Give Me Back My Legions! Hardcover – Apr 14 2009
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About the Author
Most Helpful Customer Reviews on Amazon.com (beta)
He doesn't quite reach up the same standard with his newest work, but to be fair, that's at least in part due to the subject matter. While the slaughter of three Roman legions at the hands of German barbarians is an impressive story, it's by its nature a short one. This therefore requires a great deal of, for lack of a better word, filler and background. While this is helpful, it can't help but feel somewhat tacked-on.
Still, Turtledove's filler is at least more interesting that some other writer's main course, and this is no exception. You do get a good feel for why Varus might've been stupid enough to ignore reality and lead his troops into an ambush. You see how the internal politics of Germany might have influenced his choices. It's all speculation on the part of Turtledove, but it's speculation that, rather like Justinian's Crimean nose-job in "Justinian", makes sense.
This isn't a novel I'd really recommend to the casual fan. You do have to have an interest in Roman history to find this story... well, interesting. I do, so I did. Whether or not you will is something I leave for you to decide.
Primary sources of the battle are sparse, giving Turtledove great leeway in developing his characters' motivations and personalities. Unfortunately, he fails to do this: with the exception of just Varus and Arminius, all his characters are flat and thin, and there's little to either Varus and Arminius, as well.
Varus, pampered and arrogant, and softened by his successful administration of the wealthy and long-pacificed province of Syria, is sent by Augustus Caesar to bring Germany into the Roman fold. Of course, it's a tough job, but nothing an aging plutocrat and his Greek slave can't handle. He quickly discovers Germany's not quite as civilized as he's been led to believe, so he sets out to win over the locals with tax collectors and an increased military presence.
Enter Arminius. He's a Roman citizen and an officer-auxillary in their army, but he hates Rome, because, well, because he hates Rome, leave it at that. He starts the story with someone woman-problems, but a Roman perfect didn't ravish his woman, she was instead pledged to another man, a German. Then there's the issue of slavery: Rome wants to "enslave" Germany, but since his people has slaves, he doesn't have an issue with slavery, as long as he's not a slave. So he rallies his countrymen, such as they are, to resist the Romans.
Long story made short, Arminius finds his perfect location for an ambush, and leads the dimwitted Varus straight into it. (Despite intelligence to the contrary, Varus believes Arminius is a fine Roman German, or German Roman. Reminds him of his own boy, you see.)
Arminius' lack of reason to hate Rome is never explored. Instead, you see many examples of how he respects the Roman way: its efficiency, technology, luxary, and discipline. Turtledove could have just said Arminius disliked Rome simply because it had what Germany didn't. Turtledove does, however, successfully contrast German virtues against Roman vices, like the Germans' devotion to women against Roman's casual attitude to divorce and adultery, German honesty against Roman duplicity, etc.
If you've read Turtledove's novels before, you're acquainted with his limitations as a writer: the redundant descriptions, repetitive phrases, and the "you're right, but ..." conversations. So many of the scenes played out in this book have occurred in others. Even the deflowering scene is the same. And, while we're spared the Germans discussing how much better a Confederate cigarette is over a Yankee drag, we know that everyone prefers Roman wine to German beer.
I guess that explains why nobody in the United States drinks Budweiser.
The reason why came to me when the author (for the second time)notes that when breaking camp the legions took any iron objects to prevent the tribes from fashioning them into weapons. That was it! Turtledove repetitively tells us Arminius hates Rome, Varus doesn't listen to his officers, the Romans are short and orderly, the Germans are tall and disorganized. I started to remember that maxim: show, don't tell. Speaking of show and tell, the writing reminded me of the children's books on Rome I started out with; the ones where they'd point out "notice the Roman short sword, the well-made roads, the orderly camp, the Roman preference for wine and olive oil..." to cross off a checklist. The net result is a lack of passion, tension, and a book that feels more like a Young Adult novel in many ways (no offense to young adults).
None of the characters are ever developed. Arminius hates Rome 'cause he hates Rome. There was no real passion to his hate. I think Turtledove recognized that because he reminds us, over and over, that Arminius doesn't mean it when he tells General Varus he's Rome's friend. Nor do I buy that silver coins, well-made roads, slavery, wine, etc. are all that hateful to Arminius. How he convinces entire tribes of warring Germans to unite isn't shown or told. Of General Varus, all we really know is that he'd rather be in Rome, he doesn't listen to every officer, and he prefers diluted wine to beer. And these are the major characters, we learn less about the minor ones. They're mostly there to illustrate a theme: the "Yes,sir" sycophantic officer, the "Cassandra-like" disregarded experienced officer, the arrogant and weak civilized Greek slave, the gruff and blunt German chieftain, etc.
Finally, beyond the "the Germans drink beer and the Romans wine" tourist-book writing and the papyrus-thin characters, there's virtually no drama in a book that shouts out "Give me back my legions!". Frankly, for me, a lengthy and vivid depiction of the life-or-death struggle of three legions, thousands of Rome's finest fighting men, caught in ambush at Teutoberger Wald would have redeemed the whole work. A strong battle representation covers a lot of faults, but the battle occupies less than 10% of the book and there's little particularly evocative scenes or dramatic combat. As we hardly know the characters, we aren't as moved by their ultimate fates as we might have been.
I know I wasn't.