by Alan Smale

Del Rey


432pp/$24.99/March 2015

Clash of Eagles

Reviewed by Steven H Silver

Clash of Eagles is an expansion of Alan Smaleís Sidewise Award winning story of the same title and the first book in a trilogy. The novel focuses on an alternative world in which the Western Roman Empire does not fall an discovers North America during the height of the Mississippian culture. After leading a legion from the east coast into the interior, Gaius Marcellinus comes into contact with the Cahokian civilization.

The opening section is the original story, which ends with the apparent death of its protagonist, Gaius Marcellinus. That doesnít work well for expanding the story into a novel (or a trilogy), so Smale reveals that Gaius has been spared his apparent death. This allows Smale to continue the story using two common tropes. Surrounded by the strange society of the Cahokians, Gaius is the outsider who provides the reader with an entry to the strange world. Even as Gaius is attempting to understand the ways of the Cahokians, he also is trying to bring his version of civilization to them, offering them Roman knowledge, as a sort of Connecticut Yankee. Gaius has mixed success in both of his endeavors.

Because Gaius is the viewpoint character and his command of the Cahokian language is incomplete, as is his understanding of the Cahokian civilization, Gaius is something of an unreliable narrator. His interactions with his guardians/helpers, the children of Cahokia, are tinged by his expectations, not by what they are actually doing. At the same time, he clearly doesnít understand what the adults of Cahokia are doing, what they find important, or their political structure, attempting to apply his own preconceptions to what he is seeing.

Despite the distance Gaius has from the Cahokians, he is able to build relationships with them, which allows him to become reasonably effective, although his efficacy is tempered by those among the Cahokians who donít trust him or are resistant to change. By focusing on the younger generation, with whom he is most easily able to communicate, Gaius is able to move his agenda forward.

Apart from Gaiusís own struggles with the society in which he has found himself, Smaleís biggest success in Clash of Eagles is his creation of not only a complex culture for the Cahokians, based, of course, on his research into the actual Mississippian culture, but of the surrounding tribes. Even as the Cahokians begin their clashes with their neighbors, Smale is laying down the groundwork for future interactions between the Cahokians, other tribes we see in Clash of Eagles, a future Roman invasion, and tribes which are only hinted at in the novel.

Smaleís fresh setting and his penchant for research carry the novel through some of its slower portions as Gaius begins to figure out his place in Cahokian society and how to make himself understood, and how to understand, the world in which he has found himself. These same things set the book apart from so many other similar stories in which the protagonist finds himself in a world not of his own making, the novel carefully setting the reader up for its sequel, Eagle in Exile.

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