The Last of the Ninth
by Stephen Lorne Bennett
Deux Voiliers Publishing, 2012
564 pages, $12.59 on Lulu.com
Reviewed y Brendan Ray
If L.P. Hartly is right that the past is a foreign country, and Winston Churchill’s famous quote that the East is a career also rings true, then writing historical fiction about the East must surely be dangerous business. Dangerous business is certainly a recurring theme in Stephen Lorne Bennett’s first novel. The novel centres around the story of the protagonist, Decimus Malorix, and his cloak-and-dagger adventures on the Parthian frontier.
A perusal along the aisles of any of the major bookstores will leave a book-lover with the lingering question “Do I really need another book about Ancient Rome?” To which I will gladly answer “Yes, and this book is the reason why!”
The first thing about the Last of the Ninth that sets it apart is that it takes place in the Eastern half of the empire. Stories about the Western half invariably fall into the well-know themes of Rome representing either imperialism or civilization, and the Celts/Gauls being either savage or noble in their barbarism. Think Asterix and Obelix, think of Gladiator’s opening scene. The Eastern provinces were the home to monumental civilizations that saw the Romans as Johnny-come-latelies to the empire game. The nuances that this gives to the political drama of Bennett’s story elevates the non-Romans to active players, rather than simply stand-ins for one political metaphor or another. The cast of minor players are interesting characters, and Bennett scores a balance of having them being intriguing, but not so complicated as to warrant keeping notes of who’s doing what.
The second factor that distinguishes this book from its abundant competition is the attention to detail. Not the attention to detail that would dedicate twenty pages to battlefield costumes, but the details of trade, of multi-ethnic communities and of politics that paint such a rich backdrop to the main story. There’s enough of the historian’s detail to keep the story realistic, without getting bogged down into a treatise on Second Century diplomatic reforms. While it does certainly appear that Bennett is enthusiastic to finally put some of his Latin to good use, he also deftly employs other foreign languages to create a historically accurate polygot atmosphere.
The pages clip along quickly; a testament to Bennett’s sense of pace and relevance to story. Despite the speed at which I crossed the pages, the book felt more like a guided tour of the ancient world, along the lines of Gore Vidal’s Creation, rather than the action fiction that fills out the paperback shelves of so many bookstores, complete with busty damsels in togas and sly looking centurions. The Last of the Ninth is a thinking-man’s (person’s!) adventure story. It will put your imagination into high gear, rather than put your brain in neutral.
The Last of the Ninth can be ordered through Lulu.com and Amazon.com and will be available in Ottawa bookstores in April 2012. Deux Voiliers Publishing is actively seeking new first-time novelists from the Ottawa-Gatineau area. See the DVP website at www.deuxvoiliers.com for contact information.