The whole cycle, published in the 80s of previous century so rather old, consists of 12 primary and 17 total works. I read the first four od the primary works:
- The Misplaced Legion (01)
- An Emperor for the Legion (02)
- The Legion of Videssos (03)
- Swords of the Legion (04)
This alternate historical fiction revolves around a possible fate of a lost Roman legion led by the tribune Marcus Aemilius Scaurus. While they were fighting for Caesar during his Gaul campaign Scaurus duelled with Viridovix, a Celtic chieftain. As it happened, both of their swords were enchanted by a powerful druid so, instead of killing each other, they got transported to an alternative world called Videssos. The four books are about them trying to survive in a reality where magic and dark sorcery can test their skill and courage to the utmost.
What I liked:
- As his Goodreads bio informs you, Harry Turtledove attended UCLA, where he received a Ph.D. in Byzantine history in 1977. It didn’t surprise me and it can be felt in the series. His books include many interesting historical references concerning the Antiquity. I enjoyed all of them.
- Religion plays a strong role in the books and I appreciated that even more. Too many his-fic authors shy away from the r-word as if it could bring the plague whereas, like it or not, there hasn’t been any ancient culture without a specific set of beliefs.
- The world in which the Romans have to survive is essentially magical Byzantium, an empire plagued by mercenaries, run by functionaries and bureaucrats, with high turnover in emperors and no real army of their own. I found that premise quite original.
- In the second and third book I enjoyed the dynamics between Scaurus and Helvis very much. It sounded so real and was fun to read about.
What I didn’t like:
- To put it bluntly, all main characters could be classified as Mary-Sues. Or rather Gary-Stues as they are male. One short example. Scaurus allegedly comes from one of the oldest, most influential patrician Roman families, the Aemilia. They were one of the gentes maiores which members held the highest offices of the Roman state, from the early decades of the Republic to imperial times. Still strangely Marcus never says a word about his relatives left behind in Milan, where he was born, Rome or anywhere else. He never mentions his parents, uncles, cousins, not even a lover. It seems he was born a tribune, with a sword and an armor, and his life started with the Gaul campaign of Caesar…
- One scene in the first part almost made me drop the rest for good. Helvis, a local woman Scaurus fancied, was attacked during a riot and almost gang-raped. Fortunately our valiant tribune managed to rescue her in the last possible moment. What happened next? Imagine it or not, they had sex for the first time. Fantastic, hot sex. From a gang rape to an enthusiastic love-making in less than a minute… I know everybody has different sensibilities but that sounded so ugly and psychologically unbelievable to me that I stopped reading for a while and returned only because I am so damned curious.
- Connected to the previous point: women of this story. They are quite underdeveloped and schematic even if they clearly meant to have more importance (like Alypia Gavra, the princess of Videssos and a scholar modeled after Anna Komnene/Comnena or Helvis, the lover of Scaurus).
- The fourth book I consider to be the worst. It was obvious the author ran out of narrative steam and used some very crude solutions to different problems. The effect was less than decent.
- The last remark: how come the emperors of Videssos didn’t have (and didn’t even plan to have) spies among their enemies, the Yezda? Unbelievable…
Not the worst 80s fantasy series I’ve ever read but also an uneven one. Recommendable only to those who like ancient history and clever variations on that theme too much for their own good. And don’t even mention the Bechdel test…