John Maddox Roberts,
The Seven Hills
(Ace/Berkley, 2005)

In The Seven Hills, John Maddox Roberts continues his intriguing alternative history of the resurgence of the Roman Empire following its near total defeat at the hands of the Carthaginian warrior Hannibal. This particular Roberts' epic was launched in Hannibal's Children (2002) but the author has set more than a dozen other novels in the SPQR universe, his version of ancient Rome. Although most of these novels are mysteries, Hannibal's Children and The Seven Hills break from that format to present a multi-layered adventure narrative with lots of swordplay and flanking maneuvers, battering rams and severed limbs.

My biggest problem with The Seven Hills is the novel's overabundance of viewpoint characters. Roberts has presented himself with a particularly tricky problem in attempting to tell a story that has critical, interconnected components taking place in so many locations. In order to fully convey how his elaborate conception of a Roman return to world supremacy is taking shape, Roberts transports the reader directly to events in Carthage, Egypt, Judea, Greece, Sicily, Spain and, of course, Rome itself.

While the various stages upon which this drama is played out are isolated from one another by the slowness of the era's long-distance communications methods, the reader doesn't get much sense of these impediments as they're instantaneously transported from location to location by shifts in viewpoint. Frequently these perspective jumps are signaled merely by section breaks within chapters, and the result is a rather choppy narrative texture.

In choosing this multi-viewpoint technique, Roberts has necessarily limited the time spent with any one of his legion of central characters. The reader is shunted from Titus Norbanus, the renegade young Roman commander undertaking a grueling march home from Alexandria with his troops, to the Shofet Hamilcar, preparing his Carthaginian troops for an attempt to retake Sicily, to Marcus Scipio, the leader of Rome's small force stationed in Egypt, to Queen Teuta, who has aligned herself and her Illyrian warriors with Carthage, to Publius Gabinius, an influential, moderate member of the senate in Rome. And, if this weren't sufficiently scattered, there are a number of other, less frequently used viewpoint players.

With the exception of Titus Norbanus, these characters tend to feel like cardboard cutouts being moved about the novel's vast stage without ever having the time to develop distinct personalities. Additionally, aside from a pair of Greek poets intent on writing a history of Rome's return to glory, the viewpoint characters are almost exclusively military or political leaders. And while this places the reader at the heart of the decision-making processes, it also presents a picture of this complex reshaping of the world's power structure that ignores the day-to-day existence of the non-ruling classes. I would have preferred a significant reduction in the number of POV characters accompanied by the addition of a distinctly "common" perspective. This would have allowed for a deepening of the emotional impact of the momentous events that shape Roberts' dynamic plot.

My second significant complaint with The Seven Hills is the ease with which certain characters are able to influence the actions of other key players. Queen Teuta manipulates Hamilcar's battle plans to such an extent that when, at the critical climactic clash with Norbanus's troops, she is unable to force her will upon the Carthaginian leader it seems unrealistic. Again, Roberts' characters end up feeling like pawns in the hands of the author as opposed to being complete characters with consistent internal motivations.

The Seven Hills struck me as a 700-page epic squeezed into half the space required to make it a completely satisfying novel. The plot is certainly all there, but it hasn't been fleshed out with characters that fully engage the reader. And with so little time devoted to character development, the action scenes pile up, one against the next, with a corresponding lessening of the emotional impact of each successive battle.

review by
Gregg Thurlbeck

25 August 2007

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