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Blood of Eagles Reviewed

I am so excited to share this review by Open Letters Monthly managing editor, Steve Donoghue, that I'm just going to post the whole thing here, to save you that one extra click.

Warning! Spoilers ahead.

Afterwards, if you just can't get enough of me (I know I can't), click
here for an interview Mr. Donoghue asked me to do for OLM.

Harm Him, Harm Me
By Steve Donoghue
Blood of Eagles: A Novel of Ancient Rome (The Bow of Heaven, Book III) By Andrew Levkoff Peacock Angel Publishing, 2014

The caustic, sharp-witted Greek slave Alexandros, the narrator of Andrew Levkoff’s Roman historical fiction trilogy “The Bow of Heaven,” is certain by the time he reaches the ripe old age of 49 that he knows the key to a happy life – obscurity:

Ignorance and superstition have far more allies in this world than open-mindedness and tolerance. Greatness, I have observed, is a highly overrated commodity, to be shunned with the zeal of the devout. Seek rather the halcyon shadow of anonymity if you desire a happy, contemplative life.

Such insight comes late to Alexandros himself. For the last thirty years, he’s been the slave and agent of the famous Roman plutocrat and triumvir Marcus Crassus, trusted by his famously wealthy master on many missions large and small, as Levkoff has chronicled in the first two books in the series, The Other Alexander (2011) and A Mixture of Madness (2012). Wealth and notoriety have come to Alexandros almost by osmosis, and although he might desire a happy, contemplative life (Levkoff leaves open the possibility that he’s every bit as hungry for fame as his master), it’s further out of reach with each successive volume.

Indeed, the conclusion of A Mixture of Madness seems to leave all futures out of reach for Alexandros. Having been caught by Crassus trying to conduct a covert negotiation to head off the war Crassus is fomenting in the Roman East, Alexandros is crucified on the banks of the Euphrates by his former master and left to die.

It’s an ending that would seem to preclude all new beginnings. “No one climbs off a cross,” as one character in Blood of Eagles says. “Once you’re up, the only way you come down is with a lot of help, by which I mean to say – dead. You come down dead.”

Alexandros comes off his cross more dead than alive, rescued at the last minute by two renegades from the huge Parthian army then massing in Syria in anticipation of a Roman invasion. One of those renegades, a champion archer named Melyaket, strikes Alexandros as “brushed by something extraordinary” (“and generally speaking, whenever that happens in this life, no good can come of it"), and it’s Melyaket who at first spirits Alexandros deeper into the interior of Parthia, away from the eight Roman legions of Crassus – and also away from Livia, a medicus with the legions, Alexandros’ wife and the mother of his baby son Felix. Alexandros, who otherwise characterizes himself as “a steadfast advocate of the power of the inertia of circumstance,” wants to tempt his own incredible good luck surviving Roman crucifixion by returning to the power of Rome in search of his beloved – a course of action at first made impossible by the fact that Melyaket is himself being hunted, by a smooth-talking one-eyed Parthian general named Scolotes.

From these elements Levkoff fashions a smart and gripping narrative as Alexandros’s travels in Parthia teach him a great deal about Rome’s inveterate enemy, the polyglot kingdom Marcus Crassus, inflamed with ambition, hopes to conquer, undaunted by that kingdom’s size, or wealth, or rumored ferocity in battle. “The more skilled the opponent,” he insists, “the greater the glory when he is vanquished. And glory is the chief prize with which I must return to Rome.” That this glory is beyond the reach of a man commanding seven Roman legions never occurs to Crassus (“There is no nation of Parthia,” one character says, voicing a common sentiment; “there are only ten thousand villages who pay taxes to [Parthian King] Orodes. Ask any herdsman or farmer what country they live in and they will scratch their heads
"), who’s busily preparing his war with his son Publius as his chief lieutenant and his wife Tertulla worrying on the sidelines.

Even a beginning student of Roman history will know at the outset of Blood of Eagles how incredibly wrong such thinking is. Crassus, so spurred by a hunger for military glory that he undertakes his Parthian adventure without the approval of the Senate back in Rome, will lead his eight legions and thousands of auxiliary forces in a grueling march across rebellious territory and open deserts in order to strike at the ranks of the Parthian king, ignoring both local offers of a shorter route and warnings that the Parthians have developed a fighting force called cataphracts: heavily-armored men on heavily-armored horses – essentially, medieval mounted knights ten centuries early.

In the spring of 53 BC, sixty-one-year-old Crassus thus led his forces into unknown territory against a misjudged enemy. The Roman tactical intelligence had long since been suborned by Parthian bribes, and the Parthian strategy – alternating between cataphracts and an endless, punishing stream of arrow-fire – decimated the forces of Crassus while suffering virtually no casualties in return. The fight, very nearly a massacre, took place near the town of Carrhae, and Carrhae has entered history as one of the worst defeats in Roman history. Over 30,000 Romans were killed or captured. Young Publius Crassus’s head was cut off during the battle and mounted on a spear for his father to see, and Crassus the elder was killed in a melee that resulted when tense truce negotiations broke down. The story that the head of Crassus was later used as a prop in the Bacchae of Euripides for the amusement of the watching Orodes is just macabre enough to be true.

This famous tragedy looms over the story Levkoff tells of Alexandros’s struggle to be reunited with Livia, their struggle to gain their freedom, and beyond all else, the remarkably complex and evolving relationship between Alexandros and Crassus. “Three decades,” Alexandros thinks when reflecting on the length of his servitude. “How many marriages last as long? How many lives? I had served no other master. I had had no other employment. I knew which shellfish made him ill, which wines he favored. I knew more of his secrets than even his wife.” And Crassus himself feels likewise, as he confesses early on in the novel:

“I have seen men who have lost an arm or a leg in battle cry out from the pain they swear stabs at them from the severed limb. Alexander is gone from me, but I feel his absence already. I know it, his presence will long longer – not like a lost limb, but as a ghost – his voice in my ear, correcting, chiding, arguing. Always so cocksure of himself, always that look when I had had enough banter and reminded him of his place; that faint sneer that said he scoffed at the error of my decision. Curse him if he wasn’t right half the time. When, on the odd chance I’d admit I was wrong, to his credit, he was never smug. Well, not often.”

This complicated dynamic is the heart of the “Bow of Heaven” trilogy, in which the wit and self-assurance of Alexandros is shaped in response to Levkoff’s best fictional creation, a Marcus Crassus far more nuanced and believably human than the flinty, greedy caricature readers have been hissing in Plutarch for two thousand years. Levkoff’s Crassus is a memorably three-dimensional man, “a good man and a great man” who’s nonetheless deeply flawed, caring for Alexandros and yet sometimes murderously angered by him (it was Crassus who’d ordered him crucified, but it was also Crassus who’d orchestrated his rescue). The safe-passage Crassus issues for Alexandros in the East gets right to the point: “Alexandros, beloved of Crassus. Harm him, harm me. Disobey him, disobey me.” And Alexandros’s reactions are an equally multi-vectored combination of bitterness and filial devotion. “For more than thirty years,” he realizes, “I had sat panting at his feet, begging for scraps of affection and recognition, and when I was thrown a morsel and got a pat on the head, how the sun would shine!”

Even in the shadow of this three-volume centerpiece relationship, Levkoff works to bring his secondary characters to life – and he has quips to spare even for minor characters like Dario Musclena, the chief medicus of Crassus’s army, who’s described: “Haughty blue eyes, grey curls, aquiline nose; he might as well have been a statue. Most of his subordinates would have preferred him that way.” And when Livia first learns of her husband’s alleged death on the cross, Levkoff gives a very effective description of the seismic nature of intense grief:

… as a doctor she should have known that the eyes are only the last stop on the journey of tears. Great sobs welled up from inside her like whales breaching. Grief, a curling breaker, swept her up, then took her breath as it threw her down. She gasped for air, aware of nothing save her own wretchedness. After a time, she felt arms around her – a cradle for the infant she had become.

(The arms are those of Crassus himself; the relationship between the old Roman autocrat and Livia is very nearly as tangled as that of Crassus and Alexandros.)

“Power rests with one in a thousand men,” Alexandros observes. “The rest of us either live in fear of brushing up against those who have it or of losing the tiny bit of it we have convinced ourselves we possess.” As a slave when Levkoff’s series starts off, Alexandros could have very little expectation of possessing power except that reflected from his famous master. And yet by the time we meet him in the pages of Blood of Eagles, he’s a seasoned wielder of power himself, as short-tempered and thoroughly disillusioned as Crassus himself, with one key difference: he’s experienced first-hand the vicious turns Fortune can take, and it’s given him a respect for disaster Crassus doesn’t share. The passages in which Levkoff shows the intelligent, calculating calm with which Crassus marches to his doom are wrenchingly ironic, and Levkoff repays the rich man’s hubris by adding a sadistic but very believable twist to the legend that once the Parthians had killed Crassus, they poured molten gold down his throat in order to mock his legendary greed. The first “Bow of Heaven” book, The Other Alexander, is very much composed in a key of humor, but by the events of Blood of Eagles, the tone has come to tragedy at last.

“Publius Crassus is no more,” Alexandros says to the Parthian general who wins the day. “You killed him.”

“No. Others, yes. That honor was not mine. Today I defended my home against an invader. The Roman killed himself when he crossed the Euphrates. Just as I died a little when I awoke this morning.”

“Yet you still take air.”

“And isn’t that what makes life thrilling? The choices we make, the chances we take.”

“Unless it becomes absolutely necessary,” Alexandros responds bitterly, “I endeavor to maneuver myself into as many unthrilling situations as possible.”

So he keeps saying. But readers of “The Bow of Heaven” trilogy know otherwise, and newcomers will be glad he’s wrong. This series has the careful research and traditional pacing of Steven Saylor’s best Roman historical novels, as multifaceted a portrayal of Roman slavery as anything found in historians like R. H. Barrow or K. R. Bradley, and, in Levkoff’s Marcus Crassus, as convincingly multi-faceted a fictional portrayal of a Roman titan as we’ve had since Thornton Wilder’s Julius Caesar nearly 70 years ago. Blood of Eagles squarely faces the blunt tragedy of Crassus’s death – and the surprising multiplicity of the land and people that killed him.

Steve Donoghue
is a writer and reader living in Boston with his dogs. He’s recently reviewed books for The Washington Post, The National, The Wall Street Journal, The Boston Globe, Historical Novel Review Online, and The Quarterly Conversation. He is the Managing Editor of Open Letters Monthly, and hosts one of its blogs, Stevereads.
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