The Charioteer: A Roman Adventure Story by Jemahl Evans [Book Review]
The Charioteer by Jemahl Evans is the first in a new series. It is set in time of the emperor Justinian when the Roman Empire becomes the Byzantine Empire. Based on a marginal note in Procopius’s history about the first recorded industrial espionage. The Charioteer uses real characters from history that Jehmal Evans has skilfully woven together into a story as fine as the silk his characters are stealing the secret of making.
There are three main characters, including the Charioteer, and a small cast of important supporting characters. We find them thrust into a quest to redeem themselves, or their family, by Narses, the Emperor’s treasurer. This quest sends them off along the silk road to meet a contact with silkworm eggs for them to bring back to Constantinople. Along the way they have to avoid Persians, bandits, a local war, and their inner demons.
Dogged by a Persian agent they struggle to overcome obstacles in their way to move eastwards along the overland route to Tashkent. Accompanied by a small troop of bucellarii the companions get to know each other, and themselves. There are three characters firmly based on their real historical people.
- Cosmas, also known as the Rat, is a proselytising Christian with a firm belief that the world is flat.
- Cal, also Porphyrius the Charioteer, comes to terms with the ravages of advancing age on his body, and seeks to understand why Narses has sent him on the voyage.
- Theo, a disgraced military commander, tries to show his buccellarii that he’s grown from the spoilt brat into a responsible commander worthy of their respect.
The supporting cast, including a couple of monks, and some merchants met along the way, help the characters grow and fulfill their journey, both spiritually and literally.
There are many obstacles for the companions. We have fights with bandits where the conclusion is not safe for any of the party. There are a couple of chariot races, including the first where Cal, famed for always winning, loses because the race was rigged against him by Narses. We also have natural disasters, the climate, and the sheer difficulty of travelling thousands of miles overland. There are high points, discoveries of new things, friendships made, love, and low points, lost comrades, battles, and frustrations.
I’m not quite as up on late Roman/early Byzantine history as I am on that of the mid-17th Century. (See my reviews of Jemahl Evan’s previous Blandford Candy epics). This feels like a good period piece. The parts I did know about, or searched between chapters, were absolutely bang on. Charioteer is set in an eventful period, with instability across the area the characters visit. We have Persian intrigue to destablise Rome. Conflict between the Huns and the Goturks on the steppe. There’s also a major natural disaster and a few minor weather events.
The Charioteer Overall
Overall I really enjoyed The Charioteer. It was a great mix of action, adventure, and history with real human stories. I could feel an empathy for the characters, even the ones I didn’t like much (e.g. the Persian). Nothing was straightforward, and the end wasn’t too obvious. (Although it was a fairly happy ending.) There will be a follow-up story, which I am very much looking forward to!