Top critical review
An entertaining, quick read
on January 22, 2004
I enjoyed reading "Under the Eagle." The plot and character development held my interest enough to keep me reading. It's a quick read and I was able to finish it in day. It kept me turning the page and interested to find out what would happen next. That pretty much fills my criterion of an entertaining read and that's all I expected from it. I didn't start reading it with the belief that it would rival Pressfield's "Gates of Fire" or Chiavetone's "A Road We Do Not Know" as a modern classic of military historical fiction and it most certainly did not.
"Under the Eagle" is an attempt to give the reader a "boots on the ground" view of the Roman army in the 1st Century AD by following the lives and adventures of two junior officers in the 2nd Legion- a veteran, battle-hardened centurion, Macro, and a fresh-faced, kid recruit, Cato, who because of connections is promoted to Macro's optio or second-in-command. It's a neat premise- what was it like to live and fight in a Roman Legion. However, Scarrow was only partly successful in creating this premise into a compelling work of historical fiction.
Scarrow obviously did some heavy historical research to capture the locations and political atmosphere of the era. However, one also gets the idea that Scarrow has watched too many war movies and unfortunately fell back on those memories to fill his novel with cliches and anachronistic dialogue. The recruit training parts are something out of "Full Metal Jacket" and the relationship between Macro/Cato is similar to the one between John Wayne and John Agar had in "The Sands of Iwo Jima"- a soft, rich kid grows up and becomes a leader under the tutelage of a battle-hardened vet. The most jarring fault of Scarrow is having his Roman soldiers talk just like modern-day Brits. It's extremely silly when you come across this dialogue and really helps ruin the historical atmosphere. (In my life I have taken five years of Latin and I never learned the Latin equivilents of "wanker," "bloody," or "bugger.")
Also, Scarrow seems to get bored with describing the day to day lives of 1st century legionnaires and thus moves the plot into one of political intrigue. It would have been nice to get a more detailed look at life in a Roman century- like what kind of men made up the Roman army. However, with a few weakly drawn exceptions, the men of the 6th Century, 4th Cohort are mostly nameless figures whose only purpose is to fill out the casuality rolls.
The faults of this novel are glaring, but I still finished it in a day. So there is definetely something here that is worth checking out if you like historical fiction. I thought Scarrow did a great job of introducing characters and plot strings that really make one want to continue reading. I was pulled into this novel early on. It is also well-plotted and the historical setting is very interesting. So if you're looking for a fun, quick read of historical fiction then by all means check out "Under the Eagle."