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The Scourge of God    by William Dietrich order for
Scourge of God
by William Dietrich
Order:  USA  Can
HarperCollins, 2005 (2005)

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* * *   Reviewed by Hilary Williamson

In his previous Hadrian's Wall, William Dietrich showed us a clash of civilizations in the waning days of Roman Britain. Now, in The Scourge of God, he turns his perceptive eye to the Roman Empire's decline across Europe, under attack by Attila the Hun (amongst others). As the story opens the author shows us a spirited Roman lady, Ilana, captured by the Huns, 'the People of the Dawn', in the fall of Axiopolis - she's saved by young Skilla, who wishes to wed her.

The chief minister of the Eastern Roman Empire, eunuch Chrysaphus, embroils an embassy to Attila in a foolish assassination plot, unbeknownst to most of those involved. Young Jonas Alabanda, skilled in letters and languages, goes along as a translator. The embassy travels through ruined territories, and over the bones of Roman citizens slaughtered by the merciless Huns, whom the Romans appease with annual tribute. Jonas races Skilla, and a degree of friendship grows between them. While Jonas and his companions travel towards Attila, we see Greek doctor Eudoxius travel as envoy to the Vandals under King Gaiseric, working to persuade them to ally with the Huns to bring down the Roman Empire. Eudoxius tells Gaiseric that the superstitious Attila awaits 'portents and signs'.

When the embassy reaches Attila, Jonas notices and falls for Ilana. She sees in him the possibility of rescue from a lifetime with the barbarians who killed her people. But Attila knows of the assassination plot. He reacts brutally, kills an innocent, and holds Jonas hostage for penance (in gold) from Rome. Attila assembles his hosts for war against Gaul, saying 'Cities turn men into weaklings. Their burning will make our women sing.' Jonas and Ilana meet occasionally in Attila's camp, and plan for flight. They have help from Zerco, a dwarf and a spy for Roman General Aetius, the only effective leader left to the Western Empire. He knows that the key to fighting off the Huns lies in alliance with Theoderic, king of the Visigoths, a man who hates Gaiseric for maiming his daughter.

As events unfold, Jonas and Ilana are separated, and Jonas begins to play a key role in organizing Aetius' resistance to the Hun invasion, culminating in the devastating Battle of Maurica. And Jonas and Skilla continue to feel a degree of friendship overshadowed by conflict as they struggle against each other. In The Scourge of God, Dietrich sets up a romantic triangle against a huge canvas of war - a decadent, declining Roman Empire, supported by the beginnings of Western Europe against the barbarian hordes. It's another thrilling read, that places a pivotal period in history in the context of human love and survival.

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