Review of Dawn of Empire by Sam Barone
Dawn of Empire
by Sam Barone
Dawn of Empire delivers on its promise of an action-filled battle for survival against barbarians from the steppes. The strategy that goes into designing defences for Orak, from its crucial wall to the ditch in front and the archers behind, is impressive. Also impressive is the inherent conflict in the ideologies of the steppes people and the villagers. Sam Barone gives us a wonderful sense of the stark contrast between these two societies, and why the way of life of one is anathema to the other. In that sense, Dawn of Empire fulfils its purpose of depicting the rise of walled cities and the subsequent empires.
Try as I might, I could not engage with the characters. All of the antagonists are flat, with one-dimensional motivations, particularly those within Orak. Drigo's son and Nicar's son, for instance, are both the definition of "hormonal irrational adolescent" and attack Eskkar without really considering the consequences (although Caldor goes about it in a more underhanded manner, I'll grant him that). And everyone is black and white: supporting Eskkar or against Eskkar.
While I quite enjoyed Trella's character and her relationship with Eskkar, how many times did Barone need to tell us they had sex? Apparently before the Internet came around, that was the only way two people could express affection for each other. Eskkar and Trella spend so much time in their bedroom that I'm surprised she doesn't get pregnant sooner. Indeed, the book itself comments snarkily on their bedroom habits. So the romance subplot here isn't so much "romantic" as it is "he sleeps with her, she falls in love with him, he kills anyone who threatens her." Which, I suppose, some people might find romantic.
It's the lack of realism in these pedestrian details that interrupts my enjoyment of the book more so than any potential historical inaccuracy. Firstly, Dawn of Empire gets a lot of leeway in this area, because it is set in the third millennium B.C. Our conception of events and civilization in that era is weak at best. Secondly, historical fiction by its definition will be inaccurate . . . perfectly accurate historical fiction would just be history, and who wants that?! Unrealistic antagonists, relationships, and personal conflicts, on the other hand, undermine the story itself. Such problems transcend genre.
If the setting and premise of this book interest you, then I would recommend it. Although long and not without flaws, you could definitely eke enjoyment from Dawn of Empire. If, however, you're looking for historical character drama and/or romance, then keep looking. Dawn of Empire is strong on strategy, weak on characterization, and satisfactory in its use of setting, if not style.