Despite being a big fan of Simon's books, I have so far avoided his 'Tales of the Empire' series mostly due to the word 'fantasy' he uses is the description. I was wrong, and this is not a fantasy book. If anything, it is worth of the historical fiction label more so than the Marius' Mules or Praetorian series which are fictionalization of history, or historical fictionalization, if you will. Sounds like a minor difference in spelling, but it becomes obvious in meaning: whereas the two aforementioned series are based on very real and sometimes very well documented events, leaving the author with the sole task of fleshing out the documents and instill some life into characters, Tales of the Empire is completely made up, at least in terms of chronology and location. There is no doubt in anyone's mind when it comes to atmosphere or time period: we are in early empire Rome, and the changed names are not going to fool anyone, nor do they intend to. Simon's only justification for this is to have the freedom to invent his own campaigns and stray from the historical course of events. Alternative history, of sorts, that wretched thing historians hate and writers love.
Invasion deals with the conquest by 'the Empire' of an island just outside the continental mass, by the name of Alba. We are dealing with a reinterpretation of the Roman conquest of Britain in which Queen Cartimandua puts in an appearance in the guise of Verctissa, queen of the Albantes. Unlike any of his historical books though, this one does not have a lead hero on the part of the invaders, but three. There is a silent implication that Lucius Bellacon is the main guy in this story, but it is in fact the story of three Roman officers. I mean Imperial officers, of course.
Which means either or all could be killed at any point during the novel, and I did fear for their lives just like I feared for Fronto's once the main objective of Marius' Mules has been achieved.
Strangely enough, from a military point of view this book might be more accurate than its historical counterparts. It is more specific, for sure. The readers will familiarize themselves with Roman use of artillery in battles and the purposes and functionalities of scorpion bolt throwers. Plenty to cherish for the lovers of close combat or commando missions too, but I feel artillery is really the department that gets the bigger slice of this pie.
I bookmarked a self-sacrificial scene worthy to stay right next to the Oscar-nominated Hacksaw Ridge. Self-sacrifice for your fellow soldiers always makes for a good story, the only difference between this and Mel Gibson's is that Simon's soldiers do not consciously object to any sort on violence. Quite the opposite, actually.
Also in line with Simon's sympathetic view of the natives, we are introduced to Lissa, a native seer slave who is a key accompaniment to the action and the alleged story teller. Her background story is barely sketched, and for such an important character there are lots of gaps in her personal history. Just enough to fill up a book, I suppose, and I'm pretty sure there is a readership awaiting for that book, too.
Invasion ends just as it was predictable, so much so that Lissa sees the end from the very beginning: it's the conquerors' boot on the natives' neck and the conqueror's flag on top of the mud huts. But knowing the end of the journey takes nothing away from the pleasure of getting there, as it is often the case with Simon's writings.
I am, upon reading Invasion, intrigued by the 'Tales of the Empire' series and I shall take on to reading it. There is talk of Khans plundering the capital, how can one not want to see what's it all about in this beautiful historical mash-up with changed names?