Vindolanda by Adrian Goldsworthy
AD 98: The bustling army base at Vindolanda lies on the northern frontier of Britannia and the entire Roman world. In twenty years’ time, the Emperor Hadrian will build his famous wall, but for now defences are weak, as tribes rebel against Roman rule, and local druids preach the fiery destruction of the invaders.
Flavius Ferox is a Briton and a Roman centurion, given the task of keeping the peace on this wild frontier. But it will take more than just courage to survive life in Roman Britain...
I picked this book up on a whim before a transatlantic flight, hoping for a tale of high adventure in ancient Britain. And Vindolanda certainly delivers; Goldsworthy is clearly an expert in the customs of the Roman army and the ancient tribes of Britain. His immense knowledge of weaponry, battle maneuvers, political machinations, and cultural traditions shows on every page of his novel. Vindolanda is by far the most circumspect book I've read about Roman Britain, and certainly among the best-researched historical fiction books I have read. Unfortunately I think Goldsworthy's exhaustive knowledge of his subject was as much curse as blessing. Although his attention to detail makes the world of Flavius Ferox more complete and immersive for the reader, at times the plot lags behind lengthy descriptions of minor details. Some chapters feel written as an excuse for Goldsworthy to include as much of his expertise as possible, leaving the conflict of the story to stall momentarily.
Overall, these slow sections are a small price to pay, as even the less crucial scenes are often made interesting simply by the detail with which Goldsworthy renders the ancient world. He earns extra points from me for choosing to write about Roman Britain, a part of the empire that is fairly seldom visited by historical fiction writers. The combination of Roman imperialism and Briton custom and superstition is fertile ground for epic storytelling, and Vindolanda is a respectable beginning for Goldsworthy's series.
I, for one, am intrigued, and I look forward to reading the sequel. I hope that the next installment in Ferox's story will bring more character development, as Vindolanda focused mainly on Ferox himself. Despite the lack of intimacy between most of the characters and the reader, very few of the characters were stock characters and many were engaging, but their sheer number prevents the reader from getting to know more than the most central players. Hopefully now that these core characters have been introduced, they will come alive as fully as Goldsworthy's rendering of the world they inhabit in the next book.
Once Upon a Time...
As a longtime lover of stories and a believer in the power and magic of books, I've spent my life seeking out the best reads. This blog is dedicated to reviewing the books I read - good, bad, or magnificent - to help other readers find their next favorite books.