Historical fiction is a difficult genre. The writer has to try to balance accurate details of historical events with the need to maintain an interesting and well-paced dramatic story. While history is full of dramatic incidents, the pace of history is not the pace of interpersonal events, and the great tales of history rarely can be told neatly in the way a purely fictional tale must be.
So, I have to applaud my fellow blogger P.M. Prescott for even attempting such a work with his novel, Optimus: Praetorian Guard. The novel follows the career of a Roman soldier, Sextus Cassius Optimus, spanning roughly from the reign of Nero to the end of the Flavian Dynasty.
Optimus begins as a rough-and-tumble soldier, who craves women, wine and gambling. However, when he is assigned to guard Paul the Apostle, he gradually is converted to the new Christian religion through talking with the prisoner, as well as his scribe, Luke. Thereafter, Optimus changes his ways and begins to atone for many of his past misdeeds. The second half of the book follows how Optimus and his Christian family and friends are affected by turmoil in the Roman Empire.
The protagonist is well fleshed-out, and his character arc is satisfying. He goes from being an aggressive, almost sex-crazed man with a hot temper to a more calm, reasonable person after his religious conversion. I especially liked when, during his turn to Christianity, he likens the spiritual and emotional discipline of the Christians to the military discipline of the Roman legions. It makes the character seem more realistic, as this really is the way a person would come to such a realization.
The biggest flaw in the novel lies, ironically, in what is probably one of Prescott’s greatest strengths: his knowledge of history. P.M. was a history teacher, and his knowledge of his subject absolutely comes through here. The problem is, unfortunately, that this strength–absolutely indispensable for this type of book–also at times detracts from the flow of the story. There were a few instances where there was a little too much information on things like Roman military tactics, or background information on Roman politics, that was delivered in a manner that halted the flow of the story.
I don’t envy Prescott’s challenge here–indeed, it’s almost a no-win situation for any author. Had there been less background information, readers who have little familiarity with ancient Rome might not understand certain plot points. (For example, why one character is unable to leave her abusive husband under Roman law.) But on the other hand, when the background information is put in, it risks boring readers who came for the entertaining story, not the history lessons.
In a few places, Prescott gets around this by having the exposition lines delivered by adults explaining things to children. This is a good device, since it makes logical sense for children to not understand everyday customs.
My only major criticism of the book would be that it might have been better to trust readers to learn some information for themselves, either from the context or else from their own research. The occasional lengthy descriptions of Roman customs, though interesting to a historian, kill the dramatic flow.
Despite this issue, however, I very much enjoyed Optimus, and would recommend it to anyone who likes Roman history, or history in general. My favorite scenes are the conversations Optimus has with Luke and Paul. Prescott is not afraid to have his protagonist raise some tough theological/philosophical questions, or to have them answered in an appropriately thought-provoking manner. It’s a very interesting and compelling depiction of Christianity in its infancy, and helps give a sense of both how and why what was initially a very small offshoot of Judaism grew to have such influence.
I highly encourage my readers to check it out. I know first-hand that writing and self-publishing a book is a very difficult undertaking, and it’s always nice to get some support and feedback. Prescott has been a great help to me, both as a blogger and as an author, and I’d like to see his work get some well-deserved recognition.