While on an expedition to Mussolini's Italy, young American Martin Padway is struck by lightning. When he comes to, he discovers himself to have been inexplicably transported to the waning days of the Roman Empire. Quickly realizing that he has no hope of returning home, Padway resolves to prop up the flagging Western Empire and stave off the approaching dark ages. But is he politically astute enough to handle the destructive forces within and without Rome?
L. Sprague De Camp's "Lest Darkness Fall" is justly considered a classic of science fiction. It's a time travel story, but it is also cited by many as an early example of the alternate history genre. So its influence cannot be understated.
De Camp is not aiming for gravity, which is probably a good thing. The book is a breezy, plot-driven adventure, not a meditation on history. Padway is a well-developed character, if perhaps a little TOO competent and resourceful. Upon realizing his predicament, Padway hunts up the basics, including a dwelling and a source of income, first with brandy, and then with a newssheet. However, Padway makes a quick jump from brandy merchant and printer to power-broker with surprising speed and confidence. He manipulates royalty and leads battles, surprising himself with his ruthlessness. While De Camp's story flirts with implausibility, it never enters the realm of ridiculous.
The supporting characters are generally likeable archetypes, like the banker who speaks to God, the formerly-rich soldier who has been reduced to acting as Padway's bodyguard, the senile monarch, and so on. They serve the story and Padway's quest. Moreover, while De Camp knows the history of the era, he opts for broad strokes, acknowledging the fractured nature of Christianity, the tension between West and East, and the multi-cultural state of Rome at this time. It's probably for the best, as this isn't a treatise on the fall of Rome, but a story about Padway. Nonetheless, the reader may feel slightly adrift in generally unfamiliar era.
"Lest Darkness Falls" is a book that satisfies the reader's desire for a good adventure, if not the desire for brain-food. It's an entertaining tale, and is worth reading on its own merits, as well as an artifact of sci-fi.