Thursday, March 10, 2016

Eagle In Exile - Alan Smale

Eagle In Exile is the second in Alan Smale’s “Clash of Eagles” trilogy. It posits a world in which the Roman Empire never fell, and where the legions have begun to march on North America. The first book in the sequence introduced us to Gaius Marcellinus, who gradually integrated with a group of Native American inhabitants after the disastrous defeat of his legion, and the people around him, whom he gradually came to care for as they struggled against invasion and dealt with cultural change.

Eagle In Exile is set something in the area of five years after Clash Of Eagles. Smale sets out to show us a world which is similar, but moved on. There’s a sense of growing urbanisation about the towns of the people of the Cahokia. An elaborate longhouse is built at the top of one of their sacred mounds, and their leadership seems to become more withdrawn, separating themselves from those around them, and moving into a more hierarchical structure.  At the same time, the author lets us look at some of the internal politics of the Cahokia – the disagreements in their direction are a fascinating subtext underlying much of the character dialogue. Marcellinus is desperate to bring peace to the Cahokia and their neighbours, some of whom were antagonists in the previous book, in order to prepare them for a Roman arrival that he feels is inevitable. Other factions in Cahokia are less conciliatory, determined to extract a measure of vengeance from their enemies. This non-unified front is something Smale portrays well; there’s subtle udnercurrents here alongside some larger debates.

The world has also broadened in scope. The reader is taken with Marcellinus as he explores various regions around Cahokia, and the geographic and social changes which come from that. There’s some excellent portrayals of Native American societies here – Smale has clearly done his research. The result is, overall a vivid and believable world.

The same principle applies to the characters. The core cast and the protagonist here are largely the same as the last volume. However, we do get a broadening, as ancillary characters evolve, fall away, or are replaced by others of more immediate relevance. It was, from time to time, difficult to remember which of the minor characters was which, but Smale signposts this well, so there were only a few moments of confusion.  Marcellinus is our focal point here, and Smale portrays him well – continuing to evolve from his position in Clash of Eagles. He’s torn between cultures, and between worlds and obligations. He’s a competent man, internally divided, to his detriment and that of those around him. He’s also self-aware enough to recognise this, and take steps to ameliorate it. He’s a convincingly human character, and his central relationships – including a fraught and complex emotional space with a female glider pilot, and a growing sense of adopted family – are well drawn, and believably frustrated.  We spend a lot of our time in this text in Marcellinus’s head, and fortunately, it’s written to make him feel like a complex, conflicted individual.

The supporting cast get less room in this regard. There’s a couple of more central characters who get room to grow into themselves, and we certainly see some evolution in their characters over the course of the text. Others are less fortunate – but that may be justified by their position in the narrative. Overall, I’d say the characters are well done, the more so the closer they are to the core of the narrative.

The plot rolls along from the close of the first book in the series. To avoid spoilers, I’ll say that it sets a relatively fast pace initially, then settles into something a little more languid, before crackling forward for the second half of the text. There are events here which change central assumptions in the world, and for the characters, have the capacity to change everything. There’s some wonderfully portrayed relationships and their attendant drama, and some top-class battle scenes wrapped around them.

Is it worth reading? If you’re looking for a complex, character driven alternate history, with some believable environments and visceral battle scenes – absolutely. However, the text isn’t really a stand-alone - I’d take a look at the precursor, Clash of Eagles, first.

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