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Clash of Eagles
by Alan Smale
Del Rey, $27.00, 388pp
Published: March 2015

In this epic alternate-history story, the author considers a different future for an as-yet-unknown Native American people who lived in a great city on the banks of the Mississippi.  Do a web search for Cahokian mounds, before you begin this story. In the real world, the people who built the enormous mounds in Illinois disappeared so long ago that there is no trace, either physical or in oral traditions, left of them. We enter the story in the 13th century…

Gaius Marcellinus is a Roman Praetor in command of a legion landed on the eastern shore of the new world.  Rome has finally turned its eyes toward this unknown land in search of gold.  Gaius’ orders are to march westward until he finds gold.  In his Roman arrogance, he views his Legion as an unstoppable force rolling over the indigenous primitives.  But the guerrilla tactics of the Iroqua of the great lakes region begin to have a deleterious effect on his troops.  So, by the time they reach the upper Mississippi and encounter a large, civilized city he sees an opportunity to restore and revitalize his troops by taking and wintering in the city.  His ignorance of his enemy and their capabilities is his downfall; his entire Legion is destroyed and only he is kept alive – for intelligence.

As the months wear on, his isolation is broken by interaction with the city’s children who are sent to him to learn his language.  And, slowly, his loyalty is transferred to the Cahokians, a people he learns to respect and love.  As his communication skills advance, with the help of the children, he willingly offers his skills and training to give the Cahokians an advantage over their hereditary enemies, the Iroqua.

The bulk of the story focuses on Gaius adjusting to his new life and forging bonds of affection and, even, love with the Cahokians.  He is also haunted by the loss of his Legion and fears a future where more Romans follow in his path.  He is determined to help the Cahokians advance faster, technologically and socially, so that when that time comes, they will be more valuable to Roma as an ally than as a conquered people.  But, although, he becomes a valued and respected member of the Cahokian society, neither he nor they anticipated the true future.  Rather than a meeting of equals between Cahokia and Roma, Gaius may be responsible for bloodshed and warfare on a scale that would have been impossible before his arrival. 

This was a very entertaining story and the characters were well-drawn, coming alive with the author’s intent.  I appreciated the author’s efforts to build a world based on archaeological findings consistent with the time; while not letting that interfere with a good story.  This is a planned trilogy so we can expect our hero to leave the Mississippian valley and travel further westwards.  It will be fun to see what Smale will do with the Native Americans of the southwest. ~~  Catherine Book

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