By Adam Selby-Martin
I've previously reviewed one of Marc Jones' alternate history titles, The Fireflies of Port Stanley, and was thoroughly impressed by it. Although slightly on the implausible side (several Firefly Sherman tanks are accidentally shipped to the Falklands in the 1940s, coming in very handy in 1982) it was a fast-paced, well-written and highly imaginative story that I really enjoyed. I knew that Mr Jones had penned a number of other titles, and finding little in the Alternate History listings on the Kindle to interest me, I decided to take a look at what he had to offer. The Cato's Cavalry series intrigued me - not only was it set in a period I knew little about, but the notion that the stirrup could be invented earlier than it was, and in the Roman Empire to boot, had a lot of potential for timeline changes.
The PoD (Point of Divergence) is both incredibly clever and yet so simple that I genuinely wondered why it hadn't actually happened in the way Jones depicts it in Cato's Cavalry. In the later, darker days of the Roman Empire, deeply frustrated Roman legionary Lucius Tullius Cato is relegated to training horsed auxiliaries in the province of Britannia. After yet another auxiliary fails to understand the need to grip their horse with their knees, toppling onto the parade ground, Cato takes matters into his own hands and a combination of wishful thinking and alcoholic inspiration allows him to design something to stop them falling off - the humble stirrup.
The stirrup makes his auxiliaries far more effective, but it also gains Cato the dubious patronage of one of the more powerful men in Britannia. The colony, on the edges of the crumbling empire, is falling into chaos, with numerous factions struggling for power, and Cato finds himself drawn into these machinations. Jones does a credible job of showcasing just how chaotic and divided Britannia was in this period, and how such a simple invention as the stirrup could have been the key factor in stabilising the province. There's a great blend of fighting and politicking, allowing us to see the different sides of the province and its inhabitants, including how the natives and the Romans delicately co-existed.
Fortunately, the scope of Cato's Cavalry is far greater than just a single cavalry unit, and apart from Cato, the novella benefits from having a second protagonist in the form of Marcus Ambrosius Aurelianus, former regional governor and a man determined to defend Britannia in light of its effective abandonment by the Empire. From his perspective we see the machinations and infighting amongst the various factions in what remains of local government - from those like him who wish to defend the island, to other who want to petition an Empire no longer listening, and even some so detached from reality they wish to march on Rome. I don't quite know how much is fact versus fiction, but it all sounded realistic and plausible to me as the plot progressed, which is all that is really needed for counter-factual fiction.
As to the wider plot itself, Jones keeps it moving along nicely, and the short length of the novella means there's no padding or extraneous chapters. As the attempts to defend Britannia progress despite local politics, the Empire's absence in the north, beyond Hadrian's Wall comes back to haunt Cato and Aurelianus; Hibernian raiding parties become bolder, and hostile tribes threaten to march south. Not to mention raiders from overseas. And the development of the stirrup has major consequences for the fate of the Empire in Germania, which unfolds all sort of interesting changes as a result. These scenes really round out the novella and help to set up threads for the future titles in the series.
While there’s a great deal of training, scheming and political manoeuvring, I’m happy to say that there are some action sequences sprinkled through the novella; and while there aren’t that many of them, they’re superbly executed, with a nice division between the brutal, impersonal clashes between the armies ranged along the Empire’s Germanic borders, and the small and more intimate skirmishes that Cato and his men become entwined in as raiders advance on Britannia. A scene towards the end of the book, where Cato finally gets to lead his auxiliaries into battle against seaborne raiders is particularly thrilling, as it deftly blends initial stealth and subterfuge with a final, heart-pounding cavalry charge across a rocky beach against a shield wall.
Great writing, engaging characters and impressive fight scenes are enhanced by the wry sense of humour that runs through the novella, with several comments from characters making me grin or even laugh out loud. Finally, Cato’s Cavalry also happily bucks the trend currently found in indie Alternate History fiction that seems to demand that all titles be 500+ pages in length, and merely the first part of a 42-part series (not including spin-offs and reboots). At a mere 90 pages in length, Cato’s Cavalry is a lean piece of counter-factual fiction that never even comes close to outstaying its welcome. There’s no padding, no extraneous chapters, just focused, stripped-down plot moved along by the key players needed to tell it. It’s a refreshing thing to see in a genre that seems to almost pride itself in bloated volumes that could be used as door-stops, and is just one of the many things that impressed me about the novella. Cato’s Cavalry: Volume I is only the first title in a completed trilogy, and I have already decided to move the second and third volumes to the top of my To Be Read pile.
Adam Selby-Martin also reviews other genres at his blog: The Scifi and Fantasy Reviewer Book Review Blog - Sci-Fi, Cosmic Horror and Alternate History Reviews