The Skystone


Jack Whyte




Date Reviewed:

October 30, 2010

was not quite sure which category to place this book review - The Skystone tells the tale of Britian in the dark years at the fall of the Roman Empire, so it might be classified as a work of historical fiction. But it is the first novel in what is a multi-volume retelling of the legend of Camulod (Camelot), which makes it sound like a work of fantasy. But King Arthur is surprisingly absent from these pages, the only thing that sounds remotely like the legend is the name Pendragon that shows up.

This is the story of two Romans, Publius Varrus and Caius Britannicus, who are stationed in Britian around 370 A.D. The Picts have invaded over the Hadrian's Wall, and the Roman legions are surprised and slaughtered. The Caius Britannicus is a general, and Varrus is his primus pilus, which translates as first spear. Eventually, after a couple desperate years of marching and fighting bands of savages, Britannicus and the Twentieth Legion. the emperor Theodosius brings an army to retake the island, and Roman rule is restored, but it is the last display of might by a dwindling empire. The next time Hadrian's Wall is breached will be the end

Varrus' grandfather was a smith, and he had created a wonderous sword from metal smelted from a "skystone" (a meteorite). Varrus' doesn't believe stones can fall from the sky, but the sword is proof that his grandfather was successful. Varrus searches the English countryside for more stones, and eventually locates one in the Pendragon region. Curiously, despite the title, once the stone is located, the novel spends little attention Varrus' attempts to duplicate his grandfather's feat.

Although Varrus' is a well drawn character, I think Jack Whyte likes his creation a bit too much. Why have Varrus discover a hoard of gold left by his grandfather, making him wildly rich? This is implausible and unlikely, and the Varrus' wealth adds nothing to the story. Why does Luceiia have to be breathtakingly beautiful and one of the wealthiest women in all the Roman empire? Couldn't our hero Varrus have loved a more pedestrian woman? Why does Varrus have such skill with the composite bow; what is the point of his duel with Cymric - Varrus displays incredible an incredible prowess as an archer, even Robin Hood would be jealous. But this bowmanship add nothing to the plot line, other than to make Varrus appear like a super hero. It is also implausible, even if such archery talents are possible, they would require constant practice, and Varrus never spends any time training with his bow.

Well researched details regarding Roman military, blacksmith skills, political organization. I like the descriptions of brutal violence - the fighting is ugly and desperate, there is nothing chivalrous in the bitter fighting. Varus will attack from ambush, without mercy.

What I liked best about this novel is the realization that it falls into the genre of "post apocalyptic" stories. Usually, stories of this nature are told after our current civilization has disintegrated, due to nuclear attack, plague or other global disaster - stories such as Canticle for Leibowitz, The Road, The Stand or the Mad Max movies. I had never considered before that the era after the fall of the Roman empire, which plunged Europe into ten centuries of the Dark Ages, was also a post apocalyptic era. Britannicus forsees that the Roman civilization is crumbling, and he makes plans to build an outpost to stand against the tides of savagery that soon will sweep over the continent (and England in particular). This is an exciting slant to the story, and I look forward to the future volumes to see how it plays out.

The villain of the book is a corrupt noble named Seneca - a powerful madman who hates Caius Britannicus for no apparent reason. It would be nice if Whyte had fleshed out Seneca's character, rather than simply depicting a guy who hates without reason.