You might be familiar with Damion Hunter (actually a pen name for Amanda Cockrell) – their books regularly show on my Amazon page as “suggested reading” and, with great titles and cover art, I’ve always wondered what they were like. Until now, I had no idea.
I was very kindly sent an advance copy of Hunter’s new novel, Shadow of the Eagle, by the publisher Canelo and told this was to be that publishing house’s first ever historical fiction hardback. That’s how much they believe in the book so I thought it better be good! Canelo publish fantastic authors like Glyn Iliffe, Robert Low, Simon Turney, and Angus Donald, yet they’ve chosen Shadow of the Eagle to be their first hardback in this genre. Does it live up to and deserve that distinction? Conn Iggulden, Simon Scarrow and Gordon Doherty have all endorsed it, but did I enjoy it? Read on…
First off, the book is set in Roman Britain which is probably my favourite “fictional” place so that’s a good start. And we follow the adventures of a young centurion, Faustus, learning his trade which, again, is something I really enjoy in a book. There’s battles, moments of tenderness with the girls our hero meets (Eirian was my favourite, she totally kicks arse!), and some politics (not too much though). Sounds like your typical historical romp, doesn’t it? Well, not quite. It’s certainly got enough elements of that kind of fiction so if you love, say, Simon Scarrow’s work you’ll enjoy this too, but there’s more than that here.
Hunter brings in mild fantasy elements which I know some readers might find off-putting but please don’t be, as, for me, it added an extra dimension to the story. There’s two things in particular which I was surprised by at first, but one in particular I found myself wanting to read more about. First, Faustus meets his dead father on quite a few occasions – I was never sure whether this was a ghost, a hallucination, or merely some kind of daydream the young centurion was having. It came across to me as if it was a ghost, which did jar the first time I realised what was going on, but no-one else ever sees this ghost, so it’s quite possible the whole thing is in Faustus’s head, keeping the book safely in the historical fiction realm rather than moving into fantasy. I’m interested to see how this idea develops in future books, as it does give us an idea of the hero’s internal struggles, and how he’s dealing with the fact he sold his family’s farm to leave it all behind and become a soldier.
Secondly, during Faustus’s travels through Britain with the legion he meets “small, dark people” who are almost magical, faery-like beings. Now, as the author says in the note at the end, these characters are not based on any real, historical, people who were around at that time – in fact, there may well have NEVER been anyone like it. And that, I imagine, will upset historical purists who view novels of this type as a history lesson as well as a story. I understand that mindset, but, to me, a book should be a great tale first and foremost and, if the addition of some very minor “mystical” elements adds something to the overall flavour I’m all for it. And, in this case, it really does. I found myself being greatly intrigued by these little folk who remain on the periphery of the story without ever really coming that much into it, and that just added nicely to their mystique. Again, I’m interested to see how this idea develops as the series goes on as it added something a little different to the book and, given how congested – and often rather dryly written – this Roman subgenre is nowadays, I thought it elevated Shadow of the Eagle from the pack.
There’s not a huge amount of action but there’s enough to keep readers entertained, and the whole thing barrels along at a good pace. I’ve mentioned the fantastical themes, but there’s also quite a bit about Agricola and the history of the legions in Britain at this time, along with the various native tribes – one scene in particular, a fight between a couple of rival Caledonian chiefs, is superbly written and really gets the reader’s adrenaline going, true edge-of-the-seat stuff! Overall, the story never feels at all lightweight – this is a well-researched historical epic with various ingredients adding up to a very tasty dish and it covers a LOT of ground, right up to the Orcades in the far north, really bringing Britain to life along the way.
Shadow of the Eagle is the first book in the Borderlands series which, given all the various themes running through it, will surely become a real fan favourite for years to come. It’s a riveting, rich, and rewarding novel that every historical fiction lover needs to read. Due to be published on May 22, 2022 in hardback and ebook, you can click the link HERE to go to the publisher’s page where you can find buy/pre-order links and more info!
P.S. – In my review I mentioned the distinction between historical fiction and historical fantasy. I wrote a blog post about that a few years ago which now seems even more relevant as, when my agent was trying to find a publisher for The Druid, he said the editors he was submitting it to weren’t sure if it was fiction or fantasy and some even wanted me to add a load of magic and stuff to it which I was dead against. You can find my blog about it HERE.
Yorkshire, 1325 AD
“Your brother ain’t here lass,” the man spat, stepping towards her. “And this time you are going for a swim.”
There was a snap and a shocking blur of motion as an arrow tore from the thick summer foliage behind the girl and hit the approaching man’s thigh. The missile buried itself in the muscle so hard that it knocked him off his feet and he screamed in agony as the excited dogs began barking and straining at the ropes that tethered them to the cart. In contrast, the great brown bear in the cage looked on in silence.
“My brother IS here, lad,” Marjorie hissed, eyes moving from the fallen man to his stunned companions. “And so are his friends.”
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