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A Man at Arms by Steven Pressfield

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Edited by Keith Currie, Thursday, 20 May 2021, 20:36

‘Arms and a man, I sing’

 ‘Charity never faileth.’ The words of St Paul in the First Letter to the Corinthians; in this novel, Pressfield’s first in twelve years, charity fails again and again. Set in Roman Palestine during the reign of Nero, the plot revolves around a mercenary soldier and his attempts to convey the famous Letter of Paul from Jerusalem to the Church in Corinth. The ‘man at arms’ is the consummate warrior skilled in every type of martial skill. A former legionary, turned cynical soldier of fortune, he is first employed by the Roman authorities to track down and intercept the letter and its carrier, but then changes sides, working to get the letter to its planned recipients.

 This is a brutal and violent story, the Roman soldiers and their allies more akin to Mel Gibson’s legionaries in ‘The Passion of the Christ’ than in other recent fiction. The narrative is filled with cruel, sickening torture, crucifixion scenes, cynical betrayals and genocide. Yet the literary style is odd. The tale reads as though it were a Nineteenth Century translation of an ancient text, Josephus say, or other Hellenised writer of the time. I expected a reveal of the supposed origin of the text to appear at the end, but this did not happen, leaving me to wonder somewhat why the author chose this particular style and conceit.

 The plot is almost entirely implausible, is filled with magic and lacks much historical accuracy. Yet the setting is a recognisable Palestine of the Roman era, and the story replete with non-stop action carries the reader headlong despite many misgivings. The hero initially appears to be a Roman era Outlaw Josie Wales, a sort of superman gathering a posse of vulnerable followers, but the miracle at the close of the book, while clever, seems greatly at odds with the plot up to that point, a literal ‘Deus ex machina’ in fact. Recommended, but with reservations.

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