The Barbarian, by Douglas Jackson

Another blockbuster historical fiction novel.
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In this sequel to The Wall, Douglas Jackson takes his readers on a rollercoaster ride through lands riven by conflict – both political and military. He journeys from northern Britannia across to the Saxon homelands and from there southwards into the troubled Roman Empire and on to the Imperial court at Ravenna – but why?

Though the hero’s chief motive in leaving his British homeland is to search for his son Brenus – captured by Saxon raiders as a child – it also seems an astute political decision since both his position and his life are hanging by a thread. Indeed, one of the features of both this book and its predecessor is the excellent balance between political conspiracy and military action. Since Marcus is a military commander there is certainly plenty of action throughout, but there is also an enormous amount of intrigue – especially where the tribal leaders and politicians are concerned.

Personal relationships form a significant theme in this novel, especially since Marcus is desperate to rescue Brenus. However, not only has the latter been brought up as a Saxon, but he was estranged from his father even before his abduction. Hence, Marcus faces an uphill challenge in establishing some sort of bond with his son.  Also, in this second novel, the relationship between Marcus and his sister, Valeria is further explored. While, on the one hand, he sometimes hides his true intentions from her, Marcus has to acknowledge that she possesses an ability to find common ground with his son which he rather envies.

Underpinning the whole story is the very circuitous, but exciting, ‘road trip’ to Italy. The author paints a convincing picture of the environment of northern and central Europe as our heroes negotiate – sometimes literally – a path through dangerous lands both outside and inside the failing Roman Empire. Despite the vast canvas of this story, both the travel routes and the battle scenes are expertly described and underpinned by careful research enabling the reader to follow the action and read the landscape.

There are some cleverly drawn characters, aside from Marcus and Valeria, notably Brenus, whose lingering Saxon loyalties conflict with his desire to make his father proud. The scheming Goth, Alaric and the hard-pressed Roman general, Stilicho, provide between them plenty of subterfuge. Both men are in a difficult political position; Alaric has many rivals, as does Stilicho, but the latter also has to cope with the whims of a vacillating emperor upon whom his position of pre-eminence depends.

Deception is a tool with which Marcus is very familiar, but he is by no means the only one practising it. Douglas Jackson manages to create considerable tension throughout but particularly in the final scenes where – like Marcus and Valeria – we never quite know whom to trust until the very last moment.

Overall, Jackson has created another blockbuster historical fiction novel which establishes Marcus Flavius Victor as a fictional hero with a lot more adventures left in him. I, for one, will be eagerly awaiting the next riveting instalment.

The Barbarian, by Douglas Jackson is out now and published by Transworld.