Good Roman-era action tale but prompts a few cringes.
Title: A Man at Arms
Author: Steven Pressfield
Publisher: W. W. Norton & Company
Publication date: 3/2/2021
Characters: Telamon, David, Ruth, the sorceress, Severus, Timothy, Michael
Amazon Rank: #1,446 in Kindle Store
#1 in Ancient Historical Fiction
#4 in Ancient History Fiction (Books)
#7 in Historical Thrillers (Kindle Store)
Ray’s rating: 3.5 stars
A Man at Arms is a military action story set in the Judean and Mediterranean world of 55 CE. Like most of Mr. Pressfield’s novels, it is fast paced and has a realistic, gritty feel for the times and environment he is writing about. He drops the ball, though, with an omniscient narrative viewpoint that gets too omniscient at points.
Though I was disappointed with this novel overall, it does have some good bones. Mr. Pressfield knows his classical era history and especially how warriors were equipped and operated. And he does attempt to go beyond military genre fiction with his characterizations and subplots.
TROMPING THROUGH THE FIRST CENTURY
The story follows a group of characters over the Middle Eastern and Mediterranean landscape of the First Century CE. The group is lead by a mercenary (”Man at Arms”) and ex-Roman soldier named, Telamon. While near Jerusalem in Judea, Telamon saves a group of travelers from bandits. Among the travelers are a young teenager named, David, and a nine-year-old mute girl traveling with her father.
No sooner has Telamon saved this bunch of travelers than they are all captured by a company of Roman soldiers looking for the courier of a letter written by the Apostle Paul to the Christian Church at Corinth. The courier is young girl’s father, Michael. He steals a horse and they both escape. Because Telamon is ex-Legion, the local Roman Tribune, Severus, pays him to track down Michael and bring him back to the garrison. Telamon accepts the commission and sets out, accompanied by David and a “sorceress.”
The rest of the book is Telamon and company’s struggle to reach the Corinthian Church with the letter, which it turns out is contained in the mute girl, Ruth’s, head. Ruth can’t speak, but she can write. The intent is for her to write out the letter when it is safe to do so.
Along the way, Telamon has to fight more bandits, deal with hostile desert-dwellers and hostile Christians, fight more Romans, and endure various tortures.
VOICE OF THE CHORUS?
This is an action story and it moves at a fast pace. The middle section, especially, keeps the tension high and pulls the Reader along with “what’s he gonna do now” situations. This action is supported with realistic depictions of the weaponry used at that time and how it was used. Telamon’s instruction of David also provides insight into classical warrior training and tactics. Mr. Pressfield does well in tempering this material with plot development and character motivations.
There are, however, slow points in the story where Mr. Pressfield gives in to offering authorial explanations. At these points, he breaks into nonfiction. Chapter Two (”Order”) for example, is an essay on Roman rule in first century Judea. It begins:
TO UNDERSTAND THE TEMPER OF the historical moment in which the events of this tale took place, one must first acquire an appreciation of the alteration—material, political, and spiritual—wrought by Roman conquest upon the Hebrew inhabitants of Judea.
And he goes on to explain the alterations wrought by Roman conquest. This is interesting material from a historical perspective but to place it within the book’s narrative is jarring to say the least. It is the author talking directly to the reader. In my opinion, this material would have been better worked into the fiction narrative or contained in a Foreword.
The narrative viewpoint is omniscient. That is, the point-of-view shifts from one character to another. This is a common POV technique and can provide a movie-like quality to the storytelling. Most of the time it works and is not really noticeable to the reader (and it should not be), but at times, Mr. Pressfield takes it to the point of directly addressing the reader and so “breaking the fourth wall.” For example:
Kites and ravens soared overhead.
Had you flown among them, high above the wilderness floor, you would have seen the man-at-arms halt the train within a copse of terebinth and acacia, at the foot of a granite ridge.
And it goes on like this for another paragraph. Again, this is a jarring narrative technique and I don’t care for it. It may be that Mr. Pressfield is trying to simulate the structure of a Greek tragedy where a “chorus” would periodically address the audience and comment on things. If so, it doesn’t work for me.
While Mr. Pressfield does know his history, especially for this period, there are a few areas in his story that strike me as questionable. The biggest one concerns the Christians in 55 CE. I think it is clever to use the Apostle Paul’s writings as a plot device. But in doing so, the Romans are presented as being far more concerned with the Christians than I think they were at that time. I don’t believe that even Nero’s scapegoating translated to having a legion concerned with tracking down a Christian letter. I’m sure there are differing opinions on that, but that’s how it struck me.
Mr. Pressfield does, however, give a feel for the level of Jewish fervor for rebellion at the time. He might have gone a little deeper into that thread.
Character development is not usually a big part of genre action stories. When it is, it takes the story to a more interesting level. Mr. Pressfield is usually pretty good at this (at least he was in Gates of Fire), but doesn’t do so well in this novel. The Tribune, Severus is too one-dimensional. He is basically every Roman higher-up in every Roman movie ever made. The soldiers are about the same—Roman soldier brutes.
Mr. Pressfield does try to show some nuance and development in Telamon’s character. Where he does, is probably the best part of the book from the standpoint of character and “family” theme development.
Though there is a lot of action, the plot is not intricate. Subplots are barely there. Some scenes feel like they wrap-up too quickly, or turn on doubtful points. The biggest such doubtful turning comes at the story’s conclusion. I won’t give the ending away, it is just that the final turning point felt to me like the “Martha” moment in Batman vs Superman.
MAYBE GOOD ON THE SCREEN IF BETTER INTERPRETED
Mr. Pressfield is a fine writer and military-action storyteller, especially with fiction set in the Greek and Roman classical world. I think he misses his potential with this book, though. It is not nearly as well-done as his previous works (re: Gates of Fire). Even so, if you are really into military action and classical history, you could do worse than A Man at Arms. It would probably even make a good movie, and maybe a good series if interpreted by a talented screenwriter. Otherwise, I can only give this novel a medium rating and note that Mr. Pressfield can do better.