The Better of Two Men

Written by J.D. Smith
Review by Nick Brown

This is the third in the Overlord series and although it can be read as a standalone story, enjoyment would be enhanced by having read the first two. It is set in Ancient Syria on the unstable eastern fringe of the late Roman Empire. The narrative is seen from the perspective of Zabdas who, through a combination of birth and talent, is part of the inner circle of the ruling family of Syria who are perched uncomfortably in the zone disputed and fought over between Rome and Persia.

Told both as the events happen and in retrospect thirty years later, this could make for confused reading, but the writing is sufficiently skilled to make it work. The novel is dominated by the wilful and forceful character of Queen Zenobia who Zabdas both serves and loves. Set in a brutal age of war and treachery this is a book that deals with the subtleties and treacheries of politics rather than an action thriller. It is not a particularly well-known or documented sphere of history and the author brings it to life by attributing compelling personalities to the, in some cases, real but shadowy lives the novel describes.

At its heart this is a novel of the complex challenges and betrayals associated with the uncertainties of grasping and keeping power in a volatile and violent world. Being caught between two powerful rival empires, the choices open to Zenobia and King Odenathus are both limited and fraught with danger. The ending is effective and sets up the ground for the next in the series well.

There are a few blemishes in the text of the edition I reviewed, and although a minor detail, the incorrect spelling of the word ‘Men’ on the spine of the cover is a pity.

An enjoyable, interesting and intelligent book, posing questions that are just as  relevant today.