Colossus: Stone & Steel
This is the first of a planned series of four novels set at the time of the first Jewish-Roman war. As the story gets underway in 66 BC, rebel Judeans, angered by the Roman Governor’s treatment of native Judeans, inflict a humiliating defeat on Roman troops at the Battle of Beth Horon. Judah, an apprentice stonemason, finds himself at the heart of the battle and emerges a hero. However, as the rebels celebrate, their more cautious countrymen realise that the victory has ensured that Rome must now move to crush the rebellion as a sign to the rest of the Empire that opposition to Roman rule cannot succeed.
Judea makes ready to face a large Roman army, a task that is made more difficult by splits in Judean society, between zealots and moderates, and between Judean cities. Among those who seek to use the situation to their own advantage is an ambitious young Jewish priest, Yosef, who has lived in Rome but has returned to take a leading role in Jerusalem only to find the hierarchy he wants to control is now in peril. Judah finds that his heroics have not impressed the family of the girl he wants to marry and instead he is drawn into the preparations for war by Yosef. We also see the run-up to the war on the Roman side as the commander Vespasian – later to be Emperor Vespasian – and his son Titus eagerly seize an opportunity to reverse their falling fortunes and gain glory in Rome by destroying the rebellion.
The author has taken a period that’s not often used in historical fiction and produced an exciting and compelling story. The complex background situation involving the different players in Judea and the priestly factions is handled well. Many of the characters are based on historical figures – the ambitious priest will later be the historian Josephus – and these are nicely balanced with fictional characters such as Deborah, the girl Judah loves, and her objectionable mother. With the exception of some interludes of verbal sparring on philosophical themes which slowed the pace, I found myself engrossed in the story. With Vespasian’s campaign still in the early stages at the close, it’s very much the opening of a series, but I shall look forward to the next instalment.