans. Arminius hates Rome. A lot. The Germans hate Rome a lot too.
Each one of these points comes up again and again scenes that are practically identical to one another. We are constantly having conversations which do nothing at all except rehash these points. And it is exhausting, because we just heard them not a chapter earlier. They never amount to anything more than just indicating that the Romans hate Germany, and the Germans are mighty grumpy about the Romans as well. The wording is practically the same. And unfortunately, this makes up a large part of the middle of the book. It feels as if the actual storyline could be a really good novella, but it’s been expanded into a novel by dint of these repetitive scenes. And while even these scenes are very well-told and easy to read, because they are retreading the same ground time and time again, you could find yourself just skimming through them without any interest, and that can really pull you out of the story.
But toward the end of the book, when the plot really kicks into high gear, the book redeems itself. It is a fantastic story with a beginning that will draw you in, and an ending that will leave you excited and pleased to have read the work. It just has a bit of a flabby middle section.
I want to talk about one final thing, and that is where this book falls into the realm of historical Roman novels which already exist. Mostly, for the benefit of others like myself who not only read a lot of Roman history, but really enjoy Roman historical novels (and I do, I eat them up). I would consider this book to be both a good starting point for Turtledove’s other works, as well as a good starting-novel for anyone interested in reading Roman books. It does not have the complexity and density of Colleen McCollough’s The First Man in Rome and The Grass Crown. And it does not have the narrative force that Wallace Breem’s Eagle in the Snow has. I would put this book roughly on-par with Robert Harris’ Pompeii, and perhaps a bit harder than the light-and-fun Steven Saylor Roman books, of which there are many (The Judgment of Caesar and the massive Roma, to name two). In other words, this is a good and stand-alone place to start if you’re interested in Roman history, or Roman historical fiction.
In conclusion: this is not my favorite Roman novel, nor my favorite Harry Turtledove book. But it is a very fine and enjoyable read, so long as you are aware that the middle section bogs down a little and may make you want to put it down. Don’t. The payoff is worth getting through the rest. And the title just sounds fantastic and makes you want to shout it out loud, if only the opportunity would present itself.
SF SIGNAL LEGAL DISCLAIMER: Our legal department requires us to advise you that if you do indeed shout “Give Me Back My Legions!” out loud at any point, you will look like this while doing so:
Studies have found this face to lead to relationship troubles, job disputes, poor performance on Karaoke nights, as well as a host of other ailments, including JP Frantz bursting into tears. Also, you will suddenly find yourself holding an old cell phone the size of a brick. Everyone will laugh at you. Therefore, please shout at your own discretion. Thank you.