The Return, by Harry Sidebottom.

Alistair Forrest

The latest novel from the bestselling author of Ancient Rome.
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Harry Sidebottom is an enigma – a university lecturer who writes snappy prose. None of your wordy polemics here as the much-loved fiction author introduces a new hero, the flawed but honourable Paullus, who must deal with his post-war demons and the superstitions of his home community.

Set over a three-year period in mid-2nd century BC, The Return flits effortlessly between events in war-torn Greece and Paullus’ return home to Temesa in colonised Bruttium (modern day Calabria). Something dreadful has happened to Paullus and his two friends while plundering fallen Corinth shortly before the return home, and here Sidebottom displays his plot skills because, of course, he conceals it well for an exciting climax.

Paullus is a war hero who ought to command respect, but increasingly the primitive attitudes of his home settlement cast suspicion on him as a man of violence, especially in the light of the brutal murders that threaten to tear the community apart.

Interestingly, the modern issue of PTSD is raised, and why shouldn’t it have applied to returning soldiers of any era? For Paullus, this means regular encounters with the Kindly Ones. Paullus is wise to trust to fate but at the same time he must do what he knows to be ‘the right thing’.

Sidebottom’s infusion of mythology doesn’t stop with the three ghost-witches. The protagonist’s Bruttian settlement of Temesa also happens to be home to The Hero, the inappropriately named ghost of a rapist who historically was only appeased by the annual sacrifice of a virgin. You can be sure that a suitably attractive virgin can be found in Temesa in 145BC, and that Paullus is unmarried.

By not writing a linear story and instead interweaving flashbacks to the events of the Corinth campaign, Sidebottom has generated action and pace in a murder mystery combined with military history. He artfully recreates the ancient worlds of both the Roman colony of Bruttium and the Achaean city-state of Corinth.

Sidebottom’s attention to detail is only to be respected – his knowledge of ancient Rome, military recruitment, arms and armour, and battlefield tactics, feed the insatiable demand of a respectful fan base. Further, Roman life and behaviour, the role of slavery, agriculture, land laws, colonisation and oppression are all woven into this tale so that, while never lacking in pace, The Return is also educational.

For example, while lesser writers will bang on about Falernian because that’s the only ancient Roman vintage they’ve heard of, Sidebottom teaches us how to mend a cracked wine-jar. And he does it without once showing off his vocabulary by referencing amphorae. There are lessons interspersed throughout, all relevant to the narrative, including how badly a Roman father could behave towards his son and (spoiler alert) the peculiar marriage vows expressed when marrying a rescued virgin.

The Return is both exciting and informative, an historical gem written with uncomplicated style and flow. Satisfying and memorable.

Alistair Forrest is a journalist, editor and author of historical fiction,