20 Dec 22

The author will be well known to members of the Naval Review, not only as a one-time naval officer but also with a subsequent career as a very distinguished academic. Now he has turned his hand to historical fiction, recounting the story of a Roman Tribune, George, heading a vexillation (a sub-unit detached from a full legion) under the Emperor Diocletian and his successor the Emperor Galerius. Writing a novel, an author is freed from the constraints of historical accuracy, but Michael Codner neatly places his story in an era that brings together the military reforms of the Emperor Diocletian, the splitting of the Roman Empire into Eastern and Western parts, a recently ended rebellion in Britain, and major religious change, including the last persecution of Christians and he deftly weaves each of these facets into his tale; this is a very well structured book. The story is recorded by a British sailor, Mark, who is part of a delegation sent to the emperor to report and describe the end of the rebellion in Britain. Being red headed and of small stature, he is the butt of his companions teasing and is quite happy when, because he can read and write Latin, he is recruited to be the clerk for George’s vexellation. The book is presented as his diary of events over a number of years. It’s hardly a spoiler to reveal that the Tribune George, when in Egypt rescues a girl who had been offered as a religious sacrifice to a crocodile, which, as the story spread, became a dragon.

Not only does the story fit into the history, it neatly incorporates many historical personages, and avoids making much of doing so; a central character, Constantine, is never described as a future Emperor, but spells out the social and politico-military structures of the time. Overall the story and its understated ending are well constructed. However it is obvious that the author, while a good story teller and a consummate historian is not a natural novelist. Unfortunately to this reader the characters, apart from Mark himself, seem two-dimensional, they never really come to life and it is difficult to identify with them. The reported conversations at times seem stilted, and despite dealing with complex subjects seem almost to have been written for children. It’s a pity because it is a well-crafted book around an intriguing theme.