The series that was published as THE GLADIATOR in the United States (by Pinnacle) and as THE EAGLES in the United Kingdom (by Mayflower Granada) comes to end with this fifth volume, SEA OF SWORDS, which was never reprinted in the U.S. As a result, copies can be a little scarce and pricey, but I came across an affordable copy on-line and had it on hand before I started reading the series. Three authors alternated on these historical adventure novels: Laurence James, Kenneth Bulmer, and Angus Wells. When the fifth one rolled around, it was Bulmer’s turn in the rotation, after he previously wrote #2.
The protagonist of this series is Marcus Britannicus, a half-Roman, half-British nobleman and soldier who also fights in the arena as a gladiator, and when he’s not doing that, carries out secret missions for the emperor. Each book opens with Marcus battling in the arena and then flashes back to the main story, which is some exploit he had in the past. In the case of SEA OF SWORDS, the mission on which he’s sent takes him to the Carpathian Mountains (yes, those Carpathian Mountains . . . the ones in, you know, Transylvania) to rescue a beautiful princess from a crazed warlord who likes to . . . wait for it . . . impale his enemies. I hope that’s not too much of a spoiler, but honestly, after a long set-up that has very little to do with the rest of the book, it’s blatantly obvious what Bulmer is going for here. The question is, how well does he carry it out?
I’d say the results are mixed. In most of his work, Bulmer does a couple of things that bother me. He overloads his plots with so many characters that it’s difficult to keep track of who’s who. He also throws in so much technical jargon and minutiae about whatever he’s writing about, whether it’s the Roman military, sailing, or what have you, that the reader constantly has to stop and try to figure out things from context. I don’t like info-dumps any more than the average reader, but at times Bulmer’s prose is so obscure it’s almost like a foreign language.
However, at the same time, he’s very good at depicting his protagonists, his action scenes are great most of the time, and he comes up with some interesting plots. His books generally move along pretty well, and that’s the case with SEA OF SWORDS. Despite being a pretty brutal guy sometimes (he lives in a brutal world, after all), Marcus is a likable protagonist with his own code of honor. It’s always a pleasure watching him triumph over the bad guys.
On the other hand, the main story in this book is a little jumpy at times, skipping stuff that probably could have done to greater effect if so many pages hadn’t been spent on the framing sequence. But the biggest problem in SEA OF SWORDS is that Marcus’s vengeance quest, which formed the spine of the series in the previous four books, was wrapped up satisfactorily in #4, Laurence James’s BLOOD ON THE SAND. As a result, SEA OF SWORDS comes across as sort of an afterthought, as if somebody said, “Hey, we’ve got one more book in the contract. What do we do now?” Occasionally, it reads like Bulmer is trying to set up some other storyline that could continue, but nothing comes of it. Indeed, the whole thing comes to a rather bittersweet conclusion with this paragraph:
“Names rang in his head, names from the past, names for the future. Yes, there remained much to be done, many battles to be fought by the Fox in this grandiose world-shaking Empire of Rome.”
Nope, no more battles for Marcus Brittanicus, also known by his gladiator name Vulpus the Fox. Which is really kind of sad, because despite my reservations about this fifth book, I enjoyed the series overall and consider it well worth reading. It’s bloody and crude and lurid but also fast-paced and exciting. Completists will want to read this fifth volume, too, but just the four volumes reprinted by Pinnacle will suffice for most readers, I think. I have all the entries in another British historical adventure series called WOLFSHEAD that was also written by Laurence James and Kenneth Bulmer, and I hope to start reading those soon.