I also don’t have a lot of interest in North American Indians pre-European contact – except the so-called Mound Builders aka the Cahokians.
But Romans and Cahokians? Well, I’m glad I couldn’t resist.
I will even smugly note that I’ve read some of the books in Smale’s bibliography though nowhere near the hundreds Smale did. I see there have been a whole lot of books on the Mound Builders published since I read the reprint of Robert Silverberg’s non-fiction The Mound Builders.
Review: Clash of Eagles by Alan Smales, 2014.
Smale’s debut novel falls short of practicing the true alternate history faith yet has enough imagination and realism to recommend it.
In the year 1218, the Roman Empire has survived. Its Western European provinces has remained. It has expanded into Viking lands. There, after intercepting a Viking pirate ship returning from Vinlandia, Rome has made a welcome discovery: gold idols in the ships hold. Imperator Hadrianus III senses a new source of revenue in Nova Hesperia, as they dub North America. The Emperor needs revenue to buy influence and popularity, and he needs those to push the frontiers of the Empire to encircle the world.
So our hero, Praetor Marcellinus, is ordered to take his 33rd Legion to conquer Nova Hesperia. And there, in a confrontation with the mound-building Cahokians, that legion is wiped out, and Marcellinus becomes a prisoner in Cahokia, an ancient and once quite real city near modern day St. Louis.
The book’s plot surprised me enough that I will be vague about it. I thought Smale’s characterization, particularly how Marcellinus reconciles his actions in Cahokia with his belief that Romans will again return to Nova Hesperia, well done. Smale avoids romantic clichés in Marcellinus’ relationship with Sintikala, a woman who leads an important group in Cahokia.
The warfare in this novel – and there’s plenty – is realistic and interesting enough that I would not be surprised if it eventually inspires a wargame. The book is also supplied with maps. Smale also throws in a glossary of Roman military terms and an explanation of the Cahokian calendar.
The attitudes and brutality of the two civilizations seem historically accurate and not altered for modern sensibilities.
So what do I mean by it failing in the true alternate history faith?
First, Smale doesn’t provide any specific event that diverted events from those of our timeline. The Roman Empire’s trauma of the third century AD is avoided, but we don’t know how.
Second, Smale knowingly postulates a certain advanced piece of technology for the Cahokians that they never possessed in history.
Also, for a book that acknowledges Jared Diamond’s Guns, Germs, and Steel, there is no mention of disease exchange between old and new worlds.
And Smale also plays with an unhistorical notion – and modern cliché – the Warrior Babe. Though he doesn’t go all the way with it which is a blessing.
But the cultural collision Smale builds a story around is very uncommon – I’m aware of no other Romans vs. Cahokian tales. His plot is surprising. His afterword promises to open up the North American setting in future volumes of the Hesperian Trilogy, so I’m onboard for the next book in the series.
Expanded Criticism with Spoilers
Like hard science fiction, the writer of alternate history faces harsher criticism the greater his ambition and imagination.
For me, the ideal alternate history restricts itself to plausible alterations in history stemming from a pivot on “a sharp agate point, on which the ponderous balance of destiny turns”. (A handy phrase from one Winston Churchill’s excursion into alternate history: “If Lee Had Not Won the Battle of Gettysburg”.) That “sharp agate point” need not be an obvious one. The less obvious the better if the story can justify the importance of that point by showing how far events then deviate from our history.
Alternate history does not use supernatural elements. No supernatural beings. No magic.
An alternate history does not evade its imaginative challenge by chronicling events up to the moment of divergence. An alternate history does not just say things worked out differently in the past of the author’s created world. That may be fantasy, that may be science fiction, but it’s not restricted enough to be a true alternate history. The divergence may be based on factors entirely outside human control: physical constants, epidemiological events, meteor impacts, etc.
Smale tries to get by, in Appendix III to his novel, with the following rationale for his alternate history: “After the death of Septimius Severus in 211 AD., the bloody civil war between his sons Caracalla and Geta nearly destroyed the Imperium. No one then alive could have foreseen that that decade long firestorm would forge a new, stronger Roma that would last another thousand years.”
I had enough familiarity with Roman history to correctly guess the approximate time of the divergence, but I was disappointed Smale didn’t list a specific event, a battle, a decision, that went differently in his world. On the other hand, to be fair to Smale, there are not a lot of good historical documents from that period in Roman history. It’s hard to state what event turned out differently when our knowledge of specific events is sparse.
Smale’s other divergence from known history is more serious and touches on other problems I had with his story. He gives the inhabitants of Nova Hesperia flight technology, specifically hang gliders. To be sure, there is no impossibility to them building such devices. But they didn’t, and Smale acknowledges there is no justification to think the mound building cultures ever came close to it.
They serve the story by adding an extra dimension to the battles Smale imagines. I suspect, though, they are also there to make an argument: the New World’s inhabitants were just as capable of inventing a radically new technology as Europeans. It’s Smale’s answer to a large historical question: why was the small population of Europe able to dominate the world?
It’s the same question asked by Jared Diamond’s Guns, Germs, and Steel, a book important to Smale. In Appendix V of the book, where Smale suggests non-fiction reading on the history and cultures of Rome and the Cahokians, he lists Diamond’s book as one of two that changed his life.
I understand how plausible sounding and convincing Diamond’s book can be. I felt the same way after I read it.
I am less convinced now, though, of Diamond’s location, location, location argument to explain the dominance of Eurasian cultures over African and American. Anthropologist Peter Frost notes higher levels of technological development in the Americas than sub-Saharan Africa which contradicts Diamond’s theory that continental orientation along a north-south axis is less favored than an east-west orientation. It is not at all clear that the wild animals of Eurasia were any tamer than the wild animals of the Americas and Africa. Specifically, Przewalski’s horse doesn’t seem inherently tamer than zebras. (Zebras have, in fact, been domesticated on occasion.)
Finally, Diamond seems to consciously ignore that environment alters not just opportunities to domesticate animals and disease pools and cultivatable land. It acts on genetic selection. To argue that groups of humans in different environments for thousands of years did not undergo selection in physical and mental traits seems willfully blind.
Smale suggests, even if only for the purpose of his fiction, that the Cahokians could have developed flight.
Perhaps it is yet another alternate history speculation, but, as with his survival of the western Roman Empire, it is unexplained and even vaguer in origin. Another element of the best alternative histories is that they limit themselves to one change. Smale violates that altenate history aesthetic for me.
Frankly, giving the Cahokians flight seems to be a buyin to the specious modern argument that obvious Western superiority in developing the hardware of civilization and science and technology was very accidental. I suspect it was a combination of environment shaping European talents and personalities, peculiarly European institutions, and accident.
Oddly, though, Smale ignores completely an element of Diamond’s hypothesis I do agree with. The importance of European germs being accidentally unleashed on vulnerable populations. We never hear of any disease epidemics running through the Indians despite the presence of Viking settlements in Vinlandia and a whole legion arriving in Chesapeake Bay. To be fair to Smale, though, we know of no disease epidemics that occurred in our time from the Vinlandia settlement. They only became a factor after Columbus’ arrival.
And as to the Warrior Babe here …
The Warrior Babe is an annoying literary cliché and a great improbability.
I am unaware of any regular appearance of warrior women in Amerindian cultures. Indeed, the only legitimate case of warrior women in history I’m aware of is Scythian women who not only dressed in warrior gear but seem, given the injuries to their skeletons, to have actually battled. (They are suspected to be the historical basis for the Amazons.)
And as to modern Warrior Babes … There is empirical evidence that the vast bulk of even highly motivated women in the military simply cannot perform at anything close to their male peers.
I call them Warrior Babes because they exist mostly in stories to be hot chicks interested in the same things as all the guys are – a failure to meet the challenge of depicting real women instead of fetish objects. Also, as Silvia Moreno-Garcia has recently said, they represent a very restrictive sense of what a “strong” woman is.
There are two warrior women here. One, a minor character, is more the clichéd Warrior Babe. Sintikala, as leader of the clan of Cahokian flyers, is less so. It makes sense a lighter woman would be a flier, and, while she may subdue Marcellinus by surprise once, it’s not at all clear she can best him in combat again.
Those are the problems I have with the book. Now the good parts.
First off, Smale does not do a Dances with Wolves plot with Marcellinus eventually joining the Cahokians against a new Roman invasion. Rather, Smale has him realistically trying to rationalize what some would consider treason to make the Cahokians advanced enough in their civilization to be respected by the Romans show up again and not get the treatment the Gauls did under Ceasar. Marcellinus does bring innovation to the Cahokians, but Smale doesn’t do the sort of things the protagonist of L. Sprague de Camp’s Lest Darkness Fall in introducing all sorts of new cultural, political, and technological innovations to stop the Dark Ages from happening. Marcellinus has a slower, more plausible road to slog along.
Second, a prominent part of the story is the Mourning War between the Iroqua and the Cahokians. At the climax of the novel, the Iroqua launch, using siege engines and Viking ships captured at the Roman base in Chesapeake Bay, a joint river and land assault on Cahokia. While it is true that the cultures of the Americans never got beyond the Stone Age, they could certainly figure out ways of using innovations from Europe. A spectacular example is the Plains Indians use of horses after they were introduced into North America.
Here the Iroqua exhibit that flexibility like the Cahokians. It is also a good example of what Kenneth W. Harl, in his lectures on “Rome and the Barbarians”, emphasizes: Rome’s presence often strengthened its barbarian enemies since they observed its military tactics and technology and imitated them. Marcellinus brings Roman tactics and weapons to Cahokian, but the Iroqua have not stood still in their tactics. At novel’s end, the Cahokians, in a reversal for Marcellinus, come to resent the turmoil his presence has brought, the benefits of his innovations seemingly short-lived.
Third, Smale doesn’t bestow ahistorical gentleness on either Cahokians or Romans. Smale specifically, in the novel and appendix, notes that Amerindians took scalps before Europeans ever showed up. The Romans are as brutal as you would expect too. Marcellinus saves Sintikala from being raped by his legionnaires on their first meeting – an act regarded as odd and unwise by his officers. Sexual attraction and respect plays something in Marcellinus’ demeanor around Sintikala. But her daughter also reminds him of the relationship he never had with his daughter too, a plausible explanation for his gentleness towards.
So, Smale has not produced a good alternate history, but he has produced an interesting and enjoyable story with some solid history too, and I really am curious to see the next installment of the trilogy.