Publisher: Zaffre (Trade Paperback – 5 January 2022)
Series: Standalone/Warrior of Rome
Length: 344 pages
My Rating: 4.75 out of 5 stars
One of my favourite historical fiction authors, Harry Sidebottom, returns with another epic and intense historical adventure, The Burning Road, a fun-filled, action-packed thriller.
There are some amazing historical fiction authors out there now who focus on Roman history to create some excellent and compelling novels. However, one of the best is the extremely talented Harry Sidebottom, a historian turned author who has been producing some awesome and unique reads. I have been a major fan of Sidebottom ever since reading his debut novel, Fire in the East (an exceptional siege novel) back in 2008. I really enjoyed his Warrior of Rome (which followed a Germanic Roman soldier, Ballista) and Throne of the Caesars series, both of which contained some exceptional historical elements. Sidebottom has also had a lot of success recently with some standalone novels, especially his last three books, which cleverly combined his historical knowledge with elements from thriller subgenres. This included his 2018 release, The Last Hour, which brought back Ballista and set him on a 24-esque romp through ancient Rome; The Lost Ten, which was reminiscent of special forces thrillers; and The Return, a dark and complex murder mystery that had interesting Scandi noir overtones. I deeply enjoyed all these previous novels, and I was very excited when I received a copy of Sidebottom’s latest book, The Burning Road, a couple of weeks ago.
Sicily, 265 AD. Throughout the strategic volcanic island, a call of freedom has been heard as a charismatic slave starts to rally his fellow enslaved workers. The various estates and towns are in a state of uproar as vicious slaves and captured barbarian warriors rise up to kill their masters. As the revolution gains strength and results in greater bloodshed, the fate of the island may rest in the hands of a legendary warrior, Marcus Clodius Ballista.
After years of fighting for corrupt emperors and battling deadly Roman politics, Ballista is finally free from his responsibilities, determined to enter retirement. Whilst travelling with his eldest son, Marcus, to his estates on Sicily, their ship hits a terrible storm, forcing it aground on the west coast of the island. Barely surviving the rough surf and destructive storm, Ballista and Marcus are soon thrust into even greater danger when a band of armed slaves mercilessly kills the other shipwrecked survivors.
Barely escaping the rampaging slaves, Ballista leads his son inland, hoping to discover what chaos has befallen Sicily. They soon discover that the entire island is in revolution, with any non-slave at risk at being killed or brutalised. Determined to keep his son alive and rescue his family on the other side of the island, Ballista and Marcus attempt to cross the entirety of Sicily on foot. Constantly harassed by marauding bands of former slaves, the two Romans must find a way to survive and reach their family before it is too late. But can the old veteran and rash youth work together to survive and save all of Sicily, or will one of Rome’s greatest warriors finally be finished off by rampaging slaves?
Wow, now this was a fun and intense novel from Sidebottom, who once again highlights his skill as a particularly inventive author of Roman historical fiction. I deeply enjoyed The Burning Road, especially as Sidebottom once again combines compelling historical elements with an impressive and action-packed thriller storyline.
I had a lot of fun with the incredible and extremely fast-paced narrative that Sidebottom featured in The Burning Road. While it took me a little while to get into this book (mainly because I couldn’t find any reading time), once I started, I honestly couldn’t stop, and I ended up powering through The Burning Road in less than a day. The Burning Road has a brilliant story that pits Sidebottom’s best protagonist, Ballista, and his teenage son right in the middle of an intense slave revolt on Sicily. Sidebottom sets this all up perfectly, with a quick prologue to establish that the slave revolt has occurred, before focusing entirely on Ballista and Marcus, who are shipwrecked off the coast of the island. At first, the scenario reminded me of another historical fiction novel, The Gladiator by Simon Scarrow, which featured slaves revolting on Crete. However, Sidebottom takes this in a very different direction, with a dark and non-stop story that sees the protagonist forced to navigate across the island, encountering all manner of odd characters and a ton of enemies. The first two-thirds of the book see the protagonists on their own, walking a hellish volcanic landscape filled with murderous slaves, which was so damn cool. Sidebottom was clearly trying to emulate some post-apocalyptic thrillers here, and there is even a scene that is a brilliant homage to The Road. This makes for some intense and bloody sequences, and you will find yourself glued to the pages as you wait to see what danger they will encounter next. The final third of the book sees Sidebottom return to his original writing element as Ballista is drafted into leading the defence of a besieged city. This leads to an amazing and unique set of siege sequences, as Ballista and a small force of civilians attempt to hold back an overwhelming army of enraged slaves, which leads to a bloody and satisfying conclusion. I loved this brilliant combination of story elements, especially the brutal walk across Sicily, and it makes for one heck of a story.
One of the best things about The Burning Road was the compelling central characters, especially as Sidebottom used it to tell a touching an enjoyable father-son story. The first of these is Ballista, the protagonist of the Warrior of Rome series, who returns for another gruelling adventure. As a former Germanic prince turned Roman soldier, siege expert and noble, Ballista is an old hand at danger and once again rises to the challenge even with his advancing age. However, this time Ballista is forced to undertake his battled filled journey with his young teenage son, Marcus (also called Isangrim). Setting Ballista and Marcus up as the main point of view characters, Sidebottom tells a fascinating tale that not only follows their desperate journey but which dives into their relationship and personality. Due to Ballista’s military career, these two aren’t particularly close, with Marcus slightly resenting his barbarian father. However, over the course of the book the two slowly grow closer as they face constant ordeal. Sidebottom paces this growth in their relationship perfectly and you soon get really invested in seeing how much they begin to trust and rely on each other. I enjoyed seeing this paternal side of Ballista, which enhanced his already complex character, and Marcus grows to become an enjoyable companion, especially as he begins to realise everything his father has done for him and how he has tried to prepare him. This great father-son relationship becomes a major part of the book’s plot, and it put me in mind of some other similar adventures such as The Road, or even the recent God of War game (I may have imagined Ballista speaking in Christopher Judge’s voice). This was a brilliant and powerful heart to the entire book, and it will be fascinating to see how much Marcus is featured in any of Sidebottom’s future novels.
I was also very impressed with the interesting historical detail that Sidebottom featured throughout The Burning Road. The author has clearly done a ton of research on the various subjects contained within and there is a comprehensive reference section at the back, including a history book written by Sidebottom himself. As such there is an amazing sense of authenticity to the setting and figures featured within The Burning Road which really helps to drag the reader into the story. This period of Roman history has always been a rich ground for Sidebottom’s novels, and it was fascinating to see some more detail about the politics of the time. I loved all the awesome detail about Sicily, which proves to be an exceptional and fascinating background setting for the story. Sidebottom, who has visited Sicily many times, does a great job of filling in the historical blanks around the island and he portrays it as it would have appeared during Roman times. All this impressive attention to environmental detail results in some cool romps through forests, mountains and ancient towns, and I think that the author really captured the historical soul of this island. One of the big historical elements that Sidebottom invests a lot of time exploring is slavery during the Roman era. The author includes a fascinating examination of how slaves are treated during this period, as well as some of the philosophical thought surrounding the entire process, both from the masters and the slaves. The subsequent slave revolt really helps to highlight the Romans’ reliance on a large population of slaves to maintain their society and having the outsider Ballista explore this provided an interesting alternate perspective to the practice. I also deeply appreciate the desperation and anger that the various slave characters had, which helped to turn them into a sympathetic enemy, even if you want the protagonists to survive more. All this really added a lot to the overall story, and I look forward to seeing which area or historical period Sidebottom will explore next.
The Burning Road was another exceptional and epic read from Harry Sidebottom, who continues to flourish as one of the most inventive and exciting authors of historical fiction out there. This latest novel features an intense and unique historical fiction tale chock full of action, character growth and some fascinating bits of period detail. I had an absolute blast getting through this amazing novel, and The Burning Road comes very highly recommended as a result.