Ship of Rome: Masters of the Sea 1 by John Stack
7 out of 10
I first read about Stack when an account of him writing this series about the Punic wars and getting a Harper Collins three book deal was published in the Irish Independent. However I’ve been unable to get a copy of it till now due to financial constraints and a woeful lack of historical fiction in my library.
The bad stuff first. This is another author who insists on itlalicising every use of a Latin word which does get very annoying when it happens two or three times on a page. I know it’s a minor complaint but after explaining the difference between a Holplon Shield and a Scutum shield he shouldn’t feel the need to highlight the fact that the word is Latin every time it is used, I know it’s not an English word and he kindly tells us what it means so there’s no need to break flow in a fictional narrative to obey academic conventions.
A love story between Hadria and Atticus is crowbarred into the plot but barely dealt with leaving a skeleton romance to be fleshed out in the sequels. The manner in which he deals with this is extremely clumsy, the counterparts barely meet then subsequently are separated for a long period of time. Upon their reunion they assert their love for each other despite Hadria’s only apparent quality being her beauty and they barely speak to each other up until this point.
Another scene which really got to me is the one in which Fabiola, wife of the senior consul Scipio, seemingly telepathically discovers the traitor in their servants who feeds information on Scipio’s plans to the Junior Consul. The information he passed on, about an enemy fleet blockading Sicily, was also known by the crew of an entire naval vessel and a maniple of soldiers, none of whom were under orders to keep silent on the matter. They were all in a dock not twelve miles away potentially full of spies and informants, someone there could have easily heard the news and passed it on without Fabiola knowing but she dismisses this out of hand and just ‘knows’ that it was a servant listening on the other side of the door as Scipio told her the news. She even knows which servant because when Scipio called for him he had to do so three times. How could he not be a spy with psychic evidence like that?
There is some criticism of the historical accuracy in this novel but I don’t think it’s especially relevant as this is a historical novel some things have to be embellished, invented or left out for the benefit of the narrative and his writing style.
Some of his characterisation is stereotyped (Scipio, Gisco, Hadria) while some is excellent (Atticus, Duilius, Septimus). His main characters get the most development and detail so the few one-dimensional characters don’t drag down the story too much. His writing style overall is excellent. For a novel mainly concerned with war and strategy he paces it brilliantly, balancing description and action so that one doesn’t outweigh the other and neither is used when unnecessary to the story. For the various battle scenes he chooses a few characters, usually three, with different roles, objectives and allegiances, and flicks between them in short passages so that we get a fully comprehensive picture without any unnecessary overlapping.
Overall the book is an enjoyable read and I will read the rest of the series.