Beginning a superb fantasy epic in Roman Empire days (Oath of Empire #1)
Apr 26, 2002 (Updated Aug 17, 2002)
Review by lorendiac
Rated a Very Helpful Review
Pros:Superior writing, good action scenes, well-developed characters, originality
Cons:Keeping track of all the characters without a roster provided
The Bottom Line: Strongly recommended. The author obviously did a great deal of research on old Roman history and society, but doesn't smother you with endless lectures to prove it.
In A.D. 622, Roman civilization still controls the Mediterranean world. Though sometimes referred to as "the Empire" it is essentially two separate Empires that have many things in common and don't waste time fighting each other: The Western Empire (ruled from Rome) and the Eastern Empire (ruled from Constantinople).
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In our history textbooks, the city of Rome fell to Odoacer the Goth in A.D. 476, and the Western Empire disintegrated over the next generation or so. (Not that it had been particularly healthy in the years before Odoacer came along.) The Eastern Empire, ruled from Constantinople and eventually called the Byzantine Empire, lasted a lot longer. Thus, when we look at the map of the Mediterranean world at the start of this book and see two Empires still going strong, we know we are in an alternate history world. Harlan does not provide any explanatory text directly addressed to us to explain just what changes he is assuming in the historical record in order to create this situation; we are expected to figure it out as we go along.
One interesting clue can be found if you notice what isn't mentioned in the narrative: Christianity. Only the map and one section heading provide dates (in parentheses) that are measured from the estimated time of the birth of Christ (obviously done only for our convenience in figuring out "when" this story is set); there is no actual reference to Jesus of Nazareth or any of his disciples to be found anywhere in the text. We are forced to assume that Christianity does not exist in this world, which would presumably mean that either Jesus never existed here or else he somehow lived and died without ever achieving great renown as the founder of a new religious movement.
Another item that accounts for some variation from the historical record is the prevalence of magic. It works. Furthermore, it can be taught in a rational fashion to qualified students at academies, which are mainly based in Egypt for some reason. Thus, Roman legions march off to battle with groups of skilled thaumaturges providing extra firepower, and this has been going on for centuries. That could serve to explain why barbarian tribes never quite managed to grab and keep any sizeable amount of Roman territory in this timeline. However, Roman culture's major rival is the Persian Empire in the east, which naturally has institutionalized its own magical education program as well, and thus gives as good as it gets in border clashes.
The Eastern and Western Emperors intend to overcome that problem once and for all by consolidating their resources into one huge (and devious) plan for the invasion and conquest of Persia. That is the major political/military event which provides the backbone for the plot of this first installment. One of the major characters is Maxian, a trained priest with a talent for sorcery, who just happens to be the youngest brother of the Western Emperor, Galen Atreus. Maxian does not directly participate in the military invasion of Persia, but he is appraised of it in advance by his big brother. However, Maxian ends up exploring a magical mystery that may actually be far more important in the long run than the outcome of the campaign against Persia - and that's all I intend to tell you about it.
The book has a large cast, scattered all over the map as the story commences, and we jump back and forth at unpredictable intervals. No single character gets the vast majority of time on stage, because Harlan is writing an epic that can't be done unless he can describe several things that are happening simultaneously. It can be a bit of a struggle to keep track of all the different viewpoint characters, but it's worth it. The important thing is that they are well-written and well-characterized. Prince Maxian is a sorcerer, and young Dwyrin of Hibernia (Ireland) is a sorcerer, and the elderly Persian magi called Abdmachus is a sorcerer, and other people with sorcerous abilities drift on and off the stage as time goes by, and yet at no time do I get the feeling that they are all basically carbon copies of the same character underneath the different names and physical descriptions. Nor do any of them bore me. The same applies to various soldiers, merchants, aristocrats, and so forth.
Harlan has a good sense of humor and seems to understand something about military life and battle tactics. (We are told that he was a professional games designer for many years before he wrote this - that may have something to do with it.) Overall, when I finished reading this book two years ago my reaction was, "Harlan may be the next Robert Jordan! Because let's face it: the old Robert Jordan ain't what he used to be!" (Since then, Jordan has published another book in his Wheel of Time and partially redeemed himself in my eyes, but my reaction of two years ago still applies. Those of you who recall my review of Jordan's The Eye of the World are aware that I had the greatest respect for his storytelling ability when I finished reading it, but not every subsequent volume has been equally satisfying.)
At least two of the characters in this book with significant speaking parts are ones of whom I guarantee you have heard. The first I'll reserve to be a surprise for you as it was for me, but the other one I'll mention since his presence is fairly predictable given the timeframe of the story. About one-third of our way through this book, one of our major characters, an Egyptian priest and sorcerer called Ahmet, meets a middle-aged merchant in a caravansary in Arabia.
"What are you reading?" he asked as the merchant finished gathering his things.
Mohammed looked down and laughed softly. "A gift from a friend. You will find that I am a questioning man - always wondering about this thing or another. I was pestering him with questions about the way of things in the world and he gave me this. To my thinking, he hopes that I will read it and bother him no more. He calls it the torah. It is a holy book of his people."
So we gather that while Christianity may never have gotten started in this world, Judaism definitely exists and Islam will probably get started any day now. That doesn't happen in this volume, however. Mohammed the merchant was introduced for future use. (If you're a devout Moslem, you probably shouldn't read the next three books of this series unless you are prepared to see the Prophet handled in a fictional treatment that deviates from the "real" and "official" version of events.)
If you like fantasy epics at all (or even if you just like well-told stories using the old Roman Empire for a setting) then you ought to give this book a try. Having said that, however, I'll issue the obligatory warnings about possible shortcomings and annoyances.
Harlan doesn't seem to believe in the concept of chapters that have numbers and/or titles, and certainly he doesn't see any need for a Table of Contents. Instead, the first scene following the title page (a scene which other books would label as the Prologue since it happens long before everything else) starts with the heading DELPHI, ACHAEA: 710 URBE CONDITA (31 B.C.).
It lasts four paragraphs, and then we have SOUTH OF PANOPOLIS, THEME OF EGYPT: 1376 AB URBE CONDITA. In other words, 666 years just passed when you weren't looking. The next section of the text, a few pages later, starts with the header ROMA MATER, ITALIA, which means Mother Rome, Italy - i.e. the famous city itself. And so forth. After that first "1376" comment Harlan no longer considered it necessary to include the year in any of his section headings, since it was apparently the same calendar year for all subsequent scenes. (A.D. 622 according to a map at the start.)
And then we have the other sad flaw in his approach to storytelling . . .
Thomas Harlan clearly does not understand one of the most important things about writing a multivolume epic fantasy in today's world. That thing, of course, is to never commit yourself to how many volumes it will run (or, if you carelessly do commit yourself, to shamelessly change your mind later on). Robert Jordan has published ten volumes (so far) in his Wheel of Time series, and for a long time he has been saying "at least three more books" whenever asked how long he intends to go before wrapping it up with a Grand Finale. George R.R. Martin said "four books" when he published the first volume of his own fantasy epic, A Song of Ice and Fire, but three books have now been published and Martin has been quoted as saying that there will actually be a total of seven! Terry Goodkind has published seven volumes in his Sword of Truth epic and (as far as I know) has never committed himself on when he will finally wrap it up. Each of those series sells like hotcakes and seems to be building up to a climactic battle and grand resolution of all dangling plot threads, but we don't know when that will happen in any of those cases.
Compare that situation to the sad performance of Thomas Harlan. When this book was first published in 1999, Harlan said it was the first volume of a four-part epic. The fourth volume is scheduled for release in July of this year, and at last report Harlan is still saying that it will indeed be the last installment of his Oath of Empire epic! How can we possibly respect a man with so little grasp of marketing strategy? He doesn't seem to understand that the correct way to do these things is to treat your customers the way a drug dealer treats his junkies: get them addicted, then keep selling them one dose after another in an endless series to see how much money you can squeeze out of them before they come to their senses.
(I admit that he has announced his plans to put his nose to the grindstone and write another series as soon as this one is done - not a sequel, but something entirely different - but does that really excuse him?)
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