David Chacko,
The Severan Prophecies
(Foremost Press, 2007)

Anyone familiar with Roman history knows it was a violent time. Life was often cut short by the sword, poisons or other nefarious methods. Leadership changed hands when alliances were broken or formed. In many cases, the man with the most money to pay his legions won. (If you don't know what I'm talking about, go rent the HBO DVD series Rome. It's not 100 percent historically accurate, but it's very entertaining.)

Or, if you prefer to read about historical drama in an even more fictional setting, David Chacko has a novel about the Roman Empire called The Severan Prophecies. The approximate time span for the novel is 210AD to 222AD. The tome is composed of the words of Marcellus Decimus Julius. During his prime, this soldier/statesman served several emperors of Rome. This story is primarily about one Marcellus helped gain the throne only to be instrumental at the time he lost it as well.

The Severan Prophecies starts off, pretty much, with the prophecies. A druid is brought before Emperor Septimus Severus, who is on campaign in Celtic lands. Before being put to a cruel death, this "Blue Man" utters words of the future. He foretells that Severus will never leave Britannia alive. Of one of Severus' sons, the druid declares he "will meet his end reeking of animal waste in the most terrible place in his empire ... [his] destiny is to fill [his] mother's lap with blood." But about Severus' nephew Varius, the Blue Man intoned "This is a Child of God. ... In him is the beginning and the end. He will prepare the way for all that follows. ... [Varius will worship] one God above all others ... [this God] comes from the east, but is understood by none. ... [Varius] will rise up to be the greatest man in the world ... [and] will be scorned to the ends of the earth."

The first part of the novel is an enjoyable read. The druid's words come true and Emperor Severus dies, followed by his sons, and his empire is taken by a usurper. Marcellus saves Varius from death and spirits him to Syria, where legions are bought to take back the empire. The fighting, the double crossing, the backstabbing and the sex are all graphic and mesmerizing. When Varius ascends to the throne, taking the name of Marcus Aurelius Antoninus, Marcellus spends much time putting down rebellions.

But then the novel takes a turn for the weird and bizarre. The new emperor starts acting more strangely than Nero did in real life. As the boy emperor is gay, no heirs will be produced by natural means regardless of how many wives he takes. In fact, he often parades around as the wife to his man toy -- a charioteer, a commoner. On top of this, the boy emperor spends money at a lavish rate, and generally can't rule his libido, much less the empire. Add in the foreign religion and at this point, Marcellus knows it is time for Antoninus' reign to end.

The Severan Prophecies was not a typical novel for me. I am used to reviewing books that either truly grab my attention to the point I don't want to put them down, or I have to force myself through them so I can write about them. With this book, I found myself enjoying it while I was reading. But when I put The Severan Prophecies down, I had no compelling desire to pick it back up again. As such, I am not sure what to say about it. Yes, it is a good read, but it doesn't really have a lot of staying power. All the aspects you would expect in a novel of Rome are here -- violence, butchery, poisonings, rape, sex, backstabbing, the hard gain and quick loss of power....

So why did it have trouble retaining my interest after I put it down? I liked Chacko's writing style well enough. Yes, there were times when the nerd in me chuckled at small mistakes, such as when Varius mentions eating "hummingbird tongues." (Maybe I read National Geographic magazine too much -- hummingbirds are indigenous to the Americas). But these minor oversights did not detract from the story. Was I turned off by just how truly strange Varius became after seeming a gifted, almost magical child? No. I had trouble picking up the book early on in the story whenever I had put it down for the day. So, in the end I will recommend The Severan Prophecies to those of you who like historical Roman drama. But you are warned that something is missing that I just can't quite put in to words.

review by
Wil Owen

9 February 2008

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