Winter Quarters - Alfred Duggan Winter Quarters is the best of the three Duggan novels I’ve read to this point (May 2012). The prose is more polished, the dialog less awkward, and there’s more obvious and sustained attempts to describe the characters’ environment. An example is the narrator’s description of the land and people of Greece as he and his companion journey to Athens:

But Greece is in itself, in the very bones of the landscape, unlike any other country on earth. The limestone mountains, the fertile valleys, the clear horizon never veiled by mist, combine into a background of beauty that uplifts the spirit. I liked the people as well, though they did not like us. Roman soldiers are unpopular as conquerors, and barbarian soldiers of the Roman army are considered even worse….

We liked the Greeks because they are cheerful and cheeky, independent men who are very pleased with themselves. Their conceit is not contemptuous of others, like Roman pride. At the inns our fellow travelers treated us as equals; perhaps not the kind of men they liked, but free men who might be foreign, and behave like foreigners, if that was what we preferred. They recognized our right to be ourselves.
(p. 140)

I first thought that this must represent a positive learning curve from the other two novels – Children of the Wolf and Besieger of Cities – but both of those are later in his career. It could be a result of the book’s POV. Unlike the others, Winter Quarters is first person, which may have forced Duggan to delve deeper into his subjects’ minds than otherwise. Another factor might be that Duggan liked his characters more than he did those of the other books. Whatever the case, happily it resulted in a more enjoyable, more interesting read, and I can give this one a mildly enthusiastic three stars.

The story opens in Margu (Αντιοχια της Μαργιανης, modern-day Merv in Turkmenistan), where we meet our narrator: Camillus, a ½-Romanized Gallic nobleman who was captured by the Parthians at the battle of Carrhae and is living out his exile in this border fortress on the edge of the steppes. He’s settled down with a Scythian woman and has had a son by her. Because he wants his son to know about his kinsmen in the West, Camillus asks a fellow Roman exile to write down his story.

The subsequent tale follows Camillus and his friend Acco from their exile from their Gallic homeland, their joining the Roman armies of Caesar as auxiliaries, and their later participation in Marcus Licinius Crassus’ disastrous expedition against the Parthians in 54-53 BC.

Duggan uses Camillus’ outsider status to critique Roman civilization. Camillus (and, I suspect, the author) both admires and loathes them. On the one hand, they’re obviously favored by the gods since they’re well on the way to conquering the world and he admires their military acumen. But they’re also hopelessly venal and corrupt, the chief motivation of their politicians being ambition and greed, and that of the populace being indulgence and carnality.

There’s an interesting subplot with Acco, who’s the reason the young men have to leave their tribe. He killed a she-bear, a totemic animal of the Goddess, and now feels he is cursed and pursued by her malevolence. All through the novel there’s a continuing contrast between the Goddess, who is “entirely evil” (p. 218), and the “cleaner,” more “civilized” worship of the male Skyfather and Wargod (by whatever names they are known):

There are gods on my side. I am not especially cursed by all the company of Heaven. I have only the Goddess to fear, and tomorrow we shall have left even the fringe of her land. This is an army of men, who worship the Wargod; and we go into the desert where no gods live…. Until we storm the walls of Seleucia my ring will keep me strong enough for battle, and the Raven will guard my head. We are grown men and warriors, far from the wiles of women…. (pp. 249-50)

I’m growing to appreciate Duggan’s writing a bit more as I continue to plow through his books. His ideas aren’t always well expressed and the stories aren’t always well told but the former are intriguing and the latter are engaging enough to keep me reading. I’d like to get a hold of Leopards and Lilies, which is about a woman living in the time of John and Henry III, to see how he handles a story from a female POV.