A mysterious 5th century manuscript by Manlius Hippomanes connects the parallel plots and eras: the waning days of the Roman Empire, as the barbarian hordes attack Gaul's borders and Manlius Hippomanes writes The Dream of Scipio; the 14th century in Avignon, when poet Olivier de Noyen discovers some of Manlius's writing and deals with papal intrigue, the Hundred Years War, and the Black Death; and the Vichy government in France during World War II, when Julien Barneuve, a scholar who has traced the Manlius manuscript, joins the Vichy government in an effort to "civilize" the German occupiers and prevent deportation of the Jews.
This is not a beach book--its excitement is far more thoughtful than sensational. Pears' characters are real, flawed people living and loving in times of crisis and experiencing conflicts with parents, teachers, friends, and mentors. These conflicts clearly parallel those in the wider world of their political alliances and governments, and ultimately affect their attitudes toward humankind in general. Beautiful love stories, which bring warmth to the narrative, are portrayed with the delicacy such fragile relationships deserve and the strength which allows them to endure. As we, too, face uncertain times and threats to our own civilization, Pears offers a reflective and thought-provoking framework for contemplating our own future.
The story contains many references to philosophy and religion, comparing characteristics among the three time periods and the people who lived through each. A key idea of the book is the question of personal choice during times of trouble. Does one hold fast to absolute principles, risking death and destruction, or is it better to go along with the opposition in hopes of ameliorating its brutality?
In the three cases described in the novel, the opposition is represented by the barbarians who sacked Rome, the oppressive Church of the Dark Ages and the invading Germans of 1942. In the first two instances, the heroes allow themselves to be co-opted by a barbarian king and the Church hierarchy, with mixed results. In the final instance, the hero teeters on the brink of choice, finally deciding to stick with his principles, even though in doing so he, his friends and his way of life are certain to be destroyed.
The book is exceptionally thought-provoking. I spent a lot of time thinking about what I read, going back and re-reading sections, and pondering what I might do in a similar situation. A bonus was that I learned a good deal about the Greek philosophers and about what life was like during times and in places that I don't know much about. This is a very good read that will challenge most readers and, in return, pay off in ways that the usual page-turners do not.