Harry Sidebottom: Iron and Rust (Throne of the Caesars, Book 1) Review + Interview

Author

HarrySidebottom-jameshawkinsphotography.com

Harry Sidebottom was brought up in racing stables in Newmarket where his father was a trainer. He had a basket saddle on a donkey before he could walk.

He was educated at various schools and universities, including Oxford, where he took his Doctorate in Ancient History at Corpus Christi College. In similar fashion he has taught at various universities including Oxford, where he is now Fellow and Director of Studies in Ancient History at St Benets Hall, and Lecturer in Ancient History at Lincoln College.

His main scholarly research interests are Greek culture under the Roman empire (thinking about the compromises and contradictions involved when an old and sophisticated culture is conquered and ruled by what it considers a younger and less civilised power) and warfare in classical antiquity (looking at how war was both done and thought about by Greeks and Romans). He has published numerous chapters in books, and articles and reviews in scholarly journals becoming an internationally recognised scholar in these fields.

His first book Ancient Warfare: A Very Short Introduction was published by OUP in 2004. It got excellent reviews. The Times Literary Supplement described it as “jam-packed with ideas and insight … a radical and fresh reading of Greek and Roman warfare that is both surprising and stimulating.” For The Guardian it was “a boot camp for the brain – a short, sharp shock to the presumptions.” The Contemporary Review dubbed it “a tour de force.” Robin Lane Fox described it in print as “outstandingly good.” It has been translated into Japanese (2006) and Chinese (2007). Translations into German and Greek are in progress.

Away from classical scholarship his other interests include fiction, travel, sport, booze, and women.
Since 2003 he has been a regular reviewer of fiction, especially historical novels, in the Times Literary Supplement. Here he has enthused about Robert Harris and Alan Massie, and probably made enemies for life of Erica Jong and Colleen McCullough.

Since 2006 he has been working on the Warrior of Rome series of novels featuring the Anglo-Saxon nobleman turned Roman army officer Ballista and his Familia which are set in the Roman Empire during the so-called `Great Crisis of the Third Century AD`.

He has travelled widely, especially around the Mediterranean. These trips have varied from the luxury of travelling as a guest speaker on a Cunard liner to a memorable solo journey into Albania not long after the fall of the dictator Enver Hoxha.

All his life he has gone racing, and played and watched rugby and cricket. He was a founder member of Woodstock Rugby Football Club. Recently he has discovered the pleasures of real tennis.

 Author Web site

Interview

When  and  why  did  you  begin  writing?

Like  all  children, I  wrote  stories. Somehow  I  never  grew  out  of  it. Eventually  I  faced  up  to  the  fact  that  if  I  did  not  try  to  get  some  fiction  published  I  would  end  up  an  embittered  old  man  always  beating  myself  up  with  `if  only  I  had  tried`.

What  inspired  you  to  write  your  first  Ballista  book?

I  had  tried  all  sorts  of  types  of  fiction, sub-Martin  Amis/Jay  Mcinerney/Bret  Easton  Ellis  literary  comedies, fantasy  novels, thrillers, but  one  of  my  enduring  loves  has  always  been  historical  fiction. Researching  a  big  history  book, Fields  of  Mars: A  Cultural  History  of  Ancient  Battle, I  reached  the  chapter  on  siege  warfare, and  realised  a  besieged  town  provided  an  ideal  setting  for  a  novel; a  unity  of  action  and  place, and  individuals  and  society  stretched  far  beyond  their  norms.

Fields  of  Mars  remains  about  one  third  written. One  day  it  will  get  finished. Meanwhile  a  version  of  the  siege  chapter  is  coming  out  in  a  book  I  am  editing  with  Michael  Whitby, The  Encyclopaedia  of  Ancient  Battles (Blackwell), and I  published  the  chapter  on  naval  battle  in  a  collection  of  scholarly  articles (in  Portuguese!).

Is  there  a  message  in  your  novels  that  you  want  readers  to  grasp?

One  thing  that  depresses  me  about  bad  historical  fiction, and  bad  history  books, is  the  ahistorical  insistence  that  `people  have  always  been  the  same/they  were  just  like  us`. Instead  Mary  Renault  was  right  when  she  said  something  on  the  lines  of  the  pleasure  of  reading  and  writing  historical  fiction  comes  from  the  tension  between  what  is  universal  to  humanity  and  what  is  specific  to  a  time  and  place. In  some  ways  the  Romans  were  much  like  us, but  in  others  completely  alien.

What  books  have  influenced  your  life  most?

When  I  was  at  school  my  godfather  gave  me  Alexander  the  Great  by  Robin  Lane  Fox. It  converted  me  to  Classical  history, made  me  want  to  spend  my  life  reading  and  hopefully  writing  similar  books.

If  you  had  to  choose, which  writer  would  you  consider  a  mentor?

For  historical  fiction  it  would  have  to  be  Patrick  O`Brian. Few  writers  have  taken  the  genre  to  such  heights, and  seldom  over  such  a  sustained  series. Over  the  last  few  years  I  have  read  and  reread  Hemingway  and  Cormac  McCarthy. Both  their, very  different, styles  show  what  can  be  done  with  the  English  language  in  a  novel.

Do  you  have  to  travel  much  concerning  your  books?

Yes, but  not  as  much  as  I  would  like. At  first  I  was  limited  by  lack  of  money, now  by  lack  of  time. Having  said  which, I  try  to  get  to  all  the  major  locations  in  the  novels. I  like  to  walk  the  routes  taken  by  characters. It  gives  you  a  secure  grasp  of  how  the  buildings  and  landscape  fit  together; history  through  the  soles  of  your  boots, as  a  review  in  the  TLS  was  kind  enough  to  say. This  year  for  Throne  of  the  Caesars  I  am  going  back  to  Rome, and  hopefully  to  Carthage. No  idea  why  my  wife  refers  to  them  as  holidays.

 Did  you  learn  anything  from  writing  your  books, and  what  was  it?

Just  how  little  I  knew  about  the  Classical  world. Despite  having  taught  the  subject  at  five  universities, and  published  lots  of  articles  and  one  book, there  were  huge  areas  where  my  ignorance  was  almost  total.

What  was  the  inspiration  for  the  new  series?

Since  I  did  my  Masters  thesis  on  the  Greek  historian  Herodian, I  have  been  fascinated  by  the  years  AD235-8. So  many  wars  and  revolts, plots  and  emperors, all  compressed  into  just  four  years, the  start  of  the  crisis  of  the  third  century; it  was  crying  out  for  a  series  like  Throne  of  the  Caesars.

And  I  wanted  to  write  a  slightly  different  type  of  novel  from  the  Warrior  of  Rome, which  was  focused  on  the  one  central  character  of  Ballista. The  new  series  is  constructed  as  a  multiple  point  of  view  story. The  first  result  is  Iron  and  Rust.

So: free  platform, you`ve  been  given  a  pitch  at  Oxford  Market…  sell  your  book  to  the  crowd.

There  are  few  things  I  would  less  like  to  do. Although  I  have  done  loads  of  lecturing  and  public  speaking, I  still  get  stage  fright. But, if  I  went  through  with  it, I  might  say  something  like:- “Iron  and  Rust: creates  a  world  both  sophisticated  and  brutal, yet  firmly  rooted  in  history; a  world  of  intrigue, murder, passion  and  war; a  world  where  men  will  kill  to  sit  in  the  Throne  of  the  Caesars”

(Yes, I  know  the  line  is  from  the  publicity, but  I  wrote  it, and  can’t  think  of  anything  better).

Finally  after  all  the  hard  work  and  skill  you  have  put  in  do  you  have  any  advice  for  other  writers?

Read  lots  of  authors, but  don’t  copy  them  slavishly. Write  lots  of  different  things  in  different  styles  until  you  find  what  suits  you. Persevere – it  is  hard  work – treat  it  as  a  job. Get  a  good  agent. Hope  for  a  lucky  break.

 Iron and Rust: 

Date Available: 22 May 2014

Buy a signed copy

Iron and Rust

From the bestselling author of WARRIOR OF ROME comes the first book in a new series set in third century Rome; a dramatic era of murder, coup, counter-rebellions and civil war.

In a single year six Emperors will lay claim to the Throne of the Caesars…

SPRING AD235

Dawn on the Rhine. A surprise attack and the brutal murder of the Emperor Alexander and his mother ends the Severan dynasty and shatters four decades of Roman certainty.

Military hero Maximinus Thrax is the first Caesar risen from the barracks. A simple man of steel and violence, he will fight for Rome.

The Senators praise the new Emperor with elaborate oratory, but will any of them accept a Caesar who was once a shepherd boy? And in the streets of the eternal city, others merely pray to escape imperial notice.

In the north, as the merciless war against the barbarians consumes men and treasure, rebellion and personal tragedy drive Maximinus to desperate extremes, bloody revenge and the borders of sanity.

Iron & Rust, the first book in a major new series, creates a world both sophisticated and brutal, yet firmly rooted in history; a world of intrigue, murder, passion and war, a world where men will kill to sit on the Throne of the Caesars.

Review

As a fan of historical fiction I’d be a bit remiss if I had not heard of or read Harry Sidebottom, I have to admit to being a bit of a fan of his writing (Warrior of Rome series). When I read the first book Fire in the East I did so with no preconceptions, I read a review copy before most readers of the genre so could do so without any opinions colouring my view. My immediate view at the time was that here was someone a bit different, the writing style skewed more to the educational than the entertainment side of a read, but it has plenty of both. Since that date I have read many opinions of other readers about the writing being “a lecture”, “a bit too Dry” etc.. and each person should be able to form their own view. Mine was always that Ballista was a highly complex and entertaining character, and the books taxed my knowledge of the Roman world, they taught me something. It meant I had to make sure I read them at the right time, to ensure my mood suited that read. Doing it this way led me to give each and every book between 4 and 5 stars, and to read knowing that Harry had done the research, that what I was reading was educational as well as blooming good fun.

Iron and Rust is a departure from the time of Ballista, and a bit to my surprise a departure in style. If this had been my first experience of Harry I  might have been a bit more concerned, I might be leaning a bit more towards those people who use the term “Lecture”. The book is highly informative, packed with detail of the Roman world of AD235, it brings to life (piece by piece) many of the major players in the Roman hierarchy of the time. It’s when you persevere with the detail that Iron and Rust starts to pay dividends, the complexity and the detail resolves itself into a detailed plot with many players and many shifting alliances, like a complex multi-layered game of chess. Nasty back stabbing politics, rumour and denouncements and the old evil of greed and gold.

As the book progressed and I adapted to this style I found myself enjoying the story more, and the characters depths and idiosyncrasies became more and more apparent, I found myself finally sinking into the roman world rather than being swept along by the events of history. Ultimately this book and many more this year will suffer in comparison to Giles Kristian and God of Vengeance, which is my 2014 bench mark, and has reset my use of 5 star read. That said this is still an entertaining read, and highly educational, what I think made me struggle is the lack of a central character, a hero… and as soon as that thought popped into my head…so did bonnie tyler…(sorry Harry)

I need a hero
I’m holding on for a hero ‘til the end of the night
He’s gotta be strong
And he’s gotta be fast
And he’s gotta be fresh from the fight
I need a hero
I’m holding on for a hero ‘til the morning light
He’s gotta be sure
And it’s gotta be soon
And he’s gotta be larger than life (larger than life)

 

Deep down I’m a simple man, I need my battles, I need the fighting, the blood and a little gore, I need the anticipation of battle more than I need politics, I need that larger than life character who will carry me through the world of the book and the events swirling around him/her. But that said this is a book you should read, If I apply the Amazon review model:

1 Star: I hate it

2 Stars: I don’t like it

3 Stars: Its okay

4 Stars: I like it

5 Stars: I love it.

By the end of the book I was firmly in the 4 stars, Harry as ever had won me around, mainly with Maximinus, the Roman Emperor, with his blunt heroic hard charging ways, I just wish he had been a bigger player in the book, or we could have seen the story through the eyes of a consistent character. Harry remains on my must read list and I am looking forward to his next book, I feel the next one will start stronger and faster, first books in a series have to set the scene and the character base, that’s now been done… bring on the battles Harry, but also keep your amazing eye for detail, intrigue and authenticity.

 (Parm)

 Other books

Warrior of Rome
1. Fire in the East (2008)
2. King of Kings (2009)
3. Lion of the Sun (2010)
4. The Caspian Gates (2011)
5. The Wolves of the North (2012)
6. The Amber Road (2013)

Fire in the EastKing of KingsLion of the SunThe Caspian GatesThe Wolves of the NorthThe Amber Road

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5 Comments

Filed under Harry Sidebottom, Historical Fiction

5 responses to “Harry Sidebottom: Iron and Rust (Throne of the Caesars, Book 1) Review + Interview

  1. Rabindranauth

    Do you know how many books this series will have?

  2. Pingback: Harry Sidebottom: Blood and Steel (Review) | parmenionbooks

  3. Hon Bob Carr

    Just getting into the Throne of the Caesars and loving them. I have been asked by a newspaper to review Fire and Sword making reference to the earlier volumes. I love that in enjoying the fiction I am learning about Rome in the mid- third century, at last historical fiction that jumps the Julio-Claudians. As someone who has both admired and questioned Colleen McCullough’s attempts at historical fiction I would relish reading Harry Sidebottom’s reviews of her novels (or novel- I have seen reference to a review of The October Horse) but won’t subscribe to the TLS to find them. Can you link me to it or them?

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